Tuesday, September 27, 2011

El Nopal

4118 Oaklawn Blvd.
Hopewell, VA 23860

        Last Saturday, my mother, brother and I decided to go out to lunch in Hopewell as a pre-celebration for my brother’s 20th birthday on September 20th. After some very brief contemplation (there’s not much to eat in Hopewell) we decided to go to K&L. Since K&L, like most of Hopewell, is stuck in the dark ages we first had to go get cash from the bank.  Because Hooray for Hopewell was going on, there were 10 cars waiting in line for the ATM.  After a good 20 minute wait and with $40 in hand we were off to get lunch from K&L. But to our surprise, (I’m sure most of you will say “Duh!”) K&L was closed. Undeterred, we decided we felt like going to SubHub anyway.  As we pulled up to SubHub a large “CLOSED” sign hung laughing in our faces. Once again, we were off in search of a decent lunch in Hopewell, a seemingly fruitless task.  My mom then suggested we drive up the road to the 15th Street Café which was surprise, surprise, closed. Since we were downtown, we figured that we might as well check and see if Mim’s restaurant was open. As I’m sure you guessed; it was closed.  
After striking out five times, my mom said “I know where IS open.” She would not tell my brother or me where she was thinking because she did not want to jinx it.  We pulled up to a very familiar restaurant, El Nopal. It was OPEN. So we jumped out of the car, half starved.   El Nopal is a very stereotypical Mexican restaurant. When I say stereotypical, I mean extremely stereotypical - from the murals on the walls to the blaring Spanish music.  But no matter what, El Nopal provides reliable Mexican cuisine and is almost always open.
A host seated us under a huge Mexican themed mural in booths covered in the extremely bright and colorful poncho style fabric.  In a matter of seconds, we had tortilla chips, white sauce and salsa on our table and had already ordered drinks.  The staff at El Nopal is quite pleasant. They are fast and friendly and speak pretty good English, though some are a lot better than others. The chips at El Nopal differ from trip to trip. Sometimes they are warm, crunchy and taste fresh but today they were cold and stale. This did not matter too much to us after we dipped them into the mysterious but delicious white sauce, which they call Blanco sauce.  Blanco is white is Spanish, so the mystery surrounding this sweet concoction remains.  If El Nopal stopped serving the white sauce I do not believe that I would frequent the restaurant any longer, it is just that good.  The salsa on the other hand is very watery and too spicy for my taste.  I have been known to mix the two with rather delicious results though.  I call that pink or Rosado sauce. I can’t swear if any of the appetizers, chips and dips, are made fresh in the restaurant but I would venture to say that they are not.
While munching on chips, we browsed El Nopal’s expansive menu. While El Nopal may not be the greatest Mexican restaurant in the world it does have one of the largest menus I’ve ever seen in one. It has every Mexican dish you could ever imagine and much to my delight it has a huge seafood selection. I must admit that I have a weakness for shrimp, scallops and crab meat. It does not matter if I’m at a Mexican, Italian or Chinese restaurant my eyes and stomach are always immediately drawn to the seafood section. Today was no different, I ordered the Burrito Del Mar.
My burrito was stuffed with jumbo shrimp, scallops, onions, peppers, squash and zucchini; smothered in cheese sauce and served on a bed of rice and beans with lettuce and sour cream on the side. The shrimp, scallops and vegetables were all cooked well, pleasantly seasoned but nothing really stood out as truly excellent. Overall, it was a tasty burrito and for $7.95, on the lunch menu, it was a pretty good deal; but I also felt that it was quite run of the mill and could probably be found at any Mexican restaurant with some being better and some being worse.  I do enjoy that most entrees at El Nopal can be covered in your choice of sauce.  I always order mine covered in cheese sauce.  I feel that while adding flavor it does not completely overwhelm the other flavor in the dish, like other Mexican sauces can.  This is especially important with mildly flavored seafood dishes. 
My burrito really sums up El Nopal as a whole. While it is good, reliable, convenient and better than most of the other Mexican restaurants in the Tri-Cities (I’m talking about you, El Corporal and Don Jose) it is not amazing.  For these reasons, if you are in the Tri-Cities and hankering for Mexican food I recommend eating at El Nopal. You will neither be disappointed nor blown away but you will be full and have eased your cravings for a reasonable price. 
<a href="http://www.urbanspoon.com/r/49/530615/restaurant/Richmond/El-Nopal-Mexican-Hopewell%22%3E%3Cimg alt="El Nopal Mexican on Urbanspoon" src="http://www.urbanspoon.com/b/link/530615/biglink.gif" style="border:none;width:200px;height:146px" /></a>

