When chef Elliott Moss left Ben’s Tune Up, he told me, “I don’t want to make bar food anymore.” And later in that same conversation he added, “I’m sick of cooking someone else’s food, I want to cook my food.” So he left his kitchen there and went rogue, popping up here and there, cooking for dozens of guests at a time in people’s homes and guest chefing at various restaurants both in Asheville and out of town. At least until Meherwan Irani, owner of Chai Pani and MG Road, got ahold of him. The two devised a plan where Moss would take over the kitchen of MG Road every Monday and Tuesday to host a pop-up party called Punk Wok, serving punk riffs on classic Chinese dishes.
After a year of service, Punk Wok was retired, and Moss revealed his new plan: to cook “his” food with a new pop-up concept called The Thunderbird. “What is your food?” Irani asked, but perhaps what Moss showed us over the course of The Thunderbird’s run was not just excellent cuisine prepared by former cooks from his tenure at The Admiral, but was a picture of the chef himself and where he comes from.
In December, Moss and Irani invited me on a trip with them. It was the two James Beard-nominated chefs, a camera crew and myself crammed into a small RV, cruising around North and South Carolina eating barbecue — specifically, the ‘cue that Moss grew up on. Moss’ cooking has always been unusual, but with each new restaurant we tried and with each story from his past (“My grandpa and I used to come here every Sunday.”), what had appeared to be simply different began to seem surprisingly unique.
When Moss took us to the Thunderbird Motel, a sprawling roadside motel in Florence, South Carolina, is when it all came together. “It looks like they just picked up some cheap motel in Las Vegas from in the ’70s and plopped it down in the middle of South Carolina,” he laughed, pointing at the four-story neon sign in the shape of a Native American-style bird symbol. “They have a restaurant that is this really throwback [Southern] country buffet, and my dad used to take me here all the time.”
Throughout the 7-month lifespan of The Thunderbird, Moss has shown us thoughtful and poignant dishes that brought something back to him or his chefs from their youth — catfish stews, boudin, fresh noodles in broth; comfort foods.
How fitting then, that on the last night of The Thunderbird, with the promise of Moss’ new barbecue joint, Buxton Hall, on the horizon for late summer or early fall, Moss closed with a mash-up of the two pop-ups that have sustained his wait for his own kitchen. Thunderwok: The final flight of the Punk Bird, hosted on Sunday, May 24, completed Moss’ pop-up stint at MG Road, offering creative combinations of the Asian cuisine he had previously offered and the cooking he loves.
A charred ‘”wok-a-mole” of avocado, pickled shrimp, shrimp paste, shrimp crackers, fermented jalepeno and preserved lime was prepared table-side with a kitchen-sized flame thrower. There was also a lamb and country ham lo mein with green tomatoes, basil, fried egg, kimchee and sauerkraut. And while the fried chicken biscuit might have been the closest thing to Moss’ heart, since his first job was at Chick-fil-A, perhaps the dish that came the closest to telling us exactly what Moss’ food is was the barbecue hash fried rice.
In South Carolina, hash is a dish made from the leftover pork from barbecue that is slowly stewed in a vinegar sauce with rice until it becomes a thick gravy. The delicious and gelatinous porridge is then heaped on top of white rice and served. Do not be fooled by the grey coloration or the strange texture; once you’ve had your first bite, you just keep eating it.
So imagine that hash, slightly sweet and a little tangy from the vinegar, soaked into an Asian-style fried rice with hot mustard, egg, onion, parsley, peas and raw and pickled cucumber. Perhaps this, one of the final dishes of the Thunderbird’s final flight, is the one that sums up Moss’ vision best: Southern comfort with a taste for the exotic. Something old with something foreign, bent on creating something new.