Alright, folks, sorry I’m late with this final installment of the Stoobie awards, but there are five weeks in January, so I used them all! Can you blame me? No! If you’re going to blame anyone, blame the god Janus! But alas…
These things do take a lot of time and energy for me to write, but judging by how well the first three parts have been received, it’s totally worth it! The readers seem pleased, the eaters seem to agree with many of my picks, and the winners seem fucking psyched. Even the nominees were posting on social about being happy to be selected as contenders! The best part so far: I got a note from the 2016 Chef of the Year, Katie Button (Cúrate / Nightbell) telling me that after reading part three of the Stoobies, she needed to get over to Mojo Kitchen and Lounge to try 2017 Chef of the Year A.J. Gregson‘s food! WOW! That’s what it’s all about for me. Bringing people together. Okay, enough prattle, let’s wrap-it-up! As the title of this part states, I have saved the best of the best for last! Each category should be pretty self-explanatory. Plus I’ll explain them.
As always, if you wanna read the rules and regs of the Stoobie Awards, click HERE. Otherwise, without any further delay, please, for the love of fuck, scroll down, and let’s begin with the usual…
Unfortunatelyyyyyy… I missed more than a couple major food events in 2017, because I was working for Asheville Food Tours almost every weekend, and most the big food events tend to happen on weekends. Bacon fest, ramps fest, cheese fest. I missed ’em all. I even missed the Asheville Wine and Food Festival last year, because I was out of town on the weekend that happened, but since it was held outside in Pack Square in the middle of August, and the ambient temperature was reportedly about a thousand degrees, I would have fucking hated it anyways, so good ol’ AWFF prolly wasn’t gonna get the nod from me this year even if I had attended. So, having attended fewer fests, I’ve decided to expand the notion of a “food event” to include things like markets, pop-ups, special dinners, gala events, and such. Even major media dinners could have qualified, if they had been epic enough…. which none were, so in this new, broader interpretation of Food Events, these are my three nominees…
Pop Up Izakaya at Gan Shan Station – I only went to one of these, because they happen on Sundays, and I do a Food Tour… yadda yadda… but the one I attended was frickin’ awesome and very special, and I want to encourage all of you to take advantage of the fact that these things are on-going, and as far as I know they are continuing into 2018. What are they? Well, there’s a very interesting new chef in town that you may not have heard of because he is currently unaffiliated with any restaurant, and he is also a very humble and under-stated person, who doesn’t go around making a lot of noise about his wonderful food. The chef is named Khan Kogure and his Izakaya pop-ups feature “Homu Sutairu” (home style) Japanese cuisine like I’ve never had before. I could tell you all about it here, but instead I’m going to provide two links, one that is chef’s own description of what he’s doing, the other link is to a Facebook post I made with a bunch of pictures of the food.
Taste of Asheville, hosted by Asheville Independent Restaurant Association – I make no secret of the fact that I love this event and look forward to it all year! Where other events might fall short, this one never fails to impress. The size is just right. The venue, which is called… The Venue… is perfect. The people attending are all hardcore eaters, food fans and/or food industry people, and while it has become more popular and well-attended over the years, it never seems like you’re packed-in like cattle. One thing I love about The Taste is that it feels like a family reunion of sorts, where I get to see all of the people that I write about, and who’s food I eat and enjoy all year long, as well as the other writers and food scene people, and we’re all in the same place at the same time for the same reason doing the same thing. It’s all about local food. And I fucking love it.
The Asheville City Market AKA The Downtown Farmers’ Market – Finally, this seasonal, weekly event has moved right back to where the Downtown Farmer’s Market belongs: Market Street in Downtown Asheville! Did you know that the big, brick, downtown police station on Market Street used to be the main building for the farmers market back in the day? You can still see the cornucopia design in relief above the West entrance. (That building was designed and constructed in 1925-26 by Miller & Sons, BTW, an African American owned company that built several of our most prominent brick buildings in downtown Asheville.) The Asheville City Market had taken place for many years at the so-called “Garage Mahal.” the city municipal parking facility, and I personally hated that. It was a cold, sterile setting, that was not in any way integrated into downtown living. Now, with this excellent farmers, artisans, and local makers market right back where it belong, on Market Street, it is something that the people who live and work in and near downtown, as well as those happy visitors to our city who stumble upon it, can enjoy every Saturday, April through December!
TASTE OF ASHEVILLE, you were my absolute favorite food event in 2017, and I more or less invented this category just so that I could give you this award! Gawl-dang-it, The Asheville Independent Restaurant Association does such a great job with this thing. Many of the best places in town are there, from Ultimate Ice Cream to the Lobster Trap to Mojo Kitchen and Lounge. And the best people are there too. Food buyers, brokers, growers, makers, promoters, and straight-up hardcore fans are all there to eat & meet, and the food was really tasty this year. I love to go to the Taste of Asheville specifically because I am, and I want to be seen as, a good member of the the local food scene. The folks at AIR do this event for us every year. It’s our party. It’s a who’s who of Food Town, and a great place to press the flesh, get the scoop, make future plans, and even foment revolutions! I’ll never forget being present for the first grumblings of the great Open Table exodus at Taste one year, and although I didn’t overhear any overthrows in 2017, I still walked in and out of the event thinking to myself, “This is the best fucking food event in town every year,” so I came up with the category, and two other very worthy opponents. I actually came pretty close to giving it to one of the others, and then I went with my first instinct, which was a no-brainer from the start, The Taste of Asheville is my 2017 Stoobie award winner, for Asheville’s Best Food Event!
We are a town of communities. Whether it’s the craft beer community, the arts & theater community, or the… taco community… we like to come together in groups, to support & uphold each other, then crush each others’ dreams in a good old fashioned competitive throw-down! Whoop whoop! Who’s got the best beef jerky in town? That would be Chef Collin Lee, actually, who won the Great American Jerk Off at Ole Shakey‘s two years in a row. And how about the best tacos? Well, Let’s Taco ‘Bout It… was the name of the competition in which several… but not nearly all… of the taco makers in town went in front of a panel of judges, and surprise surprise Chupa Cabra killed it with a pork belly bahn mi taco that was fucking amazing. I was a judge. In fact I was a judge at all three of the following nominees for Best Food Competition, so I’m grading these from an insider’s point of view. The public will have to weigh in on how user-friendly these events were for you guys, but I do have eyes and ears, so I can see for myself how much the food fans are either enjoying themselves or not, and I also get plehhhnty of feedback from the public, so my choices are based at least in part on YOUR experiences as well as my own.
