It’s that time of year everyone… The Stoobie Awards are here!
Every year, year after year, the good people of Asheville get to vote for all their favorite stuff in the pages of the Mountain Xpress‘s “Best of WNC” issue… I mean issues… volumes? Anthologies?!? Gosh it seems like they’ve got a lot of categories these days. Everything from best pizza to best vape shop… or the other way around if you’re doing it right… wakka wakka… the Mountain X provides the masses with a chance to be heard, and a forum to crowd-cast their votes for umpty-dump-countless different shops, events, people, places, pets… everything under the sun. As a result, all of the most popular stuff is declared to be “The Best” stuff, and that declaration is followed by a frenzy of advertising, and fat stacks of newspaper being printed, and distributed across the land.
This ain’t that.
This is the Stoobie Awards.
Whole different animal.
In case you’re not familiar…
Hi. My name is Stu. These are my awards. I’m a local food writer. I go out to eat a LOT. I go to an ass-load of different restaurants, and I eat a shit-ton of fantastic food. I also meet a lot of great people: The makers and bakers, the movers and shakers in the local food scene. I’m out there, doing things, and knowing stuff, and everyone knows that I know stuff, so people are always askin’ me which food venues, which delicious food items, and of course, which food making & serving entities & individuals I consider to be the “best” of Asheville. Well, that’s a really, really, super-hard, incredibly difficult, nearly impossible question to answ… no it isn’t.
BEST BURGER: BUXTON HALL BARBECUE
See that wasn’t so hard, was it? Seriously, these days if you stop me on the street and ask me “Who’s got the best burger in Asheville, Stu?” I will say without hesitation, “Buxton (fucking) Hall.” (I don’t always say the “fucking” part.)
I eat a truck-load of burgers in any given year. The Bacon double-cheese burger that is occasionally available at Buxton Hall Barbecue was by-far-and-away the best fucking burger I shoved my face into in all of 2016. And when I say that it is occasionally available, I mean this bird is rare, as in, hard to find, seldom seen, scarce even. I only ate three of these babies all year, and I had to specifically plan on being there when they were available — Friday nights, sometimes Saturday — and even so I missed out a couple of times, because by the time I got there, they were sold out! Then there was the one time that they weren’t on the menu, but I asked my server, and one was produced out of thin air just for me. Like magic. Sooo… what’s so fucking special about this burger? Well, first of all, here’s a picture…
And here’s a description: This is a bacon double cheese burger, and it’s “double” on two levels, in that it is a double patty, with two kinds of cheese. From the bottom up, this amazing burger consists of…
- Soft white bun-bottom
- 1 greasy burger patty made with the best meat available (Buxton has impeccable integrity when it comes to sourcing meat.)
- 1 slice of American cheese
- 1 blob of pimento cheese
- Another burger patty
- Another slice of American cheese
- Another blob of pimento cheese
- Several pieces of very thick-cut, house-made bacon.
- Soft white bun-top
Holy fucking shitballs that burger is GOOOOD.
Here’s another photo, different angle.
It’s no secret that I love me some Buxton Hall. In 2015 I gave them Stoobie awards for “Best Sandwiches,” and for “Chef of the Year.” They also placed in several other categories, including “Restaurant of the Year.” This year is going to be a little similar because Buxton Hall is getting more than one 2016 Stoobie award. I’m not doing nominees or runners-up this time around, so let’s just get right down to it, and give Buxton another award…
BEST HOT DOG: BUXTON HALL BARBECUE
Yep. These guys are known for their pulled pork, and fried chicken sandwiches, but I personally think that everything coming out of their kitchen is the fucking bomb. That’s why, when I saw a hot dog on their menu that was actually called the “Buxton Bomber,” I knew I was going love it… them. There were two. Now you can get just one, but in the beginning you had to order two.
When my GF Dawn and I were in Europe I noticed that food vendors often offer two hot dogs. At first I was like, “WTF? Why two hot dogs?” But eventually I came to accept — if not completely understand — the fact that sometimes I had to buy two hot dogs. That’s why it didn’t surprise me too much when the Buxton Bomber was listed on the menu as “two cheese-stuffed hot dogs.” No sides, no pickle, no chips. A la carte-y, as they say. Alright. I’m game. Double-dog me. But first…
Way up North in Michigan where Dawn’s family is from, they go ape-shit for a particular hot dog that they call a “Coney.” Even more specifically, there’s one called a “Flint Coney,” and yes, it’s named after the city that is currently suffering from a horrendous water crisis which seems to have been fueled by greedy, callous, and seemingly racist policy-making. YIKES! Well, entirely separate from that shit-show exists the glorious Flint Coney, which is topped with mustard, raw onion, and a warm brown sludge made out of slow-cooked, ground-up beef hearts. It’s fucking awesome. It has that iron-rich flavor of organ meats, and combines very well with the mustard, which adds zing to the muted, but heavy, earthy, flavor of the hearts. I hate raw onions, so I leave those out, and in that way, I’m not super-traditional.
