As creatures of habit, sometimes we tend to patronize the same restaurants and order the same items. I know I do: when I go to FoodBarFood, for example, I almost ALWAYS get that Thai curry noodle bowl. At Cuban Burger, it’s the Buenos Dias. I’ve ordered the Japanese Breakfast so many times at Beyond that they usually assume that’s what I’m there for.
Why is this? I guess for one, all those items are perfect and satisfy my craving so well there’s no need to explore other menu options. Another reason is value. On the rare occasion I feel like I can spend money eating out without regret, I don’t want to try something I’m not sure about. At the same time, I really do like variety. And I’m a grazer. I like to eat a little of this, a little of that.
So the Rocktown Bites food tour, recently commandeered and resurrected by Hotel Madison, ticks all of those boxes. For a moderate fee ($49), I can sample (and the samples are larger than you’re imagining right now, I guarantee it) several dishes and drinks from multiple restaurants, get a full belly, try something new, get in a nice walk and learn some local history, be surrounded by good company, and feel good about how I’ve spent my money. As one Rocktown Bites guest said, it’s a way you can get that Taste of Downtown experience in smaller portions. Love that idea!
On the day of our tour, we were probably all wondering whether we’d see rain, sun, snow, sleet, hail, hurricane-force winds, fireballs falling from the sky, lava, or even a rip in the space/time continuum because VIRGINIA’S WEATHER WILL NOT CALM DOWN… but at the stroke of 1:30 when the tour started, the sun was out and we were somehow all appropriately dressed and all was fine.
Rocktown Bites food tours start at the Hardesty Higgins House, which houses the Harrisonburg Visitors Center. Brandy, I, and eight or nine other “food tourists” met tour guide Eddie Bumbaugh there, where he explained that the HH House was built in the 1850s, started by Higgins and finished by Hardesty, who was Harrisonburg’s first mayor. In addition to the educational Valley Turnpike Museum, Virginia Craftsmen Showroom, and Civil War Orientation Center, the HH House also offers a great gift shop and the Heritage Bakery and Cafe. Our fellow food tour guests hailed from as far away as Texas (!) and ranged in age from infant to grandparent. I’d like to pause here and tell whoever is the mom with kids on our tour that they were SO well behaved the whole three hours. The tour itself is not a long walking distance, and there is ample time at each stop, so patrons of all ages can feel comfortable and accommodated. Truly family friendly.
Earlier I referred to Eddie Bumbaugh as the tour guide, which he was. But he is a next-level tour guide. Eddie served as the Executive Director of the Harrisonburg Downtown Renaissance for ten years, ushering in very important changes to downtown that we all enjoy today, and now he serves as the Public Relations Director for Hotel Madison. As such, Eddie knows every inch of downtown Harrisonburg and seems to know the inside scoop frequently, too. You’ll learn a great deal about our Friendly City along the way, and Eddie can answer most any question you might have. Eddie spoke a little about each place we’d stop on our International Foods tour, and then we headed out.
First stop: Taj of India. This restaurant is located near Jess’ Downtown and I can attest from previous experience that their lunch buffet can’t be beat. If you want to expand your Indian food horizons, please choose a day this week and get in there for lunch. They purposely go light on the spice on the buffet so you can customize it to your taste. At Taj, we were presented with naan straight from their clay oven, succulent chicken skewers, momo (steamed chicken dumplings), and vegetable fritters. We sat at a large table and passed gorgeous platters of food to one another while the chef spoke to us about each dish.
[It’s important to note that all the restaurants we visited on this day can and do accommodate vegetarians and people who don’t eat gluten. When you sign up for the food tour, just mention any dietary restrictions you have and you’ll be taken of, no worries at all.]
Next, Brandy and I were thrilled to be back in Beyond again, one of our favorite places and the site of so many fun experiences we’ve had together, from birthdays to consolation sessions to blogiversaries and costume parties, First Friday openings, end-of-school celebrations, and absolute feasts after spending a day on the river. This place has fed our souls and bellies well, and today was no exception. Praserth served us pineapple cheese wontons with pineapple salsa, their famous craving-inducing meatballs, a fresh and light vegetable roll, and an exclusive roll (just for the tour!) made with grilled salmon, cucumber, onion, and Sriracha mayo. Beyond turns 10 this September (woot!) and in case you didn’t know, the same folks own and operate Taste of Thai (it’s on 42 S), which has been open almost twenty years. Harrisonburg just wouldn’t be Harrisonburg without these two restaurants and the precious people who run them.
Destination #3: Cuban Burger. Cuban Burger has one of those menus where there’s not a single item you don’t want. Every single plate, burger, and sandwich is exquisitely prepared, fresh, juicy, flavorful, and just decadent. Cuban Burger had humble beginnings, though. At first they were just a tiny food operation housed in a small wine shop/tasting room. Ultimately the wine shop vacated and Steve Pizarro (owner) snatched it up. Steve met his wife Shami, who co-owns the restaurant, years ago when she was leading Rocktown Bites food tours. The two of them greeted our sprightly group with several delicious samples: the Cuban Chop Chop salad, the original burger served on a gluten-free bun, the classic and town favorite El Cubano, Yucca Frita con Salsa Verde, and flan (which was someone’s grandmother’s recipe and the silkiest thing ever). We also got to try their Papa Doble cocktail — the “Hemingway Daiquiri” made of white rum, maraschino liquor, simple syrup, lime, and grapefruit. AND, CubanBurger will soon offer margaritas on draft! First in the city!
