Someone top that sow with a tiara! Little Pigs' signature smiling, dancing neon pig deserves the wardrobe update. That's right, Xpress readers have -- for the fifth year running -- crowned the mini-chain's hickory-smoked, pulled pork barbecue the best in the business.
Dosed in vinegar and red-pepper hot sauce and accompanied by baked beans, coleslaw and hush puppies, Little Pigs' pork constitutes many folks' notion of heaven served up on a soft white bun. But there's more to WNC's sauce-soaked royalty than a regal BBQ sandwich. Other favorites include broasted chicken, tender BBQ ribs, and a well-topped chili dog. Just writing about it is almost enough to make this good vegetarian go bad... -- CB
Little Pigs BBQ
384 McDowell St
100 Merrimon Ave
1578 Hendersonville Rd
all in Asheville
My sisters and I perfected our collaborative rendition of a monster-truck-rally announcer for the sole purpose of ordering perennial best-seafood winner Red Lobster's numero-uno-selling dinner, the ULTIMATE ... ultimate ... u...l...t...i...m...a...t...e FEAST ... feast ... f...e...a...s...t. It's an enormous platter, heaped with shrimp scampi, fried shrimp, a whole lobster tail and snow-crab legs. And if that weren't enough, like all of the Red One's dinners, it comes with your choice of baked potato, mashed potatoes, rice, French fries or (yeah, right) steamed vegetables; coleslaw, dinner salad or Caesar salad; AND all-you-can-eat, just-try-to-stop-eating-them Cheddar Bay Biscuits. Wash it down with a swimming-pool-sized Alotta-Colada, and you won't even be able to think about consuming another calorie for two days. Oh, yeah -- there are also plenty of meal-in-one salads and broiled selections (whatever) for the diet-conscious. Haute cuisine it's not, but Red Lobster keeps serving up the seafood that Xpress readers keep voting tops. -- CB
Red Lobster Restaurant
139 Tunnel Rd, Asheville
Let me tell you about my first Two Guys original olde style hoagie -- a hot, 8-inch, three-cheese sub that came all wrapped up in shiny silver foil and smelling like the best lunch date I'd ever made. The bread was toasted crisp on the outside with an interior steamy-soft to the bite. A delicate tomato sauce bathed perfectly sauteed onions and green peppers. The three cheeses stretched into fragrant strings between mouth and sandwich; and a crisp, if slightly warm (from lying snug against the sandwich itself) pickle complemented every mouthful. It was, in a word, bliss.
Maybe it's the fresh, savory ingredients, or maybe it's just that Two Guys declines to inflict creepy pitch guys of the "Jared" variety on us; but year after year, this tiny sandwich shop beats back the corporate sub mongers and their strip-mall-mentality menus. This year, they did it in two categories, no less! -- CB
Two Guys Original Olde Style Hoagies
132 Charlotte St, Asheville
Have mercy, oh ye mighty lords of the roast. After last year's fourth straight ascension to the top spot, you'd think Beanstreets would give some other coffee house a shot. Or at least a dribble. Not a chance; not this year, anyway. And no wonder: Spend half an hour at the corner of College and Broadway, and not only will you be able to juice up on the region's most beloved java, but you'll also get a glimpse of just about every demographic category represented in beautiful downtown Asheville. Factor in to-die-for crumb cake, funky local artwork, comfy couches, eclectic-but-always-good tunes, and you have the recipe that's helped Beanstreets keep the chain coffee shops at bay and eating the independent's grinds. -- CB
3 Broadway, Asheville
Where else can you get the perfect slice (black and green olives, hold the extra cheese), a righteous locally brewed IPA and a movie -- all for less than a single ticket and a bag of stale popcorn at any other theater? Nowhere; don't even bother to look. Value aside, in a town sizzling with superb pie options, it's a testament to Asheville Pizza & Brewing's quality that y'all keep on voting them No. 1 in WNC: 2002 makes it six years running.
