Perhaps in an attempt to keep up with the Asian-fusion competition that is Panda Express, or maybe for some more elusive reason, Nao and Zen has totally overhauled its menu. Located in the Student Commons, Nao and Zen is a convenient option for students with dining plans.
In my freshman year, Nao and Zen was a nice alternative to the limited options offered by other campus eateries for vegetarians. Being a vegetarian in a dorm with no kitchen can get monotonous, especially if you don’t have extra money to eat food that can’t be bought with swipes or you don’t want to eat Shafer’s french fries and unseasoned tofu all the time. So despite its mediocrity, I appreciated Nao and Zen.
What about now? I went to the Commons to find out, I was pleasantly surprised. In the past Nao and Zen served customizable bowls of rice or noodles with vegetables and some sort of protein on top. Now it specializes in ramen and “makiritos”, as well as bubble tea. The makirito, which is known to some students as a sushi-rito, is exactly what it sounds like: sushi in the shape of a burrito. Is it authentic? No. But is it less mediocre than the Nao and Zen of last year? Definitely.
The veggie makirito is supposed to be customizable, or at least, that’s what the menu on the CampusDish website said; but the one I was given had been pre-made, which might have been a result of lackluster service on the part of the cashier that handed it to me – not that I blame him for not wanting to do extra work. I can only imagine what it’s like to serve so many college students every day. Regardless of the sub-par service, the food was decent.
The sushi-burrito hybrid was wrapped in a thin layer of nori, a thin crunchy seaweed in some Japanese food, with a layer of rice. It’s hard to mess that up. The vegetables inside were fresher than expected; anyone who has been to Croutons or Shafer enough knows that VCU dining isn’t the best when it comes to serving vegetables that aren’t wilting. The sweet potato and eggplant added some pleasant balance to the saltiness of the nori, while the small avocado slices inside added a hint of savory flavor. Most shocking of all, the sweet potato wasn’t too mushy and the avocado wasn’t turning brown. I clearly do not expect much from VCU dining food.
The makiritos and ramen are available for a swipe, but the price in actual money/dining dollars is a bit high for the quality of the food; I spent about $10 in dining dollars on a makirito and a fountain drink. As for the atmosphere, what could I say? It’s the Commons: a quick, easy place to pick up some food between classes. For that purpose, Nao and Zen is certainly a better than the other choices covered by the dining plan.
All in all, Nao and Zen is still nothing to write home about, but it’s a step up from its previous incarnation. Last year’s Nao and Zen could be described as mid-tier mediocrity, while this year’s is at a slightly higher level of mid-tier mediocrity. I haven’t tried the ramen yet, but I’ve heard good things, and it certainly does look decent. I’m excited about having bubble tea available through VCU dining as well, though I haven’t tried that yet, either.