New York has one in every borough. San Francisco’s sports huge ornate archways and red lacquered everything. Every major city in the US has an Asian cultural center and Richmond is no exception—to the Chinatown rule. I guess it could be argued that Richmond is a major city. I’ll leave that to outsiders. The only distinction between ours and theirs is that our downtown Chinatown is Horsepen Road—a semi-suburban road that would go unnoticed if you didn’t know what Asian delights occupied it.
Sprinkled throughout our not-so-flashy Chinatown are some extraordinary restaurants and great groceries. Tan-A is a must visit for anyone looking for cheap vegetables—often suspiciously so—or Thai curry mixes, woks, dumplings, big unknown organs from obscure animals you didn’t know you could eat. Wander down the endless aisles of sauces to the questionable fish and meat counter to buy a whole Lobster at $8.99 per pound. Try paying that at Kroger! If you want to stock your kitchen with cheap utilitarian cooking pots, pans, and utensils, go pay $30 for a three-tiered steamer or $11 for a forged cleaver and skip the trip to Sur La Table. Don’t forget to try the other shops off the beaten trail on Horsepen (in this instance the beaten trail is Broad street).
As far as restaurants go, there is no beating Full Kee for dim sum in the day or a full Chinese menu at dinner. Very authentic—I say never having been to China but to Chinatown in New York and San Francisco—and relatively cheap, the dim sum at Full Key is a great way to get a taste of everything and fill up on not too much food for your mid-day meal. It’s the Asian cousin of the Spanish Tapas. Dim sum is to Tapas as Bruce Lee is to Zorro to put it in SAT terms. Try the steamed pork buns and the dumplings. For dinner, try a casserole. Filled with all sorts of things we don’t usually eat, like stomach and untranslatable parts of pigs, the seasoning and preparation of these stove-baked casseroles will make you think, ‘so THAT’S what they’re trying to do at other Chinese restaurants.’
Directly behind Full Kee is Pho So 1, a Vietnamese noodle house. If you haven’t had Pho—pronounced Fah—stop reading right away and go try a bowl. Pho is a Vietnamese noodle soup that consists of an amalgamation of all sorts of odd foods whose outcome is indescribable. I am a person who tastes food and tries to identify what I’m tasting so that I can recreate it when I get home. Pho does not allow for this. The flavors swirl together, comforting and warming you by way of the mouth directly to the soul. There’s nothing like it. My favorite part about Pho So 1 is that 1) it’s always crowded, 2) the language most commonly spoken doesn’t seem to make use of consonant sounds and 3) they don’t provide you with forks—only chopsticks and soup spoons. Try a bowl of Pho with beef or pork. If you’re not feeling like soup, you won’t regret a vermicelli bowl. I like mine with barbecued pork and crispy rolls. Get a Vietnamese iced coffee. I’m making myself hungry.
Directly behind Pho So 1, in a configuration that looks like the Henrico County zoning board was consulting two different maps, is a strip of other restaurants and shops in glorified trailers/restaurants. Spend some time having a bite at each and expand your palate and stock your kitchen. Maybe get your nails done while you’re at it.
If you want to be more acquainted with the total Richmond picture and see a newer demographic to this historically monocultural city, visit the Horsepen road area. See where our culture is headed—towards resembling a multicultural mixing bowl—if you want a break from where we’ve been in the past. Try food you’d never consider trying and see if you like it. If you don’t, you can say definitively, “I KNOW do not like stomach in spicy fish sauce or salty lemonade.” If you do, more power to you. You’ll gain a greater depth of understanding and appreciation of the food in your own city.