As the Washington Redskins continue training camp preparations in Richmond, fans still have numerous questions about the upcoming season. Can the team bounce back from a 3-13 campaign? Can Robert Griffin III regain his 2012 form? Can coach Jay Gruden heal the lame in his first year?
But those who live and work closer to the Bon Secours Washington Redskins Training Center have some questions of their own, such as: Will the thousands of fans visiting from the Washington area finally step out and explore Richmond’s restaurants, breweries and food trucks?
A financial study released earlier this year suggested the Redskins’ 2013 training camp, their first in Richmond, had a $10.5 million economic impact on the region, exceeding the city’s own projections, according to the Richmond Times-Dispatch. But if you start asking restaurant and brewery owners if they benefitted, they’ll tell you a more complicated story. Some did, some didn’t, and others only started attracting fans late in the training camp.
“We didn’t see any uptick for ourselves,” says Travis Croxton, co-owner of Rappahannock, a farm-to-table restaurant in downtown Richmond — or RVA, as locals often refer to it. “We got a couple people in, but not like we were expecting.”
Some speculate that fans visited during the day, returning to their homes for dinner. Others guess that spectators didn’t want to leave the practice facility, where there are no reserved seats. Or perhaps it’s because fans can bring in their own food or buy prepared meals from nearby mobile vendors.
Whatever the reason, locals are optimistic that this year’s training camp, which continues through Aug. 11, will lead more visiting football fans to explore all that RVA’s dining scene — one of the most congested and competitive in the country — has to offer.
Wearing my $20 Diner gimme cap, I spent a weekend in Richmond and found the city packed with places to satisfy those looking to eat well on the cheap, as if RVA’s Southern hospitality extends to its modest prices, too.
The squat brick structure that houses Mamma ’Zu doesn’t have much to recommend it. In fact, when my wife and I pulled up late one night, Carrie thought the Oregon Hill restaurant might be closed. From the outside, with no apparent signs of life, the ghostly place looked as inviting as a Masonic convention. I opened the door anyway and was greeted by a packed, dimly lit dining room . . . and an invisible wall of garlic.
We both fell in love with Mamma ’Zu immediately.
Turns out, this Italian-American red-sauce house shares DNA with a Washington institution: Owner Ed Vasaio is the youngest son of Augusto and Assunta (or Sue, the Mamma ’Zu herself) Vasaio, founders of the late, sometimes-great A.V. Ristorante Italiano on New York Avenue, which closed in 2007. Ed practically grew up in A.V.’s kitchen, cleaning squid and clams by the truckload. “I was standing on a chair to do it,” he recalls.
Like his parents’ old place, Vasaio’s Mamma ’Zu exudes a homey, no-nonsense vibe: You pick your own wine from a rack near the kitchen; a menu board above the bar lists the 50-plus dishes available, many under the target price point; the staff will cater to your needs — they just may not tell you that pizza is available, including a white pie like the kind Ed’s folks used to prepare at A.V.
Should you miss out on the pies, you’ll find plenty of other home-style comforts: a sweet, wine-intensive veal marsala; a peppery, pancetta-spiked carbonara; slices of pork tenderloin draped in a rich tuna sauce; an appetizer of scungilli that will make you rethink your position on conch (the pressure-cooked sea snails are soft and slippery, not tough and rubbery); and a tiramisu that almost lives up to its billing as the “best in the world.”
How good is Mamma ’Zu? So good that Bruce Springsteen ate there consecutive nights in December when visiting Richmond. Did the Boss have to wait in line like so many Mamma ’Zu regulars?
He “may have been bumped up in line a little bit,” Ed confesses.
501 S. Pine St. 2.7 miles from training camp. 804-788-4205. Dinner price range: $6-$30.
In Richmond’s Southside area, you’ll find a number of taquerias and other no-frills eateries catering to immigrants from Mexico and Central America. Robey Martin, restaurant critic for Richmond’s Style Weekly newspaper, introduced me to this mobile trailer permanently anchored off Hull Street Road, which goes by a mouthful of a name: Taqueria El Tacorrey. Subtitled: “Rey de los Tacos,” king of the tacos.
