Sal’s Italian Restaurant & Pizzeria

sals

American-style Italian at it’s very strip-mall best!

Cheese: Abundant
Fake Foliage: Draped everywhere
Menu: Typical Middle America 
Alcohol: Wine but no beer on draft

She says: ‘Oh look, an Italian place in a strip mall!’

Says no one ever.

Certainly not me. Sal’s inhabits the ever cookie cutter First & Main – a well-kept strip of semi-useful stores on South Main Street. I’ve been here a few times for lunch and tonight we went for dinner. I can say this: it’s 100% what you’d expect.

Calzone the size of a football

Calzone the size of a football

I’ve found that American-Italian comes two ways: 1) tiny hole in the wall/grocery that’s very authentic, good, and impossible to find, and 2) ‘MURRRICA STYLE! The latter being ridiculous portions, meh ingredients, and truck loads of cheese + bland marinara. Sal’s is the latter.

Don’t get me wrong – if you like this kind of food it’s pretty good. Due to a study abroad in Italy where I was stuffed with incredible food within an inch of my life by a host-mom, I have a hard time finding good Italian outside of the Boot.

My dinner this particular evening consisted of a steak calzone and it was fine.  Lots of cheese, a little bit of meat, peppers, and onions. Perhaps a little bland but pretty solid. I’m a fan of Sal’s dough. It’s always a nice mesh of crisp and chewy. I’ve yet to have a pizza there, but from what I’ve seen I’m sure they’d be tasty.

The main problem with this place, other than the Olive Garden-style decor, is that it’s so very typical. Americans are fat and we eat too much. While this is no secret, places like Sal’s pat that stereotype on the back and bring another round of breadsticks. It’s not their fault since this is what ‘people’ expect, but I’d high-five them if they dared to be different.

Nice but bland

Nice but bland

Will I go back? Probably not often. Bad decor, no ambiance, and meh food. Get takeout pizza? Sure.

Grade: B-

He says: Sal’s is the type of place I want to go after a long-run-Sunday when preparing for a marathon. After putting in a solid 16 miles of pavement pounding, I don’t mind putting down enough cheese and bread to clog up an elephant’s anus. In fact, I welcome the challenge. But pretty much any other time of my week-to-week life, I have no interest in eating 2,000 calories in one sitting.

The restaurant itself looks nice enough; I’m not as put-off by the typical strip mall decor as the Mrs. is. Unless you’re lucky enough to grab a 100-year-old building as your location, new builds are the way to go and almost none of them have any uniqueness to them. But that doesn’t mean they’re not clean and perfectly nice. I also disagree on the marinara – I found it decently herbed and tasty enough to make even their frozen french fries consumable.

Just what I think of when I think Italian - French fries!

Just what I think of when I think Italian – French fries!

On this visit, I ordered a $10 veal parmesan sandwich. The dish delivered, as any unreasonably sized combination of fried baby cow, gooey cheese, and marinara should. It was big enough to feed the Swiss army, but then again, those neutral bastards are too lazy to get very hungry anyway.

All in all, for many Americans and a lot of people in the area, Sal’s is probably an awesome place. The fat content is always high, the dishes are none too daring, and nobody is walking away with anything less than a loosening of the belt. If that’s your style, then Sal’s is your place, and you should quit reading now.

But it’s not my style, so I’m going to rip into it a bit.

My main issue with Sal’s – other than the calorie consumption – is the price of said calories. Pretty much all of their entrees weigh in at around $15, and unless they’re back there making their own pasta – which I guarantee you they’re not – I can go to the store and buy the same ingredients for about a dollar. If there’s meat, make it three dollars. This isn’t just an issue with Sal’s, however, it’s the way I feel about any Italian-American restaurant.

On a final note, all of their sandwiches come with french fries and yet they don’t have any beers on tap. The idea of an Italian restaurant throwing french fries with any dish other than something from the children’s menu – especially ones obviously pulled from the freezer – is just silly. I’ve been to plenty of Italian places that offer small dishes of spaghetti or simple salads as sides.

But not Sal’s.

Ingredients: pasta, cheese, and butter. Oh, and spinach! So it's healthy!

Ingredients: pasta, cheese, and butter. Oh, and spinach! So it’s healthy!

No sides other than chips or fries are an option because Americans, after all, demand their fried potatoes. And yet, even with this shameless attempt to appeal to the masses, they don’t have any beer on tap. Instead they expect you to spend $6 on a glass of wine or $3.25 on a bottle of Bud to go along with their frozen french fries.

Bitch, please.

