2022 ASHEVILLE FOOD FAN AWARDS AKA “THE STOOBIES!“
ALL WINNERS IN ALL CATEGORIES!
Alrighty, Y’all! It’s time for me to name the winners in every category of the 2022 Food Fan Awards, the 10th Annual Stoobie Awards!
When it comes to choosing winners, sometimes it’s hard, sometimes it’s easy, sometimes it’s a no-brainer, and on rare occasions I add a new category just to honor a particularly awesome food experience. Again, as always, please keep in mind that the winners below represent the best of what I personally ate all year long in 2022. Try as I might, I just can’t eat everything in WNC, so please forgive me if your favorites didn’t make it onto my list of nominees or winners. As always, I encourage you to suggest venues for me to try in 2023 in the comments section here. If you’d like to see the list of 2022 nominees, please click HERE. Otherwise, scroll down to see this year’s winners in 26 categories!
Twisted Laurel Downtown Asheville – Smash Burger
If you count all the times that Chef Tommy fed me when I went into his restaurant with a food tour, I ate at Twisted Laurel Downtown Asheville more than any other restaurant in Asheville, and this dang smash burger was my most craved item of 2022. I wanted to stuff my face full of them with irresponsible frequency, and had to force myself to other restaurants in order to keep from doing so. This smash burger, called “Smash Burger” on the menu, is as simple as a pimple: One, two or three flat patties, stack as you see fit, with an equal number of slices of ‘Mercan cheese, on a grilled bun, with optional pickles and onions if you want ’em. It’s seared in mustard, on super hot grille and needs no other condiments. It’s fucking perfect the way it is, and it is my winner for 2022’s Smash Burger of the Year!
Twisted Laurel Downtown Asheville – JC Burger
I can just about hear you sayin’, “Stu… WTF? Why split the burger category into two subcategories if you’re just gonna hand both awards to the same dang restaurant???” Answer: I split this category up partially because of these two burgers from Twisted Laurel Downtown Asheville. The smash burger is as described above: Simple yet perfect. The “JC” burger shown below is equally perfect, tho’ anything but simple. It’s a deep, dank dinner burger, with layers and layers of umami & flavor. It’s made from fresh ground trim from Twisted’s various cuts of steak that are on their menu at at any given time. It’s covered in onions that are so caramelized, they exist somewhere between a liquid and solid state of being, and would be at the very center of a culinary Ven diagram of sweet and savory. It is covered in two of the greatest sauces in the known history of food: A Sauce Robért (a la Julia Child, the “JC” in “JC Burger”) and Duke’s mayonnaise. There’s no color but shades of brown and tan. There’s no crunch. There’s nothing crispy, snappy, chewy, or piquant on this burger. It’s just 100% soft, savory, meaty, umami-y goodness, and it is my 2022 winner for Burger of the Year!
The Rhu – Turkey & Kale “Kale Yeah!” Sandwich
I have fed this fabulous sandwich from The Rhu to hundreds of people. That is because, I ate one once, and loved it so much, that I immediately added it to my food tours! Now I dole-out quarter portions of it like a card dealer at a casino, and when I do, I describe it as the “quintessential Asheville sandwich, because it has kale… and about a half a stick of butter.”
It also has house smoked turkey, regionally produced gouda cheese, house made bread, comeback sauce, and slaw, plus it was developed by the employees, named by the customers, is available at a James Beard nominated restaurant, and assembled by super awesome local F&B people whom I know by name and admire very much! To use a term that we don’t hear as much these days, that’s so Asheville. Most importantly, in terms of this award: It’s fucking delicious. Like, over the top satisfying & comforting, crispy, meaty, savory, fresh, and yes, buttery. Good lord, is it ever buttery.
For all those reasons, the Turkey and Kale* aka the “Kale Yeah!” sandwich at The Rhu is my 2022 Sandwich of the Year!
*It is only available with pulled pork sometimes, which is still great, but try it with the turkey for the full effect of awesomeness.
