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. Ramen, mochi, sushi, tuna tartare! Not bad for a little southern town in the Appalachian Mountains of Western North Carolina! Here are just ten of the amazing things I ate while out and about in Asheville recently…
1) LOCAL SHROOMS – Dawn and I popped in to Cultura again the other day, where we sat at the bar, she had a couple of very nice drinks, I had a house made soda pop, and we ate a three or four of small dishes, including an incredible little skillet o’ local, seasonal mushrooms, peas, onions, cute edible flowers and such. Now, we didn’t order this one, it was offered to us by Chef Ben Hester, who saw us sitting at the bar, and asked if we’d like to try it. Uh, YEAH was the answer to that question. Now, I don’t have a super-awesomely detailed description of the ingredients for you, because it was very seasonal, and Chef Ben himself said they “threw it together.” I know that the season for various mushrooms can be very brief, so I can’t guarantee that this dish will even be available when you go — in fact I can almost guarantee that it won’t be — but some variation of it might be,… or not… Cultura seems like one of those restaurants where they’ll be creating things on the fly with the local ingredients available that DAY. What I can tell you is that this dish was delish! Every element was cooked perfectly, the flavor was deep and savory, and you can kind of see in the picture that there’s some liquid in the skillet, well that’s butter, pretty much. This dish was really rich and tasty, and the textures were just right, and JUST LOOK AT HOW FUCKING PRETTY IT IS! I really highly recommend Cultura to all of you who love Table or were fans of Nightbell, and anyone who loves really high-end, seasonal, farm-to-table fare!
2) TOAD IN THE SUNSHINE – Two of the very best food venues in Asheville are teaming-up to present breakfast everyday in Downtown Asheville, we went and it was awesome. Sovereign Remedies and OWL Bakery are doing “Owl Mornings” from 8am until 2pm, Monday through Friday, and the combined talents of Chef Susannah Gebhart from OWL and Chef Graham House and crew from Sovereign is a winning combo, fer rillz. Dawn and I went to the very first one, and I had the “Toad in the Sunshine,” which is their take on the classic breakfast dish Toad in a Hole, and I’m not sure what the diff is, unless it’s just #positivity which it absolutely could be. In any case, it’s basically toast with a hole cut in it and an egg dropped into the hole. In this case the toast was OWL Bakery pain de mie, which is a kind of soft, French sandwich bread. It also had gremolata, which is typically chopped herb, with lemon zest, garlic and parsley. It was all excellent, flavorful, simple, yet refined. The coup de grace was the piece of bread from the hole in the toast, which is usually placed back on top of the egg, generally at a jaunty angle, and such was the case here, only — even better — it was turned into a wee little piece of French toast! WHAAAA? So cute! What a genius idea. There was also a small salad of greens and pickled onions, as well as edible flowers. Pretty to look at, delicious to eat! I’ll be back for more for sure. (PS – Have gone back three times since writing this)
3) TACOS! – Dawn and I finally went to one of the “Bad Hombres” taco nights at Sovereign Remedies, and we were very glad that we did! We ordered one of each of Chef Graham House‘s specialty tacos: Pollo Rojo (chicken, shaved radish, Oaxaca cheese, cilantro and [please hold the] onions), Carnitas (literally meaning “little meats,” braised pork, salsa verde, cilantro, avocado, and onions), and the Carne Asada (marinated beef, Cotija cheese, pico de gallo, crema, and cilantro). All three were really tasty and had a ton of flavor, and the various meats were cooked just right, and were tender and juicy, and all served on house-made (Chef HOUSE!) tortillas! The plate of three tacos looked and tasted great, and came with a little pile o’ Mexican style pickled veg called Escabeche, that was so good that it — along with some other outstanding pickles I’ve had at other venues recently — has prompted me to add a “Best PIckled Thing” category to my Stoobie Awards this year! I’ll be announcing all the Stoobie categories soon, but for now, just know that these pickles rock. Dawn and I loved our tacos and we will most definitely be back for more, I hope to see you there!
