Southern cooking at its best

Asheville, North Carolina
May 2011

I wanted nothing more than old-fashioned, southern comfort food. After almost nine hours of driving to our destination of Asheville, North Carolina, I was spent. Our lunch at a Kentucky Fried Chicken in rural West Virginia seemed like a lifetime ago and I was anxious for my stomach to be re-fueled.

Since North Carolina is known for its barbeque, I knew we wouldn’t have a problem in finding a place to eat. The problem was, I just wanted it to be the “right” place, an establishment where the locals went, not where Yankees aka out of town tourists like D and me would dine. Although it was listed in an Asheville visitor’s guide that was in our hotel room, Luella’s BBQ was definitely not your tourist restaurant.

Slightly removed from the downtown, the diners inside Luella’s seemed locals. Granted, Asheville is a city of transplants, full of people who have moved there for its growing arts scene, its stunning location, and idyllic weather. However, I didn’t feel like I was surrounded by dozens of other tourists like I have dining at other restaurants during other travels. Customers of all age demographics were there, all out for a night of good cooking.

Although the menu at Luella’s featured a variety of dishes, I opted for a chopped pork bbq sandwich, a quarter pound of meat served with three hush puppies and a choice of two sides. (A plate option is available, the only difference being that you get a quarter pound more of meat). When I told D I planned on eating a lot of hush puppies during our time in the South, I was rewarded with a mildly disgusted look. Knowing that they would be done right there, I had the greatest amount of satisfaction when he bit into one of his and he immediately said, “That’s really good.” Luella’s flagship sauces are its Sweet Pisgah (ketchup based) and Scooter’s Vinegar Sauce (vinegar based, eastern North Carolina style).

Plain grits I’m not a fan of, but cheddar pimiento grits (one of the two sides I ordered) were simply fabulous. I’m a big fan of cooking experimentation and it seemed to me that adding not only cheddar cheese but red bell peppers (what pimiento means in Spanish) to broken grains of corn is sheer genius.

Even though we were hundreds of miles from the coast, we ordered a slice of key lime pie for dessert. Although I had wanted to try Luella’s strawberry pie, feeling that seemed more western Carolina authentic, I was met with sharp opposition from my fellow diner who himself wanted peanut butter pie, so we decided on a mutual winner.

More than an hour wait at a restaurant like TGI Fridays isn’t necessarily an indicator that the food is great. It’s more to do with the fact that there are some people who only eat at non-chain restaurants, who aren’t ones for trying new things. However, an hour wait at a restaurant like Tupelo Honey Cafe in downtown Asheville was worth it.

Tupelo Honey Cafe is all about serving fresh, farm to table food that is made from scratch. When my husband and I arrived at the hostess booth, I could tell that we would be in for a long wait. Tired from our day spent at the Biltmore house, we had gotten a somewhat late start on dinner. But being given a pager to let us know when a table was ready, we went back across the street to a small park, where D proceeded to play Angry Birds on his phone, while I jotted down notes from our activities of the day.

When asked if we minded sitting at the bar, we both said no. Anything to get us inside and eating that much faster. Sure enough, seats at the bar opened up faster than at a table, but in the end it was definitely the right move since we looked directly into the kitchen and saw the mind boggling antics of all that it takes for an item to be ordered, cooked, prepared, and brought to the table.

Since it was nearing nine o’clock and I was no longer a 20 year college student studying in Spain, I opted for a somewhat lighter entree, Tupelo’s Sweet Potato Pancake. It was a large buttermilk pancake flavored with cinnamon and sweet potatoes, topped with whipped peach butter and spiced pecans. D, ever the “growing” boy, gravitated towards a perennial favorite of his, fried chicken and biscuits, two of the latter drowned in your choice of either red eye gravy or milk gravy and topped with buttermilk fried chicken.

The ambiance at both Luella’s  and the Tupelo Honey Cafe was loud and noisy, and yet fun and inviting. At both places, our waiters were extremely conversational and seemed the types that would still talk with you, even if they weren’t working for tips. They were just that warm and welcoming to visitors to their city.

Although I’ve done an incredible amount of traveling and living abroad, I’ve done very little domestic traveling in comparison. My trip to North Carolina was a delight for no other reason than I was able to try another region’s food and experience southern hospitality at its best. It would be hard to sway me with a trip somewhere domestic over somewhere international, and yet if there is food involved was of the delicious caliber of Luella’s and Tupelo Honey Cafe’s, you might just succeed. Food is without a doubt just as integral part of the destination as a particular sight is.

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  • Reply
    Sponge for Knowledge
    July 25, 2011 at 1:56 am

    I love this post, not just because Asheville’s on my next list of places to go, and now I have a head’s up on good places to eat without lifting a finger, but because you focus on just the right things– food and atmosphere of food places. Perfect!

  • Reply
    the red headed traveler
    July 25, 2011 at 1:40 pm

    Thank you 🙂 You’ll love Asheville, it was such a neat and eclectic place and those mountains! Also, the food was so terrific, nothing in the north holds a candle I feel (unless it’s a restaurant owned by southern transplants 😉

  • Reply
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