Asheville Pizza South – Umami Bomb / Pizza of the Month
If you follow me on Facebook, Instagram, & Substack, or you’re a fan of Asheville Pizza South you know about the continuing saga of pizza chef Drew Peterson‘s “Pizza of the Month” specialty pies. He won the 2022 WNC Pizza Fight, beating out 15 other competitors with his plain cheese pie, but especially crushing it with his specialty “curry” pizza. Those who had not tasted it were skeptical. Those who had where instant fans of Drew’s skills. Since then, Chef Drew has delivered 6 different specialty pies to my house, and I’m telling you what. This man is a mad genius of sorts.
The pies I tried in 2022 were the Saucy Hawg, Birria, Chinese Leftovers (pictured below), Oktoberfest, and the winner in this category, the Umami Bomb (pictured above) which had a crushed tomato, red miso paste, chili, and sesame oil base, with portobello mushrooms, water chestnuts, red onions and bamboo shoots soaked in chili oil, all topped off with fresh mozzarella, crunchy fried wonton noodles, and scallions. It was by far the most interesting pizza I have ever eaten, and the deliciousness levels were off the charts. The textures, flavors, and spices were all perfect, and it was obviously made with love and devotion to craft.
The guy in the picture above is a fantastically creative and talented chef, making truly beautiful pizza’s that are beyond unusual, but always on point, and his Umami Bomb specialty pie is my 2022 Pizza of the Year!
The Soda Fountain at Woolworth Walk – Basic Dog w/ mustard
As you can imagine this was a tough category for me to judge, because I love hot dogs, and I ate some really great, very special, over-the-top creative, hot dogs in 2022, but when this chips were down, and I had to make a choice, I closed my eyes, and just let my mind wander until it landed on my favorite hot dog experience all year, and there was no denying, I had to give it up to The Soda Fountain at Woolworth Walk. I feel like I could simply direct all y’alls’s attention to the photo below and say, “My God, People! Just look at that thing!” and you should know why it’s this year’s winner. It was a thing of beauty on every level. When it came fresh off the hot grille, and hit the counter in its pretty little red basket with checkered paper, it looked so perfect and so tasty, my dang mouth was watering while I took this picture, and it is again right now as I look at it months later!
I don’ know any other place in town that butterflies their dogs like the folks at The Soda Fountain do, but that’s part of what makes it so great. It picks up all the flavors of the grille, and the fat in the dog is released to give it a bit of a sizzle and sear. I ordered it with nothing but mustard and the person who did the honors knew exactly what they were doing. Not too much, not too little, and in an attractive pattern that covered the hot dog real estate but did not overwhelm the situation. Add a pickle and some Lays potato chips, and yass y’all! It really was a tough choice, but in the end there was no doubt in my mind that this dog from the Soda Fountain at Woolworth Walk deserves to be my Hot Dog of the Year, 2022.
Andale Way Mexican Grill – Birria Taco
Two years ago I didn’t know what the word “Birria” meant. [definition] Now it’s apparently my favorite thing on Earth. Give me birria everything! From Ramen, to pizza, to tacos of course! With that in mind, the best dang taco I ate all year was the birria taco from Chef Salvator Alvarado and his crew at Andale Way on the South Slope! I went there recently with my friend Lucho from Asheville Multicultural, and the kitchen brought us a plate of traditional tacos in four flavors. Pastor, carne, chorizo, and birria, all on super high quality corn tortillas. Yom! Just writing about them now is making my stomach demand more! I
I ate half of each taco, sharing them with Lucho, and there wasn’t one bite that wasn’t just right. Pure taco-y perfection! But what puts the birria taco into a whole ‘nother category for me is the fact that it’s grilled after assembly, and comes with a cup of birria dipping sauce. Grilling and sauce make everything that already good even better, and everything great, frickin’ awesome! This awesome taco was the best dang taco I ate all year last eyear, I plan to eat a tonof them this year, and is my 2022 Taco of the Year winner!
Homegrown – Fish & Chips
I’ve been eating at Homegrown since they opened. Back in the day, when I was broke, eating at Homegrown was one of the ways I treated myself to a great, homey, healthy meal, packed with flavor, comfort, and calories. For years, my go-to has been the fried chicken, and my back-up is meatloaf, but then one day in 2022, I decided to try their fish & chips, which was the special that day, and BAM-POW, oh my… it was fantastic. The batter was light, crispy, & flavorful, and did not fall off of the fish, which was fresh, chunky, flakey white fish cooked to a tee. I grew up in New England, Y’all, and I have been eating fish and chips for just about my whole life. I’m no novice. If I had a “Fish ‘n’ Chips” category, this dish would be winning, but since I don’t, I am more than happy to hand them one of my favorite annual awards, they are my 2022 winners of Deep Fried Thing of the Year!
