Image 1. Oxtail stew, One Love.
Image 2. Patrick Bulgin of One Love.
Image 3. Kielbasa, beets, latkes, Potato Wedge.
Image 4. Carol Meenan, Potato Wedge.
Image 5. Tabouleh, stuffed grape leaves, lamb, BG.
Image 6. Cid Haddad, BG.
The edges of Asheville have their own culinary life. Outside of downtown, where rent costs less and space to spread out comes easy, transplants to Asheville re-create the flavors of Jamaica, Poland and the Middle East. They cook with pride, and they serve without frills. Each restaurant owner works to balance their passion for the tastes of their heritage with the expectations that Asheville's consumers bring to the dining room.
Jamaican in Canton
Heading toward Canton, go past the old general store, the piano tuner and the tent revival (in season), and One Love Jamaican Restaurant sits on the left. It’s housed in a double-wide trailer, in a meadow surrounded by a fluorescent-green-and-yellow picket fence and a series of cement picnic tables.
The restaurant is the fourth incarnation of Jamaica native Patrick Bulgin's One Love concept, which since 2006 has had locations on Sweeten Creek Road, Eagle Street and downtown Hendersonville. In January, Bulgin brought his food to the eastern outskirts of Canton on Asheville Highway.
He says the country near Canton suits him. “Somebody said, 'Oh no. Don't go there. It's redneck,'” he says. “I said, 'I don't like that word. I'm going to go. So I come here, and I like it.” In his lime-green dining room, he serves the dishes he grew up with to the people of Haywood County, as well as to sojourners from Asheville and Hendersonville.
The traditional Jamaican plates come as curries, jerks and stews. Bulgin offers conventional cuts of chicken, pork and beef, plus goat, oxtail and salt fish. He orders the meat cut to the specific thickness that suits his recipes, and marinates it days in advance. He serves his creations simply but proudly, prefaced by banana cornbread and accented with sides of peas and rice, collard greens, cabbage, plantains and baked macaroni and cheese.
He models his cooking after that of his mother, who worked in the kitchens of the Jamaican elite while Bulgin was growing up. She also served the island’s eminent visitors, including Johnny Cash. “I know that I love to cook because my mom,” Bulgin says. “I always stand up and watch her like this because she work so hard to send us to school. And I said, 'I wonder if one day I'm going to do something good before she dies so I can help her.'”
In 1979, Bulgin relocated to the United States and began cooking in New York City, where he honed his skills for the next 22 years, hoping to impress his mother. “She said, 'I used to cook better,'” he says, chuckling.
He grew determined to start his own restaurant, so he moved to Hendersonville in 2001, and in one building or another, he's served his national dishes since 2006. He says Jamaican food is new to many of his customers, but he finds ways to ease them into the cuisine. “Sometimes some people come and say it's too spicy,” he says. “I try my best to introduce something more flavorful to them, not spicy, especially Caribbean chicken,” a mild, coconut milk-based dish.
His efforts have paid off: Curried goat has become a strong seller at One Love, and the customers enthusiastically down fish tea, a broth-based concoction that Bulgin prepares for special events. He's even started catering weddings.
For now, One Love will stay put, Bulgin says, but he would like to move one day to Haywood Road in West Asheville. One Love, 2153 Asheville Highway, serves from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday, and 12 p.m. to 6 p.m. on Sunday. The restaurant also caters. For more information, call 233-6797 or look for One Love on Facebook.
Polish in Woodfin
Baba's Kitchen has a new name, but Baba's influence remains. Owner Carol Meenan changed the name of the Woodfin eatery to The Potato Wedge in July in response to skepticism from would-be patrons.
“People were profiling: They thought it was Indian, Turkish and Mediterranean,” she says. “[Our business is] already up 30 percent because of just the name change.” In fact, “baba” means grandmother in the Slavic languages. Meenan originally named the restaurant after the woman who inspires her cooking. She grew up hearing the tale of the family matriarch, her grandmother, Anna Ostak, who walked from Poland to Germany with a group of Gypsies and stowed away on a boat to America.
“She raised me. That's my blood,” Meenan says. “She cooked and cooked and cooked. When my aunt Rosie got married, the wedding went on for a week. They went to their honeymoon after they got married; they got back, it was still going on.”
Meenan grew up in New York City, where she learned to cook Polish and Russian dishes under the tutelage of her grandmother. Her father's family owned butcher shops, where she learned to smoke meats. “It's an art,” she says. “I carry out a tradition.” Old photographs of family businesses and aunts, uncles and cousins dot the walls of The Potato Wedge's cozy dining room, where Meenan has served food inspired by her heritage for the past three years.