Battle of the Burger – This event is one of the most famousest of them all, and I have been an attendee twice and a judge once. It’s fucking awesome on either side of the velvet rope. Actually, it’s way better on the judges’ side of the rope, though more painful. You can read about my pain HERE. Kelly Denson, the creator, producer, organizer, and promoter of this event is one of my food heroes, and in Part 3 of these very awards, I gave her a Stoobie for being 2017’s Food Person of the Year! This particular event is a throw-down style competition in which the panel of Celebrity Judges (mostly food writers, chefs, TV personalities, and local politicians) as well as the almighty PEOPLE vote for their favorite burger. Dozens of local venues compete, from the best places in town, to food trucks, breweries, and bars. Everyone has an equal chance to win, and The Vault famously won both the judges and people’s hearts year after year. Until 2017, when the Montford Pull-up swept the popular vote, and The Salvage Station stole the spotlight in the judges’ estimation. It was a GREAT day in Food Town. The sun was shining. I had a pocket full of weed. The Hop was also there selling ice cream. My… idea… of… heaven.
Past and Current Stoobies: Food Person of the Year (Kelly Denson) 2017
Food Truck Showdown – There were FIVE different food truck rallies and/or competitions in Asheville last year, and Carey Harnash‘s Showdown at the Ag Center was the biggest of them all. Did people show up? Um… The trucks ran out of food! The crowd was immense. It was a true festival in scope, with live music, and even giant inflatable bouncy house thingies. Also: Mr. Bob was there selling doughnuts. Mr. Bob doesn’t have a food truck, but that’s ok, because he’s Mr. Bob and he has doughnuts, and any time he’s at any event, that event becomes automatically 7-15% more awesome. I was one of the 3 celebrity judges on the panel for this one, and the food trucks did a GREAT job. Chef A.J. Gregson won the judges panel with the most complicated chicken tender taco in the world, and Chef Suzy Salwa from Gyspy Queen Cuisine was also a stand-out. The few times that I ventured out from the judges’ confines, I was blown away by the size of the event. What a day! The sun was shining. I had a pocket full of weed… blah blah blah.
Asheville Wing War – Another legendary food competition produced by the legendary Kelly Denson, only this time pretty much replace the word “burger” with “chicken wings” and that’s what you’ve got. It’s actually a bit more complicated than the Burger Battle, and I’d say even more difficult to succeed in! Grillin’ up some burgers at an off-site venue is the easiest thing on earth compared to serving hot fresh — generally deep fried — chicken wings en masse in a setting that you’re neither comfortable with nor fully equipped to work in. Don’t believe me? Next time you have a back yard BBQ, add deep-fried chicken wings to your menu and see how prepping and cooking those bad babies compares to flippin’ a meat disc two or three times on the ol’ gas grill. Anyhoochies… that’s just my way of saying that the contenders are heroic, and the winners should be very proud. Oh, the other thing is that there are two categories: Best Traditional and Best Free-Style. You can read about the 2017 Wing War on my blog HERE. I thought it was the best one yet!
Past and Current Stoobies: Food Person of the Year (Kelly Denson) 2017
ASHEVILLE FOOD TRUCK SHOWDOWN, holy shit, Dude. You far exceeded my expectations — and I’m pretty sure everyone else’s expectations too — and you totally blew it the fuck out of the water this year. Some said it couldn’t be done! I was not one of those people. When the Showdown’s creator and organizer Carey Harnash told me he was moving this event from the middle of downtown, wayyy out to the fucking Ag Center, I thought to myself… “smart.” I was bummed for myself, of course, because that meant I couldn’t walk to the Showdown, but I just knew that the Ag Center was going to work for a food truck competition, and boy did it ever! People showed -up in droves. So, how did I know it would work? Because I listen. I’m a listener. And for my entire life I have I listened to people BIIIIITCH about parking. Holy fuck. Do you people realize how fucking boring it is to listen to you piss, moan, groan, whine, cry, and complain about parking? Yeah yeah. I know. #thestruggleisreal I hear you. I heard you. I do listen. So I knew for a fact that a lot of people would be, like, “Oh, it’s at the Ag Center! Plenty of parking!” And yerp. There was plenty of parking. I also know that a lot of folks who live outside the city, do not enjoy the city quite the same way that the we city folks do. #theybasicallyhateit. Buhhht… They love food. And they love trucks. And they love bouncy houses, and food, and trucks. And trucks. And food. This I know fer real, and Carey knows it too, and he was very smart to move his food truck event from a place that people avoid, to a place that they would actually go to. And as a result of the venue change, he was able to introduce literally thousands of people, to 17 of Asheville’s finest food trucks that they otherwise might never have known about. It was a great event, and one that will continue to blow the fuck up, I’m am sure of it. And that’s why it is my pick for Asheville’s Best Food Event of 2017!
2017 took a heavy toll on the restaurants of Asheville. The number of closings was stunning to those of us who were watching, and a real drag at times. Old favorites like Doc Chey’s called it a day, and never-got-to-know-yas, like Driftless Kitchen and Edna’s at the Asheville Food Park over by the river… as well as the entire Asheville Food Park over by the river. It was a tough year for some venues, while others went out on a high note. With the sheer number of eateries that closed their doors in 2017, I thought I’d add a new category to the Stoobies this year, and below are my three nominees for Most Missed Restaurant…
The Junction – Holy shit, what a blow to the fine-food eaters out there, including myself. When the dang Junction announced out of the blue that they’d be closing-up shop after something like 6 1/2 years of climbing an up-hill battle to greatness, a collective WTF?!? could be heard going out across the land. Co-owners Tanya and Charles Triber made the decision to get out at the height of their success, shocking us all, but surprising no one who is remotely familiar with how FUCKING HARD it is to run a restaurant. Their website is still up, where is says that the Tribers felt as though they had “simply outgrown the lifestyle that the restaurant industry demands and we want more time with our two daughters.” Who can blame them for that? ME!!! Dang it! No I can’t. Not even I can argue with the logic of selling you business while it’s hot, in order to spend more time with loved-ones. That doesn’t mean I don’t miss it, though. I miss it a lot, and I know I’m not the only one.
