Flavor: Barbecue and comfort food
Ambiance: Casual to the point of being laid back
My love for all things porcine started at a tender age. I remember being on road trips with my family as a child. As soon as we’d hit the countryside, my father’s eyes would glaze over, and suddenly my mother and I would find ourselves being driven down some windy backwater road in pursuit of the ultimate pulled-pork sandwich. Eventually, if we were lucky, we would pull into the dusty lot of some ramshackle joint with a dancing pig painted on it and a couple of old guys gumming some ‘cue and mashed potatoes in the smoky semidarkness inside. My mother would be fully irritated by then, and I would be green with motion sickness, but my dad would be grinning like a kid who had found a secret candy store. In the end, all frayed nerves would be soothed with the food, because Dad always knew how to pick ’em.
12 Bones Smokehouse on Riverside Drive looks like the reward at the end of a barbecue detour gone right, though it’s clear from the bustling parking lot that this place is no secret. 12 Bones – named for the number of bones in a full rack of ribs – is housed in a humble, sturdy little brick building stubbornly planted deep in the heart of the French Broad River floodplain. Flooding soundly soaked the last tenant’s business, the Country Kitchen, under 33 inches of water during the 2004 hurricane season. A battered parking sign for the Kitchen is hung inside on the wall as a tribute to the business, which is now relocated on Smokey Park Highway. 12 Bones’ neighbors are mostly warehouses and empty lots, though River District-revitalization plans are swiftly turning this once-neglected area of Asheville into a thriving little community. The sign out front – the one that used to brag about cheap omelet specials and sausage biscuits – now touts “good cheap butt.” Now, who could argue with that?
The interior of the restaurant is filled with the nostalgic aroma of wood smoke (yeah, you might smell like a campfire later, but it’s better than smelling like fryer grease), as well as a bevy of anxious lunchers who, on the day I visited, included a couple of punk rockers, business ladies, dirty muscled guys in their Carhartt work clothes, a pair of police officers and a guy in a spray-painted leather jacket who walked in with a tiny poodle on a leash.
It quickly becomes clear that the interior design has taken second fiddle to the food; 12 Bones looks as though it were decorated by a magpie. The walls are hung with license plates, flattened PBR cans and metal signs stenciled with such weighty prose as, “Baby, everyday I wake up next to you is an excuse to drink.” It’s all rather goofy and immensely charming, in a scrappy kind of way.
When I arrived for lunch, a sea of backs stretched from the counter where orders are placed to the door, so I had plenty of time to study the place’s protocol. If you’re too busy salivating over the array of browning animal parts slowly smoking away to heavenly tenderness in the semi-open kitchen, you might miss the bucket of menus on the wall next to the door and arrive at the counter unprepared. If you’re driven to distraction pondering the sign that promises “tender butts and juicy racks,” you might not notice the line printed at the top of the menu that reminds patrons to check the board for the day’s side dish selections, which may differ from what’s on the menu. Should you fail to take note, you might end up as disappointed as the woman standing in front of me in line was – she was unaware of the system, and unwittingly grew excited over then-unavailable glazed carrots. I, for one, lusted after the unavailable jalapeño-cheese grits.
“Nothing says love like a rack of ribs,” the chalkboard sagely advised, and I couldn’t agree more. From a trio of flavors that included brown sugar and roasted garlic, I selected a half-rack of the chipotle-glazed ribs. For my sides, I decided to go home-style and comforting, ordering mac and cheese and collard greens. The meal came with cornbread, so at a total of $7.99, the price was right.
My food was brought steaming to my table shortly thereafter. The collards and the mac and cheese were both satisfying, but they could have used a bit more oomph – something that the ribs weren’t lacking. Smoky, spicy, sweet/tart and tender, they were satisfying to the primal part of me that likes to eat meat off the bone and get three kinds of messy while doing it.
Not wanting to leave my Picky Companion out of all the fun, I ordered him a pulled-pork platter, a smoked mushroom salad, the excellent cornbread and something called hog taters, all for a ridiculously reasonable $5.99. I had no idea what hog taters might entail, but it’s hard to pass up something with a name like that. Turns out they’re something like a very rustic potato gratin with bacon. Nothing rounds out a plate of barbecued pork better than some fried pork belly. Doused with a good bit of extra salt, they made for a pretty satisfying, hearty little dish.
The mushroom salad is also not to be missed – it’s earthy, smoky and hands-down the best side I sampled that day. The pork itself is moist, with just the right amount of fat, and tastes of long, slow smoking – in other words, the way barbecue should taste, especially after being smothered with some of the 12 Bones’ tomato-barbecue sauce. If you choose to order takeout from 12 Bones, don’t forget to grab some of the several varieties of sauces, which are absolutely essential additions for the pulled meats.
Barbecue fans, take notice – at 12 Bones Smokehouse, they’ve got a way with pig. However, if you’re so inclined, there are plenty of other things to eat: smoked turkey with brie and avocado, pulled chicken, and even a smoked portobello for the vegetarians who are comfortable sitting next to a guy with his face in a plate full of ribs. One of the owners even whips up a selection of homemade treats, like buttermilk pie and snickerdoodle cookies.
12 Bones certainly isn’t fancy, but it’s one of those rare eateries that’s all integrity and no fluff. Like the guy behind me said to his buddy in line, “It’s good, cheap food.” It’s the kind of place that would make my dad smile.