Ukiah Japanese Smokehouse – Breakfast Ramen
Much like birria, I didn’t even know that breakfast ramen was a thing until recently, and the very first time I tried it at Ukiah Japanese Smokehouse they knocked my socks off and made me an instant fan of soup for breakfast! CRAZY! Breakfast ramen is a pretty basic concept: Take an internationally popular dish, and put an egg on top! Add bacon, and like magic, what was once lunch is instantly transformed into breakfast, or if you sleep late and add booze, brunch! Break that egg, cut it up with your giant spoon, stiring in the yolk thickens the broth, then scrape the bacon off the sticks and into the mix, and woo hoo! It’s the greatest thing ever! Thank you, Ukiah, for being my first, and being so great! Your super tasty breakfast ramen is my winner for 2022 Breakfast / Brunch Item of the Year!
Mëhfil – Lunch Buffet
If you don’t already love Mëhfil, either you haven’t been yet, or maybe you just don’t like Indian food, and there’s nothing wrong with that. You do you, and I’ll do the buffet at Mëhfil, thank you very much! Nom nom! I love Indian food, and I was excited to try Mëhfil, the new Indian restaurant downtown, then I found out they do a daily lunch buffet and I was all, like, “That’s old school. I like that,” so I went and checked it out, and to say I was impressed would be an understatement! I loved it. Very fresh, piping hot, Indian fare, mostly from the Northern regions of India, with a few Southern dishes too, all lined-up in a beautiful array of classic metal chaffers, with tongs, and little signs that tell you what’s what, and the whole nine yards! Add a little bit of the fresh veg they offer, and some sauces, sit down, consume, repeat until stoofed.
It’s a fixed price, for a wonderful rainbow of food and flavors, in a truly charming atmosphere, with a great staff and friendly owners who are all happy to see you. It’s the perfect place to grab lunch on your own, or meet a friend for lunch, or have a lunch meeting… you’re picking up a pattern here: It’s a great place to grab lunch! Mëhfil is definitely my favorite addition to the lunch scene downtown last year, and their lunch buffet is my 2022 Lunch of the Year winner!
Abeja’s House Cafe – NOLA Chicken & Shrimp
Sometimes, I order a weird sounding dish on a whim, and it becomes one of my all-time favorite things to eat. Such is the case with the NOLA Chicken and Shrimp from Abeja’s House Cafe. When I saw it on the menu, I was like, “Chicken and Shrimp? Sounds weird. Must try.” Three bites in and I was suddenly the biggest fan of chicken and shrimp at that even lived on planet Earth and any time in human history. It’s so good that the last time I had it , I took a selfie with it. You could say it’s all about the sauce, and you wouldn’t be wrong, but also, you’d be wrong, because it’s actually all about EVERYTHING ON THE PLATE. All caps intentional.
The shrimp are seasoned, and then grilled at what must be a high enough temperature to almost caramelize the outside, while leaving the inside moist and tender. The chicken is likewise seasoned and grilled until it is cooked exactly right, while remaining juicy inside. The salsa, rice and beans are standard but also the exact thing needed to tie it all together, and then when they pour that fabulous, mild, creamy, flavor-blanket of a sauce all over everything, now your talking superstar dish status. It one of my go-to plates of food in all of Asheville, and it is my 2022 winner for Entrée of the Year! And now I want it.