Past Stoobies: Best Brunch 2015, Meal of the Year 2016, Restaurant of the Year nominee 2015,
The Montford Pull-up -Have you ever had a very brief but lovely romantic relationship, but due to circumstances, it ended too soon, leaving you with happy memories, forever tinged with the melancholy sadness of loss? That’s how I feel about the Montford Pull-up. They were just far enough from my house that I didn’t eat there as often as I wanted to, but any time I did, my mind was blown. From their version of hot brown, to their amazing burgers, and fries, it was awlllll good. Like, rill good. Their deep fried grit cake was one of thee most insanely tasty things to ever pass my lips. Sometime in the Fall of 2017, I discovered that I could have Montford’s food delivered, hot, fresh, delicious, to my front door using Takeout Central. I was about to step-up my love affair with them by about 500 percent…. then they closed. Like, a week later! No shit. I wrote about them HERE and one week later they closed. . __ .
Local Provisions – Aw, Man. Just when I was starting to fall in love with the food at Local Provisions, they up and closed they dang doors on me! If you walk past it right now, it’s a museum piece, set-up exactly the same way it was the day they closed the doors, almost 6 months ago. It’s a little creepy to be honest. Again, much like the Montford, I was all set to tuck into a long, luxurious love affair with Chef Justin Burdett‘s “Veg Forward” menu… especially the parts that involved pork belly… when one day I heard that he was leaving. Sadness filled my heart of course, but when Sous Chef Joe stepped-up and took over the kitchen, there was hope in my heart, because he was also one hell of a cook… then he left too… and it closed. WTF?!?
THE JUNCTION, you… well, you’re no longer there. You closed up shop. And now I miss you. I miss the food. I miss the people. I miss just knowing you’re there. I wish… I truly wish… that I had dined at The Junction more often, because it was something very unique and different and amazing, and of course there will never be anything like it. Congrats to Charles and Tanya, as well as to Chef David, and Sous Chef Brady for creating one of the most charming, warm, welcoming, friendly, and gem-like restaurants I’ve ever had the pleasure to dine at. I will certainly remember it, and all of you, for your significant contribution to making the food scene in this town so much fun, and so exciting, and new, and different, and fucking delicious! Ahhh, Chef David Van Tassel, you magical kitchen unicorn. I miss your whimsical creations and sly sense of culinary humor. Sigh. Well, Junction, you went out on a high note for sure, and now that space is in the hands of some very worthy folks, so I commend you on your exit as much as your efforts while open. You deserve every word of praise and every Stoobie award that I’ve given you over the years, including this one, last, final, posthumous award for being my Most Missed Restaurant of 2017.
Here are just four of the many reviews I wrote about the Junction from 2014-2017:
A lot of places closed… and a lot of others opened up! This next category was a long-time coming, as a pretty standard “Best Of” category. People often ask me for recommendations for the best new places in town, because there are so many, that it’s hard for them to keep up. Even I don’t have a comprehensive list, but I do try to get to all the new places I can within a reasonable amount of time. If they suck the first time, I hold off on my review until they either get it right, or prove themselves completely incompetent. If they get it right, I give them a favorable review, or at least a good Facebook post. If they never dial it in, I might never mention them at all. Silence is my harshest critique these days… except for a certain turkey club sandwich that I ate recently and spoke out against in a post Facebook, and then the public tore it to shreds, except for one poor lady who tried to defend the sandwich, but was kind of a jerk about it… so I tore her to shreds… HA! Toothpicks, my assssss!!! But… anyways, that wasn’t a new restaurant, that was an old one… and… aw hell, just look HERE… and HERE… and then come back to read the three nominees for Asheville’s Best New Restaurant…
Jargon – So, Dawn‘s gonna kill me for writing about this in public, but she refused to go to Jargon with me for the longest time, because of the name. Some words irritate some people. The word “blouse” irritates me. No reason. Just does. I’m sure there are certain words that irritate you for no particular reason, it’s just part of being a human being. It’s all good. But I wasn’t letting any dang word get in the way of trying this place, so I finally convinced Dawn to join me, and wow. It was one of the more memorable meals that we had all year. We still talk about the mussel soufflé with seafood essence. And the deep fried deviled eggs. And the avocado arugula bisque with yogurt panna cotta & crab salad… holy fuck. We had a lemon custard dessert from the dang 16th century called “Shakespeare’s Delight” that was out of this fucking world. You can read a post I made to Facebook and see some (not so great) pictures HERE. In addition to the incredibly creative and delicious food, Jargon boasts one of the best interior design jobs, and some of the most interesting decorative features in Asheville, such as a bar top made from a re-purposed bowling alley, and an old phonograph record player that actually serves to provide the music for the room. Dawn and I sat at the Chef’s bar and got to converse with both the kitchen and the front of the house, including the owner, Sean Piper, whom I’d met before he opened, and is a delightful person with a passion for what he’s doing. I recommend it highly for any fan of venues like The Admiral, Cucina 24, The Junction, and other small, high-end, unique, and intimate eateries.
