Yeah… I’m pretty sure all of my friends are really sick of hearing that joke, because my opportunities to use it seem to be never-ending these days. Just strolling around town, minding my own business, I noticed four new food shops that are about to open. Most have been reported on recently by other local food news sources, so I won’t bother to go into a lot of detail here myself, but have provided links to those stories below, along with some quick pics and quips of my own.
I was also lucky enough to sit down and chat with two very charming guys who are working on the brand new Manicomio Pizza & Food slated to open right downtown, in the space where Hannah Flannigan’s used to be at 27 Biltmore Ave., so let’s start with that…
It’s seems like that’s been the big topic in the local food scene lately: Is this or that (insert name of country / region / ethnicity) restaurant really “authentic?” Chef Joe Scully and I talked about it recently on The Food Fan radio show (TFF 45 prt 3 “Irish Tacos”), and we decided that authenticity in the food world refers to the level of personal connection that a chef, cook, or restaurateur has to the specific geographical or ethnic culture of the cuisine that they are attempting to prepare, promote, and profit off of. Joe and I agreed that one need not be directly tied to that food-culture through DNA, but at the very least one should be fully immersed in it for a period of no less than two years. Actually, Joe came up with the 2 year thing. I would think 5, minimum, but what the fuck do I know? Joe really seemed to think 2 was adequate. I guess it depends on how fully immersed… Anyhoo…
Jon is 30. Mike is 65. They are buddies, and you will never meet two more “authentic” people. I loved being in their company, and now I can’t wait to try the food they make. Mike owned a pizza shop in South Florida called Mr. Pizza for umpty-dump years, and Jon was one of his star employees. Both have traveled, worked at various restaurant gigs, and together they took a lot of pride in the pizza they were slinging together at Mr. Pizza. When Mike retired, he moved back to Syracuse, NY, where he’s from, but as he said, “you can’t go home.” After a brief return to Florida, he heard about Asheville from his nephew, who described us something along the lines of a bunch of pot smoking hippies that love food. Mike came down to check us out, and liked what he saw. He bought a house and moved to town two years ago.
Content at first to walk around in beautiful downtown Asheville, enjoying his retirement, Mike soon realized a sad truth about Asheville that I myself pointed out on Ashvegas not too long ago (“EAT OF THE WEEK! 20 Year Calzone at Fresh West Pizza, Asheville.”): There just ain’t enough fuckin’ pizza in this town.
Being a life-long pizza maker and a little crazy, Mike decided to come out of retirement. His first move was to contact his old employee, Jon, who he knew had been wanting to open his own pizza joint ever since the Mr. Pizza days. Jon soon found himself living in Asheville, and the two friends started scouting locations. We all know that the Hannah Flannagan’s space on Biltmore was ripe for the picking, and when I met with Mike and Jon, they were in the process of doing the tear-down and built-out of the big main space right up in the front of the large space. Later, Jon emailed me and asked. “Would it be possible to include the architects at Samsel Architects and the contractors which is Merit Company in the article? Just want to give them a shout” Yep. Totally possible, Jon! Just did!
It had rained the night before we met — for the first time in months — and the whole place had flooded from the leaky roof all the way on down to the basement. Half the contractors were busy mopping, while the other half were still knocking down walls, going about business as usual. Jon and Mike emerged from the cellar, where they had been working successfully to save a fryer and some other equipment from the water. They were both covered in mud and dirt.
“Finally, somebody grubbier looking than me,” I said upon meeting them for the very first time.
They both kind of blinked for half a second, looked me up and down, and laughed out loud. I knew right away that I liked both of these people. We went to City Bakery where we talked for about 45 minutes or more. Here are some bullet points from that conversation…
When I asked Mike the most obvious question, he told a fucking hilarious story:
“So, how about the pizza? Is it any good?”
[I’m paraphrasing] I’ll tell you what, makin’ pizza for people in South Florida is a pain the balls! Old people from the North East, retired Jews, Italians, everybody, the pickiest people on the planet. This one old couple used to come in, and bust my balls all day long. An old Jew and an old Italian, married to each other, come in and bust my fuckin’ balls, all day long. I’m nice, I accommodate, I ingratiate, but nothin’s ever good enough for them. Finally, I’d had it, and I tell ’em, “get the fuck out of here, and never come back!” I banned ’em, for life. A year and a half later the old man comes in, and asks if he can order a pizza. I say, “Yeah, OK, but you take your fuckin’ pizza to go, and get the fuck out of here. You’re banned for life!” he says OK and orders a pizza to go! Before he leaves I ask him, “Why the fuck would you come back here? I kick you out, I ban you for life, I treat you like shit… why the fuck would come back?!?’ The old man says, ‘You make the best pizza.”
Pure gold. Again, I paraphrased, but that was the gist, and Jon had a beaming smile on his face the whole time Mike was telling this story. I got the feeling it was his favorite.
