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One day some time ago as I was biking along the Roanoke River Greenway between Smith Park and Wasena Park, I happened to glance over at the huge brick edifice of the former Wasena Ice House. I thought to myself, you know, that would be a really cool location for a restaurant! Like with lots of tasty grilled animals and a fat craft beer selection!
Sadly, though, my father-in-law didn’t see fit to loan me a few hundred grand to get my idea off the ground, and so it, and the building, sat fallow.
Fast forward a few years, and Roanoke developer Ed Walker turns the upper floors into the River House apartments, leaving the ground floor with plenty of space for a restaurant. Enter Doug and Evie Robison and the Wasena City Tap Room, stage left.
Roanoke foodies will know the Robisons from their Wildflour Market and Bakery on 4th Street in Old Southwest, a cozy bistro known more for its baked goodies than for its beer. But for a few years now, Doug’s been hatching up a plan for something a little different.
On a recent cool autumn evening not long after their November 9 opening, my wife and I decided to see how Wildflour’s fresh and homemade philosophy translated into a more pubby, local hangout kind of venue. As we crested the rise on Wasena Bridge descending down into the neighborhood, I realized that at least when the sun is down, the well-lit building serves as its own advertisement.
After a brief wait which was a bit longer than we’d been led to expect (this soon after opening, you’ve got to expect that any restaurant will still be working out the bugs), we were led past the throng around the bar to a cozy table. The high-ceilinged room is crisscrossed with the original (or at least really old) truss work and rafters, and the décor embraces the building’s history.
As we perused the menu, checking out some of the house cocktails, my wife’s eye stumbled over this item: “Poor Man’s Mimosa. Miller Lite, orange juice, Frangelico.” As she was saying something unprintable about this alleged drink, a passing manager overheard her and diplomatically said, “Oh, yeah, the Poor Man’s Mimosa! That’s great!”
“Who thought that thing up, Stephen King?” I asked.
“No, I did!” he replied. (His name is West, and he’s the Robisons’ son.) “So good! It’s like Dom Perignon and fresh-squeezed orange juice!”
He sold the thing so hard that we couldn’t seem to help ourselves and ordered one as an aperitif. Or something like that. And while I can’t say that I think it comes a mile from Dom Perignon, or even a mimosa, the price made the “Poor Man’s” part sufficiently accurate. I think my wife summed it up best: “I’ll say this. It’s not as horrible as I thought it would be.”
We did our best to put the experience behind us and moved back to the menu, vowing silently to never wisecrack about the drinks again. (For our actual drinks, we ordered one of the more than 30 beers on draft for which the Room is named.)
The Wasena City Tap Room’s menu is a great combination of pub food and fresh bistro offerings. Pizzas, burgers, sandwiches, and entrées are all prepared with fresh ingredients, and there are even a few vegetarian offerings. We started off sharing the Pork Chile Verde soup, served with tortilla chips, fresh cilantro, a dollop of sour cream, and huge chunks of pork. This is a hearty pleaser for a cold day, juicy, spicy and rich.
An order of “Tapped Out” Nachos was a perfect example of the blending of low-down pub food with bistro flair, topped with homemade cheese sauce, black beans, green onions, and fresh tomatoes, all topped with wood-grilled shredded pork carnitas. These nachos were so appetizing-looking that strangers accosted us to hear about them. Our waitress asked which type of salsa we wanted with the nachos. My wife and I looked at each other in indecision for a moment, before the waitress broke our deadlock by insisting on bringing all three.
The black bean and corn salsa had a delicious smoky flavor, and the more traditional red salsa was alive with fresh onion, cilantro, tomato, and jalapeño flavors.
For our entrées, my wife had embraced the pub side and ordered a hot dog with onions, jalapeños, mustard and chili. The fresh peppers were gasp-inducing, and she found herself reaching for her Devil’s Backbone Vienna Lager with an alarming regularity. I chose to go for a pizza. The crust – crisp, soft inside and deliciously yeasty – was made at Wildflour and fired in a wood oven. So fresh, with zesty marinara, mozzarella cheese, pepperoni, and chunks of rare-cooked mushrooms. A pretty good serving to share, or for one with leftovers.
For dessert, we shared a root beer float, just like mom and dad did back at the… um… well, wherever it was they liked to hang out. Draft root beer and Blue Bunny vanilla ice cream, and served in a glass shaped like a cowboy boot. It’s their specialty dessert, and we could see why. My wife’s not normally a fan of the genre, but she said, “I will say, wow, this is a good root beer float. If you like floats. Wow! And it’s in a boot!”
We had gone in about two weeks after their opening, and speaking with Robison about two weeks after that, he conveyed his excitement about how his staff was progressing.
“Opening a restaurant is crazy,” he said. “It’s controlled chaos at best, and oftentimes it’s not controlled. … We got slammed from the minute we opened our doors.”
Robison had been scouting out another location for his concept for a more bar-themed establishment than Wildflour, but that space had proven to be too expensive. “When I heard that this spot was available, I came down here immediately. And this space was just a big open cavern, dirt floors, and just filthy from years and years of neglect.”
He told me that he was just as attracted to the neighborhood as he was to the location, stressing that he and his wife are big fans of Roanoke’s urban neighborhoods. “People are going back into urban neighborhoods because it’s way more interesting than suburbia.”
“Any plans to brew your own beer?” I asked him.
“Oh, God, no,” he replied. “I barely have enough space in here for the restaurant.” He also shuddered a bit at the potential capital outlay, which is pretty understandable. “It’s a neat idea, but somebody else is going to have to do it, and I’ll sell it.”
So no plans for homebrewed beer in Wasena in the near future, but they’ve got plenty of wonderful proxy beers, a wood grill, a cozy vibe, and some good basic bar food. It’s hard to argue with a recipe like that.
Wasena City Tap Room & Grill, 806 Wasena Ave., Roanoke, 540-562-8584