Now, I only mention Europe and Michigan in an effort to make a point about the universal appeal of the Buxton Bomber. Topped with Eastern Carolina style hog hash, Buxton’s own mustard-based BBQ sauce, and chopped onions, this thing is like a close cousin of the Flint Coney, combining all of the same flavors to achieve much the same effect, only on a waaaay better scale, due to the quality and integrity of the ingredients. Like the beef heart mush on the Flint Coney, the hog hash at Buxton is basically a warm brown sludge with an iron rich flavor. The Buxton mustard sauce is tangy, and compliments / contrasts with the hash in the exact same way the yellow mustard interacts with the beef hearts on the Flint Coney. In other words: This hot dog has universal appeal, while remaining highly colloquial. I love that.
I wanted to make sure that I got the exact skinny on the Buxton burger and bomber, so I wrote them a note, and asked for a description. Here’s what General Manager Kyle Gray Beach had to say:
“First, it is important to note that both items do not have permanent availability. The Bomber has run fairly consistently for about a month, and the burger hasn’t been on the menu for probably 6-8 weeks.
The Bomber is an American Pig brand cheese stuffed hot dog. They are smoked here and served in a bun with mustard BBQ, hash and onions. More information about the American Pig can be found here: www.theamericanpig.com
The burger has been dressed a couple of different ways. The one in the picture above was comprised of house ground beef, pimento cheese, american cheese, mustard bbq, and jowl bacon. The jowl (cheek) is cured and smoked, sliced to order and cooked on the flat top.”
There you go! It’s like I said, these birds are rare, but they can be spotted and consumed from time-to-time, and even if you miss out on these particular items entirely, let this be a BIG recommendation to you for ALLLLL the food on the menu at Buxton Hall. I eat there as much or more than any other restaurant in Asheville, and that in and of itself should tell you something.
Hot dogs, hamburgers… what’s next? How about pizza? Everyone always asks me about pizza. “Who’s got the best pizza in Asheville, Stu?” Well, until very recently, I actually didn’t have a good solid answer to that question… then this happened…
BEST PIZZA: TIN CAN PIZZERIA
Whaaaaat?!? Pizza from a food truck that doesn’t suck, but is in fact really effing good? Yes. Where? Tin Can Pizzeria, which I found at The Wedge Brewery one Tuesday night. I had been hearing from my fellow food fans that there’s a pizza truck making damn good pizza, and then one evening I had a chance to try it, and I was like, “Um…. this might be the best pizza in town.”
I tried Tin Can Pizzeria for the first time just a few weeks ago, and even wrote a very brief review of it for Ashvegas then (Food truckin’, Come On!). In that review I claimed it was “among the best pizza in town,” and now, because I’ve actually been craving it ever since then — which is something that I just don’t feel for the other pies around town — I’ve decided to give them some of the highest honors I can bestow upon any food-maker: Best Pizza in Asheville 2016.
The truth is that right up until I ate this pizza, I didn’t even have a “Best Pizza” category for the Stoobies this year. I wasn’t feelin’ it. Not that I don’t eat good pizza! There are four or five, maybe even up to 7 places in and around Asheville that I go to for pizza, and it’s all good at all those places, but I have to tell you that none of them has ever rocked my socks off in a huge way, so I wasn’t willing to recommend one of them as “The Best.” When people asked, “Who has the best pizza?” I would answer, “You can get decent pizza at ding, ding, ding, and ding…” (the “dings” representing various pizza vendors), or even,“My favorite is pizza right now is at ding, and I also like the pizza at ding,” but I tried to avoid the word “Best.” Then I ate at Tin Can. Now my socks are fully off, and rocked to their very core, and I’m using the word “best.”
The thin, chewy, salty, doughy, crispy crust hit every single one of those nails squarely on the head. The shape was hand-formed and beautiful in its non-circular ugliness. The sauce was savory and flavorful, but not overbearing, or trying-too-hard, and there was enough of it. Don’t skimp me on sauce, Yo. Gimme sauce. Tin Can gave me sauce, and cheese, plenty of aged, shredded mozzarella cheese, that was spread evenly across the surface of the pie, and then cooked until brown and bubbly. The coup de grâce was a modest sprinkling of fresh chopped basil on top.
