When I’m out and about in Asheville, there’s usually only ten things on my mind, and they’re all food!
Asheville is the greatest food city in America as far as I’m concerned. From Cuban bistec to Canadian peameal bacon, this little ol’ town in the mountains of Western North Carolina seems to have a little bit of everythign!. Here are just ten of the amazing things I ate while out and about in Asheville recently…
1) MEXICAN BBQ TACO – Please keep in mind that before my child-hands messed it up, by picking the onions off because I’m not a huge fan of raw onions, and then putting them back on, because I forgot to take a picture, this taco looked PERFECT. Like a taco super-model. But, yeah after the picture, all the onions came off, and then I ate the shit out of this thing, and holy fucking dick balls I loved every single bite! It was so tasty and meaty and flavorful and cooked just right. It was called a “Mexican BBQ taco,” and was hand-written on the board as the daily special at The Grey Eagle Taqueria the other day, so I went for it, and Boy am I glad I did! Since it was a special, it may or may not be on the menu when you go in, but I will just say that these days, Chef Matt Grush has taken over the kitchen at The Grey Eagle, and he is, as always, GRUSHIN’ IT. When I asked him via text to describe this taco to me, this is what he wrote, “It was a Mexican Borracho Chicken thigh taco, did a 3 hour braise, low and slow in the oven in mexican beer and spices, the bbq sauce I made was from a bunch of guajillo and chipotle peppers, rehydrated in rendered duck fat, with tons of shallots and garlic, local tomatoes, brown sugar, and like 6 different spices. Finished with a splash of red wine vinegar for a little kick, and it was all topped off with yellow onions and cilantro. and of course a lime wedge.” Fuck. Yes. No wonder it was so damn tasty! In my opinion the taqueria at The Grey Eagle has always been a hidden gem, and Chef Grush seems to be carrying the torch with skill and style. I’ll be going in to try more of his offerings for sure, and I hope to see you there!
2) BISTEC DE PALOMILLA – I had not been to Hemingway’s Cuba atop the Cambria Hotel yet, so when my friend Luis from Descubre Asheville invited me, I was psyched to join him! First we split some excellent empanadas, and I had some very nice ceviche, and enjoyed both very much, but it was my main entree was was the star of the show! I like steak, so I ordered the Bistec de Palomilla, and expressed to Luis how I love a good steak, and it’s hard to find a decent steak in downtown Asheville, blah blah blah steak. Being an much more sophisticated person than myself, Luis informed me that in most of Latin America the steaks are cut very very thin. Huh. Okay. Didn’t know that. I’m so glad Luis told me that before I ordered, because when my bistec came out, I was not shocked, or the least bit disappointed, but in fact glad to see it prepared that way, because that meant I was having it the way that people in Cuba might prepare and eat it, which is kinda the whole point of going to someplace called “Hemingway’s Cuba” in the middle of Appalachia in the first place, right? Plus, it was delicious! Very tangy and salty, it had a nice char and chew to it. It was not rare or even medium rare, of course, because it was so thin, but it was nice and tender and had a very high “eat me” factor, meaning hat I ate every bit of it, no bones, fat or gristle to be left behind. This was not a “steak house” steak by any stretch, but it was very tasty and it totally satisfied my meat cravings 100%. And yes, I did scrape most of those raw Vadalia onions of to the side, The rest of the meal was great too, and the plantains were absolutely some of the best I’ve ever had. You can tell from the picture above just how caramelized they were. The small, neat, cylindrical pile of rice & beans was also really tasty, and believe me, I’m not the biggest “MMM RICE ‘N’ BEANS!” kind of person. I can take or leave a pile of rice ‘n’ beans, but these had a unique flavor that I was not familiar with, and for all I know could be the signature flavor of Cuban rice and beans, whereas most of my experience is with Mexican rice and beans. And hippy a rice and beans. These rice and beans shot straight to the top of my charts and are now my number one pick for rice and beans in downtown Asheville. Just in case you were wondering where to get your next cylindrical pile of rice and beans. Aaand that is officially the most I have ever used the term “rice and beans” in a review. I didn’t save room for dessert, but I will next time for sure! I plan to return to Hemingway’s Cuba and try several items on the menu!Thanks, Luis, for bringing me, and thank you Hemingway’s for hosting us!
