Adventure is on the menu at WNC restaurants

BUG BITES: In Mexico, grasshoppers — called chapulines — are toasted with garlic, lime juice, salt and, in some cases, chili powder. The chapulines taco at Never Blue in Hendersonville features chapulines roasted and sautéed in herb butter, served with fresh corn, cherry tomatoes, queso fresco and cilantro. Photo by Laura Hackett

Culinary boredom is real. Depending on your culture, lifestyle or budget, the monotony may manifest in different ways. Maybe it’s smoothies and salad ad nauseam. Or pizza three days in a row. For me, it’s the healthy but bland rut of grain bowls and roasted vegetables. Don’t get me wrong, my love for all those dishes (especially you, pizza) is undying.

But when we approach food with a sense of adventure rather than habit, the experience transcends mere sustenance. Adventurous eating is one of the best ways to challenge ourselves, connect with the community and learn more about the world.

That’s why for the past month, I’ve tried to channel my inner Anthony Bourdain, sampling the more unusual, off-the-beaten-path and adventurous dishes the Asheville area has to offer. Along the way, I’ve become more inspired than ever about the capacity for food to teach us something new. While some may not find these dishes unfamiliar, I hope that at least a few items on the list challenge readers beyond their comfort zones.

Bug out

Chapulines, the Spanish term for crickets or grasshoppers, are a delicacy in Mexico and particularly famous in the Oaxaca region, where children are known to sell and eat the bugs like popcorn. Traditionally, the grasshoppers are toasted with garlic, lime juice, salt and, in some cases, chili powder. You can sample these specimens in a chapulines taco at Never Blue ($6.75; theneverblue.com), an eclectic tapas bar in downtown Hendersonville. In the taco: a generous handful of the chapulines, whole roasted and sautéed in herb butter, tucked under a thick blanket of fresh corn, cherry tomatoes, queso fresco and cilantro. If you can get past the sensation of swallowing tiny legs, antennae and wings, you’ll be rewarded with a light and smoky crunch of some of the most nutrient dense and cheap protein around.

Interested in the flavor but not so much the extremities? En La Calle in downtown Asheville offers it in powdered form, sprinkled over grilled street corn, or elote ($5; 15 Eagle St.). The smokiness of the bugs, ground and blended with chili powder and cayenne, harmonizes beautifully with the drizzles of cotija cheese, lime and chili crema. You can also find powdered chapulines garnished around the rim of En La Calle’s Vampira Margarita ($11.50) or the Maya Margarita at En La Calle’s sister restaurant Limones ($11; limonesrestaurant.com).

Jamaican me curr-azy 

TAILS OF ADVENTURE: Judith Bourkan ladles a serving of oxtail in her Grill Jamaica food truck. Photo by Laura Hackett

While Caribbean food can be found at a few spots around town, the Grill Jamaica food truck is arguably the most affordable and authentic spot for Jamaican cuisine (828-226-5624 or look for the truck on Facebook). I mean, you can hear the island music blasting from owner Judith Bourkan’s speakers from a block away, and customers routinely drive from neighboring towns to visit this truck, which is usually posted at the Haywood Country Club parking lot in West Asheville. Bourkan, who cooks alongside her mother, Jacqueline Duncan, brings her grandmother’s traditional island recipes to life with deep, savory flavors that zing and pop with garlic, pimento, ginger, thyme and a few other aromatics she prefers to keep secret.

While some Jamaican dishes like jerk chicken have become well known in America, the slow-roasted oxtail and curried goat stew make for a rare treat. In both recipes, the bones in the meat drive the flavor. The oxtail, a gelatin-rich cattle tail, is slow-roasted for hours in a brown sauce and falls off the vertebrae with velvety grace and rich flavor ($15). The curried goat, bright yellow and laden with onions and potatoes, is succulent, beefy and served with fat hunks of bone ($10-12). If you’re doing this dish right, by the end of the meal you’ll be prying the last bits of meat off the bone with your bare hands and maybe even sucking out bits from the crevices.

Anatomy lesson 

Organs are enjoying a moment in the sun at Benne on Eagle, a new fine dining establishment on The Block, the historically African American area of downtown. The menu beckons eaters with a contemporary selection of Afrilachian eats with influences from West African and Appalachian soul food. Order the liver and pickles for an assortment of fried chicken livers, liver pudding, a variety of pickled vegetables and a butchered-in-house rabbit sausage made with kidney, liver, fatback and fresh aromatics ($16; benneoneagle.com). In the fried liver especially, the squishy texture and flavor of cooked blood are dense and bright. And the pudding — creamy and salty — really shines when scooped on a cracker and paired with one of the accompanying pickled hot peppers or watermelon radishes. Hands down, my personal favorite was the rabbit sausage, which was juicy, tender and balanced with a nice drizzle of red hibiscus mustard.

Take a dive

Given that 95% of the ocean’s depths remain unexplored, the sea is a natural entry point for culinary discovery. If you’re looking for a life affirming experience, head to downtown Asheville’s Wasabi for the premier sake shooter, which includes ponzu, raw oyster and quail egg ($5; wasabiasheville.com/). The combination of slippery-salty-sweetness is a shock to the system, like being dunked in the ocean without notice. It’s delicious. Another fun menu item is the takoyaki: deep fried balls of octopus, topped with bonito flakes ($7).

Cultura’s menu offers a particularly funky take on the tentacular critter: Fermented in marinated peppers, then lightly battered, the octopus is plated over a pile of umami-laced squid ink rice and house-cultured coconut yogurt that will keep the funk alive through the whole meal ($16; wickedweedbrewing.com/location/cultura/).

Dairy-ing dessert 

“There’s a particular horseradish heat and pungency to the mustard that gets balanced with the sweetness of the cream, and the dried cranberries add little notes of tartness,” says The Hop Ice Cream Café production manager Geoff Sherrill, explaining the flavor nuances of the Lusty Monk Mustard and cranberry ice cream, which is available upon special request (thehopicecreamcafe.com). Never shy to incorporate flavors from area farms, The Hop also offers a Jumpin’ Juniper flavor, which builds on a base of rosemary and red chili flakes and includes hearty hunks of Three Graces Dairy goat cheese. In a smooth, herbaceous crescendo, the combination will send your taste buds in a million directions while the creamy base ties everything back together.

Sherrill estimates that his team has around 500 unique recipes, including everything from 12 Bones blueberry chipotle to Nine Mile jerk chocolate to garlic caramel. Samples are available to the public at creamery’s weekly tasting nights, which run 3-9 p.m. every Friday ($3-$5 a scoop; 167 Haywood Road). Folks can also plan on sampling the garlic ice cream, which features deep-roasted garlic swirled with caramel, at the annual WNC Garlic Fest, Saturday, Oct. 5, at Sow True Seed, 243 W. Haywood St. (wncgarlicfest.com).

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