Tuesday, January 18, 2011

The story of a 5-Star Harrisonburg food joint ... so what's a food joint? ... read on ...

The Substation and Mexican Grill: A 5-Star Harrisonburg joint (photo:Reed)
My husband, Charlie, and I like to eat out.

Our favorite kind of restaurant is what we call a good joint. These are small, unpretentious places, where the food is actually cooked from scratch in the kitchen and the decor doesn't look as though it's done by a professional decorator. Eating out, to Charlie and me, is about good chow eaten in non-cookie cutter places, where we can wear our jeans.

The first restaurant Charlie and I tried in Harrisonburg was a small, colorful taquería.  There it was, bright yellow and beckoning, drawing us in like a couple of ants to chocolate cake. Charlie ordered goat meat tacos, settled back in his mismatched chair and announced, "I think I'm going to like this town!"

We went back to that taqueria often enough to get to know some of the folks who worked there. Manuel we learned was José's brother; Lourdes was José's wife. We also learned that the place was owned by an absentee landlord who didn't pay very much, demanded astonishingly long hours, and kept tips that had not been placed directly in the hand of an employee. This meant that gratuity put on a credit card, left on the table, or put in the tip jar went directly to that never-seen owner!

Naturally this dimmed our enthusiasm for the place. We feel strongly that hard work deserves fair wages!

Lourdes Minero (photo by Judy Dilts)
Skip forward several years. . . Charlie and I bump into Manuel in the tool section of Big Lots and learn that José and Lourdes are about to open their own restaurant in the former Waffle House (exit 243 on I-81). It will also be a taquería, but will have dishes that are their own creations as well as sub sandwiches.

We went, we ate, we loved the food! 

José cooks it, Lourdes serves it to us. They are working, she says, 14-hour days, and, yes, she is tired. But they are working for themselves, and that makes all the difference. Their young daughter hangs out in the back. Manuel, who works construction in Northern Virginia, comes in on the weekends to help out. And other family members and friends pitch in as well. 

The old Waffle House has been transformed into a bright, cheerful, colorful, welcoming place.

As a former professional cook, I can only give the food at The Substation and Mexican Grill two enthusiastic thumbs up. Everything on the menu is made from scratch. If you order chips, that's when they go back and cook the chips. The  guacamole is fresh with what looks like a whiff of pico de gallo mixed in to lighten it a bit. My current favorite entrée is a Tilapia BLT -- two flour tortillas, filled with grilled chunks of fish, bacon, and grilled vegetables. Served with sour cream and salsa. 

Dalila (a friend of Lourdes), Andres (Manuel's son), Georgina (Lourdes and Jose's daughter) , Lourdes, and Jose (photo by Judy Dilts)
The family who owns the Substation and Mexican Grill came to America a little over a decade ago. I'm not sure I've ever known people who worked as hard, as cheerfully. Eating among them makes me feel good about life, about food, even about my country. If I ever allowed myself to get sappy, I'd get sappy about what this 5-Star food joint says about the American dream being alive and cooking in Harrisonburg, Virginia.

I makes me feel encouraged just to hang out at the Substation and  Mexican Grill, eat, and have a chat with whomever's working.

Anyone want to join me there for lunch one day?


  1. Next time we are in H-burg, we are there! Great little article. Made me hungry. lol.

  2. What a great article. I want to support restaurants like this, and thanks to this piece, I will eat there soon (and will take friends!)

  3. Re mismatched chairs - if I'm in a Mexican restaurant with 3 or more other people and the plates don't match I know it's going to be good. And one fewer Waffle House on the planet makes it even better.

  4. Your article caught my attention since we enjoy supporting the local, privately owned, restaurants. Tonight we had dinner at the Substation and Mexican Grill. Thank you for your recommendation. The food and the service was wonderful.

  5. So glad you enjoyed your visit, Mary. Eating local is the best, isn't it? All cheer, M

  6. Thanks Martha for the pointer. We went last night and had a good time. We started with chips, salsa and guacamole (this might be the freshest guacamole in Harrisonburg), then had a steak torta and chicken quesadilla. Delicious, affordable and we had leftovers for lunch this next day.

  7. The food used to be delicious, but noticed they have gone considerably down in quality. During lunch rush many will notice they leave raw meat outside up to 2 hours or more. Hygiene is not a priority anymore.

  8. Ate here for the first time for lunch today. This may be the best restaurant in town! Wow!