3) PIE! – Holy fuck, I ate a lot of pie at the 2019 Asheville Pie Fight and Bake Sale. There were ten competitors, and of course I tried them all. I wasn’t a judge, but I was serving the judges, along with my assistant, Luz that day, and she and I scarfed down a bunch of pie in the kitchen in between taking care of the judges. After sampling ten pies, the judges chose wisely (Top row L-R), giving first place to City Bakery for their incredible orange mascarpone blueberry pie, second place to Chestnut / Corner Kitchen‘s Biscoff pie, and third place was a tie between Isa’s Bistro for their berry cream cheese pie, and The Worthy Baker‘s orange buttermilk pie. I was all good with all those winners, because each and every one of them excelled in all three areas of judgement: Appearance, texture, and taste. My personal favorite pie was the Biscoff pie, which surprised me, because i expected it to be too sweet for me, but it wasn’t! It was creamy, and smooth, and perfectly prepared, and had the flavor of Biscoff cookies, of course, but so much more. I can’t quite describe it, because I don’t have a detailed list of ingredients, but what I can say is that Chef Heather Gresset has been impressing the crap out of me with her pastry skills. I wrote about and highly recommended the banana cake I had at Chestnut last month, and this month I’m just sayin’ go get any of her desserts. I’m going to be a frequent flyer myself, so we can all explore and experience her dessert stylings together!
4) SHRAMPS! – Dawn and I split an order of the Blue Cornmeal Tiger Shrimp at Waterbird the other day, and yum! They were sooo goooood! They were coated in a really nice, savory corn-meal crust, and pan-fried, not deep fried, which was awesome, because Dawn tries to avoid as many deep fried things as possible, which means that she’s usually missing out on any kind of breaded or battered shrimps of any kind. Not on this day! (Trumpets blare.) On this day we were able to split this dish right down the middle, and we both enjoyed it very much. It came with some marinated tomatoes, a wee little pile o’ greens, and a spring onion salad, which no, I did not touch. In writing this list, I’m realizing how many raw onions I encountered in the last couple of weeks. Must be in season. The tartness of the tomatoes went soooo dang good with the crunchy corn meal crust on the shrimps, and the warm, tender shrimps themselves. This dish was very well prepared, pretty to look at, interesting, unique, and satisfying to eat. I asked if it would be on their menu for awhile and they said yes, so go in soon to give it a try yourself!
5) OYSTERS BIENVILLE – I ordered a truckload of food from Oyster House Brewing the other night, to be delivered by Takeout Central, including a dish I had not tried from their menu yet, called “Oysters Bienville.” Now, I ain’t French or fancy, but even I know that means “Goodtown Oysters,” and Hell yes, I’m up for that! They arrived to my house (in biodegradable packaging), hot, fresh, and delicious, as always, thank you TOC! I ate one, and wow, I was in love. No joke, I was like, “Daaaaang, Yo, these shits are goooood.” The photo does not even begin to convey the deliciousness factor involved with these oysters. First of all, why you gotta auto-focus on the frickin’ bread, iPhone? Yes, that bread was really good, and yes, I did eat it all, and yes it went great with the oysters, but it was the oysters of course, that were so fanfuckingtastic. I powered through them faster than… I dunno… faster than some kind of weird sea creature adapted over the millennia to eat nothing but oysters. Faster than one of those. Oysters Bienville is a traditional NOLA dish, of baked oysters in shrimp sauce, with mushrooms, bell peppers, sherry, a butter roux, Parmesan cheese and other lighter cheese, as well as bread crumbs. Of course, because we’re in Asheville, not NOLA, there was also bacon. Which I think should be our city motto. “Asheville: There Was Bacon.” I loved every bite of every one of these oysters and I can’t wait to eat them again! They had all the flavors and textures that I might hope for from a baked seafood dish. I know, I know, raw oysters are all the rage, but I have always loved dairy-based seafood dishes, so, this was hitting every nail on the head for me. The next time you’re in Oyster House, please try the Oysters Bienville,
