by Dean McCord
photographs by Dean McCord and Alan Fleetwood
A college buddy of mine used to tell me he was from L.A.: “Lovely Asheville.” I sort of understood what he meant, and I’ve frequently said that if I could move my job and extended family anywhere, it would be to Asheville. But I really didn’t know why I felt that way. I’d been to Asheville a number of times, but it was usually just passing through, on the way to somewhere else in the mountains. Or to a conference at the Grove Park Inn. I knew it was a good-sized city with great food in my beloved Blue Ridge Mountains, but I didn’t have any real clue of what drew me to this spot of heaven in Western North Carolina.
I decided to change that. In a big way.
My mission: Spend a weekend in Asheville and actually get to know it, at least gastronomically, by visiting as many eating and drinking establishments as possible. A buddy of mine from Durham agreed to join me for the adventure. We’d also visit vintage clothiers, used bookstores, and art galleries, but this was about the food. And a little beer, too.
So we went. We did what we set out to do. And after visiting 18 places in 46 hours, I can comfortably say that Asheville is the best restaurant city in North Carolina. And its most urban city. It’s incredibly walkable, particularly for a mountain town. It’s gorgeous, with a huge heart, welcoming to visitors like me and millions more. And though I was exhausted after my trip – eating and drinking so much will wear a man out – I was ready to go back the following weekend. I already missed its charm.
The Great Asheville Gastro Challenge began on a wet and blustery Friday afternoon at All Souls Pizza, in Asheville’s River Arts district. Coming in from the cold, I could not have found a more welcoming place: the scent of a wood burning oven, Dwight Yoakum on the stereo, and some of the best pizza I’ve ever had. This partnership between Brendan Reusing (who opened up Chapel Hill’s Lantern with his sister, Andrea) and baker David Bauer focuses on fresh. How fresh? The flour used in the dough is milled in-house. Local farmers and purveyors provide the lion’s share of the ingredients. And if you’re gluten-free, try the polenta pizza crust. On your way out, be sure to grab a loaf of Bauer’s bread – it’s without compare.
After a quick cocktail at The Imperial Life (very classy and creative), I headed over to Nightbell, the new restaurant/lounge by Katie Button and Felix Meana, the couple behind the renowned tapas restaurant Cúrate (more on that later). A friend tried to talk me out of going to Nightbell for dinner; she believed it was more of a late-night bar. I’m glad I didn’t follow her advice. This was the most exciting meal I’ve had in years. Dish after dish caused me not just to smile, but to giggle – childishly, loudly – over how delicious and creative the food was. Included in all this happiness was my dish of the year: a poutine (a fast-food Canadian dish usually made of french fries, gravy, and cheese curds) that consisted of brined, three-times-cooked fries, served with duck confit, foie gras gravy, cheddar mousse, and an ultra-light and crunchy waffle. My buddy and I agreed that this place was as good as anything in the state, particularly for a restaurant with small plates for less than $10 and large courses under $20.
Though we sampled over 10 dishes at Nightbell and felt a little full, we sure as hell weren’t going to surrender and call it a night. Our late-night destination was King James Public House, a small pub just north of downtown. Not just any pub. A pub with top-notch charcuterie, made in-house (including lardo, or cured pig fat, that’s flamed with a blowtorch at the table). And pickles. Made in-house. And jars of pâté and pimento cheese and turkey rillette (similar to pâté), made in-house. And amazing fries served with a variety of sauces like pork cracklin’ aioli. You get the drift. Heck, they have a sense of humor, too, occasionally offering a burger topped with crispy Spam and Velveeta. Chef Steven Goff has left since I visited, but this is a place to eat and drink and then eat and drink some more. And listen to indie and punk and new wave songs from the past (cocktails are named from classic indie songs). If King James were in my Raleigh neighborhood, I’d probably live there. Seriously.
Day two, morning….
We woke up Saturday morning wondering how we were going to maintain this pace. But instead of succumbing to a food coma, we decided to plow ahead. How to start the day? With doughnuts, of course. Vortex Doughnuts in Asheville’s South Slope is a new operation, featuring lots of classic doughnuts in a refurbished paper warehouse. We grabbed a doughnut each – call it a breakfast snack – and then headed over to High Five Coffee Bar, just north of downtown, for a latte. But the breakfast coupe de grace came from Biscuit Head in West Asheville. Biscuit Head specializes in biscuits and gravy – palm-sized, cathead biscuits (as big as a cat’s head) with your choice of at least seven different gravies. I had fried chicken gravy, because I was suddenly sort of hungry. With at least a dozen different jams, jellies, and other condiments, Biscuit Head is the perfect family breakfast spot.
Then we took a 90 minute break from eating, exploring West Asheville, before we returned to downtown. We walked the remainder of the day, with our next stop in the form of an early liquid lunch at one of Asheville’s many craft breweries, Wicked Weed Brewing. Asheville has nearly 20 different places brewing beer, and the Wicked Weed brewpub is one of the city’s most popular, offering a number of barrel-aged beers and sours. A couple of blocks away we were treated to a couple of flavor bombs from White Duck Taco Shop. There are two locations of White Duck in Asheville, and although these are technically taquerias in that they sell tacos, they don’t sell your traditional Mexican tacos. One taco was filled with Caribbean jerk chicken, red slaw, and pineapple, while another had Korean beef bulgogi with avocado puree and kimchi. They were absolutely delicious and worth the price: $3.45 each.
