Caliente, Richmond, Va.
If you took any Spanish in either high school or college, you might be surprised to see a restaurant with that name showing up on this blog. After all, Caliente translates to “hot”, and although that isn’t the same thing as spicy (that would be picante), it isn’t too far off. As we’ve established in the past, even when the pain is pleasurable, I’m still not the biggest fan of spicy foods. But Amy loves the heat, and as I’ve made it my mission to reach every Man vs. Food place I can, I couldn’t skip out on this one.
But luckily for me, Caliente is much more than pure heat. In fact, Caliente is one of the most diverse restaurants one can find, and certainly one of the most diverse in the capital of the Old Dominion State. What Buz and Ned’s did with barbecue in Richmond, Caliente has done with cuisines. Much like Blue’s Egg, Caliente prides itself on taking what it sees as good from a multitude of cuisines and fusing them onto one menu. Offerings inspired by Creole, Cajun, Carribean, Southwestern and Thai cuisines dot the menu, with Caliente adding its own touches along the way.
This is where the spice comes in. As the name implies, Caliente likes to add some heat wherever it can, which is what you would expect from a place that bills itself as the Hottest Place in Town and offers a challenge known as the Stupid Wings Challenge. The wings are doused in a ridiculously spicy sauce that includes leftover sauce from previous contestants, which has been left to marinate and increase in pain in what is known as “The Container of Poor Judgment”, because only 10 percent of all contestants actually manage to consume the Stupid Wings in a half-hour without the help of any liquids and only one napkin. In short, not the brightest decision to try it.
But fortunately, the spice isn’t always dialed up all the way to 11 (Michelle Branch, ladies and gentlemen). Actually, most of the time, the spice is used properly to create a taste that works with the dish and provides a decent kick, but not one that overpowers the dish. The best example would be the blackened tuna bites, which were the choice Amy and I finally settled on from Caliente’s extensive list of quality appetizers. Runners-up included the buffalo gator bites (alligator doused in buffalo wing sauce), jalapeno corn fritters, Cajun barbecued shrimp and a potato-poblano quesadilla. That’s a pretty impressive arsenal right there.
The tuna bites, however, were totally worth passing all of those up. Caliente uses Cajun spices on the outside of the tuna, which are a little on the spicy side, but really aren’t that hot. What they are is delicious. The tuna is very high quality and tastes great even when you get to the interior, where there are no spices. But if you really want to enjoy them, you have to use the provided remoulade sauce. This stuff is pure gold on the tuna. The marriage of spice and sauce is perfection, and once you try it, you won’t want to eat any more of the tuna without it. The remoulade adds a little heat of its own, but again, it’s not overpowering.
That brings us to the main course, and this might take about as much time as figuring out what to put on a burger at The Counter. There are plenty of options here, ranging from catfish po’ boys (and six other types) to a grilled portabella sandwich with an herbed cheese spread to the brisket and Gouda topped Bender Burger. There are plenty of options here, and even more so if you come for dinner, as Caliente offers several entrees only available after 5 p.m.
But Amy and I passed through Richmond at lunch, so it was sandwich time for us, which certainly wasn’t a problem. After scouring the menu a few times, I finally decided on the Baja, combining turkey with avocado, roasted red peppers and smoked Gouda. There’s no sauce on this sandwich, and truthfully, it doesn’t need any, because it’s excellent the way it is. The most notable thing about it is that much like Lucky’s, Caliente opts to grill the turkey before putting it on the sandwich with the other toppings.
Even better, they put the Gouda right in the middle of the turkey and bookend it with the red pepper touching one bun and the avocado touching the other. The result is delicious turkey and melted cheese, with a small bit of spice that comes from grilling the turkey. If you aren’t used to having a sandwich of grilled turkey, I highly recommend it. Caliente’s was simply incredible.
And yet, it wasn’t even the best sandwich at our table. No, that honor went to Amy’s blackened tilapia reuben, replacing the traditional corned beef with spiced tilapia. Of course, that was the only way Amy would ever have such a sandwich, and the combination of grilled rye, spiced fish, melted Swiss and sauerkraut with Thousand Island was wonderful. As soon as I took a bite of her sandwich, I knew that she had made the better choice, and given the quality of my sandwich, that’s saying something.
But when it came to our fry selection, I had the better order. Truthfully, it didn’t really matter who ordered what with our fries, because when we have multiple unique side dishes available, Amy and I always discuss our options and decide which two we most want to try. We then order both of them and share them between us. It’s kind of our unwritten rule that allows us to experience the most we can on every trip. Have I mentioned how wonderful she is?
Anyway, the fries at Caliente certainly qualify under the unique category, because this is where spice takes a new meaning. These are anything but the standard fries that come with sandwiches across the country. These fries are given your choice of one of 12 seasonings, with options including Cajun, parmesan, wasabi, ranch and ghost chile. I highly recommend staying away from ghost chile, as those things are just nasty in terms of heat.
For our fries, Amy opted for Old Bay seasoning, while I chose black truffle. For those who aren’t familiar with Old Bay (very possible if you aren’t from the East), it’s a spice that’s often used with crab or other types of seafood and is very popular in and near Baltimore. On the fries, it was pretty excellent. Amy chose to pair the fries with wasabi ranch dip, one of 10 dips available when you order the fries. You get one cup of dip with each order of fries, and other options include the remoulade from the tuna bites, jalapeno ketchup, barbecue sauce and chipotle sauce. The wasabi ranch wasn’t spicy, although it was a step up from regular ranch.
My choice of black truffle meant the fries were doused in black truffle oil, which for me basically meant heaven. I love the taste of mushrooms, and truffle oil means intense mushroom flavor. If that wasn’t enough, I added garlic aioli, that beautiful French mayonnaise-like condiment, as my choice of dip. The dip was incredible, as were the oil-soaked fries. Amy also loved the aioli, choosing it as her main dip. Since this trip and the visit to The Counter, Amy has decided that one of the things she’s discovered about herself since dating me is that she loves the taste of garlic aioli. What can I say, it’s pretty darn awesome.
The same can be said of the combination of spices and cultures found in this place, and that’s without experiencing the homemade desserts, which include bananas foster, key lime pie, pina colada bread pudding and “something chocolate”. Yes, that last one is seriously all the detail they give you about the dessert. Must be some kind of secret that you have to taste to appreciate.
No matter what culture you choose to sample here, you’re sure to be satisfied. Some like it hot, and if you’re one who does, you can’t miss out on Caliente.
Time to go: Lunch if you want a sandwich, dinner if you don’t. The restaurant is open for lunch from 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m., then closes for three hours before opening again for dinner. Strangely, they do not list a time when they close, which means you could go late, but are likely playing with fire if you do.
Wait during my visit: None. We came during the day on a Friday, and that meant we didn’t have to deal with students. Your wait will likely be magnified if you come when Virginia Commonwealth is playing a basketball game, as Caliente serves as a home for Rams fans.
Location: Caliente is at 2922 Park Avenue in Richmond, Va., in the Museum District.
Cost: The prices aren’t bad. Plan on about $9 to $10 per sandwich. One awesome thing is that although the seasoned fries are listed at $3.25 each, you are allowed to substitute them for your regular side of chips for a mere 75 cents. Trust me, totally worth it.
Parking: Tricky. Richmond is not exactly great at having parking spaces, and Caliente is in a neighborhood, which makes this one tough. Your best bet is likely going to be street parking near the restaurant.
Seating arrangement: Tables, chairs and booths are available, and if the weather is nice, you can eat outdoors.
Specialty items: Seasoned fries, tuna bites, sandwiches