Neng Jr’s – August Fruit
So, for a half a minute last summer, I was trying to eat a little bit healthier, ordering things like salad and fruit sides instead of fries or tots, so when Dawn & I went to the brand new and very incredible Neng Jr’s over on the Western side of the big river, and I saw something called “August fruit” listed as a side dish that came with sea salt and fish sauce, I was like, “That sounds weirdly delicious,” and it really was! First of all, that big green fruit up front, that’s a green tomato! It was so ripe and subtly sweet I thought it was a melon or such, that I could not identify. Then there was a perfectly ripe mango, a sweet and snappy Asian pear, and I’m guessing on the rest… one of those donut peaches? I dunno. I’m not good at knowing things. I am good at eating things though, and I ate the shit out of this plate of insanely delicious fruit, and enjoyed it more than any other fruit side I’ve ever had! Ever! The sea salt was a contrast to the cool sweet fruit, of course, but not entirely strange, especially in this post-salted-caramel world we live in. The fish sauce, on the other hand, threw me for a loop…until I dipped a piece of fruit in it and then I was, like, “Chef Silverrrrrrrr!!! You’ve done it again!” They made the simplest thing: Fruit, into one of the most exciting food experiences I had all year, and it is my winner for 2022’s Side Dish of the Year!
Huli Sue’s Hawaiian BBQ – Blackened Fish Taco Salad
As mentioned above, I went through a brief stint of ordering salads and such, and yes, it did immediately follow a visit to my health care provider. I learned something along the way that every salad-eater knows: Just because it’s a “salad” does mean it’s rabbit food. Especially down here in the South, there’s ham, eggs, bacon… some salads come with fried chicken on ’em FFS. So, although I was eating salads, I was not suffering, and while the blackened fish taco salad from Huli Sues BBQ & Grill was perhaps a little healthier than others I ate along the way, it was certainly no less delicious than anything else I ate all year, salad or otherwise!
The fish was super-flavorful, flakey, moist, and meaty, and it was a sizable portion as well! The salad underneath was called a “rainbow ranch slaw,” and was a colorful mix of corn, black beans, cabbage, avocado, onions, tomato, cilantro and jalapeño wheels tossed in a creamy ranch dressing, with crunchy tortilla strips on top. It was both fresh and cooked, cool and warm, surprising and familiar, zingy and comforting. This salad was a lot of things, especially for a salad, and it is my winner of the 2022 Salad of the Year Award!
Mother – Olive Focaccia
I have recently been telling the story of having a full-blown Food-FOMO attack while waiting in line with Dawn at Mother Bakery in the RAD to buy a loaf Castelvetrano olive focaccia to go with our traditional Christmas Eve dinner of spaghetti and meatballs, lasagna & Caesar salad. I thought I was going to lose my mind, as I watched person after person order loaf after loaf of bread ahead of us, and the focaccia dwindling down to one loaf! Then a holiday miracle happened when a very kind person ahead of us said they’d better leave that loaf for me, because they had heard me quietly freaking out. (Not silently, mind you, but quietly!)
Thanks to that person and Mother Bakery, my family got to enjoy this wonderful oaf of bread with our Xmas Eve meal! I wrapped it in foil and warmed it up in the oven until it was slightly crispy on the outside, soft on the inside & oily AF, in the best way possible. It tasted great with Dawn’s pasta sauce recipe, and was the perfect addition to an important and special family meal! For all those reasons and more, it is my 2022 Baked Thing of the Year!
Storm Rhu Bar – Birthday Dinner
There were lot of contenders in this category. As you can imagine, I ate a large number and great variety of very memorable meals in 2022, but when I scrolled through my pictures from last year, the birthday meal that Dawn treated me to at Storm Rhum Bar & Bistro jumped out at me over and over again. The pictures looked so perfect, I’m telling you what, I almost couldn’t believe that I took them! Seriously, I was like, “Wait, what magazine or PR firm are these pictures from?” And then, “Ohhh… birthday dinner at Storm… that steak… that trout… ” and then I would drift off into magical memory land. For the rest of this write-up, I going to quote my own Facebook post from the time…
“I wanted steak, and boy howdy, did I get steak! A giant brontosaurus-sized ribeye, with veg, that hit every single nail squarely on the head! It was perfect in every way. Dawn got the trout, and said it was the best preparation of trout she’s ever had. EVER. Fun facts: Dawn is a much more discerning eater than I am, and she has eaten a ton of trout in this town, believe me. Beer city? More like trout city. So. Much. Trout. On every menu in town. And we love it! We order it often, and I agree with Dawn that Storm knocked it waaaay out of the park with this one! We also had a wonderful salad of peaches and speck, and Storm’s take on Taco Bell’s “Mexican Pizza,” and it was all fucking fantastic. This was one of the best birthday meals ever, thank you Dawn, Chefs Jay and Jordan, and the whole crew at Storm! You rule! ❤️ Also, I gotta say that in my opinion, Storm is the most punk rock restaurant in downtown, even though they rarely if ever play punk rock music on the speakers, it’s got that vibe to me, and I really enjoy that aspect. Anyhoo, treat yourselves to a great meal there, and definitely try that trout!🔥🔥🔥“
So, yeah, Meal of the Year might be the toughest category to win, and this meal was up against some very steep competition, but Storm is and has been one of favorite restaurants for years, and I have handed Chef Jay several awards over the those years for his work at Stay Glazed Donuts (née The Underground Cafe), as well as for his much more “fancy” (a word we often use together to describe his food!) creations at Storm, and I’m super happy to hand him this award, for my 2022 Meal of the Year!
