Small Bites

Vegging out: Nicole Diamantis shows off her brand of portable vegetarian fare in the pass-through window of the former Backyard Burger, a venue that used to serve mostly burgers and fries. Photos by Jonathan Welch

Fast, friendly … and totally vegetarian

Ready for something quick, affordable and still good for you? Capitalizing on the public’s increasing desire for healthy fast food, Nicole Diamantis and her partner Ryan Jeffries are opening Asheville's first vegetarian drive-through. The business, VegHeads Drive-Thru, will open in early March in the old Backyard Burger location at 705 Merrimon Ave., says Diamantis.

Diamantis and Jeffries are not vegetarians, but share a love of food and an extensive background in the restaurant business. In fact, they met while waiting tables together at local Mediterranean foodie favorite, Rezaz.

The first question on many minds may be how late the drive-through will stay open. North of 51 Grill, there just isn’t much to eat late at night. The hours for the eatery have not yet been nailed down, says Diamantis, but the couple is considering quick, after-hours nibbles for night owls. "We were thinking 10 a.m. until 10 p.m.," says Diamantis. "But we might extend it if we felt like there were enough people that wanted to come by later than that."

Diamantis notes that most everything has been ripped out of the 900-square-foot building and replaced — so no worries, vegetarians. There will be no burger remnants in your falafel. She adds that there is also no dine-in seating at VegHeads Drive-Thru, though a cluster of tables outside the restaurant will allow for al fresco dining in mild weather. The restaurant will allow walk-up traffic as well.

Though the menu is still in development, Diamantis is clear on her central concept: The food that is served through that pass-through window at VegHeads will be affordable, recognizable and portable. It will also, she says, be simple enough to lend itself toward a menu that can be eventually sold as par of a franchise package — which also means consistency for the consumer. "We've built the restaurant to franchise, so we're not going to change any of these recipes as we go," says Diamantis. “It's going to be like any other drive-through, fast and friendly and consistent."

Just like any other drive-through, except for the abundance of house-made vegetarian options, as well as vegan, gluten-free and raw items. "I don't want to make vegetarian food new, or reinvent the wheel," says Diamantis. "I want it to be very accessible. We're not trying to bring other people over to a way of thought or a lifestyle, so much as to just say that we understand that people are in a rush and they don't want to eat McDonald's. This is food that people are familiar with." Items include veggie burgers, falafel and spanakopita. "Things that they really know and recognize pretty quickly," says Diamantis. "But there's also things tucked in there for really die-hard vegetarians who know their stuff and are serious about their food." To that end, she lists seaweed salad and goji-berry ginger tea. There will also be a value menu for kids — think ants on a log, for example.

No matter what, she says, every item will be recognizable. That's good news when you're waiting in a line of cars — part of what makes a fast-food drive through successful is a menu simple enough to enable customers to choose quickly. And the couple knows a little about what makes a drive-through successful: they've sat for hours observing them, timing lines of cars going through the process for research. "My husband has never eaten so much McDonald's," Diamantis laughs.

For more information, visit vegheadsdrivethru.com or email vegheadsdrivethru@gmail.com.

And on the complete other end of the spectrum…

The new Arcade bar has taken off like an Excitebike motorcycle. However, the first incarnation of the menu needed some work. The new bar is responding to customer feedback by ramping up the menu — replacing all regular mustard with Lusty Monk mustard and putting bacon in damn near everything, for starters. That'll keep them happy — until the cholesterol check.

There's a bacon bruschetta, a bacon pimento cheese sandwich, a smoked gouda macaroni and cheese with an option to add bacon and jalapeños, double pork sliders (with bacon) and a grilled peanut butter and grape jelly sandwich with (yes really) bacon. Yes, the kitchen has also added a new salad and a few flat-bread pizzas for vegetarians. But then, there's the pizza panini made with two grilled-cheese sandwiches stuffed with pepperoni. It's kind of awesome in an artery-clogging way. It certainly provides a counterpoint to Rosetta's, the completely vegetarian late-night food fixture on Lexington Avenue.

"It's the opposite of Rosetta's. It's like the worst shit for your body you can eat," says owner Joshua Aaron. "And that's kind of what we're going for."

"We're buying defibrillators and installing them in the bathroom," quips Arcade marketing manager Kelly Gold.

It's possible that some medical attention might be necessary after a plate of the chili-cheese tater tots the bar is now serving, washed down with a Kirby — a deceptively innocent tasting bubble-gum cocktail named for the pink video game character.

Also, in a continued effort to destroy your health in the most fun way possible, Arcade has introduced "Sunday Funday." Every Sunday, all food and drinks are half-price.

Arcade is located at 130 College St. in downtown Asheville. For more information, visit the Arcade Asheville Facebook page.

China Palace celebrates the New Year

There will be no rabbit served at China Palace for the Chinese New Year, but there will be dragon. This year, China Palace is throwing a celebration on the eve of the Year of the Rabbit, Wednesday, Feb. 2, at 6:15 p.m. The celebration will include a special buffet of traditional Chinese good luck food for the year ahead, as well as a Dragon Dance, another tradition for prosperity in the new year. The Dragon Dance is a cultural event that dates back to the Han Dynasty. It will be performed by martial artists from local dojos moving a long, colorful dragon to the beat of live drummers.

China Place is located at 4 S. Tunnel Road. For more information, call 298-7098.

South side steak

Ruth's Chris is coming to south Asheville. The steakhouse, part of an upscale nationwide chain, will sit at 26 All Souls Crescent, not far outside of the gates of the Biltmore Estate. The restaurant will open in the fall of this year, and the official groundbreaking takes place Thursday, Feb. 3. finalizing a two-year effort to bring the internationally renowned brand to the Western North Carolina market.

There will be seating for more than 200 in the Tudor-style building, with employment opportunities for approximately 70 people. Founded in New Orleans by Ruth Fertel in 1965, Ruth’s Chris specializes in USDA prime-grade steaks. Asheville Prime LLC, the ownership group of the Asheville location, includes local developer and entrepreneur John Bell, CEO of The Columbus Group, Inc. and Ruth’s Chris franchisee Paula Conway.

Interesting timing, considering Steak & Wine closed just last month.

For more information about Ruth's Chris Steakhouse, visit ruthschris.com

— Send your food news to Mackensy Lunsford at food@mountainx.com.

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