I didn’t want to tell you all about Cook Out coming to town. There were plenty of ways to spin it, and I used all of them. But, I also didn’t hide the truth. It’s cheap and tasty, the everyday food that people generally look forward to (until they step on the bathroom scale). The NC chain is going to have lines into the street on Quioccasin even after they add more Richmond locations. So, to make sure your trips to the West End are fruitful when you drive past Cook Out feeling exasperated, here are three reasons you should have been getting your take-out near Regency Mall for years now instead of lining up like lemmings at the drive-thru for bags of heart attacks wrapped in Bible tracts.
Mediterranean Bakery and Deli
Part market, part sit-down cafe, but most notably a deli counter with to-die-for prepared foods that you’ll want to cart home by the pound and never cook again. And the falafel sandwich, one of the best in Richmond, you’ll eat that in the car on the way home. The frenzied togo food experience may be a guilty pleasure that few of us admit to. But this fine falafel will be less shame inducing than the Cook Out experience.
A few highlights:
Mjadra - this place introduced me to one of my favorite foods. Lentils, rice, olive oil and onions. That’s it. But the flavors are so satisfying.
Falafel – rolled tight in a pita with pickled idunno whats and a pile of minced herbs, tahini sauce, and sparse tomato and lettuce so as not to water it down. This thing packs a punch in every bite.
Meat pies/cheese pies/spinach pies: called fatayer in Arabic, you’ll recognize these from Greek menus and markets. There are numerous kinds of fillings, including chicken, all generously stuffed. My wife liked the warmly spiced ground beef so much, she forgot all about the greasy burger she’d had her heart set on.
Shawarma: even the least adventurous eaters swear by this sandwich (usually the chicken). They also offer lamb. Better yet, if Cook Out had you gearing up to ingest more muscle fibers in one sitting than you can actually flex on your own body – in addition to the 6″ shawarma, they also have a 12″ version.
Feta cheese(s): they have Greek feta, Bulgarian feta, French feta, and domestic feta. Oh, did you think there was only one kind? Talk to the person at the counter, and they’ll talk you through which one (or two or three) will suit your needs.
Baba ghanouj: …that straight tastes like butta. No really. My wife wouldn’t take more than one bite, spooked by the butteriness. I love it. Smoky-smooth. Someone explain to me how they elevated roasted eggplant puree to this.
Fantastic customer service at the deli. Any question I’ve ever asked has was fielded in a thoughtful way. There’s no one giving you a hard sell, and still you just can’t leave there with one thing – instead, arms overloaded with deliciousness.
Some highlights from the market:
- bulk spices for cheap
- more pita than you’ve ever seen in one place
- harissa for $1.69 (north african chili paste)
- Olive oil and ghee.
- Bulk nuts and seeds. Two things most people should eat more of.
- Frozen okra, artichokes, and *green* fava beans.
I’m not going to tell you about this place. It’s not that I posted about it before. I really just want to bring you someone else’s take. Kristen Holmes used to keep a food blog called Downtown Foodie. But, in the past year, there haven’t really been any posts there (she’s been in Miami). Instead she’s logged dozens and dozens of thorough Yelp reviews (places in Richmond you’ve never heard of!). In a recent rave, she covered Habanero’s Mexican Grill, now called Taqueria Habanero’s. Here’s an excerpt from that entry:
You want real Mexican food in this city? There are not many places to choose from. Most places are TexMex, which I am no fan of. One of the few places to choose from is Taqueria Habanero, aka Habanero’s Mexican Grill.
If you’re anything like me, the English version of the name scares you off. Don’t be scared, you hole-in-the-wall lover you! This is no chain restaurant with cheesy murals of rural life on the walls. This is a super clean taqueria, my friends, yes, a taqueria at its finest. Tortas, burritos, tacos y ya (I lied, they also have salads, burgers, nachos, quesadillas, etc, plus fajitas and a couple other dinner entrees with rice and beans)! You ain’t gettin’ no enchiladas verdes up in here, panas; this is Mexican food and done so well you’ll start drooling at the sound of its name after the first time you try it.
So, on to what I ate– torta de carne asada– Mexican toasted sub with chunks of real grilled steak, avocado, and jalapeno peppers with mayo and such. Doesn’t sound like much, but it’s amazing. Habanero’s does this sandwich the best, hands down! The meat was better seasoned than anywhere else I have ever had it, the bread was like the best sandwich bread I have had. I don’t even know what kind of bread it was, but it was soft and fluffy and shiny on top. The meat was cut in perfectly-sized small chunks and there was tons of it, Mmm!
The other thing I had was my first taco al pastor. This is a marinaded pork taco with lots of fresh cilantro and onion and lime juice. I am SO glad I tried my first taco al pastor, and really my first authentic taco ever, at this place. The meat was seriously well-seasoned, very spicy, perfect-sized chunks, nice sweet onion with a tangy bite from the lime juice and the delicious brightness of tons of cilantro. Seriously, I could’ve never even imagined something so simple could be so incredibly good.
Thanks, Kristen. Glad we both like this place.
She goes on to compare their food and prices to La Milpa (yes, she’s had authentic tacos before, I’m sure), but generally tries to prepare you for the reality that this is a West End take-out joint – sanitized, a tiny bit more expensive, and with burger options (along side the tamales, sopes, and tacos de lengua y cabeza de vaca for those who want the authentic Mexican cuisine).
Richmond has got plenty of pizza options, but only a few really good ones. This Pizza Express is one of the good ones. The first person to tell me about it was Gary York, owner of Coast and Enoteca Sogno. I think he rates it second behind Capriccio’s for Richmond area pizza.* That’s high praise from an Italophile (real word, look it up – dude loves everything Italian, especially GOOD pizza). Gary is funny like that. If you make a product that he holds in high regard, he’ll be by to give it a try and make his assessment. I’m the same way. Make sense of the world by scooping it up in your hot little hands and tasting it.
I was certainly drawn in by its unsuspecting appearance. And the name, Pizza Express? The generic name seems to help somehow. While ordering, you watch the staff tearing through pizza after pizza. Stretching dough, saucing, scattering cheese, spreading toppings and repeat. Shuffling pizzas back and forth from the oven. This rhythm is what you’ve got to entertain you while you wait for your pie. The hypnotic effect helps pass the time until you get your own.
The crust is light and the toppings are in proportion while delivering good flavor. Pizza Express passes the test with flying colors for lots of NY style pizza fanatics around Richmond, and it puts a little strip mall near Regency on the map. I liked the plain cheese. But, they also do extreme stuff like bbq chicken or steak and cheese, and everything in between. The place really tries to be everybody’s style, while sticking to their NY style foundation. I’m sure their food makes the West End feel a little bit… no, not like New York City, but maybe New Jersey.
*Gary has since had some some less than stellar pizzas and may have sworn off Pizza Express. I think we need to go and find out for ourselves. He’s getting his permits for Enoteca Sogno, by the way, and hopes to be open in a couple weeks.