English is not the first language spoken here, which tells you almost everything you need to know. The taqueria doesn’t cater to gringos, even if its concise menu comes packed with those masa-based morsels that this gringo loves: tacos, tostadas, huaraches and crunchy gordita shells stuffed with beautifully crisped pieces of beef.
We tried them all, along with an extra-gloppy pork torta sandwich on slightly stale bolillo bread. We sat inside an aqua-colored structure next to the trailer, a cool spot complete with metal folding chairs, and proceeded to stuff our faces with all this goodness. The clear winner was the flatbread-like huarache, sprinkled with spicy chicken and buried under more shredded white cheese, iceberg lettuce and sour cream than one human should consume in a single sitting.
5428 Hull Street Rd. 10.5 miles from training camp. 804-232-0057.
Price range: $3-$7.
Following this gorging, Robey invited us to sample a second lunch at Happy Mart Latino Market and Restaurant, located in a strip center that has all the charm of an abandoned warehouse. Inside, the colorful, mural-heavy restaurant is separate from the market. It’s run by Salvadorans, which I found interesting given that the kitchen’s superb tacos were more Mexican-style and its pupusas were heavier on cheese than loroco, the flower buds common to Salvadoran cuisine. Still, we had few complaints.
5761 Hull Street Rd. 10.2 miles from training camp. 804-276-3595.
Price range: $2-$12.99.
Two years ago, Virginia’s General Assembly passed legislation to allow breweries to sell beer by the glass, even if they don’t have a restaurant on-site. The change in law has led to a booming craft beer scene in the Richmond area, which has grown from one brewery to approximately 12, including Isley Brewing, Strangeways Brewing and Triple Crossing Brewing, with more on the way.
Hardywood Park Craft Brewery is probably best situated to take advantage of Redskins training camp: Located within walking distance of the facility, the brewery regularly invites food trucks to park on its lot Wednesday through Sunday, when the tasting room is open. Things really get hopping on Thursdays, when at least 15 food trucks can be found at Hardywood, and on the weekends, when local musicians take over the parking lot. Admission is free.
When I visited Hardywood, the brewery had just released the latest in its reserve series, Virginia Blackberry, a Belgian-style white ale brewed with blackberries from Hanover County. The wheat beer is a perfect summer quaff, dry and lightly sweet without an overt fruity character. I brought home four bottles of the stuff.
But the brewery, which was co-founded by a pair of former home-brewers, Eric McKay and Patrick Murtaugh, has many other styles, based both in the Old and New World: Hardywood Singel, a Belgian abbey-style blonde ale and the brewery’s flagship beer; Hardywood Cream Ale in cans, a nod to New Jersey-based Krueger Brewing, which sold the first canned beer in Richmond in 1935; and a line of products in its “barrel series,” in which beers are conditioned in used bourbon barrels.
If you don’t get RGIII’s autograph during Fan Appreciation Day on Saturday, this is where you should drown your sorrows. (Or even show off the quarterback’s signature if you’re so lucky.)
2408 Ownby Ln. 0.7 miles from training camp. 804-420-2420. www.hardywood.com. Beer price range: $5-$7 for drafts; $10.50-$20 for packaged beer; $7-$25 for 32- and 64-ounce growlers, plus $5 for the growler.
Less than two months old, Ardent Craft Ales doesn’t yet have a line of beers to compare to Hardywood’s. But it does have one killer patio, a fenced-in expanse of tables all under the comforting shade of giant red umbrellas. When the sun goes down and the strings of lights come on, you’ll be hard pressed to imagine a better location to sip head brewer Kevin O’Leary’s compact collection of beers. I was particularly fond of Ardent’s take on the ubiquitous IPA, a rather malty interpretation that was piney without bombing your palate with hops.
3200 W. Leigh St. 0.6 miles from training camp. 804-359-1605. www.ardentcraftales.com. Beer price range: $5-$7 for drafts; and $15-$18 for 64-ounce growlers, plus $7 for the growler.
