What's Eating Roanoke

Reviews and tales of eating out and grocery shopping in the Star City and the surrounding areas.

Location: Roanoke, Virginia, United States

Saturday, December 09, 2006

El Rodeo y El Toreo

It has been a while since my last post, but I haven't been starving, just too busy to post. During this lapse I have eat at both El Rodeo and El Toreo. Anyone who actually reads this blog will probably know that they have the same owners and that several locations exist throughout Roanoke. That being said, you can rest assured they are all the exact same restaurant despite the different names.

Let me start by saying they are not the worst mexican food I've ever had. I'm far from raving about these places. They are the run of the mill, chips and salsa appetizer, every-dish-is-the-same type of establishment. However, the service was good at El Toreo out on Franklin Road. The service at the newly opened location on the hill, near Ruby Tuesday on Electric Road was a little less responsive. Personally I enjoyed the complete non-smoking atmosphere of El Toreo.

I'm not going into what we all ate. Everything basically tasted the same. The meats could use more seasoning. The dishes could use less lettuce on top and everything could be served a bit warmer. The general atmosphere, bright decorations, and cozy booths are what really brought us to visit more than one of these restaurants. If you want a higher quality meal, head to El Palenque.

Now I'm off to hunt down the remaining Mexican fare this town has to offer.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Dragon China

I pass this place all the time and finally couldn't stand it anymore. I've even pulled up to it a couple of times, saw no one eating there during peak hours, then drove away. I'm always suspicious of restaurants with absolutely no one in them at lunch or dinner. This place must struggle, but for no great reason.

They serve all the familiar, fast-food staples you know and love. We tried the kung-pao chicken and the sesame chicken. The lunch specials come with soup or egg roll and a choice of pork or vegetable fried rice. The portions were large and the quality was all you could ask for in this level of cuisine.

Atmosphere is basically non-existant and sodas are sold by the can or bottle (no free re-fills), but the price and food make up for it. Two of us had more lunch than we could handle for just $10. I'd eat there again.

Sunday, November 12, 2006


I have now eaten at the two currently existing Indian restaurants in town and tried both of their lunch buffets. Further investigation will have to be made into the off the menu experience. Honestly, I think Nawab surpasses Swagat. They are identically prices, but Nawab wins based on ambiance and variety.

The music, colors, and decoration just felt more thought out. The buffet had a few extra dishes plus a few more dessert options. Even as the Sunday crowd came pouring in just behind us, they had no problem keeping the buffet well stocked with rice and naan. This always seems to be one of the major weaknesses of a lot of these buffets.

Today they had a large, heated wok (I do forget the name of that cooking utensil, please forgive me) full of little fried potato/veggie pancakes. There was the typical rice, bread, pakora, and tandoori chicken. What stood out to me were the chicken masalas and nav ratan korma. Rounding out the selection was the palak and a creamy veggie paneer.

This buffet also boasted a few more salad options than usual. The condiments were typical: pickle, tamarind, raita, and mint chutney. It would be fun to have something a little different now and again, but these were all tastey none the less.

Unlike Swagat, they had three dessert options, two of which I actually tried. The keer was just right, though I would have liked a golden raisen or two. There was a fruit and cream dish, that was something like a thick whipped cream studded with apple chunks and spiced with saffron and cardamon. There was also a carrot pudding that I didn't try. I will assume it was as great as the rest. I've had various carrot puddings and none hit the spot for me, but others love it.

Service was friendly and attentive as your average busy restaurant. I have no complaints. Two buffets and just water to drink will run you just under $20. I will say the buffets in this town are more expensive than any other similar restaurants I've ever eaten (including L.A.), where most buffets average $7.00. Oh well, it was still worth the experience.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Humble Pie for Pizza

Humble Pie is another real gem here in Roanoke County. It is just off Electric Road in Salem. We've eaten there three times in the past month for a reason. The pizzas are all named for classic rock artists and are wonderfully varied in toppings. Some examples include the "Hendrix" which is pretty much a "supreme" pizza; the Skynard that has pulled pork bbq; the "Buffet" for a white pizza with seafood; and the Jamaican jerk chicken of the "Marley." What is really great about this place is the everday 2 for 1 deal; two mediums go a long way. The service is friendly and the quality is constant. This is a place I think most people return to. And just to be completely fair, I'll say that their crust isn't the greatest, but everything else makes up for it.

I haven't paid too close attention, but I believe their smoking section is outside. None of our eating experiences were negatively impacted in that fashion.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Hong Kong ain't Half Bad

Though it may have a fast food appearance, the Hong Kong Chinese restaurant in the Hunting Hills Plaza (next to Frank's Pizza and Subs) is something a little different. It is actually more upscale than fast food, though not a cloth napkin kind of place either. The prices are a little higher, but the food is also higher quality.

