Back to the roots

Good, affordable organic food can be hard to find in Asheville. A case in point: Roots Café, the extension of a highly successful sauce and dressing wholesaler, is tucked into a back corner of the River Arts District at an off-the-beaten-path address.

Photo by Jonathan Welch

"Honestly, people finding us has been the hardest part of getting the word out," owner Matt Paris laments. "People will be right here and they don't know it."

Compounding the confusion, Paris hasn't yet put up a street-side sign that might function as a finish line for vagabond foodies. Like permanent tables and chairs, signage is still in the planning stages.

"As the name implies, we're building from the ground up," Paris says. "Right now, with the way the economy is, it's been impossible to get loans."

Paris is obviously self-conscious about the restaurant's provisional feel. He'd much prefer his patrons didn't have to perch on a weathered green-leather sofa, or balance their plates on folding TV trays. Offering a proactive apology, he adds, "I don't feel I'm ready to accommodate people the way you would at any restaurant."

Go anyhow. Roots Café's supremely good fare makes the navigational trouble and funky seating arrangements more than bearable. Tolerant diners will probably even be charmed by the restaurant's jerry-rigged décor. Paris reports that Roots' customers have been "pretty flexible," and after sampling most of the menu, I don't wonder why.

Paris jumped into the prepared-food business about three years ago and now produces more than 2,000 pounds of pesto, hummus and salad dressing every week. The hummus is sold under the Roots label at grocery stores around town, but the remainder of the kitchen's all-natural, organic output is "anonymous," meaning it's house-branded for markets such as EarthFare.

Roots' thriving wholesale business creates two distinct advantages for café customers: First, it provides reliable verification of the restaurant's organic claims. As Paris explains, "As a wholesaler, we're USDA-inspected, so we have to show ingredients are what we say they are."

The wholesaling also helps keep costs down at the café. Since Paris is making tabouli and hummus for thousands of people, not the few dozen a weekday-only lunch counter might reasonably expect to serve, he can charge $7 for a generously portioned plate of lemon-herb chicken, tabouli, hummus, olives and pita chips.

The signature black-bean hummus, which is the best-selling appetizer for the Mellow Mushroom chain, is lovely: It's fresh-tasting and well-balanced, with a welcome garlicky tang. Hummus really shouldn't be hard, but an astounding number of restaurants somehow screw it up.

"We're consistently told our hummus is the best people have ever had," Paris says.

Hummus is probably the most obviously organic item at Roots, which steers clear of stereotypically earth-friendly ingredients like tempeh, seitan and nutritional yeast. While the café offers a vegetarian version of every lunch item, the menu reflects the traditional Southern sensibilities of chef Joshua Talley, who was previously the morning sous chef at Corner Kitchen. Talley's influence shows up in Roots' tender pulled pork, dressed with a vinegary-sweet house-made sauce ("It's hard to get notoriety for that kind of thing when you're not a barbecue joint," Paris sighs) and pillowy breakfast biscuits.

One naked Roots biscuit, soft as a cotton boll, could make a passable breakfast for many. But it's better still when sandwiched around a patty of peppery local sausage and a delicate sheet of egg.

Talley knows how to cook eggs. "Some people just can't make eggs," he says. "I've met them. You've got to pay attention to it. I'm yet to find an egg I can't beat."

Talley's skill and high-quality organic eggs conspire to make every egg a showstopper: The rich flavor of the egg in the Roots Bowl was more satisfying than the well-made sweet-potato hash, salsa and guacamole sharing the dish. I'm thrilled that Paris is considering adding huevos rancheros and eggs benedict to the menu, and even more pleased that Roots Café serves breakfast all day.

But there is a lunch menu. Like breakfast, it consists of just six items, including the aforementioned hummus and barbecue plates. There's also a very respectable burger made with beef from Everett Farms in Pisgah Forest, a gyro and a quesadilla, which was the least successful thing I ate at Roots: Smeared with lime-cilantro pesto, black bean hummus, chipotle aioli, guacamole and sour cream, the sandwich is an off-puttingly creamy mess. When I mentioned my reservations with Talley, he clearly shared them: "Thank you very much," he said. "When we started out, it was very simple. I'm yet to see a quesadilla with that much stuff in it."

"The quesadilla probably will get revamped," Paris told me. "It is a bit much."

Perhaps my favorite lunch dish was the Thai Cobb, a salad of breathtakingly fresh baby spinach bathed in a zippy peanut dressing and garnished with one-quarter of an avocado, carrot, cashews and sesame seeds. I had a set of chicken skewers with my greens, although tofu's an option too.

What made the plate especially memorable were the quinoa hushpuppies, which Paris restrainedly describes as "little crack rocks." The crunch-studded puppies were brilliant. And the crack analogy's apt: Beyond the treat's addictive properties, there can't be too many other equally cheap, fun ways to get your superfood fix.

"I don't feel like good, wholesome food needs to be out of reach for people's everyday budget," Paris explains. "This is one of the main missions of this company: To make local and organic food affordable."

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