It didn’t long for the tens of thousands of Yankees who have relocated to this side of the Mason-Dixon line to realize all that was charming about the South—stately Magnolia trees perfuming the humid air, sweating pitchers of ice-cold sweet tea and rocking chairs on the front porch—might just go well with a bagel and schmear.
Because, honestly, there’s only so much fried chicken, country ham, pimento cheese and barbecue the Northern diner can stomach. After enough rounds of sweet-potato pie and mint juleps, folks who grew up munching on snow and sucking on icicles start craving a sandwich made with Boar’s Head meat.
“That Boar’s Head sign means so much,” says Miffy Cashwell, a New Yorker who resettled in Asheville by way of Florida. “There’s nothing like Boar’s Head. You can’t get it just anywhere.”
Fortunately for Cashwell, Boar’s Head meats and other Eastern-seaboard favorites are on the menu at a number of local Yankee-run establishments geared toward fellow homesick Northerners. These pioneering restaurants have cut through the Southern fog of fry to add pizza, Philly cheese steaks and bagels to Buncombe County’s collective buffet. And while they still count Asheville’s many Northerners among their most devoted customers, restaurant owners say Southerners are starting to develop a taste for good Northern cooking—albeit with a distinctive twang.
“We’ve had to be very versatile,” sighs Michelle Mescall, manager of the Philly Hoagie House on Weaverville Highway. “Southerners are a challenge, but I think we’re meeting the needs of their taste buds.”
Mescall, a Hershey, Penn., native, last worked in marketing for the Philadelphia Eagles. Although her job involved almost constant consumption of the city’s signature thinly sliced steak sandwich—or perhaps because of it—she found she couldn’t stop thinking about cheese steaks after her move to Asheville.
“I moved here for the slower pace of life, but I missed the food,” Mescall explains.
So Mescall did what any efficient Northerner would do: She partnered with her dad, Bill, to open the county’s first cheese-steak emporium. The eatery’s menu features the classic Philly cheese steak—grilled steak tucked into an Amoroso roll blanketed with fried onions, and then slathered with Cheez Whiz—along with portabello-mushroom grinders (a concession to the area’s many vegetarians) and steak sandwiches garnished with bacon, pepperoni and Swiss cheese.
Some Philadelphians might grudgingly allow that a porked-up cheese steak is still a cheese steak, but most would agree a single slice of Swiss propels the sandwich to non-cheese-steak status. How wrongheaded is requesting Swiss instead of Cheez Whiz, provolone or white American cheese? When perpetually out-of-touch presidential candidate John Kerry visited Philadelphia’s legendary Pat’s King of Steaks, he chose a Swiss-topped steak.
“We’ll do it with different cheeses,” Mescall admits. “People like it that way, so we’ve adapted.”
That doesn’t mean Mescall plans to mess with the original cheese steak, or stop carrying Tastykakes or Italian water ices (although she had to discontinue offering pretzels when their freshness started succumbing to the warm summer weather). Like most Northerners running restaurants, she prides herself on her purist interpretation of her top-selling item.
Peter Estrada, co-owner of Circle in the Square in north Asheville, is still practicing the skills he learned as a pizzoulo in Westchester County. His allegiance to traditional New York-style pizza-making methods has made his pies popular with fellow transplants.
“People travel as far as an hour away to eat our pizza,” says Estrada, monitoring the kitchen from the customer side of the deli case (displaying—what else?—Boar’s Head meats). “Some people tell me it’s the best pizza they’ve ever had.”
“It is!” barks an unseen voice from a backroom in response.
“I had a feeling there were enough people here who would like it,” Estrada says of his staking out a New York pizza niche on Merrimon Avenue three years ago.
North Asheville is apparently fertile ground for New York-ish eateries, perhaps because the neighborhood is a few miles closer to Brooklyn than downtown (which, a few years back, witnessed the shuttering of the Grove Arcade’s Goldberg’s Deli, the only place in town to score a bowl of matzoh-ball soup and a can of Dr. Brown’s black-cherry soda). Or perhaps the Northern-leaning restaurant scene reflects the demographics of the UNCA area, which is also home to Asheville’s two synagogues.
“We have a big Jewish trade,” says New York Bagels owner Heidi Nachbaur, who took over the popular Merrimon Avenue deli in the late 1990s.
Nachbaur says she rarely encounters a customer who doesn’t understand the meaning of a good bagel and lox: “In this place, I don’t have that problem,” she laughs. Even native North Carolinians have gotten the hang of bagels, a yeasty Central European treat that didn’t show up in the South until the 20th century.
Nachbaur and her husband Frank are accustomed to countering the prevailing “eat local” ethic, having spent a decade in Florida selling Southern food to Northerners. At the Tom Sawyer Restaurant in Boca Raton, the Nachbaurs peddled salty North Carolina hams in a building decorated to look like a log cabin. “We even had a bust of Mark Twain,” Nachbaur says.
Now the Nachbaurs have returned to their Northern roots with bagels that Dave Hoeler, a Long Islander living in Weaverville, calls the best in the state.
“This is the best Yankee shop I’ve ever been to,” says Hoeler, joining his wife Liz for a bagel breakfast. “I just found out about it, and I won’t go anywhere else now.”
Liz Hoeler had never eaten bagels til she met Dave, a self-professed “true Italian New Yorker.”
“When we’d go up north, we’d get bread and stuff,” she says.
“I changed your world,” says Dave, beaming.
Cashwell comes into New York Bagels nearly every day for a bagel with cream cheese and ham (a combo that would confound, if not offend, some bagelries in the big city). “Mondays are the worst days of the week,” says Cashwell of the deli’s day off. “Very depressing, because you can’t get your bagels.”
Cashwell thinks the Nachbaurs, in addition to churning out great bagels, are doing wonders for Northerners’ reputation in the South.
“Lot of times, when you hear about New Yorkers, you hear about them being snooty and rude,” says Cashwell. “[The Nachbaurs] are not.”
But, as the saying goes, you can take the boy out of the Big Apple … . Asheville’s Northern-born restaurant owners aren’t yet yielding to all of the South’s mores. When an order is placed at Circle in the Square, Estrada is Yankee-quick to pounce on it: “Be up in a New York minute!”