Sometimes the outskirts of Asheville remind you of a different city entirely. The quirky, independent and free-spirited vibe of the town seems to fade into a haze of strip malls and chain and big-box stores. When driving past the stretches of fast-food joints that seem to run the length of Hendersonville Road, how do you find local food? If you’re out and about, hiking in Brevard, running errands in Skyland, or trekking to the airport to pick up a friend, where should you eat?
Here’s a sampling from south Asheville.
It’s 8 a.m. on a Saturday. I’m tired, slightly hung over and in desperate need of some new vinyl records to sooth this aching head. That’s how I landed at Smiley’s Flea Market. As soon as you step out of the car, you get a sense of the place: The aroma of seared meat drifts through the air. There’s a buzz of patrons bartering in Spanish, Korean, English, Portuguese — and at least a half- dozen more I’ve never heard before. Hundreds of men, women and children bargain for everything from used DVDs to ax handles. Bins overflow with tomatoes, peppers, fresh produce and berries that are completely foreign to me. But follow the smells to the back corner and you’ll find Don Taco. Years after opening, this mainstay of the market is still slapping down the goods.
It’s early, so I’m the only one in the restaurant. But the hip-hop is cranked up, and my eyes are burning from the smell of the onions on the grill. I can already tell this is best idea I’ve had all morning. The menu is printed on a small sheet of paper on the front counter. Simple: tacos, tortas, the usual fare. I order my common test specimen, lengua (tongue) tacos. I sit near the counter so that I can see into the kitchen. While I wait, I watch the cook flatten dough with his palms and toss it onto the griddle. He is making the tortillas from scratch, by hand. Few taquerias in Asheville do this. When my tacos are served to me, the tortillas are still warm. They’re doughy and have just the right pillow-like structure to balance the bite of fresh onions, cilantro and tender meat.
And talk about fresh, the onions even still make my eyes water a bit. The cilantro has snap. Maybe I’m crazy for eating tacos in a dive joint at a flea market at 8 a.m., but as I watch the seats begin to fill up with Spanish-speaking patrons, I realize I’m in exactly the right place.
Blue Sky Café
This one comes out of left field for me. My friend Jen and I are running errands in the deeper south of Asheville when hunger pangs kick in. I remember that in high school, my girlfriend loved Blue Sky Cafe’s infamous sweet-potato fries with honey drizzle, but it has been years since I went there.
Blue Sky takes its kitsch seriously — blues, oranges and Myrtle Beach-style patterns smother the walls and furniture; plastic-bead curtains clank in the air conditioning.
After settling into my brightly colored table, I ask the enthusiastic and exceedingly well-mannered young waiter what they are known for, because the menu is like picking up a novel: It lists 130 items on the standard portion alone (yes, I counted). My first thought was that it might be easier to finish Moby Dick than decide on a lunch order. The waiter suggests, “Mostly our chicken wraps! But I like it all!”
Unfortunately, while I acknowledge the health factor, to me, a wrap is a sandwich without the bread — the good stuff. I’d rather eat a salad. But I take the waiter at his word and order the Tuscan chicken wrap. When I bite into the tender and perfectly seasoned meat, smothered in melted provolone, I get it. The pesto, roasted red peppers and spinach are traditional and pleasant fare. I devour it. One minute it is there, and the next … it is not. Jen orders a basic egg, bacon, spinach and tomato sandwich. The ingredients are fresh; the egg is well prepared. All is well.
What strikes me about Blue Sky Cafe is not just how unpretentious it is, but how good it is. I could come here in sweat pants and T-shirt and devour some excellent fried chicken without feeling like I was being judged. The staff is warm and friendly, the beer is cold and the food is healthy, quick and substantial. It all says, “Welcome to the neighborhood! Hungry?”
Celebrity’s Hot Dogs
Wednesday near Biltmore Park, my old friend Sam (being much more well-versed on the culinary landscape of the south Asheville regions than I) steers me toward Celebrity’s Hot Dogs. “They’re one of the few places in town that steam their buns, which is controversial with a lot of people,” he explains. “But to me, that’s the best, because its something you just can’t do at home.”
Celebrity’s, owned by the former NASCAR driver Robert Pressley, offers very affordable fare and comes totally decked out in kitsch memorabilia from a career that spanned more than 500 races. Old-school country music in the background adds to the atmosphere. Did I mention the dogs are great too?
The big controversy with the steamed bun is the texture. Many feel that it is too mushy, and unless the skin of the dog crunches, it can be a little off-putting. To me though, the steamed bun takes on a dumpling-like quality that highlights the dog and doesn’t keep the focus on the bread.
I order enough to feed a small family. I’m particular about being able to taste the dog itself, so I start with a kraut rendition (sauerkraut and mustard), which is simple, standard and exactly what I want. The chili cheese dog is just what it sounds like — a ton of flavors and delicious, complete with a house-made chili. I wrap it up with the all-the-way dog (chili, onion, slaw and mustard). But it’s too much for me. The fries come crinkled, a style that I have quite an affection for, and they suit Celebrity’s lack of vanity. Besides, they’re better with chili and cheese. I see a lot of Celebrity’s dogs in my not-too-distant future.
What local food joints do you favor in south Asheville? Let us know at firstname.lastname@example.org.
— Jonathan Ammons is an Asheville native.