The quick dish: checking in with Mojo Kitchen & Lounge

A.J. Gregson and Autumn Pittman are bringing their unique brand of Latin-food mojo to downtown Asheville. The pair – partners in both business and life—recently took over the kitchen at One Stop Deli & Bar on College Street and is making some creative changes to both the space and the menu. Under the new name Mojo Kitchen & Lounge, Gregson and Pittman are dishing out what their menu describes as “magic fo ya mouth.”

The couple are not new to the restaurant scene or One Stop. They had been selling their “New World cuisine” for two years under the name Mojo Taco Lounge, a mobile kitchen that toured festivals during the summer months. Gregson, a Johnson & Wales graduate, was One Stop’s kitchen manager for a year and a half, and Pittman worked front-of-house before owners Sam Katz and Katherine Powell offered the couple a chance to make the restaurant their own venture.

The menu at Mojo Kitchen & Lounge offers a diverse blend of familiar One Stop Deli offerings, favorites from the pair’s festival-vending days and new creations by Gregson. The space still retains reminders of its former incarnation – such as the funky floor painting by local artist Adam Strange— but Gregson and Pittman have given it a fresh, bright look and feel. The Asheville Music Hall and One Stop music venues have not changed and still offer the same schedule of regular events, including the popular Sunday Bluegrass Brunch and Free Dead Fridays.

Xpress recently sat down with Pittman and Gregson to talk about what they are doing with the restaurant and where they see their new venture heading.

Xpress: Your menu has tacos and a Latin focus, but it also has a lot of diversity. What would you say is your standout dish right now?

A.J. Gregson: It’s New World cuisine, which means anything indigenous to the Americas. Right now the Mojo macaroni and cheese and the nachos are popular. … My hands-down favorite dish is the fish and chips that happens on Thursday. The fish and chips is blackened, grilled tilapia with tostones, which are like twice-fried green plantains, and chimichurri sauce and a little bit of our taco slaw. You kind of just piece it all together on the tostone and eat it like a canapé, and it’s amazing. That’s usually what I eat. That’s my go-to right now.

I recently ate a pretty amazing tempeh melt here, and you won second place and the People’s Choice Award in the 2013 Epic Tempeh Taco Challenge. You obviously have a way with tempeh. What did you make for the taco competition?
Gregson:  Instead of using tortillas, I used tostones for the base. I smashed them really thin, and before I fried them I molded them on the handle of a rolling pin so they would be kind of tortilla shaped. Then we did blackened tempeh and chimichurri sauce with slaw that we make here and mango hot sauce. And that was it. The year before I won third place in the Epic Reuben Challenge, and there’s also the Wing Wars. Last year I took first place in Specialty and second place in Buffalo in the Asheville Wing Wars. The first Sunday in March will be the next Asheville Wing Wars and I’ll be doing a specialty sauce. Last year’s was a garlic-teriyaki sauce that won the Specialty award, and I kept that on our menu for the year.
Autumn: He has a flair for sauce.

You have a child, and I noticed that you have developed a solid kids menu and made Wednesday a kids-eat-free night. Are you working on making Mojo a hangout for families?
Autumn Pittman: We want people to think of this as a place to come eat, especially before the 10 o’clock hour when the music and nightlife get going; anything that happens before that is geared toward parents and families. There’s space where kids can play, we have games and books and there are video games. We want it to feel like a place where everyone can come and hang out before 10 p.m.

Gregson: We have kids’ entertainment on Wednesdays, and on Saturday afternoons from 2 to 5 we do Reggae Family Jam: We get a bunch of children and families in here —everyone from 9 year olds to 75 year olds—onstage playing music. … The Reggae Family Jam is rockin’ and rollin’. It’s really a good time. The majority of our shows from 5 to 9 p.m. are free, and if not they are $2. And there’s an option to not have to pay the cover if you’re just coming in to eat.

Pittman:Also we’re offering Tuesday night teacher discounts: Teacher Appreciation Tuesdays. I used to be a teacher, and I really understand the way of the teacher. I really feel for them, and I want to offer a place to come after work, to maybe decompress with their colleagues or whatever, just give them a break. They get a 15 percent discount.

What’s your next step now that you have the place up and running?
Gregson: We’re really in here right now to feel it out. We understand that February is not the best month to get a feel for what people want as far as hours and food. In the future, we might open at 3 instead of 5. Or the lunch days might change. Nothing’s really set in stone. We’ve really only had our soft opening; we’re waiting to get more kitchen equipment before we do our grand opening. We’re waiting for our Indiegogo to finish and collecting the capital that we raise from that, and purchasing the equipment, paying back the carpenter and doing anything that needs to be done. We also want to repaint the front; get some planters out there.

Pittman: Yeah, with spring coming on we definitely want to brighten up the street view. 

How have you changed things since you took over the space and made it your own?
Pittman: One of the main things we wanted to do was create a more cohesive restaurant feel as you enter the space. It didn’t feel like an eatery, it felt like a bar; and there was a vacant space in front of the bar that nobody knew what to do with. I wanted to create a space where people felt like they could just come and eat and not necessarily have to go and be in a bar if they didn’t want to.

Gregson: We changed around the way the booths were set up and moved the counter. … We are in the process of getting an espresso machine and setting up a juice bar so we can do smoothies. …We want to be more available for lunch in the summertime and throughout the week, and offer coffee and juices and smoothies, as well as doing late-night until 2 a.m. And we’ve switched over to local with pretty much everything. We get our eggs from Cane Creek Farm, all our pork comes from Madison County, our beef is coming from Forsyth County, our tempeh comes from Smiling Hara, and then we just started using a jerk sauce that’s made in Waxhaw, N.C. and there’s a tortilla company in Waxhaw as well called Don Pancho that we may possibly start using. We use Strada Bakery. We’re really starting to build a good base, and I hope to put up a board in front to list all of these farms so people can see who we’re using. We’re doing everything we can to source locally.

Pittman: I think that one of the thing’s our town is all about, being such a food-oriented place, is that we all kind of work together to get our products out there and support each other.

Mojo Kitchen & Lounge is at 55 College Street. Hours are 5 p.m.-2 a.m. Tuesday and Wednesday; 11 a.m.-2 a.m. Thursday, Friday and Sunday and 2 p.m.-2 a.m. Sunday. It is closed on Monday. Limited delivery is available within walking distance of the restaurant. 255-7767


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