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Dante's Pizzeria

2900 Cedar Lane
Colonial Heights, VA 23834
(804) 520-8292

Monday through Thursday from 11:00 AM to 10:00 PM
Friday and Saturday 11:00 AM to 11:00 PM
Sunday 12:00 PM to 10:00 PM

When my office was located on the Boulevard in Colonial Heights we were right across the street from a very small, unassuming pizzeria named Dante’s. No one in the office or anyone I knew had ever been to this restaurant but everyday around lunch the place was abuzz with activity, a line outside the door and a steady stream of customers and delivery drivers carrying piles of pizza boxes and brown bags overflowing with mysterious containers coming and going.  One day my lust for pizza and child-like curiosity finally got the better of me and I decided to try out this place called Dante’s Pizzeria. After that first visit I was hooked and to this day, I still call Dante’s my favorite pizza joint and one of my favorite restaurants in the Tri-Cities.  In December, my office moved from the Boulevard in Colonial Heights to the corner of Courthouse and Iron Bridge Road in Chesterfield; I cried.

Dante’s is a New York style pizzeria, with an extremely impressive selection. Unlike many restaurants that try to serve everything but excel at none, Dante’s is able to offer a very wide selection of dishes while still serving them up fresh and delicious. While my favorite food at Dante’s is the gourmet selection of pizzas, he has over 30 different signature styles from Texas (covered in French fries, bacon, mozzarella, cheese wiz and ranch) to the California Chicken (covered in chicken, bacon, onions, tomatoes and honey mustard), anything you buy at Dante’s is delicious. Along with pizzas he serves excellent cheese steaks in a variety of styles with a variety of toppings, burgers, salads, calzones, Stromboli, gyros and a large variety of classic Italian and pasta dishes. Dante’s is a very rare restaurant - it is able to make anything and is able to make it well.

About 2 months ago Dante’s moved from its quaint little shack of restaurant to a new building three times the size with five times the amount of seating and a large banquet room just a stone’s throw from the old restaurant. While I am extremely happy for Dante’s and am glad that they are able to grow and really flourish I do miss the old place and all of its charm. Honestly my only complaint about Dante’s is the decorating. There is practically nothing on the walls, which are painted the same color as the booths. Everything just seems to blend together into a very mute, unwelcoming atmosphere. Luckily Sal, the owner, is always there to cheerfully greet you at the door which more than brightens up the bland palate of the restaurant’s decor. Sal is the epitome of what a small business owner/ restaurateur should be - he remembers his customers and if always up for a chat.  I am happy to tell though that although the scenery and atmosphere has changed dramatically the food is just as delicious as always.

Last Saturday, my girlfriend, Amanda, and I had big plans. We were going to go the Farmer’s Market in Prince George, to Heretick Seed and Feed in Hopewell to buy some cold weather vegetables for our garden and then go shopping to buy Amanda a new dress for a black tie dinner we were attending in Petersburg on Sunday but Harvey, our dog, got loose. Three hours, a thousand tears, hundreds of mosquito bites, and one leech later we had found Harvey and found ourselves with three rumbling bellies. We fed the massive mutt, Harvey is a hundred and twenty pound Mastiff/Fox hunt mix (don’t ask me how that worked) and headed off to find some lunch. Little did I know that trying to find lunch would be the most difficult part of the day.  After almost 10 years of being together, Amanda and I have made it a tradition to fuss and bicker over where we are going eat until we just give up and eat at the first place we see. That day was no different, after about 30 minutes of going back and forth I said “Let’s go to Dante’s, that way we’ll both be happy!” Amanda immediately agreed and off we went.

                After a quick chat with Sal and look at the pizzas available to be ordered by the slice, Amanda and I seated ourselves and our waitress quickly arrived at our table to take our drink orders. Amanda ordered a water and because I knew I was getting the two gourmet slices and a drink combo for $6.75, I ordered a coke. Within seconds we had our drinks and were contemplating on what to order. Amanda is absolutely obsessed with garlic and cheese so we had to order two orders of garlic knots. Each order was $2.00and came with six large knots covered in garlic and other seasons, but not overwhelmingly, with a side of marina sauce. Although they were premade for lunch, a quick pop in the oven created a perfect outside with a slight crunch but left the insides soft and moist. These made an awesome appetizer.  Because it was 2:00 in the afternoon the selection of pizzas that could be ordered by the slice was limited compared to the smorgasbord that is on hand from around 11am-1pm.  But there were still some delicious choices left.  Amanda ordered a single slice of pepperoni and I ordered two gourmet slices- one meat lovers and one “Grandma’s.”  The three slices were popped in the oven to warm up and make the crust nice and crispy.

