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 raw fish to crawfish, 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) WHOLE ROASTED HALIBUT – I was recently invited to a press thingy at the brand new Greenhouse restaurant and bar on Rankin Ave, which is owned by Nobel Cider Company. Press thingies do not always give the best indication of what the actual experience of dining at a new venue will be like once they get settled in, and this press thingy was one of those. It was set-up cocktail party style, and when another round of food samples came out, everyone jumped-up, and there was a photo frenzy, followed by a we-all-showed-up-hungry-as-fuck feeding frenzy of food writers, bloggers, and other jackals. Now, I’m a fuckin’ princess, so that was two too many frenzies for me to be part of, and I didn’t stay long, which meant I missed out on some of the food. Womp womp. Buhhht the bites I did try were AMAZING, and I can not wait to go back and eat my way through the rest of their menu, in a more dignified manner! Pictured above is the whole, roasted and stuffed halibut that, to me, was the stand-out dish at the press party, not only because of it’s impressive presentation and service, but the flavors and consistency were just right. A perfectly cooked fish with a flakey, though substantial and meaty texture, filled with a Summery, savory, medley of squash, herbs, and aromatics, that were smooth and tender and comforting, I could have eaten a million tiny samples of this dish! We also tried some braised beef that was excellent, and I got a glimpse of the desserts, which looked really tasty, so I’ll definitely have to go back for those. In the meantime, go check out the Greenhouse yourself! If the food that we were served at the press thingy is any indication of what we can all expect from Chef Gavin Baker and company in the future, then YAY! I am excited.
2) SASHIMI LUNCH SPECIAL – So, with all my recent trips out to Sawhorse on New Leicester Hwy, I couldn’t help but notice the big, beautiful building that houses Green Tea sushi that’s is on the way, so I went there with my mom, and we both loved it! We went for lunch, and my mom got the bento box, while I ordered the chef’s sashimi plate. A healthcare professional recently advised me to lower my cholesterol al li’l bit, so you’re gonna see me eating a few more avocados, and things like raw fish. I’m no expert on Sashimi, but mmm-mmm-mmm-mmm-mmmmm, this little ol’ pile of colorful ocean proteins was fucking awesome in my opinion. Of course, I am more accustomed to eating large heaps of meat, cheese, and bread arranged in various formats, so when I saw this rather small looking assortment of shapes, I immediately thought, “I’m gonna be hungry after this lunch,” but nope! I’m learning that even a small stack of pure proteins — in this case, salmon and various types of tuna — can make you feel like you’ve eaten something substantial. I was actually quite full by the time I was done! All the raw fish shapes were real good in my opinion, and there was pure white looking kind of tuna that was the super-star of the quartet. This sashimi was fresh, and smooth, silky, easy to eat, and went great with the pickled ginger and wasabi of course! My mom loved her bento box, so she and I will be back to Green Tea for sure, and I’m excited to bring my GF, Dawn, who’s been encouraging me to eat sashimi for years. The decor, atmosphere, and service were also impeccable. Great experience all around, highly recommended!
3) CRAWFISH TOAST– When I moved down South I thought to myself, “Yeah man, CRAWFISH!” Imagine my disafuckingppointment when I got to Appalachia, and y’all don’t really eat a lot of crawfish up here. Whenever I have found them available in stores or on menus, it’s always been just those tiny little frozen nasties that taste more like fish food than a food fish. I ate some recently that were so awful, I left most of them behind and just ate the shit around them. I am a hopeful sort, however, so when I saw something called “crawfish toast” listed on the menu at The Waterbird Cafe recently, I took a chance on romance and ordered it. Boy oh fucking boy am I ever glad I did! These are seriously the best crawfish I’ve eaten in Asheville in the 14 years that I have lived here. When I inquired via Facebook about them, the Waterbird folks could only tell me that their kitchen uses crawfish tail meat, which they make into a mirepoix (a flavorful base made from diced vegetables), with melted fontina cheese, house-made Cajun remoulade sauce, lusty monk mustard, and white Cheddar cheese, on a toasted City Bakery ciabatta. Along with the description, the person who responded to my FB message added a short review of their own: “I think the fontina mixed in, as well as being broiled on top, is what makes it so good.” That is an assessment with which I totally agree. That, and the quality of the crawfish, which had a flavor and consistency more akin to lobster, than the dead sea monkeys I’ve gotten at other venues in this town. I was so satisfied with this open-faced sandwich, that I have been craving it every since. That seems to happen a lot with Waterbird. They are absolutely crushing it lately in my opinion. I’m familiar with many of the staff members, both front and back of the house, through other venues they’ve worked in before, and I’ll tell you what, it is an elite crew of people over there, who are all frickin’ excellent at their jobs.