Despite a dining scene that has been described as over-saturated, Richmond continues to open restaurants and bars at a rapid click. The latest entrant: Celebrity chef Mike Isabella, whose RVA version of Graffiato — set to open in late August — will take its place among already heralded newcomers such as Dutch & Co. and Dinamo (another place in Ed Vasaio’s portfolio of restaurants.)
But of all the newbies I visited, the one place that really altered my universe was Sub Rosa Bakery, a Church Hill operation run by the brother-and-sister team of Evrim and Evin Dogu, who have a District connection like Vasaio’s: Their father owns Rosemary’s Thyme Bistro, with locations in Dupont Circle and Clifton, Va. It was, in fact, at the Clifton restaurant where Evrim started developing his ideas on a bakery built around a wood-burning oven.
“I felt a deep connection to baking by a wood-fired oven, essentially because that is the true lineage, the true history of bread,” says Evrim, a baker closely aligned to his Turkish heritage. “Most of the good breads, the traditional breads, they are all baked by wood-fired ovens.”
Whatever is pulled from the custom double-deck oven, croissant or loaf, has a connection to the region. It might be the hard red winter wheat Sub Rosa buys (and mills in-house) from Heartland Harvest Farm in Mount Solon, Va., or the Virginia fruits that Evin uses in her line of exquisite pastries.
In other words, Evrim and Evin are applying seasonal, farm-to-table practices to their bakery and, in the processing, trying to discover if the products of Virginia have something unique to say. After sampling Evrim’s complex, slightly sour pain au levain (known as Sub Rosa Classic) and Evin’s pinwheel-shaped fig-and-manchego croissant, I can’t speak to the voice of Virginia agriculture. But I know these siblings have something unique to say.
620 N. 25th St. 3.7 miles from training camp. 804-788-7672. www.subrosabakery.com.
Price range: $2.50-$8.50.
Fat Dragon isn’t a regional Chinese restaurant, catering to a segment of the dining public that loves Sichuan or Hunan cooking. No, Fat Dragon strikes me as something more forward-thinking: an affectionate, chef-driven take on Chinese-American cooking.
Part of the Eat Restaurant Partners group, Fat Dragon is where chef Jin Zhao serves up fresh, lightly battered chicken (naturally raised, as all the meats are here) in a piquant sesame sauce. The dish is called Chef Zhao’s Chicken, and it’s easy to speculate on its inspiration: those Styrofoam containers of General Tso’s chicken, often too gloppy for words.
The portions are certainly American-sized: My dish of stir-fried seafood, called Enter the Dragon, was swimming with scallops, shrimp and calamari, all coated in a spicy, numbing ma la sauce that felt, after a few bites, like a Bruce Lee kick to the head. The appetizers are generous, too, like the bowl of five-spiced chili dumplings, brimming with enough frilly little packages to feed two. You can pair these pristinely sourced, lavishly portioned plates with a local RVA beer, which may be the best American influence in the entire place.
1200 N. Boulevard. 0.3 miles from training camp. 804-354-9888. www.fatdragonrva.com .
Price range: $3-$24.
You don’t have to drive south of the James River to find decent tacos. Don’t Look Back, a relaxed eatery in Carytown, provides chef Nate Gutierrez with another opportunity to peddle his snacks to fans who once frequented Nate’s Taco Truck Stop, may it rest in peace. You build your own tacos here, starting with the tortillas (corn or flour, neither house-made), the fillings (pulled chicken, chorizo, shredded beef, seared cod, etc.) and even the garnishes (“traditional” or “gringo,” the latter including cheese, lettuce, sour cream and salsa).
The tacos are pretty little things, flawlessly packaged and accessorized for their date in this fashionable retail and restaurant district. They’re pretty tasty, too, though I found them occasionally underseasoned. For both beauty and flavor, check out Gutierrez’s Santa Fe-style enchiladas, a stack of corn tortillas packed with a mix of roasted peppers, sour cream and cheese. And if that somehow doesn’t satisfy you, start knocking back shots from Don’t Look Back’s lengthy list of tequilas.
Come to think of it, that list may come in handy for the upcoming Redskins season, too.
2929 W. Cary St. 1.5 miles from training camp. 804-353-8226. www.dontlookbackrva.com.
Price range: $3-$10.