Manicomio Pizza & Food
“Insanely good pizza. Coming Soon.”
27 Biltmore Ave., Asheville, North Carolina
This one was written-up recently by Mackensy Lunsford for the Citizen Times ( “Calypso brings food of St. Lucia to Asheville” ) so please go read about it there. I’m an idiot because I actually had the pleasure of meeting the owner, Esther Frances Joseph on the street three or four weeks ago, and I didn’t take the opportunity to do a quick video interview, or take a selfie, or cajole her into coming on my radio show. I’M AN IDIOT!!! Coulda had the scoop. Blew it. Anyhoo… she was super-duper warm, nice, and friendly, so I’ll track her down after she opens for business, try the food, and have a chat with her.
“Authentic St. Lucian Caribbean Cuisine with Island Cocktails”
18 North Lexington Asheville, NC
Mackensy’s got you covered on this one too, you can read her article to find out the few details that are currently known about this mysterious eatery. (“New restaurant, Baba Nahm, coming to Grove Arcade“). All I know is that when I tried to look them up on line, there was next to nothing — not even a Facebook page! — so I’m kinda thinking there is no way on Earth that this is a chain, but I could be totally wrong about that. The chains can be stealthy as fuck. Again, I’ll keep an eye on this one, try to track down an interview with an actual person, and let you guys know what’s up as I find shit out.
“Baba Nahm is simple, delicious food with a boisterous spirit, though the real spirit of this place lies in its creators — passionate, food-driven chefs whose aim with this new concept is to provide a quick-trip, high energy food place for on-the-go goodness.”Grove Arcade, 1 Page Ave #138, Asheville
Slated to open on the far end of Wall Street in the space where the ill-fated, ill-conceived, and chronically mismanaged booze-box The National was located, this new cafe will feature… board games.
While some folks are worried that this business could go the way of the Cereal Bar (remember that?) I personally feel good about their chances. I haven’t met the owners yet, but they were very quick to respond to a tagged post I made about them on Facebook, so that tells me that at least they’re on top of their social media, which is never a bad thing.
Here’s the question:
“I like board games,” one friend told me, “but am I going to the board game cafe?”
I thought about that for half a second, and replied, “If they do fuckinnnn’ clubs… and teams… and competitions, and shit, I can see that working out. ‘Magik the motherfucking Gathering Night’ and shit like that. That might become a fuckin’ thing.” (I really do swear a lot in real life.)
For real though. A cafe full of dusty, broke-down, bullshit board games with half the tokens missing? Naw. A really cool place for nerds to get together for competitive Scrabble and what-not? Oh Hell yeah. Also: Is Twister a board game? I hope so, because I’m thinking Twister + multiple cappuccinos = discovery inside and out. (That’s one of our city’s actual mottos.)
One other thing: When they open in 2017, Well Played cafe will literally be 1/2 a block away from Trade and Lore Coffee, which is currently thee hippest, coolest, most bangin’ cafe in downtown. I asked T&L co-owner Sarah what she thought of that, and she basically said it’s all good in the hood, and had a very genuine attitude that it was a positive thing to have another cafe so close by, suggesting that Well Played would be a great addition to the Wall Street mix. I like that! Sarah’s awesome.
Mackensy wrote about Well Played too. (“Board game cafe coming to Asheville“)
Well Played Board Game Cafe
“As Asheville’s first board game café, Well Played will offer a robust selection of more than 500 games ranging from old classics like Sorry, Guess Who, and Battleship, to modern favorites including Catan, Pandemic, and Ticket to Ride. Employee ‘Gamemasters’ will help guests learn new games in our relaxing and fun café atmosphere while also serving a wide variety of comfort snack foods, desserts, and beverages including local craft beer, wine, and coffee.”
58 Wall Street, Asheville, NC
Phone: (828) 367-7121
Okay, that’s that. I probably missed one or two, or twenty three places that are coming soon, but I gotta put a cap on this article at some point. Right about now seems perfect.
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
There’s also the British pie shop taking over the old Bouchon Crèperie space, which… well, I have my doubts about it. They want to be a soccer bar when Dirty Jack’s has that covered. They want to sell British-style meat pies but $14-16 is a lot of money for a pie, and it’s pushing it for downtown lunch. If they want to keep with the British vibe, then they ought to try selling Cornish pasties to go during the winter months: a hot, filling lunch you can eat from a paper bag.
It feels like a lot of the newer restaurants in downtown (hi, Sonora!) haven’t really scoped out what’s already there and what the the market will bear in terms of options and pricing. The slice place should work if it’s good pizza; I hope Calypso does okay, I have no idea about the other two.
(Trade & Lore is the current hipster hotness, and it’s a really good space with good coffee, but Pennycup @ YMI on S Market is legit as well. I’m glad that after the W*** L** mess, most of the non-owner staff have gone on to good things.)