What's truly amazing is that ABP has maintained that record in spite of having produced (more than once!) the following gastronomic monstrosity, described by owner Mike Rangel as the restaurant's "most disgusting pizza ever ordered": Spam and jalapeno peppers on a barbecue-sauce base. You can also get this and more appetizing treats, sans the movie, at Asheville Pizza Company in Weaverville and at the Asheville Pizza Parlor in downtown Asheville. -- CB
Asheville Pizza & Brewing Company
675 Merrimon Ave, Asheville
Upon his son's birth, my Uncle David (a burly Alaskan) swore he would never allow so much as a Micky-D's fry to pass betwixt my nephew's lips. So Ryder was raised to appreciate fine sushi, freshly hunted bear, acorn squash and other foodstuffs a middle-American boy from the lower 48 doesn't generally encounter until his first date with a sophisticated older woman from New York named Gazelle -- if ever. Alas, the McDonald's franchise spread north, eventually erecting a pair of Golden Arches in the town of Homer. And like a moth to a flame, like a small-town boy to a sophisticated big-city woman named Gazelle, Ryder found his way there. Naturally, he'd now choose a Happy Meal over sashimi any day. Here, as in Alaska (one nation, under McDonald's, with burgers and fries for all...), the Golden Arches reign supreme among the 12-and-under set.
WNC, however, offers a less ubiquitous (if equally yellow) kid-friendly alternative: Xpress readers voted Fuddruckers a close second. Who needs Playland when you've got an excitingly well-stocked top-your-own-burger bar? And to parents like my Uncle David, I have this advice: Just give in. If you're nice, maybe Junior will share his fries. -- CB
130 Charlotte St, Asheville
Good food and lots of it, that's how the Cornerstone Restaurant defines "homestyle." A spaghetti dinner from this place will keep a small family going for half the week. Don't stop at the spaghetti, though. This unassuming restaurant at the corner of Tunnel Road and the I-240 East exit offers just about everything the American palate could desire, with plenty left over for lunch the next day: steaks, chicken and seafood; thick sandwiches, fluffy omelets, golden waffles; pie, pie and more pie. Best of all, the Cornerstone serves it all up without an ounce of pretense. No one here's too cool to take your order or warm up your coffee -- and that alone is worth the journey through Beaucatcher Tunnel. (Note: This popular eatery also scored top honors for best breakfast; see below.) -- CB
102 Tunnel Rd, Asheville
The sun beat down on our heads. Rivers of sweat coursed over our faces. Tunnel Road seemed eight lanes wide and trafficked entirely by native Manhattanites. All Joe and I wanted was a picture of the Outback Steakhouse. Was it worth the risk? The misery of pacing asphalt in August, waiting for a break in the cars so we could dash madly across?
Yes, yes and yes.
Outback's interior is deliciously dark and cool. The hostess is delighted to see you. The rich, smoky aroma of perfectly grilled steak fills the air. And the beer. Oh, the ice-cold Fosters served in the chilliest mug imaginable. Ice crystals actually formed in the foam. Ice crystals!
The steaks may be what brings you in (Outback has been our readers' top choice for, well, a whole lot of years now). But it's the great staff (who seem to be having more fun than should really be allowed in a workplace) and the life-preserving, frigid beer that'll make you want to stick around all afternoon. -- CB
30 Tunnel Rd, Asheville
The Laughing Seed Cafe is the kind of place that can make folks switch teams. One bite of the East-West Quesadilla, and even die-hard, meat-at-every-meal, veg-a-phobic types start proclaiming things like "Nobody told me it would be like this!" And who ever imagined that brown rice, steamed vegetables and tofu (the makings of a Harmony Bowl) could taste so ... savory? Impoverished free-lance writers have been known to fork over their last pennies for an extra side of the Seed's famous, secret-formula sesame-ginger sauce. Is it any wonder, then, that Xpress readers have repeatedly voted this place No. 1? Considering the serious competition out there for the loyalty of WNC's vegetarian diners, it's pretty remarkable -- and well-earned. Just one question for the venerable Seed: When are y'all going to bring back that phenomenal chocolate carrot cake? -- CB
Laughing Seed Cafe
40 Wall St, Asheville
Originally a clever strategy employed by Swiss peasants to make hardened cheese and stale bread seem more palatable, and more recently a good excuse to sit around listening to ABBA, fondue has reached new heights in Asheville, thanks to The Melting Pot. The Florida-based restaurant launched its Asheville branch in 2000, to great anticipation -- and judging by Xpress readers' hearty vote of confidence, they've delivered the goods. According to y'all, spearing savory bits of meat, bread, seafood and sweet stuff on slender forks and cooking or dipping them in a variety of almost-boiling or melted media is THE chichi mode de dining in 2002. And frankly, what could be more elegant than a simple strawberry dipped in warm chocolate? Not much. Certainly not a fondue of your best silk tie, so take a little extra care when you dress to impress for a night at Asheville's newest ritzy hot spot. -- CB
The Melting Pot, A Fondue Restaurant
26 Lodge St, Asheville
Merely perusing the ingredient list for the concoction Rosie's dad (that big flirt, Sol) identifies as the cafe's best-selling vegetable juice makes you feel healthy. The Garden Patch combines carrot, celery, cucumber, parsley and beet juice, producing a vibrant beverage that would make your mom smile if she knew you were quaffing it. You'll be smiling, too, because it tastes so good, not to mention that Sol just made a pass at you. (Don't worry, he's been happily married for more than 50 years -- and if you don't believe it, he'll show you his wedding picture and his driver's license. Must be the juice.)
