Far Away Flavors

Downtown Restaurateurs Dish On Booming Business

Posted: December 18, 2013

Adana kebabs (front) and chobans salad (back) are two offerings at The Downtown, a new Mediterranean spot on Main Street in Harrisonburg. (Photo by Jason Lenhart / DN-R)
Rosevelt Williams (left) and Maurecio Ribera (right) work on a salad at The Downtown on Dec. 9. The new spot is one of several ethnic food offerings in the downtown Harrisonburg area. (Photo by Jason Lenhart / DN-R)
A chicken kebab platter (front) and plates of Shwarma await delivery to patrons at The Downtown on Dec. 9. (Photo by Jason Lenhart / DN-R)
With Harrisonburg’s growing collective student body comes the rise in the number of establishments built in the area to accommodate the students’ needs — everything from school supplies to sustenance.

Accordingly, these buildings spawn in the form of restaurants. And not just the typical national food chains, but locally-supported eateries established by the members of the community.

Which, in addition to an already budding interest in the arts, grassroots music and reviving downtown, brings to the city a new subculture: the ethnic food scene.

Now Introducing
Katrina Didot, owner of A Bowl of Good, which boasts establishments on Mount Clinton Pike and Port Republic Road, says she uses her eateries to “introduce” ethnic food to the community.

“I see it as a pathway for people to sample and try some flavors,” she said. “Certain bowls have been inspired by the flavors of Vietnam, India and Central America.”

Prior to settling in the ’Burg with her husband, Ernie, director of marketing at A Bowl of Good, 10 years ago, Didot, a native of East Smithfield, Pa., grew up visiting the area during her formative years. She remembers there being very few ethnic establishments at that time.

“It was a very different place 30 years ago,” she recalled. “The Turkish community has grown a lot since [then]. The Latino population is growing. We have a family from Kenya that lives with us; we all go to church together.

“Our neighborhood is like the United Nations.”

Didot’s company has been a staple in the area for going on nine years. She credits the success of her business to the student population; specifically, those who have spent time studying abroad.

“There’s a lot of people who have, either during their college years or before or after, lived internationally,” said Didot. “When you live internationally, you tend to develop a taste for enjoying new things.”

Going The Extra ‘Nile’
Blue Nile, which specializes in Ethiopian cuisine, has been established at its current location on North Main Street since 2008.

William Howard, the restaurant’s front house manager, attributes Blue Nile’s success to being the only one of its kind in the area.

“We’ve lucked out,” he said. “Recently, a restaurant opened up in Charlottesville, but before that the closest Ethiopian restaurant [was] in D.C. or Richmond.”

Blue Nile’s menu not only caters to the area’s Ethiopian community, but also to the vegetarian crowd.

“The Ethiopian diet [does not] rely on too much meat, we simulate that through the cuisine,” Howard said. “It really helps being a vegetarian-type spot; all of our vegetarian options are vegan-friendly, so that community gets served, too.”

Howard, who has been managing at the restaurant for almost a year, says the restaurant’s clientele is primarily comprised of the ’Burg’s collegians. Many of these students are foreign to Ethiopian food until they step foot in Blue Nile — something to which Howard, a James Madison University graduate, can relate.

“Some of them are nervous, and then they end up loving it. I’ve seen that happen so many times,” he said. “Now that I work in here every day, I’ve gotten to where I get the traditional stuff because it’s the best.”

A native to the area, Howard says he, too, remembers a time when his hometown wasn’t as culturally diverse. He now calls it “a really interesting place to live.”

“Living here my whole life, just seeing that change is mind-boggling,” he said. “There are cultures from all over the world here in our little community. You think, ‘What is it going to look like 10 years from now?’ ”

Howard insists the ethnic restaurant scene will continue to grow the more people’s tastes diversify.

“Having the options here is good for everybody. It’s good for us, too,” he said. “If you were the only game in town, you might just be that odd bird off to the side that only gets looked at every once in a while.

“But now there’s Las Chamas. I love that place.”

Greetings From The South
Maria Chavez, a native of Venezuela, has lived in the United States for 20 years.

She opened Las Chamas on South Mason Street four years ago.

“Here, I put the restaurant because when I was a little girl my father had a restaurant in Venezuela,” she said. “And, in America, one day I say, ‘Hey, can I put one restaurant here?’ ”

Business was slow when Las Chamas first opened. Since then, interest in the eatery has picked up drastically, thanks to the student body in the ’Burg.

“In the restaurant, the population has been more American students. When the students are gone, the business is low,” said Chavez. “[They] come here to taste arepas; they like it and it’s not too expensive.”

