Burgers are serious business in Western North Carolina — for both chefs and diners — and this weekend’s inaugural Battle of the Burger promises some stiff competition for the title of Best Burger in WNC. Among a diverse field of challengers, ranging from the Farm to Fender food truck to downtown cocktail lounge The Vault, a little East Asheville bar and grill, The Social, is planning to bring its A-game to the event on Sunday, Aug. 10.
“Our burgers are our most popular menu item,” says co-owner and chef Ryan Marshall. “Oh, yeah, it’s the burgers by far,” agrees Clarissa Marshall, Ryan’s business partner and wife.
They aren’t giving away any secrets, but the couple say that for the competition, they plan to use one of the handmade 100 percent black Angus burgers off their regular menu — choices range from a basic patty on a bun to a chipotle fried-pickle burger with cheddar and onions.
Regardless of the toppings, they say the bun (details are closely guarded at this point) is essential, and the patty itself will be seasoned with Ryan’s original burger shake blend and “cooked with love.”
“I’m so excited to be a part of the competition,” says Clarissa. “It’s such a big honor. I feel like it’s a big step for us.”
“Well, it’s a little stressful for me,” Ryan adds with a laugh.
But they will certainly have some people rooting for them on the east side of town. The couple were both raised in the Haw Creek community, where they still live with their three children less than a mile from their business, and they have been a part of East Asheville’s modest restaurant and bar scene for years.
Ryan used to be a manager and received his sommelier’s certification at Café Azalea, and Clarissa was a bartender at Ruby’s BBQ Shack on Beverly Road before it became Creekside Taphouse (which will also be competing in the Battle of the Burger). “We’ve both worked and played on the east side of town for so long that sometimes when I go to the grocery store, it’s like I know half the people in there,” Ryan says.
Their romance even began in an East Asheville restaurant: The couple met seven years ago when they were both working at Pomodoros on Tunnel Road. And it was during a regular post-work poker game while hanging out with co-workers at Holland’s, the bar next door to Pomodoros, that their idea for The Social was born.
“We joke that we won the bar in a poker game,” Clarissa says with a grin, “but really it was just that during the game we got the idea to buy the place.”
Holland’s owner, Don Ponder, encouraged them to take the idea seriously and ultimately helped it become a reality. “There was no way we could [buy] it. We didn’t have the money,” says Clarissa. “I mean, we were both servers, you know, with kids, and [owning a restaurant] was just this crazy dream.” But Ponder made them a deal that worked with their budget.
In April 2013, the Marshalls opened The Social, and although the first few months were a struggle (for a while, Ryan continued to work nights as a server at the Grove Park Inn’s Sunset Terrace to make money to pay his employees), the place is slowly gaining ground as a neighborhood hangout.
The food menu features quesadillas, seven varieties of wings, salads, sandwiches — and, of course, burgers — as well as appetizers, including the popular bacon-wrapped jalapeño tater tot skewer. Prices are well within the affordable range with burger-and-fries platters running $8.95 (add a slice of cheese — including a spicy ghost-pepper variety — for an extra 50 cents), and sandwiches with homemade chips priced between $6.95 and $10.95.
The bar menu includes daily drink specials, a selection of moonshine martinis, rotating local draft beer specials and an ever-changing wine list. The space offers a variety of games and features nightly entertainment, including Monday night open mics hosted by Ben Saylor of local bluegrass band Brushfire Stankgrass, regular Tuesday night acoustic sets by Ashli Rose and ’80s karaoke on Sundays.
Having worked for years in the service industry, the Marshalls always keep both the kitchen and bar open until 2 a.m. daily to cater to local restaurant and bar employees.
“We work on trying to get people to come back again the very next day,” says Ryan. “I think if we hadn’t been able to get a group of regulars … without that support from a group of people who really like what we’re doing, I don’t think we would have made it.”
For details on daily specials and nightly entertainment, visit facebook.com/thesocialasheville.
WNC Battle of the Burger
WHAT: Asheville Food Fights WNC Battle of the Burger
WHEN: 3-7 p.m Sunday, Aug. 10
WHERE: Renaissance Asheville Hotel, 31 Woodfin St.
WHO: At press time, competitors included the Rankin Vault, Farm Burger, The Social, Ambrozia Bar and Bistro, Ben’s Tune-Up, Creekside Taphouse, King James Public House, Foggy Mountain Brewpub, Mojo Kitchen and Lounge, Buffalo Nickel and Farm to Fender
WHY: The winner will claim the title of Best Burger in WNC and qualify to compete in the World Food Championships in Las Vegas in November. A limited number of You Be the Judge tickets are available at $30 each including unlimited samples and local beer. General admission is $5; children younger than 12 get in free. Competitors will have sample-sized portions of their burgers for sale. Proceeds from the event will benefit Eblen Charities.
Tickets and details available at wncburgerbattle.com.