Underground Cafe – Located in the basement space of the famous Jackson Building in the middle of Pack Square in downtown Asheville, The Underground Cafe is carrying on a long tradition of indie food businesses operating out of this very small, and very “hidden-in-plain-sight” space. I remember Sugar Mamma’s Cookies being there… gahd I loved those cookies… but as good as they were, the space was not tenable for either Sugar Momma’s, or the next small food vendor to take up occupancy, The Jackson Underground (similar name, different owners, much different food), and so I initially felt some anxiety when I saw that Chef Jay Medford (formerly of Bone & Broth) had decided to give the space a go with his latest venture, The Underground Cafe. To say the space has limitations is an understatement: It’s TINY. It was not set-up for deep frying or grilling. It’s hidden. The stairs are steep AND foreboding. I’ve seen people stand at the top of these stairs, and change their minds about going down them! I wasn’t sure the Underground Cafe was going to be a hit or a flop. Well, my anxiety has abated. It’s gonna be a hit. I know this because I have met the chef & his family, who are co-owners, and very nice people. I know all about the new-fangled equipment that has allowed for deep frying and grilling in such a tight space. I’ve seen how cute and charming they have made that space, and most importantly: I have eaten their doughnuts and cheeseburgers. Here’s a review I wrote for Facebook:
“As a local food writer and avid eater, I sometimes encounter a brand new venue and I know immediately that they are going to be very well received as soon as people find out about them. Underground Cafe is one of those venues. They’ve only been open for two months, and I’ve only eaten a fraction of what’s on the menu, but I just know that everyone living in and visiting Asheville is going to love this place and the people running it, once they discover it. Can you say ‘candied fennel doughnut?’ Yerp. The smash burger is great. I need to try the meatloaf, and both the tofu and pork belly bahn mi! The coffee is excellent. They have beer. When people find it, the Underground Cafe is going to be a fan favorite. I can feel it already.”
Yes, I just block-quoted myself. So what?
Polanco – If you yobs ain’t been to Polanco yet, you’re really missing out on something special. Serious. I know they had a bit of a shaky start, and I think they probably still have a few kinks to work out, and no, I haven’t even written a proper review of Polanco for Ashvegas yet, just a few rando Facebook posts, and even those were months ago, and my comments were positive, though not exactly… effusive? So… What happened? How did Polanco suddenly make the short list of restaurants that I’ve deemed to be the three best new joints in town? What changed? Well, easy: I started bringing food tours in there. Honestly, they were kinda just on my route, and I knew the food was good, so I added them to a tour. As a result of bringing tours in, I have tried many little bites of this, a tiny taste of that, a wee cup of soup here, an eloté there, and as I tasted more and more of the food, I realized that it’s not just good, it’s real good. Also because of the food tours, I have had many opportunities to chat with the chef-owner, Ricardo Carasco. He’s super nice and very enthused about his own food. His enthusiasm is infectious, his charm is undeniable… and his molé is honestly the best fucking molé I’ve ever had in my life! Boom, there you go, the truth is out. His molé blew my fucking mind. And I am no stranger to molé. I’ve had a lahhht of molé in mi dios. Chef Ricardo’s molé is truly the best. It’s the richest, thickest, smoothest, tastiest, most complex molé I’ve ever had. If I’m lyin’ I’m dyin’. It has something like 32 ingredients in it. And takes 8 hours to make. If you’re a mole fan, go taste this fucking molé, then try to tell me I’m wrong. TRY! You will fail. But that’s not all… my tour takers seem to think that Polanco has the best margarita they’ve ever had, and I’m not exaggerating. From the first tour I brought in, to the most recent, they rave about this dang margarita, and use the word “best” very often when describing it. But wait, there’s more… Chef Carasco is my hero because he has saved this classic, old Asheville building from falling the fuck over, and has repurposed it for the umpteenth time since it was built in 1905. I did a little research (ie: I asked my friend Paddy) and found out that this building was at one time a stables. Then it was a furniture store, that also made caskets, and served as a mortuary! Over time, the building was expanded, and was the home of Thomas Wolfe‘s publishers, Inland Press. By 1974 it had entered into the world of food service and became the Supernatural Cafe, one of the first vegetarian restaurants in the area! Next it was the original home of Marketplace, then it became Vincenzo’s before closing due to the utterly horrid shape that the building had deteriorated to, and it was in serious danger of becoming a permanent derelict. Then came Ricardo Carasco! Before he opened his doors to the public, Chef had to fix a few things…. the plumbing, the wiring, the roof, the floors, the walls, the windows, the kitchen… One day the water heater exploded. It has not been easy, and there has been plenty of adversity, but in my opinion, the place looks gorgeous now, and at no time ever has the food stopped being awesome. Seriously. Best molé ever. Go get you some before the Earth opens up and finally swallows that dang building whole. PS – The classic 1990’s vintage neon Vincenzo’s sign still works, I’ve seen it lit up not too long ago.
JARGON, you foxy little boutique of a spot in the hinterlands of West Asheville, you started stealing my heart long before you opened your doors, from the very moment I met owner and entrepreneur Sean Piper and his jaunty mustache! He’s a swell guy, with a very up-beat attitude, and a real passion for running his very first restaurant! A former movie-industry technician, Sean left Hollywood and ventured to Asheville, where, similar to Chef Ricardo, he also saved a very old building from being torn down. Located near the Hop Ice Cream Cafe, on Haywood Ave (of course), the building that Sean bought was slated to be demolished by the city, but he snapped it up, gutted it, rebuilt and remodeled it, even excavated a new basement for it, and good god dang, he has polished it up into a fine jewel of a venue, that is contributing tremendously to the upscale dining choices in West Asheville. Now there are two: Jargon and The Admiral. Is Jargon as good as The Admiral? I’ll tell you what: The food I ate there was outstanding, on a par with The Admiral, or any other one of our top echelon of restaurants in Asheville. Food of this caliber, in a setting as comfortable yet luxurious as Jargon is hard to find outside of downtown. West Asheville suffers a little bit from what I’ll call Eats-itus. I mean, I like “eats” as much as anyone else — gimme a ground beef taco from WALK any day of the week, I love Tasty Diner, and Sunnypoint is fucking legend to me — but it’s nice to see something nice in West Asheville. Something really nice. Like when your parents say, “We’re going out to dinner,” and you say, “Can we get ground beef tacos at WALK?!?” and they say, “No, we’re going some place nice.” And then it’s awesome, because you’re not a bunch of little kids, WAVL, and sometimes, you want something nice for a fucking change. So, put on a good shirt, comb your hair with water, and treat yourselves to a meal at Jargon. I hope you will agree that they are worthy of being my 2018 Stoobie award winner for Asheville’s Best New Restaurant!
