They don't call this city "foodtopia" for nothing. In Asheville, carnivores and vegetarians break (locally baked) bread together and inter-dietary couples abound. And sometimes, when it comes to matters of the heart intermingling with contrary dietary beliefs, things get interesting.
Tim and Taryn Jackson are one such couple that has had to adapt to the challenges of very different eating styles. Taryn decided to go fully vegetarian four years ago after watching a particularly disturbing film screened by PETA. "I made it through about 20 minutes before I got physically ill and had to leave, but he," she says, gesturing — not unkindly — to her meat-eating husband, "stayed inside and watched the whole thing."
"They killed a lot of things," Tim says matter-of-factly of the film, which detailed the use of animals for everything from belts to burgers. For the duration of the movie, Taryn wrote in her journal outside, eventually coming to the solid conclusion that she couldn't go back to the ways of meat-eating. "It was really emotional for me." And Tim? "Well, he came out of the movie and said, 'You wanna go get a burger?'" Taryn says, wryly.
"That was the first conflict, right off the bat," says Tim. "She said, 'No, I'm pretty much a vegetarian now.' I said, 'I guess we're diverging here on our dietary plans, then.'"
Still, the couple works hard to keep an open mind about each other's food philosophies. During the interview, in fact, Tim mentions — somewhat giddily — that he has a big Crock-Pot of meat bubbling away for when he gets home to his football game. Taryn (fortunately) says she's not often bothered by the scent of meat, but adds that watching Tim eat food like fried chicken is a bit loathsome. "If you have to gnaw it off a bone and it's slapping back at you, I can't even look," she says.
When the Jacksons dine out, they shy away from completely vegetarian restaurants. "He feels like he's being cheated if he goes out and it's only vegetarian," Taryn says.
In his own defense, Tim says that he will — and does — dine at completely meat-free eateries like the Laughing Seed Café to make his wife happy and get a little variety in his own diet, which he admits is a highly carnivorous one. "I know that, from a health standpoint, it's good to not eat meat for every meal … which I probably would, given a choice," he says.
Local pizza joints appeal to the Jacksons, where they'll often dine on a half-meat, half-veggie pies. Taryn jokes that she’s closer to a “carbo-tarian” than anything else. And Tim acknowledges that he's lucky that his wife puts up with sharing a half-meat pizza with him. "Some vegetarians are so strict that they wouldn't let meat even touch a pizza that they were eating, but she'll just pick it off and throw it at me," he says.
When it comes to restaurants that primarily serve meat, the vegetarian dishes can sometimes seem distressingly familiar. At what point, vegetarians often wonder, did portobello mushrooms become the de facto entree for vegetarians? "I hate mushrooms, so yes, I'm familiar with those restaurants," says Taryn.
Reaching across the (grocery) aisle
Fortunately, says Taryn, Asheville restaurants tend to be very accommodating to her requests, which wasn’t the case in her small Virginia hometown. “I tried to be vegetarian in high school, but my parents acted as if I'd declared I was an atheist,” says Taryn. “They acted like I wanted them to bend over backwards to create a different meal for me, making it nearly impossible."
Most of the restaurants Taryn encountered during that time had similar attitudes — so she stopped trying. "So now I feel lucky when I get a vegetarian option," she says. Not only do most Asheville restaurants provide viable alternatives to meat, but many of Asheville's independent restaurants get creative, thinking above and beyond the mushroom steak. Here are just a handful of options from a slew of restaurants you might not expect to be quite so vegetarian-friendly.
Think that a house of meat like Luella's Bar-B-Que would have nothing to offer the plant-matter eater? That's where you're wrong. While it's obvious that this 'cue spot has plenty for the carnivore, did you know that Luella's also offers something for vegetarians? Yep, there's a barbecue tempeh sandwich available, too. Sure, they'll take a playful dig at you for ordering it — "almost blasphemous, but it's so good we'll forgive you," says the menu — but it's worth it. With a side of mac-and-hoop cheddar and some hush puppies, you're doing vegetarian WNC-style. 501 Merrimon Ave. http://luellasbarbeque.com.
Chorizo's menu is stuffed to the gills with traditional Latin meat dishes like ropa vieja and arroz con pollo. But, tucked halfway down the interior of the menu, you'll find a small listing of vegetarian options including tofu fajitas and a garden paella with artichoke hearts, olives and roasted peppers. The fried yucca and plantains appeal to even the most devout meat-lovers. 1 Page Ave. http://chorizoNC.com.
Jack of the Wood was voted Best Pub Grub in the Xpress Best of WNC Poll. Anyone who's spent any time here knows that the word "grub" isn't an accurate representation of what's sold there. Although the food is comfortable and casual, to be sure, the ingredients used are topnotch. Meat-eaters will dig the fish tacos and the hearty beef-and-Guinness stew, and vegetarians will find plenty of comfort food for themselves as well. To wit: the veggie burger is handmade with hemp nuts and can be topped with a number of goodies; olive tapenade and jalapeño burger, anyone? There's also a tempeh Reuben and a few hearty meatless appetizers, like the Ploughman's lunch. 95 Patton Ave. http://jackofthewood.com.
Zambra is known for creative tapas — and sometimes adventurous offal. But the small-plates restaurant has plenty for the herbivore and carnivore alike. Obviously, the mixed-diet couple can nosh happily together on bread, cheese and olives, but dishes like crispy tofu with harissa and hummus are perfect protein-packed apps for those who eschew flesh. While meat eaters nibble on dishes as diverse as heart and tongue confit (yeah, be sure you can handle this before going), veg-heads may enjoy vegetarian paella and sautéed chickpeas. 85 Walnut St. http://zambratapas.com.
When it comes to a compromise restaurant, Rezaz wins on all fronts. This is the place to take adventurous eaters and the plain-Janes alike, as well as those with very different dietary needs. The kitchen turns out hearty meat-free options like goat-cheese ravioli with smoked-tomato cream, basil pesto and fried leeks and the Reza Mezze, filled with vegetarian dips like hummus, muhummara and baba ghanoush. Build an entire entree from vegetable sides like roasted asparagus and French beans or sautéed greens, with preserved lemon and raisin. Lest you think this place is solely for the non-meat-eater, consider the braised local-beef brisket or the pork T-bone. 28 Hendersonville Road. http://www.rezaz.com.
Nona Mia at Ritrovo has a number of options for those of any dietary persuasion. Pizzas, of course, may be had without meat, and the selection of hearty meatless toppings that the restaurant offers is quite large. Try the Funghi, made with local mushrooms, fresh cream, Pantaleo cheese and fresh oregano, or the Angelina with ricotta, pistachio and pickled red onion. While sausage abounds on some of the pastas — and extra meatballs can be added for a charge — the restaurant also offers
a roasted eggplant cavatappi with roasted peppers and fresh mozzarella. 1050 Haywood Road. http://www.nonamiaasheville.com.
And even a carni-centric place like Burgermeister’s has a fix for the vegetarians among us. While you might expect the vegetarian burgers to take a back seat to the rest of the menu, the kitchen turns out a homemade veggie patty in a rotating cast of flavors. The patty — or a tofu steak — can be substituted for any burger on the menu, and the restaurant also offers a tofu Philly “cheesesteak.” Tofu can also be added to any salad for a protein boost. 697 Haywood Road. http://burgermeisters.com.
— Send your food news to Mackensy Lunsford at email@example.com.