Many of my favorite towns (Boulder, Missoula, Portland, the other Portland, Duluth, Tacoma, Providence, etc.) seem to be kindred spirits to one another. There’s something about the coming-together of historic architecture, blue-collar grittiness, a population full of creative-types and surrounding natural beauty that…well, for which I’m a total sucker. So based on all the reports over the years I’ve had about Asheville, I knew it was going to be my kinda place.
Asheville is nestled in the thick of the Blue Ridge Mountains, which turned nearly every direction we looked into a beautiful panorama.
The lush, southern climate gave us the feeling that we were walking through an urban greenhouse. Everything was in full bloom and living color.
The city’s history is visible around every well-preserved corner. And if you’re into ghost signs, the place is a dream come true.
Unfortunately, ghost signs are often present in towns that are slowly withering—but that was far from the case here. Despite an economically troubled past, Asheville is a vibrant, active city—
complete with a fierce sense of local pride. We saw some variation of these signs in every shop and restaurant window, over and over again. (Which gave us some seriously good ideas for Tacoma…)
But above all, there was a comfortable sense of down-home warmth in every quarter. Everyone we met was sweet as pecan pie, and the whole place seemed to invite us to settle in and relax. And the rocking chairs! I swear, we saw them everywhere—even at the airport! That’s a tradition I can get behind—I mean, sit down upon.
I could go on and on all day about Asheville’s charms as a city, but what I really want to talk about is the food. Oh, my the food. And I know that saying so doesn’t exactly make me your typical Yankee, but I have a real thing for Southern cuisine. And after trying a new restaurant at every interval for five days, I’m convinced that it’s nigh impossible to have a bad meal in Asheville.
I’ll never understand the point of chain restaurants. When I travel, I’m not interested in the generic food you can get anywhere in America—I want local flavor. When in Rome, you know? So whenever I’m in a new place, I usually order whatever the restaurant is particularly known for, which is often some sort of local specialty. It’s never steered me wrong.
So at Early Girl, I had the shrimp n’ grits. What’s more Southern than that? And more importantly, what could possibly be more tasty? As if that weren’t enough, the garnish on the grits was the fact that everything on the menu was locally sourced, and whenever possible, organic. Plus, they served the real, no-kidding, hard-core stone-ground coarse grits—the ones the Tailor and I love so much that we actually order them from a North Carolina mill and have them shipped out west as one of our staple grains. Yeah, I know we’re weird like that.
The Southern boasted both local and seasonal fare (and terrible lighting for photographs, sorry)—
and their peach, pecan, goat cheese and honey salad was like summer on a plate.
When a large group of letterpress folks joined us at Salsa’s, Southern cookin’ wasn’t exactly on the menu, but I stuck with my rule-of-thumb about the house specialty, and as usual, it was the right choice. This time I ordered their famous molcajete, a traditional Mexican mortar-and-pestle carved out of basalt, heated to something like earth-core temperatures, and filled with a molten and unbelievably delicious stew. The secret ingredient was goat cheese again, which is always a-okay with me. Besides, for someone who loves nerdy scientific things like specific heat, this dinner took the cake—even though it was nearly an hour before I could eat it without my mouth catching fire.
Now, I like lemonade, sweet tea and unsweet tea as much as the next gal, but I’ve always been a coffee drinker. And after three years as a transplanted Northwesterner, I’m a total convert to the coffee culture; a late-morning walk just doesn’t feel right without a cuppa. It was 95 muggy degrees outside, so an iced Americano hit the spot—and at the Battery Park Book Exchange, they’ll serve it to you in snazzy wine glasses and let you while away the whole caffeinated day paging through the impressive North Carolina section.
One of the people we befriended at the conference is an Asheville native who let us in on the secret about where to get the best dessert in town.
Handmade chocolates. ‘Nuff said.
Still, it was the Southern classics I was most hungry for—like this gigantic sweet potato pancake at the Tupelo Honey Cafe. It came garnished with spicy pecans and escorted by a side of grits with—you guessed it—goat cheese. Like nearly every other meal I had in Asheville, it was light and deftly made (though impossible to finish!), and completely unlike the heavy, greasy stereotype people have in their heads. With each bite I was more and more baffled by the idea that anyone could dislike Southern food.
Of course, no sojourn below the Mason-Dixon Line would be complete (for omnivores, at least) without a taste of authentic, heart-attack-inducing Southern barbeque. To get our fix, Jessica and I headed for Luella’s.
Neither of us could decide, so we ended up eating family-style and sharing our entrees. I picked the giant stuffed baked potato with everything plus the kitchen sink and a coronary on it (shown here with a bit of Jessica’s spare ribs)—which was fantastic, truly, but it was the hush puppies that stole the show. Best. Freaking. Hush puppies. Ever. I think the secret is in the shape—greater crispy-to-fluffy ratio. Yum.
But my favorite meal of the trip was one that will probably live in my all-time top ten forever: fried-green-tomato eggs Benedict (with a side of grits, natch!) at the Over Easy Cafe. I still dream about that one.
I’m also still dreaming of that blue haze. Whether it’s for the local flavor or the letterpress gals, the hush puppies or the hills, you can bet I’ll be back.