There were certain things I expected from Arlington’s Tupelo Honey Cafe. I expected southern comfort food, like the website says, by this restaurant that got its start in the south (well, the farther-south than Virginia). I expected Van Morrison memorabilia. I expected honey to play a considerable role in the culinary theme. I also expected it to be a block further away than it actually was, but that’s my own inability to effectively consult a map.
Point being, Tupelo Honey Cafe did not end up being quite what I expected. I’ll begin with what was unexpected but good, the cocktail and beer menu. Above the bar is a giant chalkboard with a brightly illustrated wine and beer menu. There is a lot of beer. A lot of good beer. I didn’t expect this. There is also a happy hour. So if you’re in between Wilson and Clarendon Boulevards about that time, skip Clarendon and head to Courthouse to check out what’s on tap at Tupelo. If you prefer a cocktail, they’ve got sangria on tap. It’s not your typical sangria though, but an “Ode to Eleanor Roosevelt” sparkling sangria of white brandy, elder flower, thyme and lemon. It’s bright and refreshing with an interesting herbal flavoring from the thyme, but is not fruity whatsoever, nor is it very sweet. You could build your own Old Fashioned or Champagne cocktail from a short list of mostly fail-proof ingredients. I found it strange that muddled cherry and orange was an listed as an option for the Old Fashioned, though, because as far as I’m concerned that’s the first step in making one. Also, the bourbon soaked cherries were more like bourbon spritzed cherries.
Continuing with things that I didn’t expect but that were good but now moving on to the food menu- the Salt Roasted Beets. The beets are topped with pistachios, mild goat cheese, and a pistachio pesto. It’s good. I like beets. I like all of the things the beets were topped with. I enjoyed this, but I did not expect a beet and goat cheese appetizer on a southern comfort food menu (or a “New Southern Flavor” menu for that matter, which is another way the cafe describes its cuisine). Fried green tomatoes, Southern fried okra, warm pimento cheese, and baked macaroni and cheese are also on the small plates menu, and are all things that I’d expect, and I’m sort of disappointed I didn’t get to try them. They did bring out country ham wontons with shaved Brussels sprouts salad, which was one-half comforting. The honey made an appearance here on the Brussels sprouts, but it was very, very subtle.
Our last taste of the small plates, slightly more expected but only so-so, was lightly breaded and fried avocado wedges served in a mug over fresh tomato salsa and topped with whipped sour cream and cilantro. The plating was strange to me. Why put something you’re going to cut with a knife and fork in a mug? Unless you plan on just tipping the whole thing back (don’t do this, you will choke). Is it because mugs are comforting? The avocado was yummy, the sour cream and cilantro were good as a garnish, the salsa was fine but not memorable. I liked the dish for its novelty, but nothing about it particularly stood out.
The jumbo lump crab cake was the real standout dish of the evening. I expected the crab cake to be fried, as they tend to be in a southern preparation. But this one had a simple light breading and was seared on top and bottom. Once your fork pierces the cake, beautiful, truly jumbo lump crab appears from within its breadly casing. I did not expect this crab cake to be one of the best I’ve ever had. It was. There is very little filler in these guys. It’s all about the crab, and it’s was absolutely the high point of the evening. A delicious jalapeno aioli accompanied the cakes with a small kick, but again, this dish is about the crab. The aioli is good but it’s not the point and it doesn’t overwhelm as some sauces do when served with a crab cake. The dish was paired with RJ Rockers Son of a Peach wheat ale, which I was skeptical about, but it paired quite well.
The next dish was a jumbo scallop, herb crusted and seared, topped with marinated heirloom tomatoes and plated on garlic risotto. If you know me, you know that I’m one of those weirdos who doesn’t like scallops, but you also know I will try them whenever presented with the opportunity, just to see if I’ve grown up into a normal adult that likes weird spongy food. I am not a good judge of scallop so I can’t comment on this one other than to say that I am apparently not yet a normal adult. The heirloom tomatoes were great though. And the beer pairing was Dogfish Head Noble Rot, which I loved.
Finally, the grilled lamb chop was served with a hot sauce, a chimichurri, and a green bean salad. The green beans were yummy, garlicky and buttery. Exactly what I’d expect from a salad of the south. The chop was also good, and complimented nicely by the chimichurri.
One thing to be aware of at Tupelo Honey Cafe is your wingspan. There is a nice airy patio of outdoor seating. If it’s nice, sit outside. Indoors is cramped to say the least. I’m pretty sure I elbowed a server at one point, and getting to the restroom was a task. Though this was partly due to the influx of excited swarming Arlingtonians hungry for the next restaurant opening.
Once that crab cake arrives at your table, though, everything and everyone else will fade away into the background and you’ll experience a moment of lucidity in which you’ll realize what Van Morrison was really singing about. She’s a crab cake of the first degree.