So, you’re in town for the MARAC conference and need to know where to grab a bite to eat. Don’t worry. As a self-proclaimed food enthusiast, I can be of great assistance in your quest for scrumptious noshes. But it’s not just about the food. You need to experience an eatery where the atmosphere and the culinary tastes collide, forming together in perfect unison. Thus, not only will I recommend restaurants with good food, but places where you can sit back, relax, and fully enjoy the company and conversation that follow.
With the conference being held in April, it’s likely you’ll experience mildly dreary weather. And if that’s the case, warm, comforting food may be just the panacea for the springtime drizzle. If you’re in the mood for a chill, cozy spot somewhat out of the way of downtown, I would suggest Vietopia Vietnamese Cuisine located at 1015 Port Republic Road. It’s a quaint structure, minimalist in furnishing. There are no more than eight tables in the place. Still, the close quarters offer an intimate place, setting promising friendly and pleasant conversations for the table. While many of the items here are delicious, the one I must insist on it their pho (pronounced fuh for those unfamiliar with the dish).
Pho is a traditional Vietnamese soup consisting of broth, rice noodles, herbs, and meat (they do offer vegetarian options). Several accoutrements accompany the dish, including hoisin sauce, fish sauce, chili garlic paste, and chili oil. While the soup alone is gorgeously flavored with a savory broth accented by star anise, cloves, and cinnamon, the accoutrements provide an umami forward flavor profile that SHOULD NOT be skipped. The hoisin provides a little sweet, the fish sauce a little funk, and the chili garlic paste and chili oil combine to produce two layers of heat sure to make you sweat (but like I said, its cold and rainy, so bring on the heat!) Together, the beautifully spiced broth, unctuous meats and delectable dressings create an experience far worth the $9 and some change you’ll spend.
If soup isn’t your thing (I highly suggest you re-evaluate your life choices, but we’ll leave that conversation for another day), I would like to offer one other alternative. This, too, is a bowl full of good, but in the form of Korean Bibimbap. Overflowing with mixed rice, greens, veggies, egg, and meat (if you so desire), Mashita’s bibimbap offers all the comforts and delight of the Vietopia pho, but with a little more body. What’s not to love? Rice, carby, and delightful. Greens and veggies, hey, we all gotta get them somehow. A perfectly fried, slightly runny egg, which can only be described as golden nectar of the gods, in my opinion. You may choose from beef, chicken, pork, tofu or mushrooms as your protein, but my personal favorite is the pork belly. It’s fatty and salty and oh so pleasing. Finally, the sauce, but this isn’t the time to make rash decisions. No, the sauce binds all the ingredients together, creating a savory, umami-packed dish that tantalizes every taste bud. Again, my personal favorite is the spicy gochujang, as all the ingredients benefit from the slight heat offered by the gochugaru pepper-based sauce, but they do offer sweetened soy and sweet and spicy sauces. Like Vietopia, the restaurant is small, but in a cozy and inviting way. Its conveniently located at the corner of W. Elizabeth and Liberty Street (105 N. Liberty Street).
-Kayla Heslin, James Madison University