4) PICKLED EGGS – It had been a while since’t I went in to visit my friends at Bhramari Brewing Company for lunch, so I made a plan to pop in and got an excellent, very crazy burger called “Burgers Just Wanna Have Fun” that was the special of the week that week. It had strange shit on it, Y’all, but it was fuckin’ gooood. Anyhoo, that’s not what I’m reviewing, because that burger may no longer be there, but these things will be. They better be! Bhramari’s pickled eggs are legendary, and much beloved, and if they ever went off the menu, there might be beer-fueled egg-riots in the streets. Not everyone loves pickled eggs, so if you don’t, go ahead and skip to the next item on the list, but if you do love pickled eggs, then read on pickled egg lover, read on! I didn’t realize I liked pickled eggs untilI was in my forties, because I didn’t grow up in a pickled egg family. Now that I know how awesome a really good pickled egg can be, I’m in, with both feet. The flavor on the pickled eggs at Bhramari, much like other items on their menu, has a slight curry thing going on. It came to the table with a very pretty and well-plated variety of sauces and such that were fabulous. Chef Josh Dillard is an expert saucier, in my opinion, and he lets that special talent of his shine, even with a simple bar bite like a dang pickled egg! There are people I know who eat them three at time. Go try them for yourselves and let me know what you think!
6) DAILY THALI SPECIAL – Every once in a while I just gotta go to Chai Pani! I love it and have for years,but it’s Hella busy a lot and I often have to bypass it. When there isn’t a line, and there are tables or seats at the bar available, then ZIPBOOM I’m in! I often find myself ordering the daily thali special, and I always love it. i have never eaten a thali I didn’t enjoy thoroughly at Chai Pani. I won’t bother to recommend any specific thalis, because they change all the time, but I will strongly advise you to try them all! The rice, cabbage and other sides are all excellent too, and the parts of the plate make for a great over-all experience and very filling lunchtime treat from James Beard nominated and Stoobie Award winning Chef Meherwan Irani and his crew! I think we’re really lucky to have this restaurant in our little town, so I encourage you to try to go as often as you can.
7) SPICY PORK RAMEN – Paddy and I went on another one of our frequent Asheville Food Tours lunch junkets, this time to the brand-dandy new Itto Ramen Bar on Haywood road in West Asheville where Lucky Otter used to be. Now, don’t let the skim of grease on top of the ramen in the picture put you off. I stirred it into the hot soup, and it melted away, and I have to come straight out and say it, I fucking loved this bowl ramen. Ask Paddy. I ate every fucking drop of this enormous cauldron of heavy-duty soup, and every molecule of solid matter contained within. Disclaimer: I AM NOT A RAMEN EXPERT. I’ve eaten very little Ramen in my life, so take my review with a grain of salt, but I think Chef Tony Lin‘s family recipe for broth is great. I also really like the ramen at Heiwa, so if you also like Heiwa’s ramen, we might be on the same page, ramen-wise, so you might also enjoy this spicy pork ramen as much as I did. It was thick, and creamy, and rich, and the egg was awesome, and if that pile o’ pork looks little trashy, it kinda was, but I fuckin’ loved it! Gahd. Afterwards, I was groaning, and Paddy was laughing at me. I can’t wait to eat another bowl of this ramen, but I have to say, that I do not recommend the wings,and I hope the wing situation over there gets better. In conclusion: Wings no. Ramen YES!
8) SPICY TUNA TARTARE – On yet another Asheville Food Tours lunch junket, Paddy and had lunch at Red Ginger Dim Sum on Patton Ave downtown. I’m a big fan of this place, and judging by how busy they get these days, a lot of other folks are too. That makes me happy! Chefs Ben Chen and Kevin Jiang‘s menu is extensive but with help from various sources, I found a bunch dishes that I really enjoy, and have been adding a new favorites to my list as I work my way through their offerings. Paddy likes raw meats of all kinds, and I had never tried their tuna tartare, so we ordered it. When it arrived, we both looked at the bright orange cylinder of finely chopped stuff on a banana leaf with… curiosity? But what the fuck, we ain’t new, so we tucked right in. Short story: Yum. Fuckin’ aye, good, Yo! The flavor was not too spicy, but just piquant enough to give it a sort of “deviled’ quality. I’ll say it’s a lot of food of all of the same texture for just two people to eat. Two normal people that is, because Paddy and I crushed it no problem. I’m planning to order it again in the future, and making some other menu choices that I think will contrast with, and enhance the unique flavor and texture of this dish. If you’re like me and Paddy and you like raw meats, go give this little pile of orange stuff a try, order something crispy with it, and let us know what you think the next time you see us out on one of our junkets!
