My food experiences at Virginia Commonwealth University are mostly past tense, locked in my grad-school days: Ipanema late at night, Chuggers after teaching, Saigon for the lunch special, a breakfast or two at the Village (Tom Robbins hung there, right?), and the really late night at Aladdin Express, for which I still get cravings. But that was VCU at the turn of the century, when President Eugene Trani's vision of expansion was mostly on paper.
Today VCU is gorging its hunger for space with construction and infill, but whether this change is awesome or worrisome depends on where you stand. literally. It doesn't take a professor of urban planning to notice that from Cabell Library to Cabaniss Residence Hall and in between, the pockets of new and improved VCU buildings are filled with opportunities to slake hunger and thirst or to fuel up on caffeine (there's a Starbucks in the library and a convenience store in the basement of the business building). All of the new tenants in the ground floor along Broad Street are corporate-owned and national chains: Five Guys, Qdoba, Cold Stone Creamery, Extreme Pizza and Subway.
The mother of all dining rooms is Shafer Court Dining Center with such options as sushi, stir-fry and an omelet station, which make those of us who graduated last century jealous. But the other gastronomic renovation, the Park Place Food Court, is so authentic in its artifice you'd swear you were in a mall rather than the student commons.
Chuggers is no more (the space now home to aromatic and ambient Cous Cous), but the rest of my old haunts continue to serve: Ipanema, Saigon, Aladdin Express, the Village. They belong to a diverse group of locally owned options, along with China Buffet, Common Cup, Crusty's Pizza, Edo's Squid, Elephant Thai, Empire, Jamaica House, Nile, Mojo's, Mulligan's, Roxy Café, Panda Veg and Piccola, and new places like Crossroads Coffee & Ice Cream, Ramakin's, Common Groundz and a number of others.
Because college is supposed to be about striking out and defining yourself outside the norm, here is a short list of mostly new independents banking on the VCU clientele.
Fat Larry's Steaks and Hoagies: 1201 W. Main St., 340-1818. Lunch and dinner weekdays till 9 p.m., Saturdays until 6 p.m.
Home of the 99-cent burger, fresh-cut fries, hoagies and Philly cheese-steaks -- Fat Larry's is a great place to load up pretty cheap.
The surprisingly good no-frills burger is a hand-formed patty cooked to order on a fresh roll. The Philly cheese-steak is a two-meal sandwich, a true intro to dorm survival on a budget. Unfortunately, you'll have to wait in line because Fat Larry's is woefully understaffed. But the wait is mitigated by two factors: They really are making your fresh-cut fries to order and movies play on a flat-screen above the counter. I watched about a quarter of "Happy Gilmore" before my order was up.
Coliseum Lofts Deli and Market: 1335 W. Broad St. 359-4480. Open daily.
Mediterranean that hits the spot, but a bit of a walk from central campus. Worth the trip, but get your order to-go. Though the owners are friendly, the décor inside is as negative as the surrounding construction that has left the sidewalks demolished. The avgolemono (chicken and rice soup with dill) is hearty and heartwarming. The souvlaki and gyros are as good as you'll find anywhere else, and the portions are huge. For $8 you might just be able to skip dinner.
Harrison Street Coffee Shop: 402 N. Harrison St. 359-8060. Lunch daily, dinner weeknights.
Year after year these guys offer real food that happens to be vegan. But recent improvements have done away with the punk attitudes and tunes that made reading or conversation a challenge. In their place are subtler tunes on the stereo and (nearly) friendly servers. A great stop for breakfast all day and baked goods with a cup of organic, free-trade joe. The vegan options such as the tempeh Reuben and the "facon" and egg sandwich are tasty and guilt-free. When will they get wireless so I can add them to the office-away-from-the-office list?
Ramakins: 818 W. Broad St. 447-5112.
8 a.m.-3 a.m. daily.
If you're wondering where the hardcore punk attitude went when it left Harrison Street, look no further than Ramakins. All-you-can-eat pancakes (with scrambled eggs and coffee) for $4.99 from 10 a.m.-noon daily proves these guys know how to appeal to the poor college crowd. Breakfast options (available until 2 p.m.), sandwiches and appetizers galore on the late-day menu appeal to a wide audience. But punk rock isn't good for digestion. Thankfully, the to-go service is quick.
Nate's Taco Truck: Vendor located between the Cabell Library and Hibbs Hall along Park Avenue at the point of the Fan. School days only, usually open by 11 a.m. and closing sometime after 2 p.m., depending on business.
If you come at high noon, expect to wait; the line has been known to stretch nearly to the doors of the Shafer Court Dining Center. And here's why: Nate offers a chance to eat well, support a local business, and not even have to swerve from your between-class path. The $5 lunch special is the food talk of the campus this fall: two huge tacos (your choice of flour tortilla or a double corn tortilla filled with vegetarian, vegan or carnivorous filling) and an ice-cold drink. And for those who have been looking, these are the best tacos in town end of discussion. S