Asian Grill owner Shang Ai "Andy" Lin is a worrier. He frets about the consistency of his restaurant's rice and fusses over plate presentation. He anguishes about the menu. But most of all, Lin agonizes over his clientele's satisfaction. "Just customers happy is enough," he proclaims in his broken but effusive English. To that end, fresh fish is flown in from New York -- and fresh, notes the gregarious Lin, does not mean frozen. Also, the sushi rice must be cooked just so. And variety must be maintained -- Manchurian, Japanese, Thai and Hawaiian cuisine; from steak to sashimi to vegetarian -- and new culinary creations tried (thyme in Asian fare?). As for the food itself, it's truly a winner. The Seafood Sampler? Oh, my! (Those grilled scallops! That crabmeat-stuffed shrimp!). The American Dream Roll? So good it's just wrong. (That avocado! That crisp tempura shrimp!). Sake me, baby! -- FR
1851 Hendersonville Road, Asheville
Our readers weren't always sure of the exact name of Little Pigs Bar-B-Que, but they knew it had something to do with porcine quadrupeds: We received votes for "three pigs," "three little pigs," "pigs on the run" (well, wouldn't you?), and even plain ol' "pigs." A pig by any other name, you might say.
But whatever you call it, Little Pigs Bar-B-Que serves up the kind of twangy Southern barbecue that keeps people coming back -- and voting for them year after year (the seventh in a row, to be exact).
"We're just tickled to death that we won it again," says owner Carr Swicegood. "We appreciate all the customers that we've had for the last 40 years!" -- LW
Little Pigs Bar-B-Que
384 McDowell St., Asheville
100 Merrimon Ave., Asheville
1578 Hendersonville Road, Asheville
Less than two years out of the starting gate and the Early Girl Eatery is already pulling in the honors: first place in the Best Breakfast category and a respectable third for Best Home Style/Diner.
What's their secret? Is it their down-home, Southern-style cooking, (what co-owner John Stehling calls "definite comfort food"): biscuits and gravy, shrimp and grits, or a Southern breakfast with bacon, sausage or country ham? But wait a minute! Don't they also serve some of that newfangled health food: you know, tofu scramble, multigrain buttermilk pancakes, and vegan sausage?
Whatever you order at Early Girl, "It's all made from scratch," says Stehling proudly. "We make our own granola. We make our own sausage. People appreciate that!" -- LW
Early Girl Eatery
8 Wall St., Asheville
One of the things I really like about Rio Burrito (besides their yummy California-style burritos, of course) is the back-and-forth banter that goes on between the staff behind the counter.
According to co-owner Tom Kearns, this obvious camaraderie is no accident. "We've all worked together for over seven years," he explains, pointing out Jack, Brent, Brian, Michael and his wife and co-owner, Andrea Twilling. "It makes every day fun!"
Kearns credits their win in this category to "just really good food, good service and consistency."
Oh, and Jack's specials, he adds. On this day, that means spicy BBQ shrimp with chicken, spinach, peppers, onion, jack cheese, black beans and rice.
Now that's a recipe for success. -- LW
11 Broadway St., Asheville
The first person I consult when I'm assigned this category is free-lance coffee addict Steve Shanafelt, who's written about many local coffee joints for Mountain Xpress.
"They both have their charms," he says somberly, reflecting on our dual winners: Beanstreets Coffeehouse/Cafe (an Xpress Hall of Famer) and Gold Hill Espresso & Fine Teas. "But different charms. They're equal but different -- like men and women, cats and dogs, 8-tracks and vinyl, shoelaces and Velcro, peanut butter and chocolate ..."
Whatever. All I know is that in a town chock full of coffeehouses and cafes (try spitting without hitting one), you must be pretty damn good to be voted No. 1. -- LW
3 Broadway St., Asheville
Gold Hill Espresso & Fine Teas
64 Haywood St., Asheville
Melinda and Zoltan Vetro, owners of the Old Europe Coffee House, are strictly from Hungary. And, in fact, they were visiting their homeland when I popped in, so I decided to interrogate a couple of unsuspecting customers. Both turned out to be regulars, and neither was shy about telling me exactly what they like best about this European-style eatery.
"It's the key lime pie, the hot chocolate and the girls!" Daniel exclaimed enthusiastically.
Steve credited the rugala and the fact that "they're the nicest crew of any of the coffee places."
Counter server Stephanie Klatt has her own theory: "It's the only place you can get authentic Hungarian pastries and deserts."
And what treats they are! Delicacies like Hungarian dobosh torte, creme brulee, tiramisu, hazelnut praline Napoleon and apple strudel. Yummy! -- LW
Old Europe Coffee House
18 Battery Park Ave., Asheville
Back in 1967, John Poulos and his father (Arthur "Papa" Poulos, 1920-1996) came to Asheville from Karpenis, their native village in Greece, to seek their fortunes. After several years working as dishwashers, they opened their own restaurant, the Apollo Flame Bistro, in 1974. The rest, as they say, is history.
Voted No. 1 by Xpress readers six years straight, this Hall of Famer now boasts a second location on Brevard Road (run by Poulos' cousins Jimmy and Chris) and family recipes passed down from Poulos' grandfather.
"Quality, service and prices," is Poulos' recipe for success, he says. They also get a good jump on the competition: "We start every morning at 6 a.m. We prepare everything fresh daily -- every day!" -- LW
Apollo Flame Bistro
485 Hendersonville Road, Asheville
1025 Brevard Road, Asheville
There's nothing like a really good home-style meal to make you feel all's well in the world. And Xpress readers were equally divided about their favorite place for that kind of comfort food.