The Hop – Ice Cream Yule Log
I’m 56 years old. Greg and Ashley Garrison from The Hop Ice Cream have been making this Ice Cream Yule Log for 20 years. I tried one for the first time in 2022. I’m no mathematician, I just know that I have a lot of lost time to make up for. Who doesn’t love an ice cream yule log? I mean, C’mon. It’s a log made out of ice cream. Which by virtue of its very existence insinuates that somewhere in this world there also exists a forest full of trees that are, you guessed it… MADE OF ICED CREAM!!! Sigh… truly a magical thought.
In mid Decmeber, Greg brought me a beautiful yule log make with both chocolate and vanilla bean ice cream, and chocolate cake. I pretty much ate it for breakfast, lunch, and dinner until it was gone. I also ate it for elevensies and as a midnight snack, and in between all of those things. It was a lot of log! Plus, I know that it makes Santa really sad to see ice cream linger in your freezer for too long, so I powered this baby down, and holy moly, it was insanely good, so rich and creamy! It’s the newest addition to our holiday snack madness, an instant family tradition from now on, and my #1 pick for Sweet Treat of the Year, 2022!
Deli Llammma – Llammma Spit
People give me a lot of hot sauce. I have a fridge door full of it! To state a fact, I will never run out of hot sauces, but I do sometimes run out of a hot sauce, and when I do, that’s a sign that I really liked that particular hot sauce. I scored a bottle of Chef Chazzy Edwards’ Llammma Spit hot sauce somewhere once, and when it ran out, I mentioned it the next time I visited her truck Deli Llammma Food Truck, and she gave me another bottle, and now that one is about to run out! It’s not as if I don’t use the other hot sauces in my fridge door. I do! I try to use ’em all. Some are more hot than sauce though, and I only need but few wee little drops to light my whole head on fire, and I like those, but the Llammma Spit is thicker than usual, and has absolutely achieved a golden ratio of heat vs flavor.
Because of its viscosity and the fact that it does not melt my face off, I end up putting it on everything from eggs, to hot dogs, to burgers, fries, tacos, mac ‘n’ cheese… did I already say hot dogs? You know everything! Because I love it, I use it, and because the name is bold and the Chef is one of the best people ever, Deli Llammma’s Llammma Spit hot sauce is my 2022 Hot Sauce of the Year winner!
Adam Anson – The Matzo Man
I didn’t know how much I loved matzo ball soup until I met this man. It’s just chicken soup with dumpling, right? Well, yeah, but also no! It’s not just an English style dumpling, it a frickin’ matzo ball! It’s huge, it’s fluffy, yet magically also hearty at the same time, and it has subtle yet insanely appealing and comforting flavor. At least that’s how they are when Adam Anson, the Matzo Man* makes them, and I know no other way. I was a matzo ball virgin until this charming ball-maker rolled into my life during the ill-fated early days of COVID, and brought me some of his wonderful, spherical comfort food, floating in a very yummy, savory, fatty (I mean that is a very good way!), chunky broth.
I think that I really lucked-out, having Adam introduce me to this particular culinary and cultural treat! I can think of no one else I would rather have had as my guide, my sherpa, my Matzo master if you will, and of course, since you’re seeing him here, he is my 2022 Food Maker of the Year!