This category doesn’t need a lot of ‘splainin’. It’s literally the one meal that stood out more than any other meal, during the 12 months that made up the year of 2017. Just one. Here’s the three top contenders…
Chef’s Bar at Jargon – As mentioned above, Dawn and I went to Jargon exactly once, and had a fantastic meal. One meal was enough to get it a nomination and a Stoobie award for Best New Restaurant, but what about Meal of the Year? Well, yeah, Meal of the Year is literally just one meal, so it totally qualifies as a nominee, but will it win? Just how dang good was that one meal? Stu?!? It was fucking great! The oyster thingy. The amuse bouche. The shrimp ‘n’ grits were all really good. I’m telling you what, it was impressive. Best New Restaurant, for sure. Meal of the Year? Maybe.
Dawn’s B-Day at Table – I booked this one way in advance. I wanted to take Dawn to Table on her birthday, because the food is bangin’ and the cocktails are off the chart, and at the time, mixologist Ben was her main man in the cocktail scene. The host asked of we wanted to sit at the wee little chef’s bar on the first floor, which I actually didn’t even know existed, so “yes,” was the answer, and that was fucking special. The drinks were gorgeous to look at and smelled terrific and Dawn was very happy with them. The food was even more gorgeous (because it was made out of food) and tasted out of this world. And because of the intimacy of the tiny bar, we were in our own little world. Every aspect of this meal was perfect from beginning to end.
Past & Current Stoobies – Restaurateurs of the Year nominees 2017, Best Shrimp ‘n’ Grits nominee 2017
My B-Day at Admiral – When Dawn asked me where I wanted to go for my birthday dinner, I did not hesitate for one second: “The Admiral,” I said enthusiastically. “Bar or table?” she further inquired. “Table!” I further enthused. I have already awarded The Admiral a Stoobie this year for best table service in Asheville, and my birthday dinner was a big part of why I felt that they were so deserving of that accolade. I turned 51 last July, so to celebrate the fact that I was entering the 2nd half of what I assume will be a 100 year-long existence, I wanted to sit in a dark, comfortable restaurant, and have a handful of very nice professional servers bring us some of the best food on the planet, and then take away our empty plates, bidding us farewell. That’s it. That’s all I wanted. I didn’t want anything except top-notch food, and top-notch service, and to not have to wash my own dishes. All of that happened. To the Nth degree.
Past & Current Stoobies – Best Desserts 2016, Best Table Service 2017, Best Date Night nominee 2017
TABLE, you have just been getting better and better for the entire time you’ve been in existence, which is a long fucking time now! Table has been around for going on 13 years, which is almost exactly how long I’ve been living in Asheville, so I have eaten there many many times. With Dawn, or on my own for lunch, or with friends & business colleagues. I have never once had a bad or remotely disappointing meal there, and recently I had some of the best shrimp ‘n’ grits EVER at Table for lunch. But it was Dawn’s birthday dinner that really sealed the deal on how fucking awesome this restaurant has become. Chef Jacob Sessoms and his crew are some of the most top-notch cooks in town, which automatically makes them some of the best in the country, so the food was delicious to look at and beautiful to eat. The tiny chef’s bar might be the coziest in Asheville, and the service that night from (former Stoobie award winner) Ben was fan-fucking-tastic of course. That night Chef Jacob himself was in the kitchen, and he served us as well, which is always special! Anytime you get to interact with the chef / owner of a restaurant you love it’s just fuckin’cool, and Jacob is charming, and of course we all know each other from years of Dawn and I going in there. Now that I’m a food writer, we chat about food and hospitality, and I would say that we’ve become friends, which, of course added to the awesomeness of the meal that night. All of these factors — food, service, friendship, camaraderie, more food, beverages — came together perfectly into an winning combo to make this my 2017 choice for Meal of the Year! After the meal was over, Dawn turned to me, and said, “This is my favorite restaurant.” Boom. Nailed it.
Okay, so this year, I’m trying something new. In addition to my usual “Restaurant of the Year” category, I’m adding two more categories, that might seem a little redundant, but bare with me. This time around I’m also giving out Stoobie awards for “Best Restaurant,” and “Favorite Restaurant.” Why? What’s the fuckin’ difference, Stu? Well, the difference is largely in my mind, but let me explain as simply as I can: The Best Restaurant is just that, THEE best, at everything a restaurant should be good at, to the highest degree. My Favorite Restaurant is that place I go to most often. It is usually more homey, more within my budget, and literally closer to my front door than the Best Restaurant in town. Restaurant of the Year is that venue which I feel had the best 2017. As in: A fucking great year, with memorable special events, dinners, and accomplishments throughout the course of the preceding 12 months. Is that clear enough? Here are some hypotheticals: While Pappy’s Snack Shack might be an all time fave because they’ve got a great shrimp burger and fries, everyone knows that Chef Sheeshy’s Boutiqueatery is easily the best restaurant in Anytown because everything they do is perfect, but the People’s Food Collective had the best year, growing from a food truck to a brick ‘n’ mortar, while raising a million dollars for homeless pets. How’s that? Make sense now? No? You’re dumb.
The following three restaurants have been selected from hundreds of possible nominees. I think about this shit for a long time, and take it rill serious. If your venue, or your picks didn’t make my short list, please don’t hate on me. I know that there are TONS of great restaurants in this city, but I am limiting myself to just three candidates for Asheville’s Best…
The Admiral – Okay, so, I know I’m late to the game, and that real foodies had this place pegged as one of the best restaurants in the country years ago. Like, the year it opened. But what can I say? As a former bar-fly, I was put off by the dive bar atmosphere at first, and it took me a long time to get past that, so it’s actually kind of new to me. I’ve really only been going there for two or three years, and in that short amount of time it has rocketed up the charts for me, and for Dawn, which is important, because If I like a place, you know it’s good, if Dawn likes a place, then you know it’s fucking great. So, yeah, even though I am woefully behind the times in recognizing the greatness of this place, and it’s been around for over a decade now, it’s still fucking great.
Past & Current Stoobies – Best Desserts 2016, Best Date Night nominee 2017, Best Table Service nominee 2017
Nightbell – Yeah, it shouldn’t come as any surprise to anyone that I would put Nightbell on this list. I mean… c’mon… have you been there? I’ve already awarded this restaurant and the folks who run it several Stoobies in various categories, including Chef of the Year 2016, Best Date Night 2017 & Restaurateurs of the Year 2017. These people are crushing it, from top to bottom. From ownership to service, front of the house to kitchen, appetizers to entrees to dessert to drinks. I judge all restaurants in three broad areas: Food, service, atmosphere. Nightbell has every aspect, facet, and detail of those three broad areas figured the fuck out. Even the ice cubes are epic.