All the options on Las Chamas’ menu — inspired by Caribbean and Venezuelan cuisine — are made in-house. There are certain items that are exclusive to Chavez’s native area.

For example the lulo — a citrus fruit similar to the lime that Chavez uses for juices and smoothies — which can only be found in Northwestern South America.

Another item, the yuca, which is commonly fried and served as a side dish, is a common substitute for the potato that, she says, you can only find in the Caribbean.

A Taste Of The Middle East
New to the scene, Samer Gaber, along with a partner, opened The Downtown on South Main Street in October.

Gaber says he first got the idea to open an eatery in the ‘Burg while he was in Charlottesville assisting his partner with Bazlamas Turkish Street Food, a successful catering and food truck business that primarily served the student body at the University of Virginia.

“We both came up here on the 26th of September and we were talking to JMU about possibly doing a food truck there,” he said. “But they didn’t have the program set up like UVA does with Aramark.

“So, while driving around here, we found this location.”

At that time, the building that currently houses the restaurant was up for lease. Aaron Ludwig, owner of Jack Brown’s Joint Beer and Burger Joint and Billy Jack’s Wing and Draft Shack, noticed Gaber and his partner examining the building’s exterior and gave the future restaurateurs the contact information of the building’s owner, Gus Flores.

“Opportunity,” Gaber says, was what ultimately brought them to the downtown area.

“It was the next logical step in expansion for [the] catering and food truck business,” he said. “Everything lined up perfectly to where we were able to open a restaurant in Harrisonburg.”

Although the eatery has only been in business for almost two months, The Downtown has developed quite a following.

“The reception we’ve received from the welcoming arms in the community has been great,” said Gaber. “Everybody has told us they love our food; how tasteful it is, how flavorful it is.”

The Downtown’s menu is inspired by Eastern Mediterranean cuisine, which includes gyros, an assortment of kebabs and hummus.

“The food is very culturally influenced, whether you go to Egypt to get shawarma, or Greece to get a gyro, or Turkey to get the Doner,” said Gaber.

Gaber, who was born in Egypt, says he enjoys introducing patrons to the foods he grew up preparing with his family.

This, he insists, is the reason why he hopes his business will last for generations to come.

“[My partner and I] both love the food from our countries,” he said. “We decided to share family recipes that we’ve tweaked here-and-there, from what our mothers taught us, in a restaurant setting.”

‘Beyond’ The Scene
Beyond Restaurant and Lounge on West Water Street is the ‘Burg’s only “fusion-style” Asian eatery. The restaurant’s menu offers a variety of Japanese, Chinese, Thai and Vietnamese-inspired lunch, dinner, and dessert options.

“[In Harrisonburg] we have Thai, Chinese, and Korean, but we [didn’t] have anything that’s fusion,” said Beyond co-owner Praserth Saesow of his restaurant, which has been in its current location for the past four years.

Saesow, who also co-owns Taste of Thai on South High Street, says he wanted to put a restaurant in the downtown area because the scene is “happening” — full of students and young professionals always on the lookout for new spots.

“We were debating whether to do a different restaurant in Harrisonburg, or do another Taste of Thai elsewhere, like in Staunton or Charlottesville,” said Saesow. “Nothing really came along until we came upon this building four years ago.”

Since the city already had a Taste of Thai, Saesow and his partners decided to establish an eatery that features a “different take on Asian cuisine.”

Saesow lists Vietopia, Taste of India and Taste of China as some of his favorite eateries to frequent, and he, too, believes there will be more ethnic restaurants here in the near future.

“As small as Harrisonburg is we have a lot of good ethnic [options],” he said. “I’m sure more restaurants will be coming in here — more and more people are coming here because of [that].”

The CubanBurger
Ivan Pizarro, manager at CubanBurger on West Water Street, says you’ll find many patrons in the restaurant throughout the year.

“We have a lot of locals and students coming in when they can,” he said. “You’ll find a lot of [them] in here on weekends.”

CubanBurger features Cuban-style cuisine, something the area didn’t have until Ivan’s brother, owner Steve Pizarro, brought the idea to downtown about a year-and-a-half ago after spending time hanging out in the downtown bar scene.

“He met [Ludwig], who eventually gave him an idea of opening something here [featuring] Cuban-type food,” said Ivan. “And it’s been doing good.”

The Cuban-cuisine eatery has been a full-fledged bar and restaurant for the past four months. Patrons frequent the place for it’s renowned burgers—hand-patted and crafted with a distinctive combination of beef and pork.

“It’s just good food, good drinks, good prices, and something different,” concluded Ivan.

Contact Therran M. Dennis at 574-6218 or tdennis@dnronline.com.

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