It was more like, maybe I’ll move to Nevada, do a little sports betting, and make enough money lawyering to support that habit. And fate intervened.Matt Diamond
He was somewhere in Fork in the Market when the buzzer went off. I could hear it from my office on the Market Street side of the building, and I knew the rhythmic buzz, buzz, buzz was Matt Diamond. He’s the only restaurateur with a 20 slot patron pager on the counter. A hand written note informs visitors they can push 1 to page him if they’d like a burrito. At 3:30 on a Tuesday, the regular lunch crowd had dwindled, and Diamond was visiting friends before the daily routine of closing Blue Ridge Burrito for the evening.
When he returned from serving one of his specialties he spotted me through the window and remembered he had agreed to an interview for our new Meet the Market series. This being the first one, I wanted to choose one of the biggest characters in the building. Matt fits the bill quite nicely as you’ll see below. He downed his something-or-other IPA and knocked on the door to tell me he was ready. As soon as he sat the pager went off again.
My only word of caution to the reader heading into this interview: if you don’t make it to the end (TLDR) you still have to come try a burrito. This man is a street food culinary genius.
So without further ado I present Matt Diamond of Blue Ridge Burrito in his own words.
You’re not originally from here and I know you’ve moved around some. Where are you from?
Upstate New York.
What made you pick Roanoke?
So, I had two restaurants with my brother up in New York; things were going really well, but we were on different pages in terms of where we wanted the business to go. I really cared about the food; he cared about the business side. He wanted to get to a place where we were franchising really quickly, and I just really enjoyed the food aspect. I started out in Law and gave that up because this is what I wanted. It’s what my passion is.
So you’re a lawyer?
I didn’t take the bar…well, I took the bar, I didn’t pass the bar. It was a tough exam; I took it in Nevada. I decided that if I was going to do lawyering, I wanted to go out there and sports bet on the side. Just make enough money to support my sports betting. This is all true.
Took the bar exam in the winter of 2011 in Nevada and caught a really tough exam. The pass rate was 49%. It’s usually up in the mid-70s. I really came close to passing. So lucky for me I ended up failing it because that was kind of the last catalyst in terms of doing this venture into food.
Can’t you take the bar twice?
I could take it as many times as I wanted, but it wasn’t really what I wanted to do. It was more like: maybe I’ll move to Nevada, do a little sports betting, and make enough money lawyering to support that habit. And fate intervened.
You didn’t really answer the question why did you pick Roanoke?
So, I was looking at a bunch of different locations. I went on a real estate search engine looking for a space under a thousand square feet, with an existing exhaust hood. From there, I found about 30 places that looked fairly ideal, places I’d want to move to, and then started analyzing each region. From there I was looking at work populations; I was looking at primary and secondary competitors; I was looking at the food markets. I was looking, primarily, for places where there were no Chipotle or Moe’s within a mile. I was looking for places where it didn’t seem like the secondary food was super cutting edge, you know?
I moved down here from Ithaca NY, where Cornell University is, which is the top rated hotel and restaurant school in the country. They’re coming out with a bunch of cutting edge trends. For example, the food science program there…they’re looking into using crickets as a food source. Which is kind of interesting because they grow so fast and they’re a really solid protein source. And essentially Cornell U is really cutting edge so the people coming out of there…
Tell me more about crickets…
So, they turn them into dust. They grow the crickets, and to make them more appealing, they don’t want like chunks of crickets in there, so they grind them into dust and then turn them into energy bars and stuff like that.
This is what Cornell is working on?
It’s one of the things, yeah.
So where I was going with that is they’re really cutting edge, so the people coming out of Cornell are graduating and staying in Ithaca. They’re at the forefront of what’s trendy, so it’s essentially like the market is super competitive there. All the new restaurants are trying to do really trendy food. It changed so much. I opened my first place in 2012 and the last 5 years it just got hyper competitive.
We started doing a gourmet sub shop and making all of our bread in house, and all our sauces from scratch. We were doing stuff like Bahn Mi, a cabernet reduction for a steak sub, but it seemed like if I were to open another place I wouldn’t be doing anything different than anybody else. I saw an opportunity in Roanoke to bring that kind of thought here.