4) CRUNCHY IN & OUT GRILLED CHEESE – Paddy and I took one of our Asheville Food Tours lunch junkets to the brand-dandy new Collaboratory on Lexington Ave, where the LAB used to be. I’ve known for a while that they were going to keep the full kitchen and serve food, so I’ve been hoping it would be good! Well, guess what? It was! Paddy and I split the Burger (below) and the “crunchy” grilled cheese sandwich (above), and both were really tasty! We devoured them. I’ll get to the burger next, but first, the crunchy grilled cheese, which was a very unique and delicious take on what can be a tired, old, unimaginative kid’s menu item. This grilled cheese was actually like no other grilled cheese that Paddy or I had ever eaten, and we’re old! For me, no joke, it was the best grilled cheese I’ve put in my mouth since the amazing, award winning French onion soup grilled cheese that two young chefs from Mellow Mushroom (of all places!) wowed the judges with at the Carolina Mountain Cheese Festival in 2015. That grilled cheese will live on only in my memory cells, because it was never placed on any menu anywhere, and was a one-time only thing. Thankfully, this crunchy grilled cheese at Collaboratory is on the frickin’ menu, so I can eat it again, and again. It has Chevre, Mozzarella cheese, spinach and smoked tomato jam, on sourdough bread that has been pan-crusted with grated Parmesan cheese on the outside. It literally has a crunchy, crispy shell of melted, almost burnt, parm. Gah! So good! The fucking umami on this shit is through the fucking roof, and the crunch factor is incredibly satisfying, especially in combination with the soft, gooey mozzarella and creamy chevre. It was on fleek, Y’all. Umtellinyawhat. Paddy gave this sandwich “two thumbs-up and a tow wiggle,” which is in fact, some of his highest praise.
5) MY JAM BURGER – As I mentioned Paddy and split the grilled cheese reviewed above, as well as a burger on our junket to Collaboratory. They have several named burgers on their menu, and we ordered one called the “My Jam” burger, which features smoked tomato jam along with Cheddar cheese and crispy straw onions. It came served on an everything seeded brioche, which has the initials printed “GFO” next to it on the menu. That might mean “Gluten Free / Organic,” or “Gluten Free Option,” or perhaps “Government Financial Office.” Or just Goofy Foofy Oofy? Dunno. Didn’t ask. So many initials on so many menus now days. Is “V” for “vegan” or “vegetarian?” I literally don’t know what “O” stands for on any menu, and I have a LOT of experience reading menus. Anyhoo… back to the burger. You can also add Bacon for $2. We did that. Aaand (drum roll please!) it was fuckin’ great! Truly tasty and delicious! The beef, bun, straw onions et al were flavorful, complimentary of each other, and texturally pleasing, Paddy and I both approved. The sauteed greens were also quite good and we ate them all. In fact we ate every bite of both plates of food, except the tater tots, which were just slightly undercooked. The burger was just a tad overcooked, I have to say, and not the medium-rare that we ordered, but hat was honestly no big deal, because the flavor of the burger was fantastic, and every single other aspect of the burger was great! Plus, they are a brand new place that just opened the very week before we went in, so they’ll dial it in, I’m sure. Paddy and I agreed that Collaboratory is a fine new addition to our downtown food scene! They improved the space itself by about a thousand-fold in my opinion, by opening it up, making it brighter, but not too bright, adding a TON more seats, and making it much more inviting and friendly. Please go in on your own, try this, and other burgers for yourself, hit up that the crunchy grilled cheese for sure, be sure to ask ’em to crisp up your tots real good, and don’t forget to eat your greens. I think you’ll have a good experience. Let me know!