Past and current Stoobies: Restaurateurs of the Year 2017, Chef of The Year 2016, Best Late Night Bite 2015, Best Late Night Small Bite nominee 2014, Server of the Year nominee 2014, Best Date Night 2017, Best Drinks nominee 2017, Best Table Service nominee 2017.
Cúrate – Is it fair for me to pay so much attention to one family, and their two restaurants? Well, if I’m writing about the BEST restaurants in Asheville, it is! Duh. As an actual fan of food (that’s not just a title) and a local food writer, it would be insane, and negligent on my part to pay any less attention to Cúrate, Nightbell, the Button family, and Chef Katie Button herself. When I say — as I often do — that these are two of thee best restaurants in Asheville, I absofuckinglutely mean it. I always include them both in my top ten. And my top five. And, as it turns out, my top three. Cúrate is, of course, very authentic, yet elevated Spanish tapas food, served in a space that simultaneously manages to be be busy, bustling and bar-like, while remaining, cool, calm, and classy. The new expansion has made a huge difference in the size and scope of the dining, drinking, and cooking areas. It’s twice as big, pretty much, and therefor, twice as awesome. It’s been awesome from the start, but they really took it up to 11 last year, as they do year after year.
Past and current Stoobies: Restaurateurs of the Year 2017, Chef of The Year 2016, Best Coffee 2013, Best Service 2013, Late Night Small Bite nominee 2014, Most Kick-Ass Kitchen Crew nominee 2017, Best Bar Service nominee 2017
NIGHTBELL, you beautiful creature, I love everything about you, it’s true. I don’t care who knows it, I’ve been crushing on you big time for years, but, yes, I was reluctant to commit. I dunno, I don’t usually go around saying that ONE restaurant is the “BEST Restaurant.” Even in my past Stoobies, I only did the “Restaurant of the Year” thing, because, well… Saying it out loud, in public, with my reputation on the line, and all my friends lookin’ at me… that’s just a lot of pressure! I was finally forced to say my feelings out loud, by none other than dang Chef Joe Scully, who once said on The Food Fan radio show that he thinks Nightbell is the best restaurant in town. WHAT?!? No! I had those feelings first, Joe! I was just too shy to blurt them out! Nightbell is MY pick for Best Restaurant in Asheville! MINE!!! What makes Nightbell the best is their attention to detail in every aspect. Their ability to grow, morph, and evolve over the years into the most finely tuned and exemplary, full-service, upscale dining experience has been heartening to watch and fun to participate in as an eater. Chef Katie Button is a wizard of course, and Chef du Cusine Eric Morris is a close second to her in the area of creativity, and culinary instinct. The bar service is amazing, the drinks are top tier (according to those who drink them) and whether you’re there for a small plate, or a full meal, every single bite of food you put in your mouth is sure to be amazing, as well as responsibly sourced, as locally as possible, with very little food waste. If you want to experience the true flavor of local fruits off season, Nightbell has been preserving those, or turning them into ice cream, or drying them etc so that we can enjoy them year round. I had some watermelon ice cream there last week that tasted exactly like the middle of Summer. If you want to experience the flavors of the land, Nightbell works with famed forager Alan Muskat‘s organization, No Taste Like Home, to serve special dinners of locally gathered mushroom and greens. If you want to feel good, remind yourselves of all the charities that Nightbell and the Button family contribute to, including the Downtown Welcome Table. If you want to impress a date… if you want to treat yourself… if you want to have thee best dining experience in town at Asheville’s best Restaurant, go to Nightbell.
Okay, so this category is different than the one above and the one below, and I think you’ll see why when you look at the list. These are not the fanciest places on Earth, but they are places that I personally gravitate towards, and find myself sitting at more often than any others. When someone asks, or I ask myself, “where do you want to go to eat, Stu?” these three nominees are my top answers…
Buxton Hall Barbecue – Well, one need only glance at my Facebook and Instagram feeds to know that I am a fan and frequent flyer at Buxton Hall Barbecue. And you need only look at the list of Stoobie awards and nominations that I have given them in the short amount of time they’ve been open, and if you search for “Stu Helm Buxton Hall” on Ashvegas, you’ll see that I’ve been writing about them since before they even opened, when Chef Elliott Moss was doing whole hog pop-ups at Burial Beer and shit, and that I started by eating my way through there entire menu before repeating any dish twice. My love affair with their fried chicken sandwich borders on the obscene, and the other day I ate some “cheeseburger egg rolls” that were a stoner’s delight without peer.
Past & Current Stoobies: Best Sandwiches 2015, Sandwich of the Year nominee 2015, Best Lunch Nominee 2015, Best Deep Fried Thing nominee 2015, Restaurant of the Year nominee 2015, Best Burger 2016, Best Hot Dog 2016, Best Lunch Nominee 2017, Sandwich of the Year nominee 2017, Best Table Service nominee 2017, Most Kick-Ass Kitchen Crew nominee 2017,
The Admiral – The Admiral has become a Dawn and Stu favorite for sure, but mine in particular. Again, this should come as no surprise to anyone based on the number and types of Stoobie awards these guys have either won or been nominated for over the 2 year period, as I’ve been getting familiar with the menu, the room, the people, the vibe. Now it is truly the place I want to be much of the time. You know the classic stereotype of the old sot, the regular who sits at the dark end of the dive bar all day long sippin’ whiskey’s until bleary-eyed and unsteady by the end of the night? That’s how I wish I could be at the Admiral… only with food not whiskey. “Who’s that guy?” “That’s Stu. He practically lives here.”
Past & Current Stoobies – Best Desserts 2016, Best Table Service 2017, Best Date Night nominee 2017
All Souls Pizza – These guys have been past Restaurant of the Year and they are the current Best Dinner Stoobie award winners, so it should not shock anyone that they are on my short list of favorites. They meet all the requirements: I go there very often, the atmosphere is homey AF, it is within my budget, and it is very close to my front door. Although, technically, I exit my back door when I walk to All Souls from my house, but that’s not the point. The point is that when I think of where I want to go for dinner, I often think, “I want to go to All Souls.” Other things that make All Souls a favorite of mine are — duh! — the food and the service! Both of which are always 100% authentic, approachable, dependable, and excellent.
