Flavor: Latin/Caribbean wrung from WNC soil
Ambiance: Cozy vintage soda fountain
You know how sometimes you're watching a movie and a certain actor seems intimately, yet unplaceably, familiar? Desperate to figure out in which film you saw him last, you shift into mental makeup-artist mode, picturing his inscrutable face outfitted with a villan's moustache or an old man's wrinkles. And then, suddenly, it hits you: You don't know this guy from the movies. You know him from high school. Why, it's Jeff Masur from Sunnyridge High, right up there on the silver screen! How the heck did he get there?
Sure, he'd really torn up your tenth-grade production of Our Town, and you'd heard maybe he'd dropped out of college to take acting classes in New York, but, well ... wow. Your old buddy went celeb, and you hadn't a clue. At least that's how I felt when, at a party in Mississippi last month, someone asked me about Sylva's Guadalupe Café.
I'm accustomed to folks from elsewhere oohing and aahing about Asheville, but they're usually primed to dote on the Biltmore Estate or the Blue Ridge Parkway. Nobody ever mentions Sylva.
But Gourmet made quick work of that standing oversight, adding the eatery's name to its October listing of 100 restaurants which embody the farm-to-table movement. There are dozens of well-known restaurants showcased in the story, among them the High Temple at Berkeley, aka Chez Panisse. For foodies, it's considered a great honor to be included in a phone directory with Alice Waters' revered bistro. To be included on the same "best of" list is a very, very big deal. Guadalupe Café was the only place in Sylva -- nay, the only place in all of Western North Carolina -- to make the cut.
"If you needed proof that the fresh-and-local movement has spread throughout the country in very delicious ways, it's right here," Gourmet enthused in its mini-review, which endorsed the Dark Cove Farm goat tacos, tersely summed up as "truly spectacular."
If there's a restaurant within 100 miles that has anything "truly spectacular" to offer -- be it the goat tacos or the check presenters -- I'm there. I'm not sure why I hadn't heard about Guadalupe sooner (although an informal poll of other partygoers from the area revealed I wasn't entirely alone in my ignorance, small comfort when thinking of the years wasted on food that didn't emerge from Guadalupe's tiny kitchen). But I rushed to make my acquaintance, visiting the restaurant for dinner the very day I returned to North Carolina.
Guadalupe Café is housed in the former Hooper's Drug Store, and the black-and-white-tile floored restaurant has made little effort to disguise its proud soda-fountain past. ("It used to be just lemonade," exclaimed one diner who apparently hadn't visited since the Hooper days, ogling the lineup of more than 30 bottled microbrews.)
Red stools still swivel at the counter, although larger groups can huddle around tables laid with mismatched oilcloths. The décor is more Readymade than Martha Stewart, with an inner-lit Virgin Mary glowing atop the cooler, a foosball table angled alongside the door and Chinese lanterns strung above the retired milkshake machine. While live music fans presumably thump most of the quaintness out of the joint on weekend nights, a peculiar mountain hush reigns in the early evening, when Guadalupe feels very much like the easygoing eateries of Flagstaff or Silverton.
Not surprisingly, Guadalupe is a cherished hangout for Western Carolina University students, who come to drink and waste time and, sometimes, do their homework. But mostly, people come for the food, which is lovely and uncontrived.
Owner Jen Pearson is working in an idiom Asheville eaters might call Hector Diaz Classical, in which she spins out pseudo-tacos, burritos and quesadillas that are really just convenient excuses to put wonderfully fresh meat and produce on the plate. While Guadalupe's menu isn't quite as baroque as the relentlessly zany one at Salsa's, the four-year old restaurant skews in the same joyous Latin-Caribbean direction. There are half a dozen entrées on offer, but the majority of menu space is dedicated to the tapas, salads and do-it-yourself roster of Nuevo-taqueria staples such as tofu, bacon and gouda cheese.
Even though the diners at the table closest to ours were aglow over the samosas, we decided to start with a salsa sampler, which turned out to be a pile of house-made blue-corn chips pressed up against a mound each of a roasted-tomato salsa, fresh-tomato salsa, guacamole and sour cream, creating a highly patriotic color scheme.
The dips ultimately got all mixed up and mingled, in keeping with Guadalupe's shrugged-shoulder attitude (an insouciance that's applied equally to all aspects of the place, meaning even the most stunning dishes aren't given the star treatment. Everything is served on simple white plates, and the kitchen doesn't fuss with inedible garnishes.) But it was still easy to discern each element's excellence: the fresh tomatoes were zippy, the roasted ones smoky and the gentle guacamole, studded with almonds, retained the distinctive soft-firmness of fresh avocados.
The silkiness of the guac was echoed in a bowlful of rich, creamy squash soup, served with a warm, whole-wheat roll speckled with dill. While a blustery wind outside made it feel very much like a soup night, the citrus-y balsamic salad I tried was equally good.
I stuck with the tapas menu till the end, trying a plateful of grilled asparagus (which was, as it turned out, exactly that: no more, no less) and the suddenly world-famous curried goat tacos.
The pulled roasted goat, warm and dark, made gamey seem like a good thing. Tucked into a lightly fried blue-corn tortilla, the meat had a terrific depth of flavor. But I was even more infatuated with the mango pork on our table that, while touted as an entrée, sported a very similar presentation to the goat tacos. The pork, also sourced locally, was perfectly tender and exuberantly flavorful.
There wasn't any dessert available the night we dined, or maybe there was one last slice of cheesecake somewhere. Our server wasn't quite sure. Guadalupe is quirky down to its bones -- the kitchen indicates an order's up by squeezing a dog toy -- so it's unfair to expect the niceties. Our food was delivered to the wrong table, while another table had its check snatched back after a server realized he hadn't added it up correctly. None of it really mattered, though. Because Guadalupe Café is, as the folks at Gourmet say, "worth the drive." And if that's true for magazine readers in Seattle, just think what it might mean for you.