6) CARNE ASADA TACO – Paddy and I like our lunch junkets a lot, and we recently went for another visit to The Grey Eagle Taqueria, where we had enjoyed a meal that I wrote about in my last “Ten Things…” list. On that initial visit, I had ordered, and very much enjoyed the daily special, so on this trip, I decided to go straight for the traditional tacos, which the taqueria at the Grey Eagle has been offering since day one. They have had many different chefs and cooks over the years, and the quality of the tacos has of course waxed and waned depending on who’s been in the kitchen. Well, as I’ve been telling everyone I know, Chef Matt Grush is in the kitchen these days, and he is one of Asheville’s most capable chefs! He has won the Cajun Cook-off year after year, and not fer nuthin’, he just took home second place in the 2019 Taco Takeover on June 16th. It was just a few days prior to the Takeover that I ate the carne asada taco pictured above, and loved it! I also got the borracho chicken taco seen in the picture, and that was excellent, but it was the carne asada that really stood out as being awesome! It was perhaps the best carne asada taco I’ve had in Asheville, no joke. What made it so good? The carne, of course! It seemed to be high quality meat, and the cook on it was just right, with each cube of beef being slightly seared on the outside, and pink, warm, and juicy on the inside. Every wee little piece of carne in this super delicious taco was like a perfectly cooked miniature steak. YOM! I remembered to ask for no onions, so the rest of it was pretty basic: Cilantro, a lime wedge, and a tortilla. It was fucking great, go get one for yourself, and tell me what you think!
7) BEEF ENCHILADA – My mom and I made our second trip to Nachos & Beer (Fairview) in just two weeks, and this time I got more than a bowl of soup! You may or may not recall that last time I could only get soup because I had a toothache. This time, with no such dental issues, I ordered one of my all-time favorite things ever at any family-style Mexican restaurant: A beef enchilada with rice and beans! Was it good? Well, let me just say that I crushed every single molecule of food on the plate. Every grain of rice. Every scrap of tortilla. Every drop of sauce, every glop of cheese, every bloop of beans, every bit of ground beef, every single atomic particle of delicious food you see in the picture above was scraaaaaaaped up off the plate and deposited into my mouthstomachfacehole with gusto. Good fucking lort. This food weren’t fancy by any stretch, but it sure as fuck was gooood, and boy was I full afterward. I’ll be making several more trips that way with my mom, for sure, because she loves this restaurant, and I am starting to love it as well. The service, atmosphere, decor, and parking situation are all great too. Highly recommended for everyone!
8) PIZZA – My mom and I went to Fresh Wood Fired Pizza West on Depot Street recently (yes we’ve been going out to eat together a lot lately, you’ll prob spot us around town together at some point) where we both ordered the same pizza, called “The Sicilian.” Not to be confused with A Sicilian pizza, this pizza — THE Sicilian — is not made in the Sicilian style. A Sicilian pizza, also known as sfincione, is usually a thick-crust pizza, or basically, focaccia with toppings, and here in the United States, we tend to think of it as always being square. THE Sicilian pizza at Fresh West is none of those things. Well, it has toppings, that much is true! It’s basically one of their regular pies, which are round, flat, and made in the “artisanal” style, with a dough that is chewy, slaty, and crusty. All of their pizzas are cooked in their very funky wood-fired pizza oven, which is bejeweled, and looks as if it were built by by fairy children on acid. The pizzas that come out of the trippy hippy oven can be ordered by topping, adding your own from a long list, or they can be ordered by name, in which case the kitchen has already paired two or three or more toppings for you. “The Chica Bella,” for example, has pesto, ricotta and mozzarella, arugula and walnuts, “The Fun Guy,” has a sautéed mushroom blend (get it?). So, “The Sicilian,” pizza had red sauce, mozzarella, herbed ricotta, fresh tomato, chopped basil, and dry-cured Italian pork cold-cut called capicola. It was all real fuckin’ good. My mom and I both ate ezzackly half our pies, and boxed the other halves to take home for later, She had hers the next day, I ate mine at about 11:30 that night. Perfect. Fresh West is our neighborhood pizza joint down here in the South French Broad / River Arts District neighborhoods, and we are very glad it’s here. If you wanna try a good pie the next time you have a hankering, give The Sicilian a try! My mom and I both recommend it.