*Adam is not taking orders right now, but we hope that he’ll be back in action soon!
Cultura – NA Cocktails
I quit drinking a long time ago, and that’s fairly well-known thing by the folks in Asheville’s F&B world, so now days people often invite me to try their NA beverages and “mocktails.” 2022 was a particularly enjoyable year for me in the world of NA beverages, as it seems more and more people are making and serving zero-alcohol drinks in Asheville than ever! I introduced this category in 2021 and handed it to Cultura on the South Slope for their amazing line-up of fun, complex, and sophisticated mocktails, and in 2022 they were still crushing it, even more so! I went to one of their special ticketed dinners, and along with all the other patrons, I was served a different drink with each course. My drinks didn’t have booze, of course, but that is the only thing they lacked! Each NA drink they served me had depth, color, pop, and the all-important zhuzh! Their mocktails have flare, they look great, they taste fantastic, and range in character from sweet to dry, fruity to piney, and were expertly paired with each dish they came with. Thanks, Cultura, for serving me drinks that make me feel like a grown up! For the second year in a row, you are my pick for NA Beverage Maker of the Year!
Bigfoot Longs – Outdated Video Box Grand Opening
With me, quirkiness counts. It scores points on my tally sheet, and the quirkiest event I went to in 2022 was, by far, the Outdated Video Box grande opening at The Gas-up, hosted by the Bigfoot Longs hotdog cart. First of all, The Gas-up. There’s no gas. I love that. They also recently got a bangin’ new paint job, which makes this authentic art deco structure look soooooo coooool! I was worried it would be torn down, but with its spiffy new look, I feel like it’s here to stay. Next, Outdated Video Box. What a concept! Basically a free library for VHS tapes! Take one, leave one, it’s free for all y’all! Finally: Bigfoot Longs: FUN! BIGFOOT! HOTDOGS! The hot dogs were great, they were free, and cart owner Joshua Heald was there in full Bigfoot regalia!
On top of all that, there was a great little turn-out of punks, artists, chefs, indie media people, freaks and fans. It was casual AF, it was short and sweet, it was a beautiful day out, I saw old friends, I met new people, I ate hot dogs, and I laughed out loud at the ribbon cutting, which was a very “serious” moment, with tongue planted firmly in cheek. I loved it, it was a blast, and I’m giving it my Food Event of the Year award for 2022!
Sabora Fodo Truck
If you already know about the Sabora Food Truck, then you already agree with me that it rules. If you like burgers, there’s no way you’re not either already a fan, or destined to become a future fan of this man, Chef Macario Jimenez, who is not just smashing burgers on a hot grill and slapping cheese on ’em, he’s constructing beautiful culinary creations! I’ve tried at least a half-dozen of his specialty burgers, including one that had some of the best pork belly I’ve ever had on it. Every bite of everything that has come out of this truck and gone into my belly has had the yum-factor cranked up to 11. This is food that I crave, that I want when I don’t have it, and that I think about late at night. Not even kidding.
Some chefs I trust to feed me anything they make, and Macario Jimenez is one of them! In addition to being a thoughtful chef who knows how to make food that people like, and perfectly tailors it to suit his customer base, he’s also a nice person, a skilled entrepreneur, a hard worker, and a consistent presence in our food truck scene. I plan to eat as many of his masterfully made burgers as I can in 2023, and Sabora is my my Food Truck of the Year winner for 2022!
Session Cafe at Citizen Vinyl
I have screaming tinnitus in both ears, It’s the bane of my life. It started when I was a teenager and has gotten worse over the years. It sucks and there’s no cure. if you have it, you know what I’m talking about. One of the treatments for tinnitus is called “masking,” which is just shorthand for giving your ears something else to listen to, thus hopefully distracting you from the constant loud ringing caused by the disorder. So, to keep from going completely insane, I listen to talk radio, TV, white noise, and especially music every waking moment of my life. It’s a little weird, but that’s the way it is, and as a result I am extremely sick and tired of the same shit old shit when it comes to music. I mostly loathe the top forty hits of the mid-to late 1900’s, and never need or want to hear even some of my used-to-be-favorite songs or bands ever again. I am constantly in search of new music to listen to. That’s why, when I’m out at a cafe or restaurant and I hear music I’ve never heard before, or have only heard on a very limited basis, I take note, I get excited, I allow my self to listen and enjoy, and I might even ask the staff what’s playing. Nobody does it better than Session Cafe at Citizen Vinyl. Music is their whole schtick, with a recording studio, a vinyl press, a record shop, live shows, and a full time music programmer. With all that, you’d expect their music choices to be the best, and they are. Session cafe has great food & coffee, a full bar, tons of space & light, and they are my Best Music winners for 2022!