                Within a few minutes our slices of pizza arrived, each of them larger than the plate they were served on. These slices are huge, one can fill you up and two will cause you to skip your next meal. Luckily Sal, the owner, understands quantity and quality because not only were these slices enormous they were also expertly cooked, covered in toppings, but not too much tomato sauce, and delicious. I had to fold my slice of pizza in half just so that I can fit it into my mouth to take a bite. The crust had a nice crunch to it but was by no means burnt. My slice of meat lovers was covered in Italian sausage, pepperoni, bacon, ham, and ground beef held together by mozzarella cheese. Somehow Dante’s has found a way to cover their pizza in toppings but have it so they do not all slide off into a pile on you or your plate. Each of the meat flavors melded together to form a tantalizing flavor combination that blows away the competition.  Since I had two slices of pizza but could easily be filled up by one I got creative and took a bite of meat lovers and then took a bite of the Grandma pizza. The Grandma pizza is a square thin crust pizza slathered in tomato sauce, mozzarella cheese, roasted garlic, plum tomatoes and pesto sauce.  I was a little hesitant because I’ve never been in love with pesto sauce but it looked awesome and Dante’s had never done me wrong so I decided to try it out. It was surprisingly great with just enough pesto to give it flavor but not so much as to overwhelm the pizza and make it taste like nothing but pesto. The two completely different flavors of the pizzas made each bite exciting and stand out from the other. Because they were both so good I was able to power through and finish both pieces except for the crust. Amanda also informed me that her slice of pepperoni pizza was delightful and one of the best she’s ever eaten. 

                Once again, Dante’s more than exceeded my culinary expectations. The atmosphere and decorations of the new restaurant leaves a bit to be desired but with delicious food being served the last thing on your mind will be the decor. Dante’s is what a locally owned restaurant should be; fresh, friendly and delicious. The next time you feel the pangs of hunger head over to Dante’s Pizzeria for some of the best pizza you will ever eat.

This is not the whole menu, only the gourmet pizza list.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

King’s Korner Restaurant and Catering (The Cursed Review)

7511 Airfield Drive
Richmond, VA 23237
Monday-Friday 11am-2pm
Friday and Saturday 5pm-9pm
Sunday 10:30am-2:30pm

I had great reservations in reviewing King’s Korner; not because it’s bad, it’s actually delicious, but because I did not want to share this hidden gem with the masses. But then I thought to myself that it would not be fair to King’s Korner, the public, and especially not fair to my readers who look to me for honest reviews of the best restaurants in the Tri-City area.  I was not the only one who did not want this restaurant to be uncovered to the world; there was a supernatural force at work that causes this review to be lost twice while I was writing it. But I persevered and continued to rewrite and redo this review so that everyone who reads the Gastrological Gentleman will know the joys of King’s Korner Buffet.

I was not planning on going out to eat last Friday, but I was out of the office attending a 9/11 memorial event and had $7.00 in my pocket, so I could not resist stopping by King’s Korner  for their $5.95  country style buffet. Forget what fast food restaurants say, King’s Korner’s Buffet is the true value meal. I would not be surprised if you’ve never seen or heard of King’s Korner. It is completely hidden in plain sight just off Iron Bridge Road at the Chesterfield Airport. When I say at the Chesterfield Airport, I don’t mean near the airport or next to the airport, I mean AT the Chesterfield Airport. It is located in the same building as the airport, right on the runway. You could probably go inside the Chesterfield Airport terminal and still not notice King’s Korner. In this lies its charm and mystique. Although the interior decoration is dated and its wood paneling and 70’s décor makes it feel like an American Legion or Moose Lodge; dining at King’s Korner, you feel like you’re a member of an exclusive club; a club of buffet and value connoisseurs, who secretly meet every afternoon to enjoy the culinary delight known as King’s Korner.

As I pull up to King’s Korner, I see a plane take off from behind the restaurant. That awesome site set the course for the rest of my lunch. I walk into the Chesterfield Airport Terminal and take a left into King’s Korner; if I hadn’t looked to my left I probably wouldn’t have even noticed it. Seating myself, I took a table at the huge glass window looking out on the airport runway. Although I’ve heard rumors that there is a menu, the waiter did not have to ask what I wanted all he did was ask what drink I would like and told me to help myself. The buffet is a single bar with a light curve, covered in all sorts of down home, homemade cooking. There are always 2 types of barbecue on the buffet but the other main courses change on a daily basis. It ranges from Mexican and Italian to fried chicken and Salisbury steak with seafood every Friday.