Like I said, I’ve been craving this pizza ever since I first tasted it, so I’m looking forward to having more. It reminds me of all the best pizzas of my life, from childhood, through my teen years, into my early twenties… damn! I was living in Massachusetts and eating the best fucking pizzas ever, any time I wanted! It was a golden age, and Tin Can brings up a strong nostalgia factor for me, which is what I think most people are really looking for in pizza: Fond food memories in the form of dough, sauce, and cheese. If you grew-up eating crap pizza at Little Sleazer’s and what-not, you might not dig Tin Can Pizzeria. If you grew-up like I did, eating the highest quality pizza made by people who knew what the fuck they were doing, you’re probably going love Tin Can Pizzeria as much as I do. I feel 100% confident in telling you that they are serving The Best Pizza in Asheville.
Let’s wrap-up the “Basics” with 2 final categories: Sandwich of the Year and Best Shrimp ‘n’ Grits. In 2015, the Sandwich of the Year was a beautiful chicken and waffle sandwich from Sunny Point Café in West Asheville (“Best of Asheville – The 2015 Stoobie Awards – Part Two“), and when I returned recently every single person at the table sitting next to me was eating one. I asked the manager if I was correct in thinking that it had been a temporary menu item last year when I gave it the Stoobie, and he said yes it was, but that now it was always on the menu, and is their 2nd or 3rd best selling item. Well, la-dee-fuckin’-da! That’s awesome! Gotta go back and get another one, but for now, let’s do Shrimp ‘n’ Grits.
BEST SHRIMP ‘n’ GRITS: SUNNY POINT CAFE
Holy fahhhhhhk, Yo. I have long-maintained that that Sunny Point has the best shrimp ‘n’ grits ever, but I hadn’t been there in almost a year! In the meantime, I ate shrimp ‘n’ grits at many other venues throughout 2016. Shout-out to Chestnut and Blackbird Cafe for banging out a quality product with remarkable skill and consistency, as well as to Table Asheville and Local Provisions for serving me some of the best shrimp ‘n’ grits I’ve ever had in my life. I actually thought that good ol’ Table might take home the 2016 Stoobie in this most coveted of categories, but I wanted to be fair, so I went back to Sunny Point recently, to give them a chance to defend their title, and wow… did they ever!
I’m going to reach all the way back to my original review from 2013, because these shrimp ‘n’ grits are essentially the same, and they are every bit as delicious now as they were back then…
“…Sunny Point simply has the best shrimp ‘n’ grits ever. Here’s why…
• The sauce is creamy, and it has a shit-ton of flavor going on. Whatever secret combo of magic ingredients the chef is using in that sauce? Yeah, Man. Gim.
• The shrimp are big, fresh, thoroughly cooked (please, for the love of God, no translucent shrimp!), and there’s just the right number of them.
• The chipotle cheese grits are perfect. This yankee loves him some fucking grits and these fucking grits are fucking perfect.
• Then there’s the bacon on top. I can’t even describe how good this bacon is, so I won’t even bother. It was HNG [Hickory Nut Gap Farm] the last time I checked.
The Shrimp ‘n’ Grits portion is large, and the price is fitting. This dish is on my top 10 list of things I want to eat at all times, and that’s really saying something. I want to eat it with a shovel. Backhoe that beautiful stuff directly into my face right now. Have I convinced you that I like it? Well, I do.”
So, yeah, if you want really good shrimp ‘n’ grits, you have any number of choices in Asheville, but if you want the BEST shrimp ‘n’ grits, you gotta go to Sunny Point Cafe on the West side of the river. Go with a friend so they can get the chicken and waffle sandwich and you can get the shrimp ‘n’ grits. Speaking of sandwiches, is Sunny Point going to take home the Sandwich of the Year Stoobie for a second year in a row?
SANDWICH OF THE YEAR: REUBEN @CHESTNUT
I had an emotional response to the Reuben at Chestnut, and therefor, almost by default, it is my Sandwich of the Year. Straight-up, Yo. No other sandwiches that I ate all year forced me to fight back tears because I was all choked-up with emotion but didn’t want to cry in public. Seriously. I fought back tears of ecstatic food-based-nostalgic joy while eating this fucking thing, and would have allowed myself to openly weep if I had been alone at home. You think I’m exaggerating, but I’m not. I almost cried real tears, and THAT, my friends, is more than every other sandwich, meal, or bite of food in this entire city combined did for me all year long.