It was another unadventurous lunch. I had the General Tso's Chicken and my wife had the Sesame Chicken. The lunch portions are a bit smaller and somewhat cheaper than dinner. Though our orders were some of the more fool-proof choices, one can never be sure. We were pleased to find our meals were quite good. The chicken pieces were freshly fried and covered in generous portions of sauce; both sauces were well done. Each meal was accompanied by a side of fried rice, which was average and didn't have any added ingredients.

Overall, the food was a bit above average as was the ambiance. The prices weren't terrible and the service was top notch. I'm likely to eat here again, especially as it wasn't nearly as crowded as the surrounding eateries. If this last point should happen to change, I suppose I can live with it.

Monday, November 06, 2006

Adventures in Asian Groceries

I missed out on a Sunday post about our trip to a couple of Roanoke's Asian grocery stores. I'm very interested in authentic Asian foods, the kind of stuff you'll never see in the fast food, Americanized-Chinese restaurants.

First we hit the "World Wide Asian Foods" on Williamson Road. There are three Asian groceries on this road and I believe they vary widely in quality, so don't get them confused. This is the northmost one, above Hershberger.

Let me begin by saying I have shopped in a lot of Asian groceries including some in the Chinatowns of NYC, Chicago, DC, LA, and San Francisco. "World Wide" is of a good size with lots of variety. I'll put it in my top three small town favorites. It has basically three aisles with the back being lined by fridges and freezer cases.

There is a video area at one end of the store and apparently "antiques" downstairs. We didn't peruse these latter sections. We bee-lined for the dry goods aisle in search of fun and exotic ramen. There is something a lot of people don't realize; there is another world of ramen and other instant noodle options above and beyond that found in Kroger. Here are a couple of flavors we picked up: "crab rice pancake", "baby clam", and miso. There are rice and wheat noodle options. I also picked up a can of "fish maw" soup. I'd been looking for that for a long time. I'll let you do your own homework on fish maw. The can of shark fin soup was a close runner up; maybe next time.

The produce was varied and exciting. There were loads of herbs and greens I've never cooked with before. Some were past their prime, which seems like a constant with a lot of these little places. It's best to find out when their shipments come in and shop those days.

After loading up on the noodles and with plans to be on the road for a while, we opted to end on the dry goods. However, I did pick up a packet of spicy squid jerky. There were several jerky options that were new to me. Wel-pac's "saki ika" is an old favorite and I couldn't resist. All I can say is give it a try.

We proceeded to J and L Oriental Food Mart on Brambleton Ave. This place has a gift area that was fun to poke around. The food aisles were a little more cluttered than "World Wide", but stocked with a different array of goods. We found a few more ramen choices: "sesame flavored rice vinegar sauce", "wantan", and "sichuan famous snack". They had a large selection of frozen dumplings and other dim sum like items.

Our favorite find that these places had in common, with J and L being the strongest in was the ingredients for Boba. Boba, also known as "bubble tea", is a really fun iced drink. It can come in a variety of flavors with the most common being milk tea. The twist is that it contains large, colorful tapioca beads and a huge straw to slurp them up with. These beads provide a unique texture and chewing experience. I have yet to see any place in Roanoke that sells the prepared drink, so I hate for your first experience to fall flat, but give it a try anyway. It's different, but fun. "World wide" had complete 6 drink kits in the fridge. J and L had the straws, and bigger packs of the tapioca in different colors. Black tapioca is actually the most commonly used bead, but a rainbow assortment is also available.

For those who already into cooking Asian food but unsure about where to shop, these stores are strong on Chinese, Vietnamese, and to some Thai. If you are looking for Japanese products you'll be disappointed overall. I can't yet say what the other stores in town are like, but you won't find much beyond the most basic Japanese food at these two. J and L had more than "World Wide", offering items like furikake, Kewpie brand mayo, roasted teriyaki nori strips, etc.

My final thoughts: These stores deserve our business if they aren't getting it already. They are certainly a wonderland of new food options for the average Westerner. Don't be shy to try something new. If you can't stand walking into the unknown, pick up a copy of The Asian Grocery Store Demystified from your local library or book store. I hope your horizons will be widened.

El Palenque Hits the Spot

Even as I write my stomach is full beyond capacity. We dropped in to El Palenque for an after work dinner. From what little I'd read and heard about this place, it promised to be more than the average Mexican Restaurant.

Our host endeavored to sell us on the current special, which sounded wonderful, but it was a little beyond what we were planning to pay. So we ended up with the Tamales and the Mole. I drank Dr. Pepper and my wife tried the Horchata.

This place isn't super fast or ultra-cheap. This place is about freshly prepared dishes done right. This also isn't the kind of place that serves chips and salsa, though the menu has ample appetizer choices. If your experience is anything like our's, you won't be disappointed.

The Tamale was huge and beautifully laid out in its corn husk with beans on the side. My wife enjoyed it almost to the last bite (the last bite is currently in the fridge.) The mole was everything I wanted it to be. It consisted of a huge pile of juicy, white-meat chicken covered with a spicy sauce of peanut, roasted chile peppers and mexican chocolate. It was paired with beans, rice, and three soft corn tortillas. I did eat every bite.

