The front end of a Cadillac still hangs off the wall. Back when this place served burgers and shakes, the shelf behind the pink-and-blue-tile counter glinted with amber beer bottles. They're all gone now, along with the jukebox and life-size Elvis cutout, River City Diner's trademarks. Today's menu doesn't offer alcohol, but the counter glints with a row of polished silver and tasseled bongs. Welcome to Bubbling, Richmond's newest hookah bar.
I can't tell you about the last time I saw a hookah. Seriously, I can't. But I'm plenty happy to see them in the Bottom. I think the town is ready for this place. Or for what this place could be. The first time I stopped in was with a friend on our way to the Derek Trucks show at Toad's Place. We were straight from our day jobs and looking "30-something American" with a vengeance. The place was over-lighted and empty except for us and a pair of young Middle Eastern punksters talking about social justice issues over falafel. Nearly heaven. I spent the hour gorging myself and remodeling in my mind.
The falafel is good: crisp, hearty, not too dry and not too heavy. But everything I tried was good. The same kitchen that once deep-fried bacon is now home to hands well-versed in the traditional spices and seasoning of the Middle East. The lamb kebab is tasty and tender, retaining a spike of gaminess against the foil of dry-rub. The baba ghanouj's eggplant has been expertly purged of bitterness by roasting with salt, and the kefta's herbal high notes lift the meatloaf-like patties into an authentic foreign experience. This place really tastes like somewhere else.
Love nougat? Don't? One bite of the pistachio halvah with its hint of sesame edging into sweet cream and sugar made me understand I've never tasted the real thing. Bubbling's version is to a Milky Way what Turkish tobacco is to a Marlboro Light. The Turkish Delight plants a floral bouquet on a wall of pistachios mortared with a caramel so thick it calls to mind resinous hashish or raw opium; of course, this may be the hookah talking. And baklava? The best a darker degree of brown sugar is evidence of a real home recipe.
But the best baklava deserves better than the treatment it gets at Bubbling. Dine-in or takeout, everything's served on disposables; mostly clamshell boxes made of Styrofoam. I understand why. Rent is high in the Bottom. So is risk. But confidence is golden. There has to be an industrial washing machine back there in that kitchen, right? Real china proves cheaper than disposable in the long run; especially in a family-run joint where the labor is cheap if not free. If I owned the place, I'd buy some darn dishes and act like I planned to stay in business awhile. That'll make customers want to stay awhile too.
While I'm playing proprietor, I'd dim the lighting and invest in cushions and couches to give the place the opium den vibe it's craving. The upstairs, which was never well-used during the space's diner days, could be converted into a fantastic smoking lounge where I could imagine spending long hours over a chessboard savoring strong coffee and conversation, while the unfailingly friendly family/staff bring plates of honey-laced pastries. Heck, yeah. You can smoke a big fat bong while talking loudly about God and the government in a public venue without worrying you'll wind up on some watch list somewhere they only take cash.
I've said it before. The food's the hardest part. But it's not the only part. With three-quarters of success in its pocket, here's hoping that someday soon Bubbling replaces its plasticized banner (it drapes the black marble backdrop where the words "River City Diner" are spelled out in all-American chrome) with a more permanent sign announcing its intention to inhabit that space for a long, long time. Because this is a place I'm dying to love. S
Bubbling: Mediterranean Cuisine ($)
1712 E. Main St.
Hookah smoking (a variety of flavored tobacco available).