Thank you, Chef Joe Scully for putting a perfect Reuben on Chestnut’s menu, and thanks as well to Joe’s incredibly capable cook Dave Bristol, who executes this sandwich with precision, skill, love, and understanding every single time. Even Joe said, “Go in when Dave is working,” and when I ordered it from Chestnut’s bartender Clare, she paused, asked & answered herself out-loud, “Is Dave in the kitchen? Yes, Dave’s in the kitchen” and then said to me, “Okay, good call.” I had not met Dave. I did not know Dave. Dave crushed this fucking sandwich, and almost made me cry, so I wanted to meet him. Now I do know Dave, and I even got him to come on The Food Fan radio show to explain to me why he makes this sandwich so dang goood! (“’tis the Season for Braised Meats“) Here’s what he said:
“Well, you gotta pay attention to the way a Reuben is… supposed to be. Y’know, it’s gotta be crispy on the outside, kinda have that crunch, like a Dorrito almost, the bread needs to be that crispy, and everything inside needs to be waaarrrm, and the cheese needs to be melted, and the meat needs to be hot, y’know, and thinly sliced, and once you get those ingredients together, you’ve got a pretty good sandwich! And also with the process that Joe Scully taught me with this Reuben, I truly would put it up against any other sandwich in town.”
Well, Dave, I did put it up against EVERY other sandwich is town, and it won, hands down. Sandwich of the Year 2016.
I grew up for part of my life in a town outside Boston called Brookline, which is largely Jewish in population and character. I ate some AMAZING deli food back then, and learned to love Reubens at an early age. They are a staple of many diets up North, and I was really sad to find that I couldn’t seem to get a great Reuben down here in The South. I’d had some halfway decent ones, and a couple of straight-up turds. One of my early Facebook Food Critic photos of a local Reuben got the comment “#struggleplate” from one of my Chicago friends. It looked and tasted awful. So sad. But now my sadness has turned to joy, because of Joe and Dave.
Go get one of Chestnut’s Reubens and see for yourself, but be sure that Dave is in the Kitchen! I’m telling you what, that bread is crispy like a Dorito, the insides are waaarrrm, and the cheese is melted, and it is so perfect, that it’s not just the best Reuben in town it’s the best sandwich in town.
Y’know how you can tell this is the best sandwich in Asheville?
Because I just said so.
That’s how the Stoobie’s work. One guy, me, telling you what I think is the absolute best food in this town based on nothing but my own opinion and a lifetime of experience eating other people’s cooking. You can take my recommendations to the bank, they are as solid as a fucking rock, and I stand behind them 100 percent. Now, of course, personal tastes may vary, so what I say is the best may not actually appeal to you in any way. I’ll be the first to admit that the Buxton Bomber ain’t for everyone, but if you’re actually looking for the best fucking hot dog in Asheville, that’s your baby right there. I eat stuff. I know stuff.
Okay, and that’s the end of the 2016 Stoobie Awards, Pt One, “The Basics.” The winners were:
Buxton Hall Barbecue
“Barbecue & hearty sides pair with beer & cocktails in a high-ceilinged, open room with tall windows.“
32 Banks Ave, Asheville, NC
Phone: (828) 232-7216
BEST HOT DOG
Buxton Hall Barbecue
“Barbecue & hearty sides pair with beer & cocktails in a high-ceilinged, open room with tall windows.“
32 Banks Ave, Asheville, NC
Phone: (828) 232-7216
Tin Can Pizzeria
“a tiny restaurant on wheels serving up luscious pizza pies”
Tuesday, Thursday,& every other Sunday @ Wedge Brewery. Wednesday @ Highland Brewery. Friday @ Pisgah Brewery
BEST SHRIMP ‘N’ GRITS
Sunny Point Cafe
“Family-owned stop for American comfort food from AM to PM, with a covered patio”
626 Haywood Rd, Asheville, NC 28806
Phone: (828) 252-0055
SANDWICH OF THE YEAR
Reuben at Chestnut
“local foods and seasonal flavors in a fine dining atmosphere”
48 Biltmore Avenue Asheville, NC
Phone: (828) 575-2667
The next installment will cover the following subjects:
And then I’ll wrap-up in the 3rd installment with:
MEAL OF THE YEAR
SERVER OF THE YEAR
CHEF OF THE YEAR
RESTAURANT OF THE YEAR
Stay tuned, Yo!
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.
ON THE RADIO: wpvmfm.org