6) SPECIALS AND SIDES – Y’all know as well as anyone that I have eaten about a million and half of the fried chicken sandwiches from Buxton Hall Barbecue, and although I still love and eat it often, lately it has been the specials that are drawing me in the door lately. I walk past Buxton about a half dozen times or more a week, and I always check the menu posted in the window when I do, If there’s a tasty sounding special listed, I’m likely to go in and get it even if I’m not all that hungry, because the specials are exactly that: special. Chef Elliott Moss and his crew are masterful at pulled-pork, fried chicken, hog hash, and all their regular menu items, but they are not just cooks, they are chefs, artists, and creative beasts that need to stretch, reach, grow, try new things, learn new tricks, and have fun along the way. Also, you may not always think of Buxton as part of our very authentic “farm to table” food scene, but they most certainly are, and that is often reflected in the daily specials, which might be, let’s just sayyyy, deep fried yellow squash, for example, which is pictured above and was tasty as can be, paired with soft cheese, herbs, pickles, and greens. Now, do I go ape shit over yellow squash? Naw, not usually, but when I saw this listed as the special I ordered it, and loved every bite. I also ordered two of my all-time favorite sides: The RC Cola baked beans, and mashed taters with hog gravy. Good gahd. So tasty. So homey, So nice. I almost limited my focused to just the baked beans for this post, they are so dang good. I also almost focused on the taters and gravy because again: So dang good. In the end I just decided to tell you to always consider the specials and sides when dining at Buxton Hall Barbecue!
7) SMOKED TURKEY SANDWICH – My boss Paddy and I are always going on our “Asheville Food Tours lunch junkets,” which is just us eating lunch, while nerding-out about food tours at as many different restaurants in and around town as we can. It’s fun! We don’t always get good food, it’s true, but when we do, it makes us both super happy, and we get twice as nerdy, enthusiastically analyzing every bite. It’s like a D&D, only with sandwiches instead of ogres and shit. Last week, we took a junket close to home, at the Blackbird restaurant on Biltmore Ave. They are a regular stop on our food tours, and of course we like to frequent our restaurant partners as often as possible. Paddy ordered the shrimp po’ boy and I asked for the smoked turkey sandwich. Paddy raved about his po boy, even going so far as to tell me that he’s been on the hunt for the perfect shrimp po’ boy here in Asheville for years, and this is in the best one he’s ever had. Cross my fingers, that’s what he said. For my part, the smoked turkey made me very happy, and was great! I don’t how they toasted the house-made bread it came on, but it had, like, an open-flame flavor and char to it, that was very unique, and slightly smokey, and “campy” in a way. Like you might make over a fire at camp. It was outstanding. The turkey breast at Blackbird is smoked in-house, is of a high quality in my opinion, and for me, on this sandwich, it was cooked exactly right. Turkey can be dry, and boring. This turkey was neither of those things, and was both moist and flavorful. The warm brie and cranberry mayo were subtle, yet crucial to the enjoyment of this sandwich, and I also applaud them for not calling it “cranberry aioli,” because that would mean cranberry garlic mayonnaise, and… no. No thank you. There was also the perfect amount of green stuff on the sandwich, and the side salad was also the perfect size, in my opinion: Tiny. The dill pickle spears at Blackbird are made-in house, and Paddy goes on and on about their dill pickle in fact. He loves that dang pickle. All in all a very enjoyable junket! Thanks, Blackbird!
8) TORTILLA SOUP – My mom has a wee cabin on a wee mountain up there in Fairview, NC, and recently she and I took a quick road trip together to visit the ol’ cabin, do some cleaning and weeding, and spend a little time with each other. There’s a place to eat out there called Nachos and Beer, that my Mom really loves, and she’s been trying to get me to try their tortilla soup for a long-ass time. So after puttering around the cabin for a bit, we loaded up the car and headed back to Asheville, with tortilla soup on our homeward agenda. If you haven’t been to Nachos and Beer, it’s really cool looking on the outside, as it was originally designed and built to be a replica of a 1950’s diner, and the OG owner was trying to do that whole retro Happy Days thing as a theme. I have to say, cheesy themes don’t usually go over very well around here, so unfortch his restaurant closed, and then the cool building sat empty for years, until Nachos and Beer came along, and started rocking some really tasty Mexican food, sort of a “Cali” style as opposed to “Tex Mex.” The tortilla soup comes in a really big bowl, with a tomato-y broth, and various vegetables floating around in it. It’s got a mild chili flavor to it, but it mostly just tastes like a very nice vegetable soup. It has some sliced-up tortillas in it, and you can ask for more if you want to. The people are very friendly, and charming, the service was great, and the price was right! Next time you’re out that way, and you need some food, pop into Nachos and Beer, and you won’t be disappointed.