Past Stoobies – Best Dinner 2017, Restaurant of the Year 2015, Best Pizza 2013, Best Dinner nominee 2015, Server of the Year nominee 2016, Sandwich of the Year nominee 2014
BUXTON HALL BARBECUE, how long have we been seeing each other now? It’s no secret that I’ve been super into you since the day we met, and I guess it’s kinda obvious that I really like you, and all my friends are totally like, “Dude, just do it,” so I think it’s time that I went ahead and made it official, and said it loud and proud, for the world to hear: You are my favorite Restaurant in Asheville. I love everything about you. The location is perfect, and I’m sometimes there more than once… twice… a couple two three times a week. The main dining hall is epic in girth and height, and when it’s busy, it’s bustling, and loud, and social, and fun, and Maaaaan, I fucking love that! When it’s slow, or nearly empty on account of weather, that giant room suddenly becomes as cozy as a country cafe, and the service matches both vibes perfectly. The bar is fun to sit at, almost always has room for one, no waiting, and service is FAST at the Buxton bar. I’m in. I’m eating things. I’m out. With my back to the crowd the entire time. YESSSS! Fuck you crowd! HA! One of my favorite things about Buxton, actually, is blowing past the parties of four to eight who are waiting for up to 45 mins for a table, and snagging a seat at the bar. I almost feel like giving them all double-flip-offs of victory as I walk by them… and again as I pass them on my way back out. “It was fucking delicious, Suckerrrrs!” Ha ha! I love it. I also love it that so many of the people who work at Buxton Hall call me by my name. I love it that the staff smiles, knows stuff about the food, and never fucks up my order. I love it that the food tastes like giant mouthfuls of pure comfort. Deep-fried chicken with a side order of tummy-rubs. I love it that I am FULL when I leave. I love it that they make baked beans with RC cola. And, of course, I am very fond of Chef Elliott and Jennifer Moss, who are very nice people, with a good sense of style, insanely cute dogs, and, as it happens… my Favorite fucking Restaurant in Asheville, Yo!
As always, I have saved the best for last, and while you might think that Best Restaurant is the best Stoobie award, and indeed it is one of the top tier Stoobies for sure, it is actually Restaurant of the Year that I personally think is the biggie. This one takes more time and thought than any of the other Stoobie Awards. As usual, there are a lot of venues that qualified, a few that made the big list, and only three that made the short list of nominees for 2017 Restaurant of the Yyear…
Table – Yeah, of course Table. Did you read the thing I just wrote, like, a few scrolls up from here, where I raved about the fan-fucking-tastic dinner that Dawn and I had there on her birthday? Or the nomination of Chef Jacob and Alicia Sessoms as Restaurateurs of the Year? Do you see the list of past and present Stoobies right below this blurb? (gahd, by Part Four of these dang Stoobies they get so meta) Am I running out of nice things to say about Table? NO! Well, kinda. They good? Ha ha! JK! Being awesome at service and food are only two of the factors that goes into being Restaurant of the Year, and this award has as much to do with an establishment’s accomplishments and attitude throughout the year as it does with anything else. Both of which were totally noteworthy and kick-ass.
Past & Current Stoobies – Restaurateurs of the Year nominees 2017, Best Shrimp ‘n’ Grits nominee 2017
Cucina 24 – Okay, yeah, the Stoobies do get a little bit repeaty towards the end, sorry. But, WTF, this whole segment is called The Best of the Best, so… it’s a little bit repetitious from the git go. Again, please look below to see the accolades I’ve given to Cucina already, and please read the nice things I wrote about them in parts One and Three of the 2017 Stoobies. The reasons I’m nominating Cucina 24 for Restaurant of the Year are: I ate there a lot last year — more than a lot of other high-end restaurants — so I tasted their menu throughout the year, and it was never the same twice, except for when I wanted sameness, and then I ordered the pasta Bolognese, which is the same and the same and the same every time I eat it. So… CONSISTENCY was one of the major factors that went into this nomination. That Bolognese is perfect and it’s perfect every time. I once cried exactly one tear over how good a piece of lasagna was in Venice, Italy #truestory and while I haven’t actually squeezed out a tear over the Bolognese at Cucina… yyyettt… I came pretty close last time I ate it. Let me tell ya, consistency is the #1 thing that the readers and eaters complain to me about in regards to the Asheville food scene, so you betcha that Cucina’s consistent excellence for an entire year counted towards this nomination. Other factors include the creativity and adventurousness on their ever changing menu, plus the addition of the fixed price chef’s menu, that changes weekly! Holy fuck. That’s very exciting. Also, in 2017, Cucina really assembled an A-team of both FoH and BoH staff. Future hall of famers. Cucina had a stellar year in my opinion.
Past and Current Stoobies: Most Kick-Ass Kitchen Crew 2017, Best Bar Service 2017, Chef of the Year nominee 2017, Best Dinner nominee 2017
Mojo Kitchen and Lounge – Again, not a shocker, that the restaurant owned by my 2017 Chef of the Year, might also be a nominee for my 2017 Restaurant of the Year. And again, you can read about Mojo and Chef A.J. HERE and HERE, and see past accolades directly under this blurb. The reasons for this nomination are of course, the food, which is bangin’, but also the many accolades and accomplishment that the chef received over the course of 2017. In the Springtime, he won the Food Truck Showdown without dispute or discussion among the judges beyond, “Did Li’L Mojo just sweep this thing?” answered by “Yup.” Then Mojo was voted best food at LEAF. Then A.J. was picked from among a large pool of applicants to be a guest chef on a Jam Cruise ship, during which he and his awesome wife Autumn had the time of their lives. (They owned Facebook with their Jam Cruise posts for about a week.) Autumn and AJ also ran their catering business, and among other things they catered a fundraiser for Odyssey Clay Works. Finally, in early Fall, A.J. told me something I didn’t know, and confided in me one of his desires, then I watched him implement a plan of action to fulfill those desires, and execute it successfully. He told me that he is a graduate of Johnson & Wales University, and said “I never really pictured myself slinging burgers and tacos in a nightclub.” He told me he loves it, and is grateful for the opportunity to work in the One-Stop space, and proud to serve the best burgers and tacos possible (which he does!), but that he wants to show-off his culinary skills a little bit more. By late Fall, A.J. & Autumn were hosting special 5-course, fixed price, chef-driven dinners called “Wednesday’s with A.J.” which do just that. A great year for this kick-ass team. Oh, also their 2nd in commend in the kitchen Collin Lee won the Great American Jerk Off for the 2nd year in a row for his “People’s Jerky” recipe. So, bonus!
