On June 13, Mountain Xpress’ annual salute to WNC’s thriving culinary scene hits the streets. Eats and Drinks, our colorful and glossy guide to the best of local food (and beverage), can now be found on stands and in purple Xpress boxes throughout the area.
To celebrate, we offer a sneak peek of the guide — eateries that have taken the local food scene by storm and turned heads among the national media, too.
Whether it’s the rising popularity of Southern food, the big-name breweries moving into town or the fact that we’re just that good, Asheville’s bars and eateries are making big news these days. In fact, Trip Advisor named us one of the top 10 food and wine destinations in the U.S., which means we’re hobnobbing with culinary elites like San Francisco, New York City and New Orleans. Read on to get a taste of everything Asheville’s dining scene has to offer.
The February/March 2012 issue of Garden & Gun magazine posits that the South is full of “perfect” watering holes. The perfect bar, says writer Guy Martin, is one that “dove through the low end with such force and velocity that it punched through the bottom and came out the top.” If we are to take that literally, then Thirsty Monk, which the magazine named in 2011 as one of its “Top 50 Bars in the Southern U.S.,”certainly fits the bill (it’s also received high marks from Rate Beer, Paste and Draft magazines). Established in 2008 in the comfortably cool and dark basement of a Patton Avenue building, the pub originally focused on complex and heady — and often quite strong — Belgian beers. As the brew scene evolved in Asheville, so too did the Monk, expanding upward and out of the basement into the airier floor above while delving into the arena of American beers (it was only a matter of time, right?), and adding a second location in south Asheville. Thirsty Monk now boasts more than 62 rotating draft lines and tapped nearly 1,100 distinct craft beers in 2011. 92 Patton Ave. 252-5470, and 20 Gala Drive 505-4564 monkpub.com
"What are truffles, steak tartare and imported oysters doing in a cinderblock dive bar amid the cool haunts of West Asheville?" asks the New York Times in 2010’s 36 Hours in Asheville, N.C. We bet more than a few tourists have had the same question. There's nothing showy about the exterior of The Admiral in West Asheville. But, as many locals know, you can't judge a diner by its awning — and the national magazines noticed. Among the publications to mention this tiny modern-American restaurant with the dive-bar clothing (besides the New York Times) are GQ magazine and Bon Appetit. In Garden & Gun, contributing editor John T. Edge wrote in the June 2012 issue that, “part blue collar, part white tablecloth, the Admiral is in a class of its own.” It's certainly the juxtaposition of the high-caliber dining in the charmingly unpretentious environs that draws them in. It's the food, however, that has the editors making sure to devote the space. Should you decide to go, do what all the magazines say — call ahead (far ahead) for reservations (Edge writes that he’s already plotting a return trip). 400 Haywood Road. 252-2541 theadmiralnc.com
Rocky’s Hot Chicken Shack
That same Garden & Gun article mentioned Rocky’s Hot Chicken Shack, a darling of the adventurous-eating set since it was located in an unassuming (read “mighty ugly”) squat blue shack on the side of Highway 25. Back then, owner Rocky Lindsley served mercilessly hot chicken (although plain chicken could be had for the faint of constitution) from behind a counter where he toiled alone below the flicker of an old-school TV, endlessly looping live-music videos. Lindsley, a musician himself, fell in love with Prince’s Hot Chicken in Nashville while on tour, perfecting his own version of the face-burning goods upon his return to Asheville. That shack closed, reopening a year later in response to overwhelming demand in a more polished atmosphere on the west side. The bird remains authentic, however, with the “Mount Saint Hell No” variety bringing grown men to tears (no really — we’ve seen it). The sides have improved too, as Edge notes, with corn pudding, real-deal mac and cheese and other Southern accoutrements replacing the Sam’s Club slaw of yesteryear. 1455 Patton Ave. 575-2260 rockyshotchickenshack.com
