Thanks to all of you who fired over suggestions for my two meals in Charlottesville. (Except the guy who suggested Jimmy John’s. Why not just tell me to go to McDonald’s?) I wish I could have tried more places – and spent more time in Charlottesville, which looked like a very cool town with plenty of interesting places to eat.
Three popular suggestions from regulars that I didn’t try but wanted to pass along are Wayside Chicken (classic southern fried chicken), Bodo Bagels (although I am highly skeptical of claims that the bagels are better than any in NYC … come on) and Bellmont BBQ (known for their pulled pork). If and when I get back there – the one drawback of Charlottesville is it’s not that easy to get to, what with an airport straight out of Wings* – those places are at the top of my list.
*Before anyone gets the wrong idea: I hated that show.
The two I did hit were Peter Chang’s Chinese Grill and Mas Tapas. Peter Chang is both famous and infamous, earning a Wikipedia entry largely about his peripatetic ways and a New Yorker profile by Calvin Trillin titled “Where’s Chang?” The chef focuses on Sichuan cuisine, quite different from what we ordinarily and inaccurately refer to as “Chinese food” (making us, I suppose, a nation of synecdouches), generally spicier and with stronger flavors. I have very little experience with Sichuan cooking, so I can tell you that Peter Chang’s was fantastic but can’t speak to its authenticity.
After some discussion with the waiter, who seemed to know the menu but wasn’t all that quick to offer suggestions, I ended up with the spicy fragrant duck, a Peter Chang signature dish that delivered on both adjectives. This was probably a 60 on the 20-80 spiciness scale, about where I get off the spicy train. The duck is cut into chunks, mostly bone-in, coated in a thin layer of flour and cornstarch, deep fried (skin and all), and covered in a spicy rub or paste heavy on red chili and tossed with cilantro and garlic. It’s not for the light eater, but it’s big and bold and more than just hot, with the duck remaining tender through the heavy frying and the skin becoming impossibly crispy. I started with a hot and sour soup that gained its spice from red chilis rather than the traditional American-Chinese version with black peppercorns, giving it a more well-rounded flavor.
Mas Tapas does tapas right, heavy on the traditional Spanish fare, but also making good use of the wood-fired oven right behind the bar. (I was fortunate enough to sit in a little corner that looks directly into the fire.) I went with four of their most popular dishes, three hits and one miss. Their boquerones – white anchovies marinated in good olive oil, garlic, herbs, and vinegar – were solid, maybe just a touch fishy but I figure those are just the omega-3’s doing their thing, and if you get those you must get their house bread, a crusty, cold-fermented European-style loaf perfectly made to sop up the oil and vinegar from the fish. I am guessing that these boquerones were preserved rather than fresh, since I’ve only had fresh at one place (Toro in Boston) and they’re not easy to find in the U.S. Mas also has a bacon-wrapped date dish, not quite as good as Firefly’s (where they stuff the dates with almonds) but perfectly cooked; the way I see it, the omega-3’s from the fish cancel out the copious amount of bacon fat I consumed about five minutes later.
The one miss was the croquetas de jamón, thick grilled cakes of potato, Manchego cheese, bacon, and jamón serrano, dusted in cornmeal on the outside. The edges were crispy with a little sweetness from caramelization but the interior had the texture of baby food. If I could do it over again, I’d swap these out and try their tortilla española. I’ll also give bonus points to Mas for having Guinness on tap and not too cold and for plenty of eye candy on a Friday night.