Just a few months ago, the old Gulf gas station at 143 Charlotte St. was a hollowed out shell. Peeking through broken windows, you could see piles of rubble sparkling with shards of broken glass. Now, the gray building casts a bright yellow glow from its large-pane windows, and from the street you can see crowds milling about inside. Having spent the days after Christmas hosting a round of soft openings, Gan Shan Station finally opened to the public on Sunday night, Dec. 28.
On my visit, the bare, garage floor echoed the voices of a packed house against the blue-and-white cinder-block walls. Beyond the crowded bar is a low half-wall, behind which, chefs Patrick O’Cain and Chris Hathcock man the helm of a bustling kitchen, the staff bedecked in white chefs coats, red aprons and white hats.
Neither O’Cain nor Hathcock looked stressed, or even appeared to be rushed. Hathcock cut his teeth at Charleston’s oft-touted Two Burroughs Larder, and O’Caine relocated from the same city’s acclaimed Xao Bao Biscuit House. The two looked comfortable and calm. Their movements were mesmerizingly intentional among the fray of customers and servers milling about at the front of house.
They say that everyone drinks beer in Vietnam because the liquor can’t always be trusted. So acting accordingly, my group and I go with Hue, that’s pronounced “Hway,” a Vietnamese beer named for the city. It’s slightly malty, light and crisp, with almost no finish. Perfect for a spicy meal like the one we were about to hammer down.
Beginning our onslaught of foreign fare was a dish of Mung Beans Three Ways. It’s served as three bean cakes and fermented, along with sprouts, a spicy kimchi, black bean, cauliflower, cabbage, celery and Kewpie. It’s got a very spicy, savory, crispy thing going on, and within minutes we had devoured it.
Next came an incredible house-made pork dumpling served with a slightly spicy chili sauce. The pillowy dumplings are different from anything else served around town — they’re made with Szechuan peppercorns, which impart a slightly numbing and tingling sensation to the tongue.
After the dumplings, we needed a refill on our beverages, and I needed something a little stronger, maybe even a little sweet to go with the all these spices. And with a well-curated cocktail list from Malcolm Knighten — most recently from Seven Sows, but who you may recognize from having been behind the bar at some point at virtually every place that serves booze in town — it wasn’t hard to pick out a wonderful, tiki inspired tipple to pair with your meal.
Alongside the dumplings, we got a stunning carpaccio with mint and light salad of root vegetables. This chilled dish offers a nice respite from both the spicy and intensely flavored dishes, and the ones about to come. It seemed wise to let it linger at the corner of the table to act as a palate cleanser between dishes.
Next came a bowl of ears. Yes, ears. Gan Shan mixes crispy and delicious pig ears with tree ear mushrooms, lime, cilantro and garlic. The variety of spices makes it so that the heat is never coming from one single ingredient. One dish may give you a spicy pepper, while the next relies on fresh garlic, with fresh herbs giving breadth and depth of flavor.
Then the sausage. The Broad Bean Bratwurst is a dense, house-made sausage heaped with a sauerkraut-like topping of diced cabbage and drizzled in Kewpie, a hot Japanese mayonnaise. The combination is fantastic. When you eat out regularly, you start to wonder why a chef chooses to highlight a dish with the ingredients that he does. Why choose those lima beans with that pork belly? Why the misfit quinoa with the thick, bloody beef? But here, the marriage could not be more apt. A perfect medley of sour, sweet, spicy and umami.
Then came chef Hathcock’s stunning chicken liver paté. Lining the top of the the paté slice was a thin sliver of shoyu and lime gelee. The combination was perfect. The paté lends a sweet and savory offering, while the gelee adds a sour note, making the whole endeavor mindblowingly complex for a paté, but in the most subtle of ways. Like a good kiss, it doesn’t have to be intense, but it is always best when it leaves you with something to remember.
One of the best things about both Southern Asian cuisines is its approach to salads, and one of O’Caine’s most memorable offerings is his Lao dish, som tam — a spicy salad composed of unripened papaya, charred radicchio and peanuts, dressed with fish sauce and chili. It’s spicy, it’s cooling, it’s crunchy and it’s bursting at the seams with flavor. It is also about as far away from a Caesar salad as you can possibly get.
For some of us, eating new things fulfills the same craving that travel does for others. The ability to taste something you’ve never had before is to feel the breeze of some foreign wind. But often restaurants will tame down the flavors to accommodate American palates, leaving the adventurous diner still trapped on American shores. That isn’t the case here. While Gan Shan Station will definitely push the casual diner to try new flavors, its chefs are not ostracizing flavors. Their flavors, while fresh, new and exotic, are also genuine, deep and honest — an accessible and accurate interpretation of cultures and cuisines from the literal other side of the world.
For now, Gan Shan Station will be serving dinner from 5-10 p.m. with the intention of starting lunch service some time in January.
Gan Shan Station
143 Charlotte St.
Asheville, NC 28801