This week, I’m just gonna give you guys a hodge-podge of stuff. A couple of reviews, a story, and a little ol’ something about little ol’ me at the end.
Let’s start with the reviews:
THE JUNCTION – Depot Street, River Arts District, Asheville
The Junction is pretty much one of my Neighborhood Jams. It’s more or less right around the corner from Food Critic HQ, and I’ve been there a bunch of times.
Despite my complaint that they were closed on that one epic Sunday when I was trying so hard to find someplace to eat in the River Arts, I love the Junction.
I want there to be no room for misinterpretation here, so let me repeat that… this time, in all caps:
I LOVE THE JUNCTION.
In my dream world, every neighborhood has at least one of the following within walking distance: A cafe, a grocery store, a pub, a book store, a pizza & sandwich shop, a breakfast joint, a liquor store, a thrift store, and a fancy-pants restaurant with high-end shit on the menu, romantic atmosphere, and great service. The Junction serves the function (Yes, I did intend for that to rhyme) of being my neighborhood fancy-pants restaurant. It’s nice inside, with a modern bistro-bar feel to it, interesting local art on the walls, and lighting that sets a mood but doesn’t force one to read the menu by cell phone-glow. The staff is super-pro, friendly, attractive and enthused about the food, which they should be, because it is conceived, prepared, and presented with creativity and quality standards that result in a level of excellence that is world class, and worth the price tag, which is not cheap.
The doors open at 5 pm and the kitchen fires-up at 5:30. The menu changes often, and always contains strange food that I have never eaten, like sweetbreads or nettles, and at least one thing I’ve never even heard of, like pistou… which is very much like pesto, according to Wikipedia.
Sweetbreads are either a pig’s pancreas or thymus gland, depending on whether you get “neck” or “stomach” sweetbreads. I did not order sweetbreads. That still has an “ew” factor for me. I’m not there yet. Gimme time, and I’m sure I’ll be tucking into some sweetbreads, but until then, just gimme chicken!
Holy shit the chicken at the Junction is goood. The menu description is as follows:
“Sweet Tea Brined Springer Mountain Farms Fried Chicken, braised collards, fried cauliflower cornbread, onion gravy.”
Sounds tasty, eh? Well, I’m here to tell ya, it fucking IS tasty! It comes as one of those stacks of food that you get these days, so everything is piled on top of every thing else, with the cornbread on the bottom. That cornbread is something special, like none I’d eaten before, it added a real solid base — both flavor-wise as well as foundation-wise — for the rest of the stack to build on. The over-all feel of the dish is comforting, homey, and satisfying. Nothing on the plate was un-delicious, I ate it all. 5 stars.
More recently I sat on the patio with two friends, which was really nice, and ordered the Fried Barcat Oysters appetizer, which comes with a charred red pepper cream sauce, pickled stuff, and salt ‘n’ vinegar fingerling potato chips. First of all, those li’l chips were so fucking CUTE and crispy and awesome, I could eat a giant pile of them, non-stop, forever. As a child I once crammed so many Pringles down my throat that I started to suffocate! True story. My parental units forbade me to eat them for years afterwards. Given a chance today, I would totally stuff my esophagus full of these wee fingerling potato chips until I die.
The rest of the plate was un-fucking-real-good!!! Holy shit. The oysters were so fresh and sweet and plump and juicy, I felt actual feelings of sadness and loss when they were gone. The sauce was subtle yet delicious, and there was just the right amount of it. If not for the fact that I was in public, I would have licked it off the plate. The pickled stuff was perfect, and added just the right amount of tartness to the plate. Another 5 stars for this dish!!! I can see myself ordering it on the regs in the future. I only wish there was a dinner portion.
I’ve tried and tasted a few other things on their menu, and it all gets high marks from me, except one dish that was only pretty good, and left me feeling like I ate something I shouldn’t have. That was the deep fried biscuit dough in buffalo sauce. As you can imagine, they tasted really good, but the portion was huge, and they filled my stomach with extreme trashiness before the good shit came. I had some regrets. But that’s just me. As I said, they tasted good. No doubt about that.
I’ve also had their burger, which is awesome and unique. You can read the deets on line.
The last time I was there, our server, Cookie, said something about not wanting to get a “bad review,” and my friends were like, “Ohhhh, snap, she knows who you are!” And she was like, “yeah, of course,” all casual-style. Ha ha! I love that. Cookie gets five stars too! She rules.
You guys know that one of my fave new phenoms in my life is being recognized as The Food Critic! It’s fun for me! So, don’t be shy if you see me, say hi! If I come into your restaurant, and you know it’s me, don’t feel all weird or awkward! I’m a goof-ball in real life. Just say something like, “Aren’t you that Food Guy?” and I’ll be as friendly as pie. Mmm… pie.
So, yeah, there you go. The Junction. High end dining right in here in my own neighborhood. I love it.
CECILIA’S KITCHEN – 961 Merrimon Avenue, Asheville
You know the place, right? With the crazy, hand-made signs that say “EMPANADAS”, “TAMALES,” and “CREPES?” Just past the Ingles up there in NAVL, on the same side of Merrimon? Yes. That’s it. You knew you’d know the place.