Mehfil / Dilbar
There are two Indian Restaurants right next to each other on Biltmore Ave in downtown Asheville these days. They are owned by the same people, and that’s more or less where the similarities end! Mëhfil is casual upscale dining, with a classic menu of familiar Northern Indian dishes. Dilbar is counter service with Indian street food, much of which you may have never heard of before. Mehfil is warm, charming, homey, inviting, classic, and comforting. Dilbar is bright, flashy, colorful, raucous, fun & exciting! Both have awesome decor that 100% fits what they are doing.
The spaces that these two new spots occupy have been notoriously dark, and uninviting for years, and the previous occupants struggled with that. Mëhfil (above) is colorful and well lit, bright enough to enjoy lunch during the day, and then when the lights are dimmed for dinner, it becomes a great date night or special dinner spot. Dilbar (below) had an even bigger hurdle to jump, their space is tiny, long, narrow, and gets almost no natural light. Solution: Fill it with super-natural light! Neon, fairy lights, and televisions showing Bollywood clips and videos, Indian food being made and plated, light up menus, etc etc. The contrast between the decor of the two restaurants is as stark as that of their menus, and like the food, the decor for each if superlative, and they are both winners of my 2022 Best Decor award!
I haven’t felt this excited about a new restaurant since Vivian opened, and we all know how that turned out. In some ways, Chef Silver Iocovozzi’s new Fillipinx venture, Neng Jr’s, is the most unique restaurant in Asheville right now. It’s hidden. It’s tiny. It’s intimate. It almost feels like you’re in on a secret when you finally find the door, and wend your way into the back-room dining area with fewer than ten tables, and a small bar that looks huge in the miniature space. If you’re like me, you’ve been a fan of Chef Iocovozzi’s food for years, and followed them through pop-ups while waiting to hear the good news of their first restaurant opening. As much as chef’s dreams came true with the opening of Neng Jr’s, so did the dreams of all their fans, such as myself, and especially my partner Dawn, who loves Silver & is always finding opportunities for us to eat their food, and made a reservation at Neng Jr’s! We were greeted by some familiar faces upon arriving, and sat at the bar, where we had an easy conversation with the bartender about the food, while we perused the small, but enticing menu.
Everything you see in the pictures above, is everything we ate (sans the drinks, and ice cream we had for dessert) and we ate it ALL. Keep in mind that this meal was also nominated for Meal of the Year, and the side dish of “August Fruit” did win my Side Dish of the Year award as seen above. The entire meal, from the complimentary peanuts, to the raw oysters & quail eggs, to the fruit, the seared scallops, the whole fire roasted eggplant, the whole the muscadine grape ice cream, all of it was just frickin’ special, beginning to end. Like, take a bite, look at each other special. Of course the food is not the only thing I consider when handing out this award. The decor, service, the Chef’s journey, and uniqueness of mission all figure in, as does the over all feeling or “experience” I have while dining, all of which in the case of Neng Jr’s, just can’t be beat. The kitchen is wide open, and when seated at the bar, there’s Chef Iocovozzi and their small team of experts chopping, and cutting, and cooking, and lighting things on fire, workin’ a whole fish, and taking chickens apart. It’s intense and awesome and from my point of view, the greatest show with dinner in town!
And then there’s this:
All gratuity is split equitably between our hourly front and back of house teams. Our menu prices reflect our livable wage and costs for honorable products to serve.
For all those reasons and more, I’m so happy to say that Neng Jr’s is my winner for 2022’s New Restaurant of the Year award!
