Haywood Road smelled of its usual cigarettes and fried food with the welcome addition of the scent of spicy garlic on Thursday night as Chef Aaron Thomas pulled his first batch of natty bread out of the oven at Nine Mile’s brand-new location in West Asheville. “Compared to our first opening [in Montford],” says Thomas, “this one was like gravy, it was just smooth. Everybody loved their food, there were no kinks.”
And what’s not to love? Thomas’ signature take on Rastafarian cooking always features rich sauces made with a tropical flair. Pineapples and fresh veggies mix with creamy Alfredo sauce, or coconut jerk sauce simmers with fire roasted tomatoes and white wine. All the Nine Mile standards that Montford has grown to love are still there, plus the addition of a spectacular new scallop dish from Nine Mile West Chef Amy Lawson.
One of the most admirable things about Nine Mile’s menus is is their inclusion of the natural mystic, as simple dish of pasta and marinara. All of the dishes are affordable, with none of them stretching beyond the $20 mark, but to have honestly priced the natural mystic at a meager $5.15 is a rare and welcome gesture from a chef who is happy to feed everyone.
When asked if he plans to expand any further, Thomas replies, “If this one blows up, we’ll open another one. We’ll do whatever needs to be done to feed the people.”
“I’ve always entertained the idea of opening another one, but it wasn’t a goal,” he continues. “My goal was to always just open one restaurant and to make it successful. But at that [Montford location], the space is really limited. What we did with the space is about all that can be done.” And as the business continued to flourish, the growing pains started showing.
“Things just got so busy over there that we couldn’t prep enough, we couldn’t do enough to just keep up with the daily demand, and that kitchen is so small that we couldn’t fit another person in there,” he says. “We really need that extra body to keep up, but it just can’t fit.” So they realized that if they expanded, it would remove some of the pressure and ease the crowd off at the original location. “Every month we’re getting busier, and I knew that I couldn’t keep up and still make the quality product that we wanted if we didn’t do this.”
The Montford Nine Mile opened in 2008, but that wasn’t the original plan. “I worked at the Lucky Otter for four years. It’s the only other job I’ve had in Asheville other than Nine Mile,” says Thomas. “I looked all over West Asheville trying to open Nine Mile originally, but I didn’t have any money. I was broke, I had dreadlocks and a beard and no one took me seriously at any bank. So Roland [Knoll] from Lucky Otter … he’s a clean cut guy … so he went to the banks and talked to the bankers and got them on board.” Knoll, Thomas and his wife own both Nine Mile locations in partnership with Nate Ray.
“I always felt like I could do it better than most other people, and I’ve always had a passion for food. I just wanted to give it a shot,” says Thomas. “We opened in the middle of Montford, and we bought the building. We didn’t want some landlord coming in after we’d become successful, jacking up our rent.” But Thomas faced a lot of criticism for choosing a location so far outside of downtown and hidden away in such a small neighborhood. “I always felt that if we just made a good quality product, that people would come for it, and they did.”
The new dining room still seats the same number of people as the restaurant’s original home, but it is much more open, making it seem less crowded. Unlike the Montford location, the Haywood Road bar features a full liquor list and boasts a Caribbean-themed cocktail menu created by bartender Katherine Cardinal. The semi-open kitchen provides the same echoing acoustics, giving the room a loud and lively ring. And the food comes out exactly the way you would expect from a kitchen with a reputation for consistency — lively, spicy and familiar.
“I’m just happy to be here,” says Thomas. “I’ve always wanted to be in West Asheville, and it’s good to be home!”