Just down the road: Highlights of the Enka-Candler food scene

HISTORY: Miami Restaurant (and its historic sign) started in the early 1950s and lives on as a neighborhood favorite. Photo by Margaret Williams

From homemade country sausage to a rice bowl flavored with an Indonesian-style gado-gado sauce, Enka-Candler’s evolving food scene proves that good eats go best with a big helping of community, history and heart.

Consider this sampling: the Miami Restaurant, with its half-century of history; the Artisan Café and Coffee House, the new kid on the block that tilts toward upscale; and the family-style Highway 151 Restaurant (call it “Kim and Donovan’s” if you want to sound like a local).

“Simple food; nothing fancy,” says Miami owner Hercules “Rocco” Papazahariou.

“I fix what I like to eat — traditional with a twist,” notes Artisan owner Kris Paxton.

“Family-style,” says Marshall Ayers, who’s filling in for his dad at Highway 151 when I drop by. “Come and sit down and see people. Chances are, you know the folks in the next booth.”

Nonlocals, though, might easily miss out on Enka-Candler’s good food.

Drive down the Smoky Park Highway and the most visible eateries are the same ones that could be found anywhere: Sonic, Zaxby’s, McDonald’s. But west of Interstate 40’s Exit 44, there’s not a Ruth’s Chris Steak House, Olive Garden or other big national chain in sight, though you will find a J&S Cafeteria, a California-style Mexican grill (Botanas & Beer) and a coffee house (Rejavanation) in the community’s biggest shopping center, near Asbury Road.

Down the way, tucked in near a fence company and a few vacant buildings, sits Cruizers, the race car-themed home of the best milkshakes in town (not to mention the Cruizer Challenge: Can you down a 48-ounce burger in less than 34 minutes, the current record?).

For a family-style, sit-down dinner, turn off the main drag at Highway 151 (the Pisgah Highway). In less than a block, you’ll find Kim and Donovan’s, a lunch-and-dinner restaurant that advertises steak, seafood, pasta and burgers.

Ayers describes both the food and décor as “down-home,” with meat-and-vegetable combos every day, a “world famous” taco salad, frequent specials like shrimp and grits, and classic desserts (think peach cobbler). A sign near the list of daily specials puts patrons on notice that there’s a $5 charge for whining. Marshall says his family’s been in the restaurant business at least 30 years, teasing his mother, who’s busy sweeping up after the lunch rush.

Kim Ayers amends that estimate, though, noting that she and her husband met while working at Shoney’s but went out on their own around the time Marshall was born — about 24 years ago. More than a decade later, she explains, they bought the restaurant, whose history includes a brief spell as a pizza joint with more space devoted to pool tables than booths for diners. The Ayerses made more room for serving food, focusing on classic American fare. Their cheeseburger combo is one of the most popular items, notes Kim, but the grilled pork chops are the best thing on the menu. “You don’t need a knife to cut them,” she boasts.

DOWN HOME: Highway 151 Restaurant (Kim and Donovan's) dishes out home-style cooking. Pictured: co-owner Kim Ayers
DOWN HOME: Highway 151 Restaurant (Kim and Donovan’s) dishes out home-style cooking. Pictured: co-owner Kim Ayers

The Ayerses know how to get their grits thick and creamy while still keeping the grilled shrimp tender. And when I say I didn’t expect to get good shrimp in Candler, Marshall asks, “Why not?” His are cooked perfectly, perched atop a huge plate of cheesy grits sprinkled with bacon.

It’s pure comfort food, a specialty of family restaurants everywhere. But, as Marshall observes, “There aren’t too many mom-and-pop restaurants left.”

Like most of Candler’s eateries, Kim and Donovan’s relies on a local, lunchtime clientele. Leaf season brings an influx of tourists renting cabins up the Pisgah Highway, which winds upward to the Blue Ridge Parkway and comes out near Mount Pisgah, says Kim.

‘Artsy-fartsy finger food’

The demographics are different at the Artisan Café, which is located close to the nearly 600 newer homes spread around Biltmore Lake (Enka Lake to longtimers). It’s in a small shopping center, a few doors down from the local library and post office. There’s also a medical center and, coming soon, a hair salon. Later this year, a new mega-grocery store will be opening a half-mile away, across from A-B Tech’s Enka campus.

All that activity brings customers to the Artisan and bodes well for the overall Enka-Candler food scene. “I didn’t want to be downtown,” says Paxton, who came to the Asheville area almost two years ago. “I wanted community.”

ART AND HEART: Kris Paxton's Artisan Café feeds mind, body and spirit.
ART AND HEART: Kris Paxton’s Artisan Café feeds mind, body and spirit.