I had read that this place was also known for its desserts. There are a number of fridges filled with cakes, brownies, flan, etc. They will call to you. I know you're full by this time, but you can get them to go. Our host informed us that you can now order the cakes online from their website. We fell for a couple of cakes: a chocolate soaked in sweet milk and rum, topped with fresh whipped cream and a vanilla with caramel sauce, whipped cream and crushed pecans. Again, not cheap, but huge portions of sweets that taste even better than they look. We got the slices to go, but dug in not five minutes after getting home. I hurt myself tonight, but it was great.

If you have any great bakers in your family, you know how most restaurant desserts just don't stack up. This place is different.

There isn't much I can complain about. The most I can say is that the horchata was watery and not as sweet or spicy as I would have liked. And even this might have been a fluke. In case you haven't heard of it, horchata is a sweet, often lightly cinnamon flavored, rice milk served over ice. It is actually quite refreshing. You find it all over the place out West, but this is the only place in town that I've found it at so far.

Being on a limited budget I won't get to eat here very often, but I really wish I could.

Saturday, November 04, 2006

Frank's Pizza and Subs

In addition to being opening day here at Eating Roanoke, I've got my first review for you. With places I eat and like, you are likely to see future reviews as well. Even with two people dining, you just can't get the full sense of what a restaurant has to offer.

Today we visited Frank's Pizza and Subs at Hunting Hills Plaza. It has an inviting atmosphere with a placard of daily specials up front and the invitation to seat yourself. The seating area is pretty evenly divided between smoking and non-smoking and only superficially separated. A single smoker will "pollute" the entire dining area and, in fact, did so. It was actually part of the service staff that was smoking at the table near the cash register. This was initially off putting, but we persevered as we heard this place was pretty good.

The service was friendly and quick. I ordered the chicken parmesan sub and my partner went for the eggplant parmesan sub. Yeah, not much diversity, but it was what we were feeling like. Despite people pouring in just behind us, our food was on the table in short order and our drinks were kept re-filled.

Our subs were served in the basic wax paper lined, plastic basket accompanied with chips and pickle spears. The sandwiches themselves hot and overflowing with fillings. The chicken was your basic breaded and fried white meat, then chopped into bit sized tidbits. The tomato sauce was also quite basic with out much in the way of herbs, but perfectly tasty nonetheless. A nice layer of molten mozzarella cheese topped it all off and was encased in a wonderfully chewy, grilled sub roll. The eggplant Parmesan sub was basically the same except substitute breaded eggplant slices for chicken. The quality and portions made up for any other shortcomings.

Most subs were in the area of $5 range. Sodas were $1.50 each. And while it may seem strange to mention the sodas, I have found a wide range of experiences in what should be an universally identical item. I hate a flat or warm soda. These were perfectly carbonated and adequately iced. If it matters to you, they have the very small "pellet" ice at this location.

On the next visit, I want one of their calzones. A couple behind us ordered some and they looked great. They were about the same price as a sub, but looked huge.

Nice Touches:
extra Parmesan and pepper flakes on the table.
They even had garlic powder with the salt and pepper, which I think was a first for me.

Final Thoughts:
This place is definitely worth visiting if you haven't already; I plan to return. On the next visit, I want to try their calzone. A couple behind us ordered one and it looked great. They were about the same price as the sub, but looked even bigger.

If you are reading this Frank, I noted that everyone who came in sat in the non-smoking section. No one sat in the smoking section unless you count the waitress on a break. It might be time to rethink what the patrons want. We were close to turning right around upon entering because of that smell. Glad we didn't, but all things being equal, I'll go to the sub place without the un-asked for stench.

I'm biased in the smoking/non-smoking debate. I'll openly admit this, and will continue to mention how it effects my experiences. I feel many people really want a true non-smoking eating experience, so these people will benefit from my reviews. My opinions of the food will always remain separate, so you incorrigible smokers don't despair; I'm still your friend.

Opening Day at Eating Roanoke

I've just recently moved to Roanoke from the inclimate environs of Bakersfield California. Upon exploring the area, the number of restaurants and variety of cuisine I've discovered has truly impressed me. However, outside of a couple local newspapers, I haven't seen any source for online reviews of this town's eateries. If you do own or know of such sites, please let me know and I apologize for not finding you before.

Like most everyone, I love to eat out and hate having a bad experience. Life is too short for bad food and the average wallet is too slim for us all to brave every establishment. That is where I hope to come to the rescue. While I'm not a trained chef or a paid critic, I'm an avid cook and adventurous eater. I've dined out across the nation and in a few other countries as well. With luck I'll save you time and money, but I what I really hope to accomplish is leading you to something delicious and new.

In addition to restaurant reviews, I'll be hitting the local groceries and markets and giving my take on whatever I find interesting, tastey, and new. Keep an eye out for posted recipes too, and enjoy!

Web eatingroanoke.blogspot.com