By now, Jim Klingel is accustomed to the misconceptions that the name Oyster House Brewing Co. yields. On a regular basis, the restaurant’s chef hears that his brother Billy’s brewpub is owned by The Lobster Trap (it’s not, though its roots began there), that all of the beers are made with oysters (only the stouts are) and that it only serves seafood. While meat options indeed comprise the bulk of its menu, Oyster House and other Asheville restaurants are more vegetarian-friendly than their carnivorous names suggest.
“It’s what the community wanted,” says Klingel, who was the kitchen manager and chef at the all-vegetarian Laughing Seed for 2 1/2 years. “We’re sitting in West Asheville, a very eclectic neighborhood. We want to have something for everyone.”
The menu’s current vegetarian cornerstone is the spinach-mushroom veggie burger. Inspired by what he calls “fantastic” spinach balls that his sister-in-law Holly Klingel (Billy’s wife) creates for family gatherings, Jim tries to mimic those snacks in sandwich form. Limitations with the Oyster House kitchen make it impractical to make them exactly the way she does, so he tweaked her recipe and is in the process of revising it again, this time incorporating used beer grains into the patty to cut back on using eggs.
In line with his all-inclusive approach, Klingel makes the red beans and rice vegan and adds andouille sausage later for those who order it that way. At the suggestion of two vegetarians on staff, he combined these staples with beer-braised kale (also available as a side) for a hearty serving of beans and greens and in turn crafted another vegetarian hit. One diner loved the kale so much that he bought a gallon of the liquid used to flavor the greens to ship to a friend of his in Vermont.
Klingel is currently reworking the Oyster House menu and plans to have a new version out in the next month, plus a kids menu. Among the new offerings will be a hummus-and-veggie sandwich, made with the Roots hummus selection of the day and carrots, cucumbers, tomatoes, peppers, lettuce and cheese. “Something along those lines,” Klingel says. “I had four pages of ideas when we started but didn’t have money or refrigeration. So, I go back to that list and say, ‘I think I’m going to add these this year.’”
Unlike Oyster House, King Daddy’s Chicken & Waffle benefits from being a mouthful of a name, leading most people to omit the poultry portion and refer to the West Asheville spot simply as “King Daddy’s.” Still, at the risk of becoming known as merely a niche establishment, owners Julie and John Stehling understood that getting the word out about their gluten-free and vegan options was essential for business, as was offering such items.
“It’s a neighborhood place, so we want to appeal to our neighborhood. From the beginning, that’s been our focus,” Julie says. “It’s Asheville. Everyone has reasons to eat certain ways, whether it’s health or moral reasons.”
While chicken and waffles are understandably King Daddy’s top seller, the second-most popular item is the shiitake-and-rice bowl. Also, made with kale, roasted tomato, poached egg and pumpkin seeds, the dish was inspired by the Stehlings’ Asian travels (during which they discovered that waffles are big in Japan).
Providing meat-free diners the opportunity to experience the complexity of a chicken and waffle dish, King Daddy’s offers the beet burger, served open-faced on a vegan waffle with romaine lettuce, roasted tomato, avocado and spicy mustard. Beets were chosen for their hearty nature and local sourcing and are featured throughout King Daddy’s menu, such as on the vegan and gluten-free warm sesame and kale salad.
The Stehlings have vegetarian and gluten-free employees and seek both their input and that of guests on specials and on their evolving menu, which will soon be joined by an official brunch component. A recent special featured mock chicken gravy made with chicken of the woods mushrooms, which are currently being harvested — a time of year that Julie always looked forward to during her 19 years as a vegetarian.
Known for its variety of barbecue dishes and titular full racks of ribs, 12 Bones Smokehouse also caters to vegetarian guests at its River Arts District and South Asheville locations, both of which have vegetarian employees.
The large majority of side items are vegetarian and a plate of four selections, served with a piece cornbread, is a popular choice. The bulk of the sides are rooted in barbecue tradition, though several offerings have been given a creative twist, including the corn pudding with poblano peppers, the smoked potato salad and the jalapeño cheese grits.
“When I was young, grits tended to be pretty plain, and people would mix in butter or brown sugar or maybe some bacon, whereas in ours the red peppers, jalapeños and poblanos really add some different layers to the flavor without added fat or sweeteners,” says Bryan King, who owns the restaurant with his wife, Angela.
In developing the MLT (mushroom, lettuce, tomato) sandwich, 12 Bones took its BLT with fried green tomatoes and pesto mayo on wheatberry bread and found what King calls “a natural alternative to the same sandwich” using portobello mushrooms instead of bacon strips. Such inventive thinking has also made its way into new sides over the past year, such as a pickled okra salad and a mayonnaise-based pineapple-habanero-red cabbage slaw.
“We’re always experimenting with our specials at each store, so there’s no telling what you’ll see down the road,” King says.