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Asheville Eats

Mellow Mushroom, Asheville, North Carolina

Almost four years later we still sometimes find ourselves thinking about two meals we had near Asheville, North Carolina. What made these places so memorable for us, besides good food, is that the type of fare is not what we typically associate with this region of the country. Now that we’re passing through again, we wanted to check back in and see if these places were really as good as we remembered.

Before getting to Asheville, though, we needed to make a slight detour to Hendersonville, North Carolina. It surprised us to learn that Hendersonville is nowhere near either California or Mexico because it is here, more than anywhere else in the country, that we most associated with great Cali-Mexican fare.

So we returned to Papas and Beer for lunch and were delighted to find it exactly how we remembered. Just as before, we started our meal by diving into their awesome salsa bar. Six or more kinds of salsa really should be a required minimum for Mexican restaurants everywhere. At Papas, whether we heaped our chips with the chunky pico di gallo, the green pipian sauce, the bean dip or any of the other salsas we were always pleased with our choice.

We were so preoccupied with our salsa orgy that we almost didn’t notice the waiter arrive with our main meal. I say almost because we couldn’t really ignore the sizzling chipotle fajitas that suddenly appeared at our table.

Papas and Beer Fajita

I’d say they were perfectly seasoned except we really do prefer more heat on our spicy food than Papas wants to deliver. We can’t blame them though. Like most places they’re still catering to the average American palette. Nonetheless, the chicken, beef, and shrimp combo was terrific and, unlike many similar dishes we’ve had elsewhere, Papas’ fajitas aren’t served swimming in oil.

The portions were large enough that we were stuffed after eating just half the serving. And as much as we wanted to keep shoving delectable meat and vegetable laden tortillas into our faces, we really needed to save room for that other restaurant we were planning to hit later the same day.

It took some willpower, but we did manage to push ourselves away from the table before bursting.

Our First Mellow

We were so impressed with this Asheville eatery on our first trip through town that we wrote an entire blog post about it. Coming from New York City we thought we knew all there was to know about good pizza. But what we learned on the road is that good regional cuisine isn’t constrained by geography. People move about the country, or indeed the world, and take their recipes with them. And once a culinary delight leaves home, something wonderful can happen. It sheds the shackles of traditionalism that often stultifies food.

We’ve learned that when it comes to food the word “authentic” doesn’t always mean superior. Food improves through innovation. If “authentic” were really the gold standard for cuisine, we’d all still be eating the traditional nut, berry, and raw carcass diet of our distant ancestors. But we don’t eat that way, and for good reason too.

Ever since the first caveman set fire to an antelope leg we’ve been improving the flavor of the foods we consume. Each new spice, each new technique, each new blend of textures breaks with tradition, abandons the “authentic” old methods in favor of something original.

Not everyone appreciates culinary innovation.

Sometimes those attempts flop and are quickly forgotten. Sometimes, though, they change the world. In those rare cases the old ways are abandoned and eventually forgotten. Over time that innovation becomes what future generations call traditional and, dare we say, even authentic.

To my mind, few things in the world are more traditional than margarita pizza. Invented in the kitchens of Naples, Italy and, I like to think, perfected on the streets of New York, you can taste 100 years of tradition in every deliciously saucy bite. It is the world’s most flawless food. Or at least it was until someone decided to improve it by replacing the traditional tomato sauce with basil pesto.

Add non-traditional feta to the mozzarella, top with both button and Portobello mushrooms, throw on some spinach and spicy jalapenos and you have created a wonder to behold: Mellow Mushroom’s Magical Mystery Tour pizza.

Mellow Mushroom Magical Mystery Tour Pizza

We’ve now visited several Mellow Mushrooms all around the country and can say with certainty that no one makes this particular pie better than the pizzeria in Asheville.

It’s our new favorite and the standard by which we judge all other pies – even if traditionalists like Jon Stewart would tell us this creation isn’t really pizza.

It’s authentically awesome. And that’s traditional enough for us.

An Afternoon Snack

A Hawaiian Snack

Hawaiian coconut. Locally sourced and lightly processed.

That Old Black Magic

Voodoo Doughnut, Good Things Come in Pink Boxes

There really is no other way to explain it. We were caught in a web of dark magic. Portland voodoo had us under its spell and it started in the strangest of all ways, with bacon.

I’m normally an adventurous eater because you never really know. Those beaver testicles might just be the most delicious thing I’ve ever eaten. The way I figure it, food is so awesome that the occasional disappointment is well worth the potential upside reward. So why not go for it?

Doughnuts, on the other hand, will always rank a timid one or two out of ten on any objective scale in the adventurous food category. But who is objective when it comes to doughnuts? When you’re jonesing for a sugary fix, taking a chance on an unusual concoction feels like bungee jumping over the piranha infested Amazon. And we were jonesing. Big time.

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Show Me the Marshmallow

Base Camp Brewing Smores Stout

“The S’more Stout is an absolute all-star: Aromas of chocolate, coffee, fig, and smoke invite you in to a gigantic maltiness that is distinct in its smooth and refined character, with flavors of chocolate and hints of smoke mingling with rich caramel, fruit, and warming alcohol. Top with a roasted marshmallow and you have the ultimate S’more experience!”

Who could resist that decadent description? Of all the options in craft beer mecca Portland, Base Camp Brewing won us over with those two sentences. Mostly, we wanted the roasted marshmallow – not to mention a beer that could handle one.

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You’re Not Worthy

Stone World Bistro and Garden Taps, Escondido, California

It takes a stone arrogant bastard of a brewery to, just 15 months after tapping its first keg, release a new beer and brand it Arrogant Bastard Ale. Even more so to market it with copy like this:

This is an aggressive ale. You probably won’t like it. It is quite doubtful that you have the taste or sophistication to be able to appreciate an ale of this quality and depth. . . If you don’t like it, keep it to yourself – we don’t want to hear from any sniveling yellow-swill-drinking wimps ‘cause Arrogant Bastard wasn’t made for you.”

Slightly over a decade later, those arrogant bastards of Stone Brewing were named “All-time Top Brewery on Planet Earth” by Beer Advocate Magazine. Shortly thereafter founder Greg Koch received knighthood from the Belgian Brewers Federation. Arrogance, for sure, but apparently also with the sack (or should we now say squirely sword) to back it up.

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