The Denver native received her culinary training at Johnson & Wales University, but kids, life and work steered her into nursing, she says. Whenever Paxton had a “quiet place” in her life, though, she’d think about opening a restaurant. “And I’m one of those people who said, ‘I’m supposed to be in Asheville.’”

Paxton decided to take over the former Mosaic Café space and grow her restaurant “based on what the community is looking for.”

The modest breakfast menu includes classic deli fare like lox and bagels, but the “Artisan bowls” — grains, proteins, beans and sauce — are a big customer draw. The Gado Gado Goodness bowl and wrap are based on an Indonesian dish with a peanut sauce that a visiting Native American storyteller told her about, says Paxton, adding, “When a grandmother speaks, you listen.”

Paxton describes her menu as traditional food “taken up a notch,” whether it’s the seared steak salad or the lighter fare that she whimsically calls “artsy-fartsy finger food”: a parmesan-encrusted quesadilla; loaded French fries.

Meanwhile, the catering arm of the business is growing so much  that Paxton has backed off on staying open for dinner. And to further boost the sense of community, she offers up the Artisan as a meeting place for assorted groups, ranging from Clean Up Candler gatherings to a gaggle of home-birth mothers. Local artists display their work here, and musicians play most Saturdays.

It’s all casual, says Paxton, whose blackboard notes that the Artisan feeds mind, body and spirit. “Just come and hang out and play.”

She plans to let the business keep evolving, saying, “I want to have fun with what I’m doing and work with the community.”

The mecca of Candler

Another Candler eatery has deeper roots. A half-century ago, the Hominy Valley Singing Grounds brought scores of hungry diners to the Miami Restaurant, Papazahariou explains. The diner sits at the back of a courtyard motel, opened in the early 1950s by a restaurateur who came to Candler by way of Miami — hence the name, the beach-style sign by the road and the palm trees on the menu.

Never mind that only one letter in the 60-year-old sign still lights up, or that the motel has been closed since Hurricane Ivan flooded the property in 2004. At 9 a.m. on a Wednesday (three hours after the diner opens), the parking lot is full.

IN THE FAMILY: Hercules "Rocco" Papazahariou bought the Miami Restaurant from his parents more than five years ago, but it's still a family affair. Pictured: Rocco and Georgia Papazahariou.
IN THE FAMILY: Hercules “Rocco” Papazahariou bought the Miami Restaurant from his parents more than five years ago, but it’s still a family affair. Pictured: Rocco and Georgia Papazahariou.

“We’re the mecca of Candler,” Papazahariou jokes after the rush dies down. The 35-year-old Enka High School graduate says it’s true what folks up and down the Smoky Park Highway maintain: If you want breakfast in Candler, you’ve got to go to the Miami.

On a busy Saturday, he probably cracks 160 to 180 eggs an hour, he says. And his dad — who came to America from Greece long before Rocco was born — has probably made millions of biscuits, all cut out of homemade dough with a tin that’s been in the family for years. His mother, “Georgia” Papazahariou, makes the Miami’s tzatziki sauce using yogurt based on a culture her mother gave her. And they get their olive oil from family in Greece.

The homemade sausage, though, gives a spicy, hint-of-sage nod to American food culture. And Rocco, who bought the place from his parents in 2009, cooks an over-easy egg to perfection. After all, he’s been in the kitchen, “cutting tomatoes” and whatnot since he was 6 years old.

“All Greeks have restaurants, and Americans like to eat. We just take advantage,” he jokes.

Meanwhile, the good food and camaraderie continue. A waitress sits down next to an older couple who look like regulars, saying, “OK, you wild things: You need some coffee first?”

FOR MORE INFO

Miami Restaurant: 1469 Smoky Park Highway, 665-1213

Artisan Café and Coffee House: 1390 Sand Hill Road, 665-3800

Highway 151 Restaurant: 30 Pisgah Highway, 667-0477

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About Margaret Williams
Editor Margaret Williams first wrote for Xpress in 1994. An Alabama native, she has lived in Western North Carolina since 1987 and completed her Masters of Liberal Arts & Sciences from UNC-Asheville in 2016. Follow me @mvwilliams

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4 thoughts on “Just down the road: Highlights of the Enka-Candler food scene

  1. Loraine Tuenge

    Wish you would have included Rejavanation in your review. Food is great, seeks to serve the local scene and offers an open-mic for local talent. Thanks you.

    • Gina Smith

      Thanks pointing that out, Loraine. Rejavanation would have been a great one to include as well. I think the writer discovered in researching this story that there are a lot more restaurants and coffee shops in that area than one might imagine.

      • Margaret Williams

        Agreed! Thanks for the friendly reminder about Rejavanation, Loraine.

    • Susie Stokes

      Yes … Rejavanation is one of the best! Will need to have a follow-up to this article.

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