While we nibbled away (yes, that is a euphemism. We were totally pigging out.), Shami commented on the genuine cooperation that occurs among the downtown restaurants, and we have noticed this before, too. Our restaurants love to collaborate — tap takeovers with local breweries, breweries collaborating with food trucks, all restaurants pitching in for huge events like the Downtown Dinner Party (coming up on May 18), the annual Taste of Downtown, participating as First Friday art venues… there is way more cooperation than competition. Harrisonburg is special like that, and we are all better for it. As the conversation shifted to some of the photos and artwork on the walls, Steve talked about his family’s life in Cuba and how his parents got out of there via “Operation Peter Pan.” It’s really cool to get to know the people behind the food you’re eating, and Rocktown Bites food tours are a great vehicle for such interaction.
Our fourth stop was such a treat: Boboko Indonesian Cafe. Mark Mitchell, who co-owns the restaurant with Chef Ridwan, guided us through one glorious delicacy after another. It’s amazing what they can produce in that tiny kitchen — everything that comes out of there looks like it could be on the cover of Bon Apetit. The entire place is small. The dining room seats maybe twenty people, and tables are positioned close to one another to reflect the importance of community and food in Indonesian culture. If you happen to go there and can’t get a seat, don’t let that stop you. Get the food to go and walk yourself up the ramp to Pale Fire Brewing. Or order from Pale Fire and Boboko will deliver it to you! Easy peasy.
A large colorful map of Indonesia hung on the wall right in front of us, and before long, Chef Ridwan was telling us about Indonesia. I was surprised to learn that Indonesia is the 4th most populous nation, comprised of more than 17,000 islands, and representing 580 different languages. Chef Ridwan immigrated from a small village in Indonesia and became a US citizen two years ago. He and Mark worked on this restaurant for ten years before opening it. That is a long time, but their careful planning has paid off.
We got to try the fried spring roll and the rice paper summer roll, both filled with fresh vegetables and served with a sweet soy peanut sauce. Then we ate a salad of mango, cabbage, and cucumber, followed by a tempeh skewer and a chicken satay skewer and homemade soy sauce.
We swung into the Green Hummingbird for our 5th stop. This fair trade boutique is another great place to consider next time you’re buying a gift for someone. I was hypnotized by the selection of gorgeous scarves. And I think I touched every single one of the little handmade change purses. They also carry products made from upcycled leather, like belts and wallets. Of course, they have a huge variety of women’s clothing, handbags, and jewelry, all made by artisans across the globe who’ve been paid a fair wage for their work. Before leaving, we got to try coconut-wrapped rice cookies from Thailand. During the entire tour, the hosts at each stop talked about where their food comes from, where their clothing or jewelry comes from, and how they are honoring time-old traditions while engaging in a level of sustainability that is important right now.
From the Green Hummingbird, we continued south on Main Street, heading toward our 6th and final stop: Hotel Madison. On the way we passed several houses where college students live, and it happened to be St. Patrick’s day weekend, so you can imagine the scene. Kids everywhere, lots of green, balconies being pushed to their limits, music of all kinds, laughter and good cheer. We locals walked on through like it was just another day in the Burg, but I had to wonder what the guests from Texas were thinking.
We arrived at Montpelier and were greeted by Matt Caruthers, who told us about the scrumptious food that would finish our tour. We got a big ol’ plate of Montpelier Nachos with their signature bourbon bbq smoked brisket and that amazing queso blanco, a couple of pots of Loaded Mac (loaded with tomatoes and bacon), and a gorgeous charcuterie composed of assorted cheese, meat, house-made chutney, pickles, honeycomb, flatbread, and more. Montpelier has a few events coming up: they regularly host art workshops (there’s one coming up on the 13th and 28th); they’re having an Easter Brunch on the 21st featuring a Southern buffet feast and appearances by the Easter Bunny, Mickey, and Minnie Mouse! They have Social Hour Monday – Thursday at 5; Date Night on Wednesdays; and they’re in the process of putting together an open mic night.
Other things we learned about from Eddie along the way, either while walking or dining (don’t worry, no spoilers!):
~ the currently controversial story of the Harrison House,
~ the story of the Spring House and what purpose that spring served in Harrisonburg’s early days,
~ the municipal building,
~ the Joshua Wilton House,
~ Rosetta Stone and Jenzabar,
~ the history of the Ice House,
~ the Farmer’s Market,
~ the Smith House and what’s cool about its location,
~ the Elks Lodge, a.k.a., the vineyard that never was,
~ how a 15 year old became Clerk of Court and then governor,
~ and Richard Dreyfuss’ wedding.
None of us wanted the tour to end, but we managed to stand up and waddle out of there anyway. If you’re interested in taking a Rocktown Bites food tour, they’re offered every single Saturday from now through November, with special Culinary Arts Tours offered on First Fridays. You can register and pay online; then all you have to do is loosen your belt a couple notches and show up hungry!
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Yes to the Buenos Dias burger—also my favorite at Cuban Burger if I don’t get the Chop-Chop. And yes to the Thai curry noodle bowl at FoodBarFood. I also get that frequently when I go there. I would love to take this food tour sometime. I’ve been on the serving end of it but never as a tourist.