This entirely vegan cafe and bookstore was named one of the “10 Coolest Independent Coffeeshops across the U.S.” by the restaurant-rating system Zagat in 2012. Does that make Firestorm less cool for being popular? We don't think so (or at least don't care). This worker-owned hideaway offers a number of seriously cheap eats, like a hummus bagel sandwich for around $4. What's more, the menu claims that the sandwiches are not only "awesome," but prepared by highly trained “kitchen ninjas.” Not enough for you? Consider the selection of independent and underground books or the fact that, once workers are paid, the café “reinvests 100 percent of its earnings” in the community, according to its website. 48 Commerce St. 255-8115 firestormcafe.com
White Duck Taco Shop
The spring 2012 issue of Bon Appetit magazine interviewed local artist Heather Knight to find out where Asheville locals flock for lunch and dinner. Knight, whose studio is located in the River Arts District, praised her neighbor, White Duck Taco Shop, for its fantastic and affordable tacos. We're partial to the Bangkok shrimp with its perfect blend of savory, sweet and spicy. The BBQ carnitas taco, complete with baked beans and slaw, is a riff on more traditional area cuisine (we mean before carnitas and sangria became part of the local lexicon). That sangria varies with the season, as do the sides, which offer a departure from the standard taco-joint fare. Instead of glommed-on refried beans and iceberg lettuce for vegetables, expect fresh-herbed watermelon, kimchi (yep) and bracing gazpacho. 1 Roberts St. 258-1660 whiteducktacoshop.com
The Market Place
Chef William Dissen is all over the news these days. Dissen was one of six “green” chefs selected nationwide by Fortune magazine for the Brainstorm Green Conference in California. The five other chefs hailed from larger cities — Houston, Los Angeles and Chicago among them — in another major coup for the Asheville dining scene. Why was Dissen selected? It may be because Mother Earth Network named him one of “40 Chefs Under 40,” or that Monterey Bay Aquarium counts him among the nation’s Seafood Watch Ambassadors. We suppose there’s an outside chance that it has something to do with the Toronto Star mentioning that The Market Place was a favorite dining spot for the actors in the movie The Hunger Games. Whatever the case, the restaurant’s modern-yet-comfortable seasonal cuisine is a draw for locals too, not just the movie stars. 20 Wall St. 252-4162 marketplace-restaurant.com
We knew we had a good thing on our hands when the talented Jason Sellers, the vegan chef who somehow improved on an already good thing as a chef at The Laughing Seed, opened his own restaurant (along with Alan Berger and Leslie Armstrong). There, he took vegan food in Asheville to the next level with dishes like seasonal risottos and coconut-milk ice creams — even a housemade vegan cheese plate. Now, that’s all well and good, but consider this: Southern Living, not necessarily a go-to publication for the meat-free, has named Plant’s flame-grilled “Berger” (after the co-owner) one of North Carolina’s 10 best — the only vegetarian sandwich to be featured in the June 2012 roundup. That means that the berger, five ounces of plant-based goodness, topped with horseradish mayonnaise, lettuce, tomato, peppadew relish and onion tumbleweed on an Annie’s ciabatta bun, is man enough to stretch the traditional definition of one of the most classic American dishes in existence. How’s that for special? 165 Merrimon Ave. 258-7500 plantisfood.com
Cúrate Bar de Tapas
The media couldn’t get enough of Katie Button when she opened Curaté tapas bar in 2011 with her mother, father and husband. Really, they all make compelling characters. Button’s stage at elBulli, Ferran Adria’s famous restaurant in Spain, was detailed in Lisa Abend’s book, The Sorcerer’s Apprentices. (Husband Felix Meana also turned up in the book; he worked as a chef de rang at elBulli before departing to help open the The Bazaar by José Andrès in Beverly Hills, Calif.) Since opening Cúrate, Button has been interviewed by the New York Times, considered for the James Beard Rising Star Chef Award and been nominated by Food & Wine magazine for a people’s choice award for young, up-and-coming chefs. Cúrate has impressed the locals, too. The relaxed-yet-refined restaurant offers classic Spanish tapas with the occasional modern twist, and service that is always on point. 11 Biltmore Ave. 239-2946 curatetapasbar.com
— Contact food writer Mackensy Lunsford at firstname.lastname@example.org.