I was just going to say you take that inspiration into what you do at Blue Ridge Burrito. Tell me about the most fun thing you’ve done here?
I think one of the most fun things I’ve done is utilize the sous-vide set up in the restaurant. Sous-vide is French for “under vacuum.” It’s something they’ve been doing since the 70s over there in France, but over here it’s kind of been slow to take off. The nice thing about the sous-vide is you can just vacuum seal and drop any meat source you want into a water bath, and you can cook things to a lower temperature, because time and temperature play a role in food safety, not just temperature. If you cook it at a lower temperature for a longer time you can pasteurize food, as well as make it more tender. Beef out of the sous-vide comes out super tender; it’s almost like cooking with filet mignon.
How long have you had a passion for burritos?
Since I opened the restaurant. I think the great thing about burritos is you’re taking one singular source, the tortilla, and you can do anything with it. Modern burritos started, I think, in California with migrant workers who essentially brought what they could and wrapped it in a tortilla for a quick lunch. I’m taking that idea of using what you can get and expanding on it to make it more gourmet. I’m not constrained by any culinary region. If I want to make something that’s fusion from southeast Asia, I’ll do that. If I want to do something that’s, like, American, if I want to do a Philly cheese steak burrito and then get gourmet with a hot pepper relish and have the tortilla be the common ground between a bunch of different cuisines, I can do that.
You have a bunch of inventive burritos. What is the best seller?
There are a few that are pretty much on par. The Korean BBQ…it’s kind of interesting, the younger crowd seems to gravitate to the Korean BBQ and the older crowd generally goes for the Southwestern burrito, which has roasted red salsa (made from fresh local tomatoes from Rolling Meadows Farms down in Floyd county), cilantro corn relish, and smoked paprika aioli.
Part of the reason I like doing something like this is I want to bring in higher end cuisine flavors, and make it accessible to people who only have $8 to spend for a meal, and put out a portion where you can get almost two meals out of it.
What’s your favorite meal inside the MB other than your own food?
It comes down to two. I’d say the lamb at Doner Kebab is super tender. A lot of times lamb has a gamey flavor. It’s super tender, it has just enough flavor so you know it’s lamb but not too much where it’s overpowering.
The other that I really love is burger night over at Wall Street Tavern. The burgers are cooked to order and they do a great job over there. Served on a brioche roll, which is good. You can pick any toppings so I do the fried mac and cheese to go on top, with a little bit of brie, I throw some of the horseradish aioli on there, an onion ring and sautéed onions and jalapenos. It really gets the endorphins flowing.
You wear the same hat every day…tell me about the hat.
What? No story behind the hat?
Well, I bought it up in New York, it’s got a Finger Lakes Distilling logo on it, and it covers my hair.
Fair enough. I know you’re a big fan of beer, what is your favorite beer?
Id’ say my favorite is Six Point, Resin. It’s a really heavy Double IPA out of Brooklyn NY. Really hoppy. I think it has 103 IBUs (International Bitterness Unit). One of the better one’s I’ve had recently, actually had one today, is Southern Tier does an imperial pumpkin ale called Pumpking, so they did a different one this year, a different take on it, normally Pumpking is 8.6 ABV this one is up to 9.6%. They did the Pumpking, they aged it in rum barrels and infused coffee into it. It’s really good. They have it over at Eli’s on tap right now for .20 cents an ounce so I got a 26 oz growler and it was like $5.40.
What New York beers should we try down here?
Ithaca Brewing Company and Southern Tier. Ithaca may be hard to find here but Southern Tier you can find.
Have you cooked with beer?
Yes, I did a special for the fall that had a pumpkin infused mustard. I took acorn squash, seared it on the grill until it had a little bit of a crust on it. And then sous-vide’d it to 175 till it got soft, pulsed that up with mustard, two to one squash to mustard, then I threw in a little bit of hard apple cider and pumpkin ale to round it off.
It came out really good and I paired it with a pork schnitzel for a burrito bowl and then red cabbage sauerkraut with apple in there for a little more flavor.