Max & Rosie's is more than our readers' favorite juice bar, though. They also whip up fabulous smoothies and the best vegetarian Ruben this side of Chicago. All using as much locally grown, organic produce as possible. Most excellent, indeed. -- CB
Max & Rosie's Excellent Cafe & Juice Bar
52 N Lexington Ave, Asheville
The real reason the Pink Lady haunts the Grove Park Inn is so she can linger over those made-to-order omelets GPI serves up in its Blue Ridge Dining Room on Sundays. I know they'd bring me back from the grave ... and come to think of it, they have, after a few too many of the Great Hall Bar's peerless martinis the night before.
Be you ghost or guest, or just pausing in your mortal round for a memorable brunch, you can put together a feast fit for the tables of paradise from the groaning board of tortes, waffles, crepes, Caesar salads, carved meat, fresh seafood, fruits, vegetables, finger foods, eggs and more. -- SR
Grove Park Inn Resort & Spa
290 Macon Ave, Asheville
I've enjoyed Cornerstone's tasty, hearty and affordable breakfasts while reporting on meetings of the Council of Independent Business Owners held on the premises. The Buncombe County Republican Clubs also hold separate (but, presumably, equal) morning meetings there -- men on Saturdays, women on Thursdays. The Kiwanis and Lions clubs likewise convene at Cornerstone. I asked the restaurant's young co-owner Dean Barlas whether political groups of other persuasions could meet there -- like, say, Earth First! "We welcome anyone!" he assured me, adding that he thinks it's just the good food that inspires local folks to hold their gatherings at the eatery.
So if there are any liberals out there who can articulately discuss global deforestation and the military-industrial complex at 8 a.m., feel free to do so over coffee and eggs (done whatever way you like 'em) at the Cornerstone. And if you're scheduling a lunch or dinner meeting, they also scored "best homestyle" honors (see above). -- SR
102 Tunnel Rd, Asheville
From a close second last year, El Chapala climbed into an outright tie for first with perennial champ La Paz (an Xpress Hall of Famer) this time around. Maybe it's El Chap's tremendous (literally) margaritas that have fueled its rise to the top.
La Paz's gourmet-but-affordable Tex-Mex cooking is hard to beat, however (remember -- no one's done it yet), as is the optional outdoor dining. What is it about sizzling fajitas and a frigid margarita on a steamy summer night? -- SR
La Paz Restaurante & Cantina
10 Biltmore Plaza, Asheville
El Chapala Mexican Restaurant
868 Merrimon Ave, Asheville
It took me four phone calls and two trips to track down this little storefront cafe, but intrepid reporter (and Mexican-food lover) that I am, I had to find out why you readers were driving halfway to Weaverville for your carne asada. Mystery solved -- the food is muy sabroso! The spices and salsas in the burrito I sampled (OK, devoured) were subtle and very authentic. So for my sake as well as yours, let me put it on the record: Taqueria Fast is in the Town & Country strip mall (coming from Asheville, take the New Bridge exit off 19/23 and turn left). -- SR
175 Weaverville Hwy, Woodfin
Trevi's specialty is the cooking style of Apulia, in southern Italy -- light sauces and olive oil highlighting generous portions of seafood, herbs and fresh produce. But master chef/owner Richard Laibson is also celebrated for his inventive pasta, meat and vegetarian dishes -- think chicken gorgonzola, vodka shrimp, orecchiette fagioli, even Tuscan herb-crusted tenderloin -- not to mention desserts that can make a chocolate lover swoon. -- SR
Trevi Pasta Seafood & Pizza
2 Hendersonville Rd, Asheville
