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Christopher's Runaway Gourmay

For the best street food downtown at the right price, this is the place.

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Yep, for me (and for you as well, no doubt), time is limited, and money — well, let's just say the only things growing on the trees in my back yard are leaves. And they're beginning to fall off.

Can you find a decent lunch downtown for less than five bucks and 30 minutes? There are a lot of food carts studding the streets these days, but most are just barely adequate and function more as appetite appeasers than as providers of a truly satisfying meal. If the lines at noontime are any indication, the carts prove by their very existence that if people are really hungry, they'll eat pretty much anything — even if it means tasteless noodles or a greasy, heartburn-inducing Philly cheese steak.

One exception comes from the folks who brought us Papa Ningo in Shockoe Bottom, who dish out the same Dominican delights at their cart at MCV. Still, one little cart can't feed the hordes of hungry office refugees thronging the streets every day.

The best food, the best price, and the most accessible cart (with four carts in various locations) clearly belong to Chris Zechini of Christopher's Runaway Gourmay. For $4.75, a tangy dill-laced tuna salad with paper-thin shreds of cucumber, or a slightly sweet pulled-chicken salad punctuated with golden raisins and shot through with tarragon can be yours along with two sides and French bread from Jean Jacques Bakery.

Or if you don't have the big bucks to spend, try the top-selling lavishly nutty sesame pasta. At $3.75, it comes with two sides and bread. All the pasta dishes are cold, but the old Italian-dressing-drenched penne and tomatoes of the '80s are dead and gone. Instead, a wedge of creamy Monterey jack and bread accompanies pasta doused with garlicky pesto and perfectly crisp green beans. Fettuccine is tossed with feta and ripe tomatoes, and sauced with a peppery thyme-and-garlic vinaigrette. Short spirals of rotini sport a confetti of carrot shavings, crisp broccoli florets and green beans in a slick of sharp Dijon dressing. Not bad for the price of a grande nonfat latte.

Zechini worked in restaurants throughout college and decided in 1985 to dispense with the boss and open his own food cart downtown. Over the years, one cart has grown to four, with a central kitchen located in the South Side and a van with a hydraulic lift that can hold all four carts at one time for quick drop-off and pickup. Zechini does most of the cooking, with prep work provided by his crew, most of whom also run the carts.

Local artist Ann Chamblin has manned her cart for the last 10 years. She says that most of Zechini's artist- and musician-led team members have been around as long as she has, if not longer. It's a job with "no hassle," she says: "We have fun with the customers, give them a hard time, make them laugh, serve them the food, and they go back to the office happy."

Zechini updates his Web site daily at http://members.aol.com/eatthestreet/index.html with the status of his carts (opened or closed, weather permitting). You can also download a menu, get a form to order a day ahead for 10 or more people, or find out how you can order by the pound if weekday lunches aren't enough and you need some shrimp and pasta salad to keep you going over the weekend.

The downside: It's not a year-round operation. Zechini sets a date to close in December and sticks to it (usually about two weeks before Christmas). By March 1, the carts are rolled back onto the streets and Richmonders can satisfy their inner epicurean without surrendering their wallets. S



Christopher's Runaway Gourmay
Monday-Friday, 11:15 a.m.-2:15 p.m. (weather permitting)
8th, 10th and 12th streets on Main
11th and Marshall streets
400-3663



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