The Asheville area has been bursting with new food businesses lately. When it comes to restaurant options, we've got plenty: Pick up a steamer bucket of shellfish at Bluewater Seafood on Charlotte Street, grab a sandwich at Cucina 24 Deli on Wall Street, or scoop up a crêpe from the Twisted Crêpe on Haywood Street. To think, none of these options were available when this hot summer began.
Xpress recently visited some of the newer players on the local food scene to find out if business has been booming or dragging. What did we find out? A good location, low prices — or a combination of both — seem to be a winning formula.
A taste of Jamaica
Simma Down Caribbean Cafe opened on Market Street earlier this year in the building vacated by One Love Jamaican restaurant. Simma Down also turns out Jamaican classics, served to the gentle beat of reggae music. Think ackee and salt fish, goat curry, jerk snapper and Jamaican beef patties. The prices are reasonable, the portions are big and the flavors are authentic.
It stands to reason: Dave Mullins, the executive chef of the restaurant, hails from the Caribbean island. "This is real, authentic Jamaican," he says. "No exception. We're doing the right thing and people are loving it."
Mullins says that the ox tails, which he sources from Hickory Nut Gap, are a huge favorite at Simma Down, as is the Ital menu, a substantial pile of vegetarian goodness "flavored by the coconut and blessed by Jah." Though the exact components change, expect to see some variation on coconut curry with rice, peas and greens, served with cocoa bread. "It's nothing frozen ever," says Mullins. "We do cabbage, sweet potato, fresh carrot and bell pepper, scotch bonnet or habeñero pepper and sometimes fresh okra. It's all cooked up in coconut milk with the traditional Ital rub."
The jerk chicken is right on target, but diners would be well-advised to note that the bone-in chicken is hacked up before the meat is removed (so, beware the bone shards, but be thankful for the moisture they impart). By the way, a quarter of a jerk chicken at lunchtime only costs $5, sans sides.
Despite the low prices and feedback that Mullins describes as "100-percent positive," he hopes to get the word out on the street that Caribbean cuisine on "The Block" is not a thing of the past simply because One Love closed its doors. "We still need a lot more people to know," he says. "That's what's going to let us survive."
Simma Down is located at 42 S. Market St. and is open seven days a week. For more information, call 252-8169.
A Southern sensibility
The Southern opened on Monday, Aug. 9, on the corner of Walnut and Lexington, in a gem of a spot that should make any restaurateur jealous, what with its substantial patio and spacious interior.
The kitchen, however, seems like it would be a headache. Due to its location in the building, ventilation is limited, so chef Terri Roberts may not cook with an open flame. You heard that right — no fire in this kitchen.
In Roberts' hands, however, the Southern is rocking out some mighty fine food. An heirloom tomato gazpacho with jalepeño sorbet is certifiably stellar and refreshing, and the pimento cheese may just be the best in town.
There's also the Southern scallopini with tender sous vide panko-fried pork loin cutlets, served with sweet corn succotash and black-eyed peas. Truffled deviled eggs show up alongside roasted chicken salad, and steamed mussels go bayou with dirty rice and andouille. Think urban Southern, and you've got the picture.
Joel Hartzler, one of the three owners of the Southern, says that the prime location has enabled the team to forgo any advertising, beyond simply "opening the doors."
"I didn't really want to do anything, because I didn't want to get slammed," says Hartzler. In other words, a soft-ish opening has enabled the staff to figure out what they need to do to make the Southern into a well-oiled machine.
Chef Roberts agrees. "I feel like the food's coming out really well — I love this menu, and I'm just excited about it. I think it's just going to get better."
The Southern is located at 41 N. Lexington Ave. For more information, call 251-1777.
The Twisted Crêpe recently opened on Haywood Street. The crêperie's timing was brave, to say the least — it can't be easy to start a new business right in the midst of Bele Chere.
Owner Dustin Pulliam maintains that there were no foibles or pratfalls, despite opening during a time when the population of Asheville temporarily explodes. "It went really smooth, which was awesome," he says. "Ever since then, it's been easy because we got so busy that one weekend."
The restaurant has continued to run smoothly since then, says Pulliam, who notes that he already has repeat customers. The best business model these days, after all, seems to be affordability.
"I wanted to do something with a really cool feel and local pricing instead of tourist pricing," says Pulliam. Though there's nothing especially extravagant about these crêpes, the prices are indeed refreshing, especially for those of us who can't afford to eat like a tourist. There's no arguing with $2.99 for a breakfast crêpe, for example.
Rather substantial in size and stuffed with cheese, sauce and choice of three veggies, it is safely said that "The Shorty" is one of the best breakfast deals in Asheville. PBR is also a bargain at only $1, and bottles of Highland beer are only $2.50 (not that we suggest either for breakfast).
The Twisted Crêpe is located at 62 Haywood St. The restaurant opens at 8 a.m. and closes at 10 p.m. For more information, call 505-3855.
Speaking of crêpes…
Bouchon Street Food opened on Lexington earlier this summer. The little kiosk is located in the alley next to Bouchon. Sure, it’s a tucked-away spot with just a smattering of seats, but in that alley, diners can find an affordable solution to their hunger, including the popular nova lox and sour cream crêpe with chives.
Xpress stopped by to chat with owner Michel Baudouin, to find out if he and his team had managed to iron out all the kinks yet.
"Do you ever?" he asks, letting loose with his trademark belly laugh. "We're fine-tuning it, but we've had to do very little. The response has been positive. We could use a little more seating, so we're working on that," he says.
Baudouin adds that the biggest hit on his street-food menu has been the house-made hot dog — or chien chaud, as it’s called. Served on a City Bakery baguette alongside Bouchon’s almost-famous herbes de Provence-tossed fries for a very affordable $5, the item’s popularity is not particularly shocking. "We have people walking around tweeting, 'best dog in town,'" he says.
According to Baudouin, it appears that much of his clientele works in the area. Indeed, several familiar characters have been observed by this reporter walking down Lexington, carrying a basket of dogs with frîtes. When the locals frequent your establishment more than the tourists? That’s a good sign that your fare is a good value. "People have enjoyed the prices," Baudouin confirms.
The main hurdle to better sales this summer, Baudouin says, has been the heat. "The minute it cools off, sales are up," he reports. Regardless, he says, "So far, so good! This food is a real deal, so that's a good thing."
Bouchon Street food is located next to Bouchon at 62 N. Lexington Ave. For more information, call 350-1140, or visit ashevillebouchon.com.
— Send your food news to Mackensy Lunsford at firstname.lastname@example.org