9) PEAMEAL BACON SANDWICH – So, I went to Sawhorse for a second time, lured back by them taters (which I gushed about here) and that maple eclair (which I raved about here) and I was also excited to try something new! I went here with my mom as well, because she is Canadian-American, and Sawhorse features some Canadian, as well as Northern U.S. fare. Mom went a la carte, and quite light, with eggs, and toast, and she loved it. I went for said taters and an item mysteriously called a “peameal bacon sandwich.” I had to ask Chef Dan Silo what the deal is with peameal bacon, and sure enough, it’s a thick cut bacon, which is cured, (not smoked), and then crusted in a meal which is made out of ground yellow peas! Huh. Some things really are what they sound like they are. #catheadbiscuits I looked peameal bacon up on line, and sure enough, it is indeed a Canadian tradition developed in Ontario in the 1850’s. These days it’s mostly made using yellow corn meal in Canada, but Dan is doing it the old fashioned way! It was very unique and delicious, and comes on a house made kaiser roll, with plenty of mustard, and (you guessed it) onions! I took off about half the onions, but not all of them because I wanted to experience it like a true Canadian! It was powerful, to say the least, and I do think that next time I’ll order it sans onion, and throw an egg on it. The Kaiser roll was excellent, the peameal bacon was awesome, and hearty, and had a very nice flavor and texture. Thumbs-up, Peameal! My mom was prompted by the story of the peameal to recall that there was a yellow pea harvest every year in the area of Canada that our family is from way back in the day, and those peas would be used to make “pease pudding” aka “pease porridge,” just like in the nursery rhyme! I’ll tell you what, Asheville, it was really nice to sit at Sawhorse with my mom and enjoy this tasty breakfast together, with flavors form our respective childhoods. I sure have immersed myself in Southern food culture for many years, and I truly love it, so please avail yourselves of this opportunity to get into Sawhorse and try some Northern fare! You might surprise yourself by how much you like it!
10) TOUR FOOD! – Since this is my own website, I don’t mind using this time and space right now to shameless recommend my own dang food tours, and the other tours of Asheville Food Tours. They’re fucking awesome, and #truestory some of the best bites I eat all week are on my own food tours! When Paddy hired me to be a tour manager, he literally said, “There are really just three things to keep in mind: Make sure the patrons have a great time no matter what, make sure the restaurant partners always enjoy hosting you, and make sure that you have fun.” Well, nobody ever had to hit me with a brick. When I do food tours, I have a good time! I also work hard to make great experiences for my patrons, and develop good relationships with my restaurant partners! I have been very fortunate to work with some of my absolute most favorite chefs and venues on my tour routes, and they knock it out of the park each and every time. I don’t want to tell you where anything pictured above is from, or what any of it is, because half the fun of a food tour is not knowing jack shit about where you’re going and what you’re getting, and menus be changing all the time anyways, so there’s no point in describing these bites. Shhh… forget about it. Instead, I’ll just say that I eat on tour too (duh, rule number three), and every single thing shown in the picture grid above was tasty as fuck, and that grid is making me drool right now. Not literally, but in my heart. My heart is drooling for these samps. And yours will too! When you take a tour with Asheville Food Tours. You can get a ticket here.
And there ya go. I hope you enjoyed this installment of “10 Things I Ate About Asheville!” Please stay tuned for more from this series throughout the year, as I eat my way through the greatest food city in America, Asheville, North Carolina!
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Stu Helm is an artist, writer, and podcaster living in Asheville, NC, and a frequent diner at local restaurants, cafes, food trucks, and the like. His tastes run from hot dogs and mac ‘n’ cheese, to haute cuisine, and his opinions are based on a lifetime of eating out. He began writing about food strictly to amuse his friends on Facebook.