Meredith Dean’s latest culinary venture, Roja, is bringing some spice to the Hopewell dining scene.
A fifties diner turned taco joint, the recently opened Roja is bringing an eclectic and vibrant air to Hopewell. Roja’s owner, Meredith Dean, is serving up nachos heaped with toppings like tempeh and pickled jalapeño, and taco varieties from potato to carne asada, all in the name of fresh ingredients prepared in-house.
“I know what’s in my food,” says Dean. “The menu is small and simple, and we have high expectations for every plate.”
Like Dean’s first food venture, Verde, Roja is conscientious about every ingredient in every dish. Salsas that start sweet and finish with heat are made from scratch. Pork slow-cooked all night is flash-fried for those coveted crispy bits in the carnitas. Tempeh tacos sourced from Richmond’s own Chaotic Good Tempeh beckon vegetarians. The craggy edges of each tortilla speak to the person who mixed and pressed the dough of lime, corn flour, and water.
With regulars teeming into the restaurant daily, Roja’s lunch crowd sees people from all backgrounds and vocations. The bash keeps going as the sun goes down, Roja’s picture window aglow in purple lights. Dean says that creating a place for a diverse gathering was her goal all along.
“I wanted a space where everyone can come together and be comfortable, and that has happened here,” she says. “It’s already recognized as that kind of space.”
From the colorful picado banner hanging over the bar to the Peruvian tapestry adorning the wall, Roja’s interior is an array of conversation pieces. The diner houses a treasure trove of mementos from Dean’s travels, salvaged pieces from around Richmond, and a collection of items brought in from locals.
“It’s a great spot for a first date,” Dean says. “You’ll always have something to talk about.”
Dean’s own background is as diverse as her restaurant. Holding a PhD in Education Research, Dean has taught in higher education, traveled Central and South America, and worked a number of jobs within the food industry. After feeling a pull to leave her teaching position, Dean set up shop in Hopewell’s Guncotton Coffee and Gallery, preparing healthy food under the Verde label. Roja, her first standalone location, is another milestone.
Dean completed much of the diner renovations herself, even sleeping there at times. Now that it’s in full swing, Roja goers might find her chopping veggies, mixing drinks, taking out the trash, or waiting tables.
“There is so much to be said for doing what you really love,” Dean says. “I love the time here at Roja that I can spend with both friends and people I don’t know.”
Dean utilized her background in research and food preparation in starting both Verde and Roja, but she has also garnered a great deal of expertise from Wonder City locals ready to help. One of Roja’s walls features names of all those who have contributed to the Roja vision. Like a chandelier, photos of happy customers hang in a round above the bar.
“In creating something like this, trust is a big thing,” says Dean. “I’ve learned to trust myself and the people around me. Collaboration is key. Things are better when everyone brings their skills together. This is a collaborative process and a community space.”
Roja’s close-knit crew gears up weekly for rotating specials like Marguerita Monday and Tequila and Taco Tuesday. Dean hopes to soon introduce breakfast options and cannot wait to use the large patio in warmer weather.
After two months in operation, Roja has found continued support from the Hopewell community. Dean says that it’s so rewarding to know others love it too.
“The tortillas are so good,” calls one customer. “I’ll be back,” says another.
Top Photo by Daniel Jones