The buffet lines starts off with a rather lackluster salad bar. But if you’re worried about the salad bar at an all-you-can-eat country buffet it would be best to save your time and stop reading now. While the traditional salad selection was wanting; other items on the salad bar were quite tasty. The potato and pasta salads were fresh and extremely flavorful. Just beyond the salad bar lay a plethora of country style vegetables with some being more delicious than others. On the low end of the spectrum was an expertly cooked but bland vegetable medley of broccoli, cauliflower and carrots and run of the mill mashed potatoes and black eyed peas. The highlights were baked beans and bacon, sweet stewed tomatoes and collard greens. The best side item on the buffet had to be the potato wedges; which were perfectly fried with a crispy outside with a moist and creamy inside. The wedges were an excellent accompaniment to the barbecue, which I will go into detail about soon.

The first main dish on the buffet was a heaping platter of chicken pot pie. I had to tunnel through an inch and a half of breading before I reached the measly amount of chicken and vegetables hidden at the bottom of the pot pie. It would have been tasty if it wasn’t overwhelmed by the breading on top. Because it was Friday, fried fish and clam strips were the seafood items of the day. The fish, as usual, was succulent with a very light breading that allowed me to really taste the flavor and feel the texture of the fish. The clam strips were completely opposite of the fish in every possible way. Most of the problems with the clam strips are inherent with fried clams. There is just not enough clam to make a good ratio between clam and breading. Eating them seemed like I was eating nothing but crispy pieces of fried batter. Luckily, clam strips are not on the buffet every Friday, plump delectable fried shrimp often accompany the fish on the buffet. The next dish is why the people who know about King’s Korner continue to come back, the pulled pork barbecue.  They serve two types of barbecue, one with a sweet tomato based sauce and one without any sauce.  In both the meat is the star, cooked perfectly and melts in your mouth. Unlike many other restaurants that lather inferiorly cooked pulled pork with gallons of sauce; King’s Korner’s barbecue with sauce is prepared with optimum meat to sauce ratio; enough sauce to taste but not so much as to overpower the smoky flavor of the meat. King’s Korner provides 3 visible BBQ sauces to appease the differing barbecue tastes in the area.  One is a smoky, sweet Texas style tomato based sauce that I prefer out of the 3. There is also a spicier Virginia style sauce that is a hybrid of tomato based and vinegar based sauces as well as a tradition North Carolina vinegar based sauce. You are probably asking why I said 3 “visible” BBQ sauces; this is because there is a fourth secret sauce and that only those who know to ask get to enjoy. It is King’s Korner’s original rib dip sauce; a sweet and savory concoction that mere words cannot describe. If I possessed the literary abilities of Emerson or Whitman, I might try to describe this delectable sauce. Since I am nowhere near the wordsmith that these gentlemen were; anything I say could do it justice I will just say that it is AWESOME.

Although most things on the buffet are delicious and you will be tempted to keep going back for more please, if you take any advice from me, save room for desert. Not just a small taste of desert but t least a whole bowl full. Normally, with I buffet I would never give this recommendation because most of the time the deserts on a buffet are quite unimpressive but this is not the case with King’s Korner. I would even go as far as to say that I would pay the $5.95 to just have this one extraordinary desert item. The dish I am speaking about is the bread pudding.  This is no regular bread pudding, no left over stale bread mixed with sugar and butter and icing. It is expertly crafted and usually empty on the bar because it goes so fast.  This bread pudding is extremely moist but by no means soggy, covered in the perfect amount of butter and light icing. The crowning jewels of this dish are the plump raisins hidden throughout. These are not the dry wrinkly ones most people are familiar with, these are plump and juicy and when you are lucky enough they burst in your mouth to add the perfect finishing flavor on this immaculate bread pudding.

King’s Korner’s Buffet is really a true value meal. It is the best lunch for the best price a person could possibly purchase. Though, the whole buffet is simply delicious the barbecue and bread pudding are the shining stars. Once you can get past the tacky, dated décor I promise you will have a amazing lunch for a great price. I recommend King’s Korner to anyone who loves fresh down home cooking. I will certainly be returning soon.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Carter's Courthouse Cafe

224 N. Main Street                                                                     
Hopewell, VA 23860
(804) 458-3874
Sunday and Monday:  6:30am to 3pm
Tuesday- Saturday: 6:30am-8pm                