Well, quit driving past it and turn into the insanely slanted parking lot some day soon. If you like tamales and empanadas you’re gonna fucking love this place! I do, and I do!
It’s been hard for me to find a good tamale here in Ashetown (please recommend other places if you know of them) so I was psyched when I saw that crazy sign at Cecilia’s Kitchen. I went there with Mike Quirk, and the tamales are really effin’ aye good, Yo. Large, made out high quality ingredients, and cooked just right, these little packages of awesomeness satisfied my urge for tamales with the very first bite
The spices are not exactly like traditional Mexican tamales, because Cecila is not Mexican, but still, they were really awesome. I forget where she told me she’s from. Argentina, maybe? She was very nice and personable, and had a ton of charisma. I liked her as much and as readily as I liked her food.
She makes it all by hand, and when I asked what her fave dish was, she said the beef empanadas, so I returned, with Dawn this time, and tried those. Holy moly, they were very good! I got a half dozen to go!
So, I’m thinking that I don’t really need to describe tamales and empanadas to you guys. do I? If you know what those are, you already know. If you don’t know what tamales and empanadas are… well, I’m not sure what to say about that. Google it? And then get the fuck out from whatever rock you’ve been living under and be part of the world.
I don’t get as jazzed about crepes. Mike and I split a sweet one and it was good. I’ll try the savories one day, and get back to ya on those. In the meantime, yeah, Man: Tamales and Empanadas. Awesome.
Oh, and her cilantro salsa is worth mentioning. It’s really fucking good.
GAY PARADE HOT DOG – Chicago, IL
I’ve got some food stories. This one is called “Gay Parade Hot Dog.” It involves a hot dog, and a gay parade. It’s pretty short. There’s no real point to it. It is 100% true and is solely intended to amuse. I’ll tell other, longer stories another time. “Kung Fu Chicken – No Cashew” is my longest and most incredible true food story. I’ll save that for another time. In the meantime, here’s Gay Parade Hot Dog:
Sometimes it’s the little moments that are the most amusing to me…
I lived in Chicago for a lot of years and never ate a typical, famous, Chicago style hot dog. Dumb.
When I was about to move to Asheville, I decided I’d better go get one of those fuckin’ hot dogs before I leave 2nd City for good!
Dawn took me to a hot dog stand on Halsted street, in a neighborhood that just happens to be Boys Town.
I was super-metal-stoner-rock guy back then, so I had a really long beard, and long, crazy, hair. I always dressed in black, and looked kind of like a cross between an evil wizard and a punk-rock caveman.
So, there I stood on the sidewalk in Boys Town, USA, shoving a big ol’ Vienna Beef hot dogger into my face-hole with both hands, a total black cloud among the actual rainbows, with half of my long hair flying in every direction in the gale fucking force winds of Chi-town, the other half sticking to the condiments of my hot dog, and/or being accidentally chewed on and swallowed by me, so that I had to pull it out of my throat with mustard fingers, gagging a little each time.
“Nom nom nom! Ack ack! Nom nom! Ack!” Good fucking hot dog.
My beard and ‘tasche were quickly smeared in mustard and relish, and even my sunglasses had condiment-hairs stuck to the lenses. I was like a homeless human monster, devouring my prey, covered in the gore of the hunt, when all of a sudden we realize that we were actually standing in the middle of a small but festive crowd of people watching a small but festive Gay Parade.
“Nom. Ack. Nom nom. Aaacckk.” Oh, hello, Gay People. I come from another planet. Don’t be sad at me, I’ll be going back there soon.
For several awesome minutes, an open, double decker bus, loaded with hot, young, dancing gay men stopped right in front of us, and shook their cute little groove things to some serious beats while I polished off the ass-end of my hot dog and squeegeed mustard out of my hair using my saliva-washed finger and thumb.
I miss Chicago.
GETTING TO KNOW YOUR FOOD CRITIC – Stu Helm, Asheville, NC
I made a recent post to my Facebook page that people seemed to like, so I thought I’d repost it here:
Just in case anyone has been wondering how I can afford to eat out so much on the meager earnings of an artist, here are some bullet points on the subject.
• I have no children. I did that on purpose. No kids = More food for me!!!
• I’m a very small person. I’m only, like, a foot tall, and I weigh about the same as a small dog. I generally only eat one full meal a day. That’s all I need. The rest is just snacks, coffee, and kibble.
• I don’t own a car. Holy shit sticks, the money that gets dumped into that whole circle of consumption is unreal. No car = More food for me!!!
• I don’t buy a lot of other stuff. There’s so much stuff in the world, people give me most of the stuff that I need because they get new stuff, but the old stuff is still good, so they don’t wanna toss it out. My friend Ann gave me her old hair dryer when I needed one. I spent that 10 bucks on foooood!!!
• My GF, Dawn is very generous. She has an actual career-type job, and loves eating out as much as I do, so she treats a lot of the time. Thanks, Dawn!
• Other people buy me lunch or dinner here and there too, and on very very very rare occasions, I might get comped a dish, or even a meal on The House.
I don’t get paid to write about food, but one day I will!
And then, oh my God, I’m gonna eat the fucking world.
Stu Helm is an artist and writer 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 restaurant reviews strictly to amuse his friends on Facebook in 2013.