Thursday, September 1, 2011

It’s Always A Good Idea…

to ask a local.

As I suspected, a brief Google search confirmed my fears that most of the dining options in Virginia City would be of the faux Wild West Saloon variety. But one alternative stood out—Café Del Rio. But since we had a local (Piper's Opera House Executive Director Lori Barrington) and a semi-local (a docent who travels to Virginia City from Lake Tahoe each week to lead tours of the opera house) there before us, I asked the burning question: “Where should be have lunch?” The answer from both: “Café Del Rio.” Good enough for us.

“The second floor of 394 S. C St. hasn't changed much from the time when miners and laborers boarded beneath its roof. The spectral space has uneven and creaky floors, and it traps in an old, musty smell.

“Beneath all of this is a contemporary, Southwestern restaurant filled with the spicy aroma of pork carnitas, homemade black beans, and corn bread.

“Juxtaposed in this 1873 building are the two faces of Virginia City: post and pre-renovation. Owners Brian and Ardi Shaw have invested two years of work…to make the building structurally sound and turn the former first-floor auto shop into an attractive restaurant.... The dining room of Cafe del Rio has the original stone "rub-ble" walls. Brian Shaw said the pine floor may be from the 1940s. They incorporated elements from an old shed adjacent to the building, which they had to demolish and rebuild to make the lobby. The shed's metal roof was reincorporated as a design element over the kitchen. The wood was used to build shelves and the bar” (Becky Bosshart at

You enter the small bar and waiting area through the door on the right in photo #1 above. Cozy would be a charitable way to describe this space, although there is enough room for a table holding a combo chess and checkers game board.

The dining area is equally enchanting with its rough walls hung with magnificent photographs. The photos on the wall near where we were seating were locomotive scenes, but I’m not sure of the subject matter of the photos shown here (left).

The chairs are a combination of oak-toned and brightly painted woods. The tables are all covered with practical and colorful plastic cloths.

The menu contains some familiar terms—nachos, taquitos, tostadas, enchiladas, tacos, burritos, rellenos, tamales, and quesadillas. But all with the Shaw’s unique twist. “Mexican, Southwestern, Tex-Mex, Mexicali. We’ve been called a lot of things—most of ‘em good. That’s why rather than limiting ourselves to one region or another we choose to call our style, ‘Out West’ cuisine” (from the restaurant’s website).

Having just partaken of Mexican food in Salt Lake City and Reno, we looked elsewhere on the menu and both of us found inspiration in the salads section—the Gospel Fried Chicken Salad for Chuck and the Cabo Tostado Salad for me.

As a prelude to our salads came a basket of crispy and warm house-fried tortilla chips (the tortillas come from the El Rosal Tortilla Factory in Sparks, NV) and a small dish of their homemade fire-roasted tomato salsa. So good that when a refill was offered we didn’t refuse.

Chuck’s salad was a large serving of mixed greens, kalamata olives, cherry tomatoes, sliced avocado, and fresh off-the-cob corn all topped with eight pieces of spectacular fried chicken. When he asked Arti (our server that day) why the name “Gospel” Fried Chicken, she responded: “Because my husband says his fried chicken is divine.” Celestial. Heavenly. Divine. All of those terms apply to these moist and tender grown-up chicken nuggets. The coating was paper-thin and tasted of a generous addition of black pepper. Chuck is no big fan of avocado, but I reminded him that avocados are good for you. “Like olive oil, the fats in avocados are predominantly monounsaturated, which are associated with cardiovascular health. Avocados are good sources of dietary fiber, vitamin C and potassium. The buttery fruit is a top source of vitamin E, a potent antioxidant, and also provides lutein, an antioxidant that can keep eyes healthy” ( He’ll thank me for this later.

My Cabo Tostado Salad began with a crisp tortilla bowl into which were spooned cumin-flavored warm black beans, shredded jack cheese, and shredded lettuce. On top of these were placed pieces of grilled mahi mahi that had been marinated in Dos Equis (the Most Interesting Man in the World would love these) and seasonings. And on top of the fish was a mango and jimaca salsa.

You know that I like contrasts in my food. Here you had the peppery and smoky flavor of the cumin-flavored beans and the sweetness of the mango. You had the juicy softness of the mango offset by the crunch of the jimaca and the tortilla bowl. And you had warm (beans and mahi mahi) and cool (mango, jimaca, and greens) off-setting each other. Too bad that the mahi mahi had been cooked just a bit too long.

To finish, we shared a dish of the café’s homemade cinnamon ice cream drizzled with just a bit of caramel. The ice cream contained just enough spice to be interesting without crossing into overwhelming harshness.

In this case, both the internet and local experts were right on target in recommending this 4.5 Addie café.

At the end of C Street, not far from Cafe del Rio, is the authentically preserved 1876 Victorian building that housed the Fourth Ward School. The four-story school contained 14 class-rooms and 2 study halls and by 1909 was providing grammar to high school classes for 1025 students.

The last classes were held in the building in 1936, and the structure deteriorated for three decades. Rehabilitation efforts began in the 1960s, and in 1986, the Fourth Ward reopened as a museum.

Today, even with the dated heating system, the classrooms looked as though they were ready for the start of school next week.

The printing press and production room appeared set to go to press with the school paper's next edition.

It was designed in the Second Empire style of architecture and is believed to be the last school standing of its kind in the United States.

As we traveled up C Street, heading back to Reno, we encountered the "touristy" spots in the city. Tourism had its first big rush when the TV show Bonanza was set in and around Virginia City.

Our first reaction was to believe that the signs brought a somewhat tacky appearance to the otherwise authentic-looking shops. However, we learned that in 1863 J. Ross Browne wrote: "One of the most characteristic features about Virginia City is the inordinate passion of the inhabitants for advertising. Not only are the columns of the papers filled with every species of advertisement, but the streets and hillsides are pasted all over with flaming bills."

So maybe the presence of all these signs is authentic.

So, really, what is authentic Virginia City?

I guess miners would want something colorful and rowdy after being in dark, confined mines for days at a time. And I don't see myself too eager to spend time in a confined, hot, dark space. But is our alternative t-shirt shops?

So,...we have resolved this dilemma by spendng time on B Street where Piper's Opera House, the Storey County Courthouse, a few shops, and homes (see our blogs over the past two days) retain their character with little glitter to call attention to themselves.

But we will slip down to C Street to see the First Presbyterian Church, one of a very few buildings to have survived the 1875 fire.

To us, buildings on B Street will be our memories of Virginia City and our understanding for the city being recognized in 2009 as one of 12 Distinctive Destinations by the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s program that has recognized cities and towns that offer an authentic visitor experience.

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