FOOD- THE EATER- Nacho heaven: No pretense at Divide
PHOTO BY RYAN HOOVER "Get In Here" is the only sign marking the spot at 811 West Main, and "here" is Continental Divide. Charlottesville is just east of the Appalachian divide, but I take the name to reference the Great Divide which runs from Alaska to Patagonia, giving creative license to chef John M. in creating a fun menu that packs crowds in every night of the week.
Word of mouth says to order "Red Hot Blues," blue corn chips topped with green onion, Monterey jack cheese, and goat cheese, with salsa and sour cream on the side. A portion serves two well, with navy blue corners poking out from beneath a blanket of white, gooey cheese. Guacamole is worth requesting because it's going to be fresh and chunky. They do a conventional nacho appetizer with a choice of bison chili or beans, too. I saw more than one bicep-tensing plate go by my table, and that is bang for your buck.
I also like the daily quesadilla special as an appetizer. The menu is posted at every table and lists a few appetizers and entrees, plus the beer and wine list. (The permanent menu is pretty permanent.) My foodie friend and I enjoyed one featuring Monterey jack and goat cheese, chorizo, mushrooms, and roasted corn salsa. An XL tortilla was folded in half and cut into quarters. The corn was what sold us, and there was barely any, but it's hard to argue with $5 and some change for a quesadilla stuffed to a half-inch height with cheese.
For my entrée the last two times I ate at Continental Divide, I ordered a daily special. The first, tuna tacos. Barely seared sushi-grade tuna was diced and topped with goat cheese, greens, tomato, red onion, guacamole, and a "sour orange vinaigrette" that I could barely taste. Why be shy? I wanted more, and I got it. I know it's quality tuna, but it should still be a little sauced. Perhaps it could take a cue from the lively regulars at the bar.
The second special I ordered was enchiladas with verde sauce, stuffed with pulled chicken, bacon, and cheese. Simple, filling. Serious enchilada fans should order the Santa Fe variation from the permanent menu. The smooth tomato chipotle sauce completely coats the tortillas, hiding away grilled chicken and cheese. It's a mild but tangy dish, complemented with a pumpkin muffin. Both of my dining companions ordered this, and the consistency in taste and appearance from the first dinner to the second almost a month later was impressive.
If you can make it to dessert, get the Adobe Pie.
Continental Divide has a variety of Mexican libations to wash down sorrows and tortilla chips. Mexican beer drinkers (like me) will be happy with the selection and low prices. But both of my dining companions were surprised I didn't get a margarita. I got the sense that it's just what's done. There are about 70 tequilas to choose from. And you can go wild– get a Cointreau floater or turn it blue with Curacao. Local lore has it that if you sample all of the tequilas over time, you get some amazing prize. Owner Duffy Pappas told me that they stopped the tequila club about 12 years ago when there were around 40 tequilas, and the prize was a tee shirt. And, presumably, dignity. (And some hangovers.)
No one ever has to drink alone. A strong following of regulars keeps the place packed every night of the week. Heads turn when a new group walks through the door, jingling a bell– almost expecting to see a familiar face.
What's there not to like? Continental Divide doesn't claim a single pretension, and diners shouldn't, either. The menu warns, "Anyone lighting a pipe, cigar or clove cigarette will be shot." Unruly children become dinner. And "don't even ask for separate checks"– I'm imagining Wile E. Coyote dropping an Acme anvil off a mesa.
Local blogs and travel review sites have been critical of the service, but I have no complaints. Servers take orders and total bills by hand– I don't blame them for keeping things simple. (Figuring out adults' birthday dinner bills is about as much fun as rubbing jalapeno peppers in your eyes.) I like the presumed intimacy of being called something like "Hun" when I walk in. And when my request to have my beans on a separate plate was applied to my date's order, I got a free Negra Modelo. I thought it was great customer service, and fitting for the tone they set. Yes, of course I would appreciate another beer.
Continental Divide offers reprieve from the real world, for under 20 bucks. No website? No need. No last name for the chef? No solicitation phone calls to the kitchen, please. No sign? Just get in there (and go with the flow).