Jen Hampton & The Co-Founders of Asheville Food & Beverage United
For this category, it took no time at all to figure out the winners. Asheville Food & Beverage United is Asheville’s first proto-union for local workers in the food and beverage industry. They are not yet unionized, but they are rapidly working towards that goal, and in the meantime they have already made incredible strides, and had amazing successes in the short amount of time that they have been in existence. Co-founder Jen Hampton (pictured) has been a regular guest on my podcast, where she has delivered a constant stream of good news and accomplishments! Jen and her team are doing things I never thought possible, and making progress in a more timely fashion than I could have imagined.
Asheville’s F&B people have dreamed of union for decades, and while AFBU has a ways to go before they are officially unionized, they are currently communicating successfully with the County and the City to make things better & better for F&B workers for the first time in Asheville’s history! It’s huge. And that’s why Jen Hampton and the co-founders of Asheville Food & Beverage United are my Food People of the Year!
Chef Tom LaFauci – Twisted Laurel Downtown Asheville
This fuckin’ guy. I love this guy! Chef Tom LaFauci from Twisted Laurel Downtown Asheville is the salt of the frickin’ earth and he is an amazing cook, as well as an amazing chef! In my mind those are kinda two separate things, y’know, like your memaw might be a great cook, even though she ain’t a chef? Well, this guy is memaw-good when it comes to being a cook, but he’s also got all the skills to pay the bills when it comes to cheffing the shit out of some shit. He’s served me food that makes my eyes involuntarily close while my mind goes to its happy place. He served my whole family a meal that every single one of us enjoyed every single bite of. He came up with my TWO favorite burgers of 2022. His food is phenomenal, and he is awesome.
Anyone who’s worked for Tommy will agree: This man knows how to run a kitchen, a staff, a restaurant. He’s as solid as the rock of Gibraltar, he’s an extremely hard worker, he genuinely cares for his people and patrons, he took what could have been one of Asheville’s most mediocre restaurants and has turned it into one of Asheville’s most successful, most consistent, and most beloved downtown eateries. If you haven’t been to Twisted Laurel Downtown Asheville since Chef Tom LaFauci took the wheel, get on in and see just why he’s won three of my Stoobie Awards for 2022, including my highest award for an individual: Chef of the Year!
La Rumba Restaurant Latino
It was a very difficult choice to pick my 2022 Restaurant of the Year winner from among the excellent and worthy contenders, but when I stepped back and looked at the big picture, the entire package, the whole enchilada, if you will, I was left with one conclusion: La Rumba Restaurant Latino deserves this dang award. I didn’t eat there with frequency, but the times I did go, it was by invitation, and the owner Reynaldo Macario asked Chef Michael Martin to send out just about half the dang menu, so I got a real good sense of the really great food they are producing there. I tried close to 20 dishes, ranging form fancy seafood preparations to traditional street tacos, enjoying bite after bite after bite of this excellent Latin fare!
So, the food at La Rumba is great, and I think anyone who’s eaten there will agree. Now let’s talk about the people, and in particular, owner Reynaldo, who is a special person as far as I can tell from meeting him just three times now. Even though our meetings have been few, we’ve spent a pretty good amount of time talking with each other, and I enjoyed his company very much. He’s thoughtful, deliberate, skilled with people, and serious about his role as a restaurateur and business owner in a community like Asheville. Likewise, I have enjoyed knowing Chef Mike, who is the type of person my mom would refer to as a “good egg,” meaning he’s just a really good guy, the kind of guy that people might take a liking to immediately upon meeting. He also a very skilled, but remarkably humble chef, who approaches the traditional Latin foods that his boss Rey asks him to cook with all the respect & deference that any serious student brings to a subject they love.
La Rumba also has loads parking and seating, which has made it a very popular destination for many locals, and it has become community favorite, that hosts charitable organizations, and gives back to the people who live in our area.It’s a great restaurant, run by admirable people, who sell a wonderful product and help out when asked, and for all those reasons and more, they are my 2022 Restaurant of the Year!
And there you have it! The 2022 Food Fan Awards are in the bag! I hope you enjoyed them, and that some of my favorites from my experiences in 2022 are among yours as well, and will be on your list for 2023! Thanks for reading, and if you’re in the F&B industry, thanks for all you do! You fucking ROCK!
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.
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