Past and Current Stoobies: Chef of the Year 2017, Best Brunch Item 2017, Best Lunch nominee 2017, Best Late Night Bite nominee 2017
TABLE, you are the motherfuckin’ Restaurant of the motherfuckin’ Year! After more than a dozen years of existence, you are better than EVER at what you’ve been doing so well all along. Every bite of food I ate at Table in 2017 was fantastic. Many eye-closers, as in: I took a bite, and closed my eyes, and savored the moment. I ate some shrimp ‘n’ grits there not long ago that made me close my eyes over and over and over again. It was so fucking good. I felt lucky to be be eating it, and experiencing the exquisite plating, and setting, and atmosphere, and service. I was in food fan heaven. I already mentioned above that Dawn and I ate the dang Meal of the Year there, and that it’s currently Dawn’s favorite restaurant, which is a big fucking deal. In previous Stoobies I mentioned that they put on special dinners during 2017, and that I was lucky to attend two of them. Each dinner was organized and themed to raise money and awareness about certain causes. That’s pretty standard across the board for most restaurants, but what I particularly loved about the dinners that Table hosted was the causes themselves. Planned Parenthood, Equality NC, and Compañeros Inmigrantes de las Montañas en Acción. Are you picking up a pattern here? #fucktrump I loved it that Table was willing to take a very strong stance on some controversial issues, which definitely comes with a risk of alienating current or potential clientele, and bringing unwanted attention from haters, or at the very least taking some heat from trolls. I don’t know if any of that happened, but those possibilities probably all came up during discussions about these dinners, and in the end, Table said “fuck it.” If there’s one thing I gotta love and admire above all else is saying “fuck it,” in the face of fascism. So, for their great food, which is always consistent, creative, and delicious, for their tenacity to be in biz for 12 years, for their kindness, their generosity, and their “FUCK YOU” attitude, I am proud and happy to give Table my highest honor, the biggest Stoobie-doobie-doo of them all, 2017 Restaurant of the Year!
Holy. Fucking. Fuck. Next year… I sweardagahd… fewer categories… shorter sentences… smaller words. Yeah, right, I say that now, but I guarantee that the 2018 Stoobies will be just as long, arduous, and taxing to write as these were. I can’t deny that I really do love writing them, and I’ve already started compiling contenders and thinking up new categories for next year! Have you been to Vivian yet? Jesus eff, it’s a very early contender for Best New Restaurant. And I’m thinking about a “Best Non-Alcoholic Flight” category, because Sunshine Sammies does milk and cookie flights now. Milk and fucking cookie flights!!! Okay, anyhoo, I hope you enjoyed the 2017 Stoobie awards and got a few laughs as well as some good tips on where and what to eat in this town if you want to experience the Best of the Best!
Thanks for baring with me, I know it was a lot to read.
Prt I – Sunrise / Sunset
BEST BREAKFAST: 67 BILTMORE AVE DOWNTOWN EATERY AND CATERING • BEST CAFE: TRADE AND LORE COFFEE • BEST BAKERY: GERALDINE’S • BEST LUNCH: TASTEE DINER • BEST DINNER: ALL SOULS PIZZA • BEST DATE NIGHT: NIGHTBELL • BEST DRINKS: IMPERIAL LIFE • BEST LATE NIGHT BITE: SOVEREIGN REMEDIES
Prt II – The Specifics
BEST HO– USE CUP: CITY BAKERY • BEST ESPRESSO: TRADE AND LORE COFFEE • BEST PASTRIES: KAREN DONATELLI • BEST CAKE: KALI CAKES’ CHOCOLATE STOUT CAKE AT BHRAMARI BREWHO– USE & 50/FITY THE ART OF DESSERT VARIOUS CAKES • BEST BRUNCH ITEM: MOJO CHICKEN ‘N’ WAFFLES • BEST BISCUITS N GRAVY: 67 BILTMORE AVE DOWNTOWN EATERY AND CATERING • BEST SHRIMP N GRITS: SUNNY POINT CAFE • BEST BURGER: BHRAMARI BREWHO– USE • BEST PIZZA: MANICOMIO • SANDWICH OF THE YEAR: MELT YOUR HEART FOOD TRUCK FIREBIRD SANDWICH
Prt III – People Power!
BEST COUNTER SERVICE: MAMACITA’S TAQUERIA • BEST TABLE SERVICE: THE ADMIRAL • BEST BAR SERVICE: CUCINA 24 • MOST KICK-ASS KITCHEN CREW: CUCINA 24 • FOOD PERSON OF THE YEAR: KELLY DENSON / ALL AMERICAN FOOD FIGHTS • RESTAURATEURS OF THE YEAR: THE BUTTON FAMILY / HEIRLOOM HOSPITALITY • CHEF OF THE YEAR: CHEF A.J. GREGSON / MOJO KITCHEN & LOUNGE
Prt IV – Best of the Best
BEST FOOD EVENT: TASTE OF ASHEVILLE • BEST FOOD COMPETITION: ASHEVILLE FOOD TRUCK SHOWDOWN • MOST MISSED RESTAURANT: THE JUNCTION • BEST NEW RESTAURANT: JARGON • MEAL OF THE YEAR: TABLE • BEST RESTAURANT: NIGHTBELL • FAVORITE RESTAURANT: BUXTON HALL BARBECUE • RESTAURANT OF THE YEAR: TABLE
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
Not one lil ounce of love for Jason when discussing Battle of the Burger or Asheville Wing War?!?! SMH