At home, Meenan says she makes sausage, sauerkraut and pierogies from scratch. At the Potato Wedge, though, not everyone appreciates her traditional Russian specialties. “I had a lot of Russian food on here, and I had to pull a lot of it because nobody was ordering it,” she says. “They would say, 'If I can't pronounce it, I'm not eating it.'”
She continues to cook the food she loves, but she's begun a miniature marketing campaign to change the names of her grandmother's dishes and make them more accessible to the Woodfin dining crowd. Just as Baba's Kitchen became The Potato Wedge, chicken paprikash, a stew spiced and hued with paprika, becomes chicken and rice. A palachinka becomes a blintz.
Some of the Eastern European menu items have been casualties of Meenan's efforts to make the food more familiar to her customers, such as the pierogies, but she says she hopes to phase them back in.
Now, the menu mostly hosts American breakfast and lunch staples: pancakes, omelets, biscuits, burgers, pork chops and hot dogs. But Meenan sprinkles Polish tastes among the familiar items. Kielbasa (from a New Jersey butcher), latkes, sauerkraut and pickled beets make appearances in addition to the rotating cast of specials (Polish cooking in disguise).
Meenan says she's still trying to find the right balance between Polish flavors and American tastes, but if her customers are in the mood for one of Baba's dishes, all they have to do is ask.
The Potato Wedge (formerly Baba's Kitchen), 1459 Merrimon Ave. in Woodfin, serves breakfast and lunch Monday through Friday from 7 a.m. to 2 p.m. and weekends from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. For more information, call 281-3613.
Middle Eastern in the mall
In the food court of the Asheville Mall, across the atrium from Chick-fil-A and next door to Subway, Cid Haddad connects with his Middle Eastern heritage.
“It's always in the back of your memory, that taste, that little taste,” he says. “You just want to always get as close as you can to that taste.”
In an attempt to reproduce that taste, Haddad and his brother Jamal, created Baba Ghannouj, first in Raleigh and Durham, then in Wilmington, and now in Asheville. Their small restaurant has grown into a nine-store enterprise, with locations in malls, colleges and shopping centers.
Haddad grew up in Kuwait, in a family of Palestinian heritage, with 10 siblings and a mother who loved to cook. “She can stand to any chef, and she does not have no recipes: She just puts it together,” he says. “She makes string beans in a way with lamb, ooh. And these here, stuffed grape leaves, there's two ways to cook them. She cooks them with the meat and stuffed with zucchini and squash. When you eat that, you will think you are in heaven. I love it. I love it.”
After he moved to the United States in his 20s, Haddad collaborated with his brother on a pizza restaurant. But after awhile, the pair decided to shift their focus back to their roots. “Why would you try something that is not your culture?” Haddad says. And from that question, they developed Baba Ghannouj as a way to express “that little knack for cooking,” as Haddad calls it, that they find from their mother.
The spotless deli case that fronts their stall holds hummus drizzled with olive oil, baba ghanoush (the eponymous roasted eggplant dip), chickpea salad, tabbouleh, pickled turnips and cucumbers, stuffed grape leaves and fresh vegetable and fruit salads. “It's very hard to present it in a mall,” Haddad says. “It takes a lot of work. We have to cut and prepare two or three times a day.”
On the menu board above the case, gyros, kabobs, shawarma and falafel come mild or spicy. The meats include lamb, beef and chicken, and vegetarian options are abundant.
But the menu downplays one Middle Eastern staple in particular: pita bread. Haddad says nearby sources of fresh pocket bread are hard to find, and while Baba Ghannouj offers gyros in pitas, Haddad recommends burritos and hoagies to hold shawarma and falafel. “It gives it that extra taste that is missing in the Middle East,” he says. “If I ever go back, I will definitely try this over there.”
Plus, he adds, the well-known breads make the Middle Eastern meats more familiar to the average mall-goer. He says a lot of people stop by his case to look, and some of them move on, but if he can entice the picky eaters to taste a sample, they usually buy the food.
But certain customers come to the stall with Middle Eastern food in mind: veterans. “After all the trouble, a lot more know about it now, all these people who went there for the fighting,” Haddad says. “It makes the talk a lot easier when you're starting to talk about something common between you, which is the food. I like it; you like it. It does break the ice.”
Baba Ghannouj is in the food court of the Asheville Mall at 3 Tunnel Road. Mall hours are Monday through Saturday, 10 a.m. – 9 p.m. and Sunday noon – 6 p.m.
Emily Patrick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.