A work assignment offered me an opportunity to begin my culinary expedition in the “Food Desert” that is Hopewell. I had high hopes that my inaugural would showcase a beautiful oasis in the down trodden city.  So as soon as my lunch break came I set out to find this hidden food haven.
 For most of my life I was under the misguided assumption that the only two places worthwhile eating at in Hopewell was Hardees’s and of course Quick Lunch.  My brother and mother recently enlightened me with a tale of a lunch excursion of their own at a little restaurant in the middle of town, Carter’s Courthouse Café.  Because of my trust in my brother’s palate and my love of alliteration I decided that this would make for a wonderful maiden luncheon.
Carter’s Courthouse Café is centrally located in downtown Hopewell directly across from the Municipal Building.  The restaurant has excellent parking with a huge lot right next to the building. Inside Carter’s looks like a T.G.I Friday’s that went shopping at an antique store. Although the air conditioner was broken, the use of well placed fans made it very comfortable.  There was more than enough room and seats for a gathering of almost any size.
The menu at Carter’s Courthouse Café was very impressive and if you could not find what you want on the menu I was told to ask and you might get what you’re really craving. The menu consisted of a large variety of breakfast foods that are served all day, a wide array of all sorts of sandwiches, and everything else from fried fish and crab cakes to steaks and pasta. The standout menu item was the Courthouse Challenge. You have 30 minutes to eat 3 pancakes the size of your plate, homefries, two eggs, and a 16oz porterhouse steak. If you do, it’s free. If you don’t, it’s $19.99. Either way it is a good deal.  I was all set to take the challenge but with an almost full workday left and the waitress warning me that “It’s really big” I chose to take the challenge another day.
I decided to start off with the green beans fries, $4.95. Served with a heaping bowl of ranch, they were exceptional, crispy and noticeably freshly made. After a lot of contemplating, I ordered the Courthouse Surf and Turf; a crab cake, catch of the day and an 8oz rib eye for $14.99. I ordered it without the fish and they took a dollar off of the price. The plate came with two sides; I chose onion rings and coleslaw. With the kitchen out in the open behind the front counter I was able to watch my meal be freshly prepared to order. I did not have to wait long before I received my order.
Already on a high because of the green bean fries, my plate looked delicious when served.  A pan fried crab cake nestled next to a char grilled steak and a tall stack of golden deep fried onion rings with a side of coleslaw.  While obviously full of the crab; the crab cake tasted kind of bland although perfectly cooked.  The crab cake was lightly fried on each side with a very soft center. After a few bites of crab cake I turned my attention to the 8oz rib eye.  The steak was a bit more medium than medium rare but still very juicy and tender. Unfortunately, the char on the steak, although pretty, was overwhelming and took complete control of the steak’s flavor. I am not a large fan of steak sauce because I’d rather taste the meat and not the sauce, but I had to use A-1 to overcome the charred flavor of the steak.  The thick cut onion rings were the highlight of the plate. They were fried until golden brown and very crispy. These did not come frozen in a bag like so many other restaurants.  The coleslaw was the long thick cut style not the fine cut mushy version. It was homemade and a good combination of crunchy and creamy.
                At just over $20 for an appetizer and surf and turf my meal at Carter’s Courthouse Café was a very well priced.  It was very filling and certain items were extremely tasty but overall I was not amazed with the meal.  But, I have to chalk this up to my own ignorance for ordering a steak and crab cakes at a café known for its breakfast and sandwiches.  Although I was not overly impressed with the surf and turf, with such a large menu and tasty sounding dishes I do plan on returning to Carter’s Courthouse Café and trying something different. I recommend that you do the same, but stick to the breakfast and sandwiches.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011


My name is CeJae Johnson and I am the Gastrological Gentleman. The idea for this blog came to me a month ago while reading the Richmond Times Dispatch. Every week I see numerous restaurant reviews for local eateries in the Richmond area. Although I enjoy visiting Richmond and admit that the city does have some fabulous restaurants, I feel that the Tri-Cities area has just as much to offer in terms of locally and family owned restaurants.
With the rapid expansion of Fort Lee, I’ve come to find out that not only have I begun to have to wait for a table at chain restaurants around South Park Mall on weekends but more and more frequently on the weekdays as well.  Like so many other people I long to escape the corporate restaurant jungle that Colonial Heights has become. I would like to try different mom and pop restaurants in the surrounding areas; but with a thin budget I am afraid to waste $30.00 on a meal that is overpriced and underwhelming in every aspect.
As the Gastrological Gentleman, I plan on providing helpful information and reviews of local restaurants so that citizens of the Tri-Cities can free themselves from the shackles of the South Park Mall area without worrying about wasting their hard earned money on frozen and canned food masquerading as “homemade.”  I want to prove that we do not have to drive 30 minutes up I-95 or wait 30 minutes on a Tuesday night to enjoy a delicious freshly prepared meal served and prepared by our Tri-Cities neighbors.
Please follow me as I carve a trail through the jungle of restaurants while on my culinary adventures through the Tri-Cities…