City of Fairfax Essay Contest Winner 2022

The City of Fairfax: A Model for Diversity (non-fiction)

I often jokingly sing to my husband: “All I care about is money and the city that I’m from.”

These words were originally crooned by rap superstar Drake about his hometown of Toronto in 2011. Though the first part is patently false in my case--I am, after all, a public school teacher by trade--the second part is easy to relate to. Most rappers boast about their loyalty to more well-known areas: New York, LA, Miami. A love for Toronto feels like a strange thing to declare, and Drake unabashedly put it on the map. Toronto is now a household name in the hip hop community because Drake mentored other up-and-coming rappers, and his wholehearted love for it, which is included in most of his songs.

Similarly: I love the City of Fairfax, and I’m not afraid to say it.

It’s not a true urban center like DC. It’s not posh and young like Arlington. But it is a vibrant, diverse community filled with amazing people and places to hang out, a place where truly anyone can fit in regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, gender identity, disability, religion...or really anything.

In the decade that I’ve lived here, my taste buds have traversed the globe several times over, from the Caribbean Islands to Ethiopia to Yemen to Vietnam. Not all of these restaurants have been able to stay in the City of Fairfax, but there’s never been a lack of options that reflect the beautiful multicultural quilt that is our community. I have extended chopsticks across a shared table to grab rich pork belly right off the barbecue with a Kloud in hand. I’ve sipped rich, invigorating Turkish coffee while enjoying a Mediterranean breakfast, taking in the ornate decorations and lovely music of the country. I have experienced the spices and tastes of the Uygur region, marveling at the effort behind the chili-soaked hand-pulled noodles in Gyoro Laghman.

A few of my favorite spots have become such cornerstones of our community that I’ve gotten to know their owners and their stories.

Epicure Cafe

It’s hard to miss Epicure Cafe when you drive by it. First of all, it has the only rooftop bar in Fairfax City, with beautiful Biergarten lights twinkling above it. When you walk inside, you notice that there’s local art everywhere--literally everywhere, on every inch of the wall, in the doorway, on the window, even in the bathroom tiles. Owner Gus Row and his daughter Mojdeh have made a commitment to creating a space of inclusivity for artists of all kinds, and if you take a look at the calendar on their website, it is jam-packed with events, sometimes multiple events in one night. I have attended trivia night, a clothing swap, a stand-up comedy show, an open mic night, and poetry night, just to name a random sampling. There’s a stage at the front of the restaurant with twinkling lights that spell out the restaurant’s name in cursive just behind it, and this is typically the center of the action. 

Many local musicians cite Epicure as the first place they had a gig when they were just starting out. In my own experience, Epicure is the first place I read one of my short stories, with a piece of printer paper in one trembling hand and a Pinot Noir in the other. I was met with such sincere applause that every time after that, there was no trembling whatsoever. The patrons are not looking to experience art that’s the best of the best. Instead, they are looking to experience something that is honest and true. Something that’s the result of getting vulnerable and pouring your heart out.

You can usually spot Gus in the back of the cafe, working on his next plans or even just working on his own art. Sometimes he’s just sitting there, taking it all in. These are the fruits of his labor. This is the space that has sprung from his ambitious vision.

High Side 

Jinson, the owner of High Side, was looking to bring Fairfax something new: a menu of Taiwanese street food called Xiaochi alongside rotating taps of high-quality local craft beer. To an onlooker, this may sound like an odd combination, but as soon as you enter the space with its clean, artisanal black and white interior, you can instantly see this is a match made in heaven.

My favorites include the lemongrass fried chicken, the pork belly bao, and the classic tornado fries. As for beverages, the staff usually has excellent recommendations that are always changing. I’ve also enjoyed watching their Beer Banter show on YouTube--there’s nothing more fun than watching the employees of High Side sample beer and then rate how much they like it by a number out of five “Jinsons”. Riffing off of this, High Side collaborated with local brewery Mustang Sally to come out with a beer called “Five Jinsons,” featuring Jinson’s face on the can. I’m proud to say I was able to try this beer when I was at High Side one night, and the complex flavor of the sour Berliner was definitely hard to compete with. It contained one of my favorite ingredients of all time: star anise. While it’s typical in a lot of Asian cuisines, it isn’t something I’d ever seen in a beer.

A small crew of employees kept High Side running even through the early height of the pandemic. I’ll forever be thankful for the memory I have of ordering lemongrass fried chicken and bringing it over to Ratcliffe Park for a picnic. Thanks to Jinson and High Side, I’ll remember that there was some light during a time of darkness.

Cameron’s Coffee and Chocolates

Cameron’s Coffee and Chocolates uses the slogan “Extraordinary Chocolate Made by Extraordinary People,” and I couldn’t agree more. Their handmade chocolates are just out of this world--especially the dulce de leche and white chocolate salted caramel. Ellen Graham founded Every1 Can Work when she was frustrated that her daughter Cameron, who has an intellectual disability, was eager to serve in the workforce but having a tough time finding employment. In fact, over 84 percent of young people with disabilities are unemployed, when there are many meaningful ways they could help out. That’s where Cameron’s comes in. This coffee and chocolate shop helps young people with disabilities find employment alongside young people without disabilities. This employment helps them find purpose and self-esteem.

Cameron’s is a short walk from my house, and it’s one of my daughter’s favorite places to hang out. She loves their hot chocolate and their scones, but more than that, she loves the friendly greetings she receives from the baristas and chocolate makers. Since the pandemic began, they even have little igloos out front for more intimate hang-outs, complete with faux chandeliers. As huge fans of the Fancy Nancy series, we have our drinks with our pinkies up, and sometimes we grab one of their fun dog treats on the way out for our sweet pup.

Foundation Coffee

Visionaries of our community take a space like the back loading dock of Fair City Mall--a former warehouse space where hosting a cool coffee shop is unfathomable, and turn our expectations upside down with the beauty they put forth into the community. Foundation Coffee founder Hae Kim has stated that he wants the coffee shop to operate as a theater with stadium seating. From their perch, coffee enthusiasts can take in hearty aromas and see the pour-over process first-hand.

In addition to a coffee shop, Foundation is a roastery, and they roast the beans in the back with tall stainless steel machinery which you can observe through enormous picture windows. There’s a laid-back vibe to Foundation that’s difficult to describe. Soft jazz pipes through the speakers, and the lights feel like spotlights that have dimmed. It was my go-to way to start my morning during my maternity leave, and my infant son would often take long, cozy naps while I enjoyed a light roast. I joked to my friends that Foundation reminded him of the womb.

As a small business launching in late 2020, Foundation was certainly working with the odds against them. Yet, they have flourished. Go into Foundation any day of the week (except Sunday--they’re closed for a well-deserved break) and you will see it packed with coffee spectators, talking and working together over some of the highest quality coffee in the area.

Fairfax Forever

Even in the face of a lockdown, I was nothing but moved by the ways these businesses kept serving the community, trying their best to keep people safe, fed, comfortable, and connected. It’s the people behind these businesses that make Fairfax come to life. The City of Fairfax might only be a few miles wide, but its cultural influences stem from the world over, and one can feel like they’re traveling without even stepping foot on a plane. On his latest album, Drake declares to an ex-flame: “The world’s yours, but the city’s mine.” 

In Fairfax, it feels more like they’re one and the same.