Globe-Trotting through Charlottesville Restaurants

By: Simon

When visiting Charlottesville and Albemarle County, Virginia, it would be easy to spend a whole trip at its most well-known attractions: spectacular vineyards, breweries, and cideries; historic sites; and scenic hikes. 

Locals know, though, that another reward awaits those who scratch beneath Charlottesville’s polished veneer—a food community bursting with flavors of the world. That community is the product of a virtuous cycle that has been enriching the area for more than a decade.  

Charlottesville routinely tops national lists like best places to live. And, because of this, people from around the world come to Charlottesville and share their culture and cuisine with the community. As a result, in addition to the region’s signature Southern fare, Charlottesville now boasts a greater variety of cuisines than ever before.

Flavors from the Western Hemisphere

Haiti | Pearl Island Cafe

Sober Pierre, son of Haitian immigrants, set out to share the food of Haiti with Charlottesville beginning in 2013. He sold jars of pikliz, a spicy, pickled condiment made from a family recipe of cabbage, carrots, onions, vinegar, lime and orange juices, and habanero. He later manned his own food stand at farmers’ markets, and, eventually Pearl Island Cafe, serving food inspired by Haiti and other Caribbean islands.

Go for platters of slow roast “16 hours of love” pork, jerk chicken, sous poulet (Haitian curry chicken), or sous she (tempura caulifower in a sweet and spicy sauce). All platters come with kale salad, rice and pigeon peas, fried plantains, aïoli, and, of course, pikliz.

Charlottesville masa croquettes x

Oaxaca, Mexico | Conmole

In the hip, tree-lined neighborhood of Belmont, Benos Bustamante left a job he held for sixteen years as a server and manager at local institution Mas Tapas to open a tiny restaurant across the street celebrating the food of his native Oaxaca. Recipes draw from his mother and grandmother. Highlights are the moles that give the restaurant its name. While each is distinct, the mole negro, mole verde, and mole guajillo all share uncommon depth of flavor. Beyond the food, Bustamante’s two decades of management experience are unmistakable in the earnest service and curated drinks.

Puebla, Mexico | Al Carbon

At the no-frills, order-at-the-counter Al Cabon, the focus is what Myriam and Claudio Hernandez call “street food” or “carnival food”—informal foods of their ancestors. One is a cemita—a sandwich from Claudio’s native region of Puebla—with meat, avocado, papalo, red onions, a slice of ham, adobo chipotle peppers, heaps of shredded cheese, and a choice of sauce on a roll.

The most popular item, however, is the Peruvian whole chicken marinated for twenty-four hours and roasted in a rotisserie oven imported from Peru. For some locals, the chicken is a weekly necessity.

Taste the Nations at Charlottesville Restaurants

India | Kanak

In 2003, Charanjeet Ghotra, his wife Rupinder Kaur, and business partner Jaswinder Singh opened Milan, which quickly became Charlottesville’s standard-bearer for Indian food. Their second spot, Kanak, broke new ground with dishes rarely seen at Indian restaurants in the US. Seafood preparations and vegetable dishes shine, such as paneer bhindi nayantara, or cheese and okra in a tomato-based sauce, spiked with star anise, coconut, and mint.

Philippines | Manila Street

Twenty years ago, Azalea Street officially became Manila Street, thanks to the encouragement of the Biazon family, whose ten siblings and their families have gradually immigrated to Charlottesville from the Philippines and have come to occupy an entire row of houses along the street.

Twenty years ago, Azalea Street officially became Manila Street, thanks to the encouragement of the Biazon family, whose ten siblings and their families have gradually immigrated to Charlottesville from the Philippines and have come to occupy an entire row of houses along the street.

In 2012, Fernando Biazon Dizon and his mother Maura began selling Filipino food from a stand at the weekly farmer’s market. Next came a food truck. And, in 2021, he and his wife Jessie opened a brick and mortar. The menu of traditional dishes—lumpia, pancit, and adobo—attracts both nostalgic Filipinos and local food lovers.

Vietnam | Vu Noodles

Vietnamese-born Julie Vu started sharing her family’s culture and cuisine with her Virginia audience by selling do-it-yourself noodle bowl kits at Charlottesville grocery stores. Success led to her take-out restaurant Vu Noodles.

The food relies on vegetables (though technically not vegan), and even the most devout carnivores will be satisfied by her flavorful food. Like the umami bomb tofu caramelized onion noodles. Or a vegan banh mi, which might sound odd, given the traditional sandwich’s reliance on livery pâté and grilled meat.

China | Peter Chang China Grill

Peter Chang, one of the most acclaimed Sichuan chefs in the United States, chose Charlottesville for his first restaurant, which opened in 2011. It was an instant hit. Since then, his expanding restaurant empire means that he is not always in the Charlottesville kitchen, but the restaurant still bears his stamp. His trained cooks expertly dispatch his signatures: hot and numbing shredded tofu skin, dry fried eggplant, scallion bubble pancake, and Sichuan style stir fried hot pot.

Thailand | Pad Thai

“Homestyle” gets thrown around a lot in the restaurant industry. But, if anyone can lay claim to it, it’s Utaiwan and Santi Ouypron. At their restaurant Pad Thai, they offer the same food that they once served in an eatery out of their home in Thailand. When they came to Virginia in 2006, the Ouyprons didn’t change a thing about the homestyle recipes they had been cooking for years.

Heady broths form the base for noodle bowls, and fiery curry pastes infuse traditional red, green, and Panang curries. In addition to familiar stir-fries, like drunken noodle and pad kapao, there are specials like Grandpa’s Favorite—an unusual combination that Santi’s father always loved: fried catfish nuggets, a Thai omelet, and a curried shrimp roll set over fried rice flavored with green curry .

France | Café Frank

Local Charlottesville legends tell of French chefs who get lured to the city by their lovers, only to be abandoned there. However, these lovers’ losses are Charlottesville’s gain. French native Jose de Brito, for one, now calls Charlottesville home.

Café Frank is the first restaurant of de Brito, who is also a James Beard Award semifinalist. De Brito insists his focus is “simple” food, but guests often find it delightfully complex. There are bistro standards such as beef tartare and moules frites, but there’s nothing simple about specials like quenelles de brochet, cloudlike oval dumplings of creamed pike in a rich, pink shellfish sauce.

Turkey | Sultan Kebab

When Deniz Dikmen and Serhat Peker arrived from Turkey in 2006, they fell in love with Charlottesville. They opened Sultan Kebab in tribute to their respective birthplaces, Izmir and Adana. For a kebab place, vegetable dishes are particularly strong here, including a vegetarian plate that rates among the most coveted dishes in town. Sultan Kebab’s vegetable-based appetizers are delicious on their own—there’s hummus, baba ghanoush, kisir, white bean salad, dolmas, and Turkish-spiced mashed potato. On a mound of buttery rice, however, their flavors shine even brighter.

Learn more about where to eat and drink in Charlottesville at Visit Charlottesville.

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