A beer and a taco hardly make a meal, so we headed to Chai Pani, which is known for Indian street food. And it very well might be the best cheap-eats place in the city. Four dishes, enough to fill three or four individuals, cost less than $40, including a healthy tip. The food was fresh, colorful, and just damn good. And we were getting full.
Fortunately, we decided to revitalize our hunger by walking the mile or so to Asheville’s newest and hottest place, Gan Shan Station. We knew we were getting close when the smell of Szechuan peppercorns filled the gentle spring breeze, but our excitement was quickly tempered: Gan Shan is not open for lunch on the weekends. This was actually a blessing in disguise, as we were ridiculously full. So we turned around, walked a block and ducked back into King James Public House for a beer. Maybe it was two.
We walked back downtown to try another cocktail bar, Sovereign Remedies, which quickly established itself as one of my favorite booze houses in the country. First, it’s bright, with lots of windows, perfect for an afternoon drink. Second, they have really good food, like gougères filled with pimento cheese. Finally, of course, their cocktails are superb and reasonably priced.
Day two, evening…
We were spent, so we walked back to the house where we were staying and rested up before we went out, again on foot, to the River Arts District. Filled with nearly 200 art studios and restaurants housed in old warehouses and industrial buildings along the banks of the French Broad River, this area is colorful, whimsical, and downright fun. And, of course, being Asheville, it has a brewery, and an extremely interesting one. Wedge Brewing Company could be the establishment that best encapsulates what is great about Asheville. Its beer is delicious and off-beat. Seating is mostly outdoors. Decorations include a doll’s head in a jar. It just does its own thing. And people love it.
Next stop, Rhubarb. Chef John Fleer is an old pal of mine. We met by sharing a bottle of Southern Comfort in a friend’s backyard in Oxford, Mississippi ten years ago, and although we haven’t stayed in touch, the magic of SoCo bonding never fades away. Rhubarb is a big place and the menu is extensive, but it’s comfortable and comforting. The food is Southern, but it’s not shackled to the South—influences include Africa, East Asia, and beyond. It’s a place for a memorable evening and a special dinner, but it also works for a casual meal, perhaps at the counter next to the kitchen. Rhubarb is Asheville. Dress up, dress down – it’s welcoming regardless.
After Rhubarb, I’d hit a wall. I needed to go home and sleep. We had been to nine places that Saturday, and my stomach and head and legs all needed a break. So of course, we instead visited yet another brewery, One World Brewing, which was right around the corner. And, being Asheville, I ran into another old friend. This happens in Asheville: You meet lots of old acquaintances, because so many people gravitate there. And they’re always in a good mood. After a pint of their Inner Thigh IPA (because it’s that smooth and alluring, perhaps), we walked home.
Sunday arrived, and I needed coffee. Good coffee. No, great coffee. And we found it back in West Asheville at Waking Life Espresso. Housed in a mustard-colored bungalow, Waking Life is bright and warm and homey. It could double as your grandmother’s place, if your grandmother was an expert barista. I can’t say it’s the best coffee in Asheville, as I only visited two coffee shops, but I can declare it to be the place I’d most want to spend a Sunday morning.
But Waking Life is not a breakfast place, and their latte somehow got my stomach thinking about food again. So back we went to north of downtown and a delightful little place, HomeGrown. Super-fresh, amazingly priced, with mismatched chairs, tables, and dishes, HomeGrown was an unqualified superb spot for breakfast. My delicious huevos rancheros were served with a crispy tortilla, and my pal’s over-stuffed breakfast burrito was filled with an obscene amount of chorizo. Throw in a couple cups of coffee, and the bill, including tip, was less than 20 bucks.
The weekend was coming to an end, as we only had a lunch remaining on the schedule. So we explored some more. We drove on the bluffs on the other side of the French Broad River, admiring the panoramic view of Asheville. We spent more time in the River Arts District and walking the downtown streets, amazed by some of the spectacular graffiti and street art. Around every corner was a new surprise, a new smile.
We picked up some gifts to take home to our families—chocolates at French Broad Chocolate Lounge—before heading over to our final meal: brunch at Cúrate.
We weren’t hungry. We were worn out, and we each had a four hour drive ahead of us. But we forgot all of that when we were dazzled by Asheville once again – this time with the cuisine of co-owner and chef Katie Button. She started us off with an exemplary salt cod and potato brandade, followed by a sample of jamón ibérico de bellota. To say that this was a ham plate is laughable. These black Iberian pigs live on a diet of acorns and roam unfettered in pastures. I haven’t had a better piece of pork in my life. Octopus, trout, clams, roasted Brussels sprouts, mushrooms, pork skirt steak. I felt like I was a judge on a television cooking competition; but here, there was but one chef. It was the dishes that were competing for the top prize. Just like I started on Friday night, I found myself laughing at how good this food was. Katie Button is a rock star, and she has two of the state’s best restaurants in this no-longer-sleepy town.
It was a great way to end the weekend, with the final tally being two cocktail bars, three breweries, two coffee houses, one doughnut shop, nine restaurants (with one visited twice) and a chocolate shop. Not a bad weekend’s work. And I’m ready to head back.