9) STUFFED CABBAGE – I guess you could say I like it, because I recently returned to Sawhorse for a third visit, this time at the dinner hour, with my family, and we all ate several great things, but I want to just focus one of them: The stuffed cabbage. It was fan-fucking-tastic, and I have been craving it ever since! Craving something after the fact is one of the true tests of excellence in my opinion. There are some foods that are really great, but we don’t crave them. Other dishes prey on our minds constantly, or in intervals, or even just every once in a while, and those foods are special. This dish was special! I don’t typically eat a lotta stuffed cabbage, but for some reason that night I was, like, “Hell yeah, cabbage me,” and I’m real glad I took that attitude, because, wow, I really loved it! As far as a description, I will leave that to the Chef Dan Silo, who had this to say, “The stuffed cabbage is totally inspired by a polish golumpki. My wife is from Chicago and I lived there for three years before moving to Asheville, and we used to go to a polish buffet all the time and get golumpkis by the pound. I think the traditional filling is ground beef and rice but I used sawhorse ingredients – whey braised pork shoulder and buckwheat groats. I cook the groats in the whey braising liquid, then shred all the pork and mix it with the cooked groats and some raw egg to bind it. The cabbage leaves are blanched in white wine and aromatics. The tomato sauce is 50% whey and 50% crushed tomato, cooked down for several hours with lots of celery, onion, garlic, dill seed, celery seed, and a touch of fennel seed.” I’m dying. Gotta get it again! My whole family is becoming a fan of Sawhorse, and I can’t wait to bring Dawn out there, because I know she will love it too! Northern fare is what they specialize in, and OF COURSE, don’t forget to save a little room for the amazing maple eclair!
10) GNUDI – Holy. Fucking. Shit. This diiish! It was so dang gooood! Dawn and I popped into Rhubarb one night not long ago, and sat on the patio, where we enjoyed a variety of dishes, including yummy baked oysters, some very lovely mussels, farm fresh vegetables, and locally foraged mushrooms, and it was all great, but for me, the super star of the evening was the gnudi, which came with strawberry-pecan Romesco, confit ramps, spiced pecan crumble, and asparagus. If you’re not familiar with gnudi, it is a puffy little dumpling, made with ricotta cheese. They are often compared to gnocchi, but are much lighter, more delicate, and refined than that potato-based dumpling, and in my opinion they are more enjoyable!! I do like gnocchi, but given a choice, I’ll opt for gnudi every time. Of course, Rhubarb is super-seasonal, and works very closely with local farmers, so if you go and order this dish, it might come with a different “set,” as they say, than it did the night we dined there. Instead of asparagus, for example, you might get chicken-of the-wood mushrooms, At Rhubarb, what’s on your plate depends entirely on what local, small batch, seasonal ingredients happen to be in house that very day. All I know is that every single bite of this dish was exquisite, and I would eat these gnudi with just about anything the excellent chefs at Rhubarb decide to put on the plate! The gnudi seemed to be pan seared or grilled on the flat top, and to me, that was the coup d’grace. In therms of the rest of the set. the confit ramps were very soft and subtle, a perfect treatment of those super-colloquial, oniony-garlicky, foraged vegetables! I didn’t grow up eating ramps, but I sure have ate a lot of them since I moved here 14 years ago, and these particular ramps were great! The whole plate, the set, the gnudi, the rest of the meal, it was all just right, and I hope you have a chance to get into Rhubarb soon to try this dish, and whatever else is in house and on the menu that day!
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.