Grade: B-

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Boudreaux’s Louisiana Kitchen

boudreauxs

A lovely place where everything but the food is Cajun.

Booze: half-off wine Wednesdays and Chimay on tap
Fried eats: accompanied with delicious artery-clogging portions of butter
Rooftop seating: the only option in town
Cajun cuisine: nope

2013-06-19 19.26.07He said: On the south wall of the interior of Boudreaux’s, there is a multitude of pictures and awards. If you look at some of them, you’ll notice that one or two of them are for awards naming the establishment “Best Cajun Restaurant” in the town of Blacksburg. Curiously, there are only a couple of these and they date from several years ago. There can only be two reasons for this; either they did away with the award since there is no other Cajun restaurant in Blacksburg or they discovered that Boudreaux’s isn’t really Cajun cuisine.

I’m betting on both.

Don’t get me wrong, I actually kind of like the place. The building is exposed brick, the layout is nice, the lighting is spot on, and the rooftop bar is – unbelievably for a small college town – one of the few elevated outdoor establishments in existence. Wine Wednesdays bring half-price bottles of pretty decent vintages to a teeming throng of people who know the best night to show up. And the food at least doesn’t completely suck.

2013-06-19 20.01.21

Very tasty fried oysters

On this night, the Mrs. and I dropped in for Blacksburg’s second restaurant week of the year (no, I don’t get it either). The special wasn’t great – a half-priced appetizer with the purchase of an entrée, guaranteed to save you three or four bucks. But hey, it was wine Wednesday, so let’s have some crawfish and roux!

Or not.

We went with the oysters Rockefeller appetizer along with a shrimp etoufee, a traditional Cajun dish featuring the south’s version of mirepoix, the Holy trinity – onions, bell peppers, and celery – cooked in a nice roux of butter and flour. The oysters were delicious. We got eight fried mollusks sitting on a deliciously unhealthy bed of butter, spinach, garlic, and who knows what other goodness. It seemed almost like spinach and artichoke dip. Unfortunately, none of the above adjectives can be used for the etoufee.

Go ahead and do a quick Google image search for etoufee. I’ll wait. No really, go ahead. Get it yet? See that nice, dark dish sitting on top of rice? That darkness comes from cooking butter and flour together until you get an awesome, smoky, roasty flavor. The lightness in the photo of our dish comes when you just dissolve some flour in butter and don’t bother to take the time to actually cook any flavor into it. (Note: Thanks to a helpful comment, apparently etoufee can come in a blonde roux too, at the discretion of the chef. I guess I just prefer a brown roux. I still believe, however, that some more seasoning is in order, and that this particular dish wasn’t cooked quite long enough to get rid of all of the flour flavor or to add any nutty goodness.)

Decidedly neither dark nor cajun

Decidedly neither dark nor cajun

And neither has anything else that I’ve gotten here. They seem too busy, preoccupied, or inexperienced to come anywhere close to actual Cajun flavors. Perhaps even a little bit of red pepper or other Cajun spices would help? If we’re grading on general taste, it’s not inedible. But if we’re grading on Cajun taste, it’s a disaster.

Two final notes. They have Chimay on tap. Props on that. And if you’re going to go for a fried critter hoagie, get extra special sauce, or it won’t taste like a whole lot.

Grade: C+

She Said: Folks go to Boudreaux’s on Wednesday nights for the 1/2 price bottles of wine. It’s a snazzy deal and they have a decent list to choose from (though it never changes). They also feature a very lovely rooftop. I’ve been to this ‘Cajun’ restaurant on several occasions for both lunch and dinner and at no point did I eat anything that was memorable. I’d had high hopes for their po boy, but it was dry and bland (if you want a great po boy, I know of a great little spot in Helen, GA – seriously).2013-06-19 19.25.27

At any rate, up until this visit I’d never sampled any of their Cajun food so it was high time. Sadly, it was not anywhere near what I had hoped. Our etouffee was just shrimp, the holy trinity mentioned above, and some rice.  And the sauce was white which etoufee should NEVER be. It didn’t taste bad, it just didn’t taste like much. Quite the let down after the flavor delightfulness of our oysters. I’d eat these daily if I was in the market for a triple bypass.

Another delish appetizer to try is the spinach and crawfish dip. I’m sure it’s chock full of the worst things one could possibly eat, but it tastes great.

So does Cajun food exist in Blacksburg? Not really. A nice rooftop to have apps & wine? Definitely. It’s a comfy spot, pretty interior, and sorta on the charming side.

Tip: Get there early on Wine Wednesday – even in the summer it gets pretty packed after 7.

Grade: B-

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