8) SHRIMP MEETS BEEF – I’ve reviewed this dish before, but I just wanted to touch on it again because I love it so, and think you should all try it, and make it famous! It consists of a breaded, deep fried shrimp, wrapped in sticky sushi rice and very tender, thinly sliced beef strips, which is all then covered in spicy aioli, and topped with toasted garlic bits. The contrast of textures and combination of flavors is truly unique and excellent in my opinion. Paddy and I shared it at Red Ginger Dim Sum during the same lunch junket I referred to above, and I could have shared three more orders during that meal, only I wouldn’t really want to share. I’ll probably review this particular dish ten more times before I die. My advice to you: Go get it.
9) STRAWBERRY MOCHI & SZECHWAN POPCORN – I’m really digging the new High Climate Tea Company. Even though I’m not the biggest tea drinker in the world, I love the decor and atmosphere, and the owner, Hunter Strickland has paladin-level knowledge about tea. I sat in there for a total of ten minutes the other day, and learned at least 20 things I didn’t know about tea, just from overhearing what he was telling the other customers. I also inhaled two large mochi balls and a bowl of szechwan-spiced popcorn. Yes, of course I was there to try their small food menu! Both of these items, and the small selection of other edible items are all created especially for High Climate by local Chef Hannah Kirschner, and I enjoyed what I’ve tried so far very much! I was in a super hurry to get to my food tour, so didn’t expect to finish the popcorn, but it was so good that my arm became one of those robot arms that stole all the automotive jobs, only it wasn’t assembling cars, it was shoveling popcorn into my face at a quick and steady rate. Yum. So savory. Kinda oily, in a good way. Spicy? Ya. Luckily I had nice cooooool mochi balls, each with a whole, ripe, juicy, local strawberry inside! Ahhhhhhh… I love mochi. If you’re not familiar, it is a sweet, gummy, rice flour treat popular in Japan, and all over the world, that can be shaped into various things, and can be wrapped around ice cream, or in this case, fresh fruit. The last time I got it from a grocery store, it was dry, crumbly and horrid, so I’ve been gun shy ever since. This mochi was great! Chewy, soft, refreshing, I loved it and can’t wait to eat more and try all of Chef Kirschner’s creations!
10) EL SALVADORIAN BLACKBERRY CAKE w/ SWEET CORN ICE CREAM – Y’all. This cake. This frickin’ ICE CREAM. There is a wonderful pastry chef workign at Chestnut right now and you had better get n in there and sample soem of the desserts from her menu. Her name is Chef Heather Gresett, and she is very fucking talented. If you follow me on Facebook and Instagram, you already know I have a sweet tooth, and that am a fan of some of the best local sweets downtown, such as Karen Donatelli, Old Europe, and Sunshine Sammies, to name just three of my faves. Okay, four: French Broad Chocolates. Five actually, because Chocolate Fetish. Okay, it’s too hard to pick a finite number of sweets that I like, so back to Chef Gresette’s Salvadorian blackberry cake with sweet corn ice cream, and popped amaranth crumble. The cake was moist, and caky, and sweet, but not too sweet, and had a richness that was countered nicely by the bright flavor of the ripe, seasonal, local, berries. The sweet corn ice cream was the perfect texture, had a subtle flavor, and again, it wasn’t overly sweet. The teeny tiny pieces of popped amaranth were super cute and added a nice textural contrast to the soft cake and ice cream. Another brilliant dessert from this wonderful chef, who I see as a great asset to our downtown sweets scene!
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!
— end —
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.