Jimmy Pappas chalks up the continued popularity of the Apollo Flame to the restaurant's homemade sauces. His brother, Chris, figures it's the low prices, and the quantity of food. But I've gotta argue with them both: It's the pizza crust, fellas! With most restaurants' pies, the dough -- unless it's been stuffed with cheese, which is cheating -- seems like an afterthought. But the plain-and-simple crust at the Apollo Flame's Brevard Road location -- owned by the Pappas brothers and cousin John Poulous, who also owns the original Apollo Flame on Hendersonville Road -- has a faint, exotic sweetness to it that is, frankly, addictive. Whether it's the to-die-for pizza, the suberb Greek salads (those peppers! those olives!) or the bevy of pasta dishes, the two south Asheville restaurants routinely rope in the hungry. Tonya Finney lunches at the Brevard Road location about once a month with couple of friends who also work downtown. They like the atmosphere, she said, and the owners. And as for the food: "It's most delish!" Finney raved. Most delish, indeed. -- FR
485 Hendersonville Rd, Asheville
Apollo Flame Bistro
1025 Brevard Rd
The China Palace has won this category so many years in a row, it deserves a shrine in the Hall of Immortals. (Come to think of it, stepping into the stylish eatery may lead you to believe you're actually in the Hall of Immortals.) Our readers also praise China Palace's wide array of exotic vegetarian specialties; its fresh, healthful ingredients; and its shunning of that nerve-numbing "flavor enhancer," monosodium glutamate. (Here's some food trivia for your fortune cookie: MSG is so popular in Japan that scientists there actually classify it as a fifth category of taste, alongside sweet, sour, salty and bitter.) -- SR
4 S Tunnel Rd, Asheville
"Ichiban" means "number one" in Japanese -- clearly an auspicious choice of name for the sushi spot that took top honors in this year's reader survey. Jenny, the Ichiban hostess who answered the phone (and provided that translation -- we're a little rusty on our Japanese), was thrilled to learn that her patrons had voted the restaurant tops in WNC. "We know a lot of customers like us very well. ... Please thank them for all of us. They are so wonderful." -- SR
Ichiban Japanese Restaurant
485 Hendersonville Rd, Asheville
Don't get me wrong -- I'm no porc chauvinist -- but I have observed that the unfailingly beautiful young women behind the dessert counter at Old Europe Coffee House are as much of a customer attraction as the Hazelnut Praline Napoleon, Hungarian Dobosh Torte, Chocolate Espresso Shortbread and other exotic sweets smiling teasingly from behind the glass. Another key to Old Europe's success is its sidewalk seating a la Parisienne, which invites folks to sit out on a summer evening savoring the sounds of the many talented street musicians who perform in the vicinity. -- SR
Old Europe Coffee House
18 Battery Park Ave, Asheville
The Hop is an Asheville institution in more ways than one. The family-owned business has thrived for 27 years, says manager (and family member) Travis Parker, in that quirky little drive-thru building that has anchored the Merrimon Avenue dip since 1954. And The Hop serves all-homemade, all-natural ice cream and toppings -- 40 flavors in summertime, just a few less in winter -- including sugar-free, soy, rice cream, sorbet and yogurt as well as thick, fresh, creamy milk ice cream (like the chocolate-almond shake that recently soothed a stressful day for this reporter). -- SR
The Hop Ice Cream Shop
507 Merrimon Ave, Asheville
The Barlas brothers (of Cornerstone fame) have opened this new eatery featuring baked seafood, pastas, award-winning hand-cut steaks, and "some new ideas" in vegetarian Greek cuisine, according to Dean Barlas. "We're trying to bring a new element" to health-conscious Asheville, he says, "trying to show a lot of our ethnic background. ... It seems like everywhere is a corporation now," a trend the independently owned restaurant plans to counter with its delicious, spinach-stuffed spanakopita and other innovative, hand-made treats.
Hot on the B Brothers' heels was Rezaz, which has also opened to rave reviews. Handsomely installed in the former Biltmore Hardware premises in Biltmore Village, Rezaz serves up an inventive, diverse and delicious mix of Mediterranean specialties. -- SR
620 Hendersonville Rd, Asheville
28 Hendersonville Rd, Asheville