"It's like going into your mom's kitchen," observes Brandy Liddy, head server at the Corner Stone Restaurant. The Corner Stone (which also won this category last year) keeps its regulars coming back "because we keep our portions big and our prices low," she says.
Meanwhile, over at Picnics Restaurant & Bake Shop, co-owner Ron Smith says his customers "know they can come on in and get the kind of meal they'd cook for themselves if they had the time." Smith, co-owner Minnie Smith (Ron's mom) and chef John Hardin make everything from scratch using the freshest ingredients, he says. Their specialties include wood-roasted chicken, nine hot and nine cold side dishes daily, and homemade pies. -- LW
Corner Stone Restaurant
102 Tunnel Road, Asheville
Picnics Restaurant & Bake Shop
371 Merrimon Ave., Asheville
Open only a year and already Sweet Heaven Ice Cream & Music Cafe has won over local ice-cream lovers' hearts and tummies.
That's not so surprising when you consider that the owners' stated purpose in opening the business was "not to make a lot of money," reveals co-owner Jeff Japp, "but to make people happy."
And how could you not be happy with a choice of 18 varieties of ice cream (including soy, sorbet, sugar-free and 100-percent organic), all of it homemade, boasting names like Chocolate Sin, Memphis Monkey, Mud Puppy, Sweet Ginger and Mountain Chai.
Then there's the cafe itself: fun, colorful decor; comfy couches; and shelves chock full of toys, games, books and magazines. There's live music on Friday and Saturday evenings, an open-mic event on Sunday evening, and the art on the walls (compliments of either a local artist or local schoolchildren) changes every other month. -- LW
Sweet Heaven Ice Cream & Music Cafe
35-B Montford Ave., Asheville
It's pan-seared. It's pecan-encrusted. And the trout at Trevi is one of the most popular dishes on the menu. Tourists seek it out, and locals return for it. But there's more to the place than just the fish. Owner Richard Laibson has the tough job of traveling to Italy to "eat and taste and drink," bringing back the most authentic dishes for the 7-year-old restaurant. The parmesan and gorgonzola attract expatriate Italians and globetrotters alike. "It makes them feel like they are back in Italy," boasts Laibson.
Keep an eye out for special wine and theme dinners, too, as the eatery is always on the lookout for new ways to enjoy tasting. And eating. And drinking. -- BP
Trevi Pasta Seafood & Pizza
2 Hendersonville Road, Asheville
Is it the Happy Meals? the brightly colored playgrounds? the food? Judging by my 10-year-old niece's behavior, it's a bit of all three. She visited Asheville earlier this summer, and McDonald's was second only to the Nature Center on her list of Places We Have to Go. I hemmed, I hawed, I petted a goat and otherwise showed great patience with my niece's wishes, but I saved McDonald's as a special treat (the power of this American institution is such that my niece even helped me haul a load of construction debris to the landfill with the promise of a run through the Golden Arches hovering on the post-dump horizon). She needed no prodding to devour her cheeseburger and fries and guzzle her Sprite. And she even assembled the Happy Meal toy before taking a single bite. But after our second McDonald's visit (I admit it, I gave in again), my niece rewarded my kindness by leaving me my own little "Finding Nemo" toy. -- MW
multiple locations in the Asheville area
Waffle House, Denny's and the like may have their charms and quirks on a Friday or Saturday when most folks have already called it a night. But at 2 a.m., where are you gonna find Southern twists like fried green tomatoes served piled on goat-cheese grits with basil, or homemade pimento cheese (served oozing hot with tortilla chips), or something more substantially fancy (like lamb chops)? The Tupelo Honey Cafe, of course: this year's Best Late-Night Restaurant by a landslide. Owner Sharon Schott pronounces her weekend clientele a "hip crowd": people leaving the symphony, aspiring adults too young to get into the bars, and anybody else with a sudden hunger in the wee hours. That eclectic mix keeps her staff hopping till 6 a.m. many weekends, says Schott, who once worked at local jazz bar Tressa's and herself knew the yearning for an all-hours eatery. She credits Manager Martha Palmer and Line Chefs Kevin and Mike with keeping the wee hours hopping. Schott also gives an honorable mention to Rosetta's Kitchen, our second-place finisher in the competition to assuage late-night cravings. -- MW
Tupelo Honey Cafe
12 College St., Asheville
111 Broadway St., Asheville
My first taste of New York-style pizza came at Marco's Pizzeria in the early 1980s. My taste buds immediately knew the sauce hadn't come from a can, and my tongue knew the mozzarella wasn't that rubbery, salty stuff you get at the grocery store. It was fresh mozzarella, all ooey-gooey, pure white and tasting like it came straight from the cow (and not some conveyor-belt cheese press). Those are the flavors that have made Marco's the Best Local Pizza. Owner Marco Lacagnina says it's a family thing: "We've been doing things the same way my uncle [Patsy Lancieri] did in New York City in 1933," he says: That means sauces and dough made fresh every day, fresh mozzarella shipped from Brooklyn, and a certain New York flair to the whole menu (like the "egg cream" soda that doesn't really have egg in it). It also means that all three of Marco's children are now in the business, too, making them fourth-generation pizza mavens. -- MW
640 Merrimon Ave., Asheville
There must be more to La Paz Restaurante and Cantina than a hill of beans: They've won this category so often, we've lost count. Maybe our readers have gotten tipsy on the restaurant's signature margarita, La Pazarita. Perhaps their tongues are tingling with chimayo, a Mexican chili sauce that La Paz chefs rub into the fresh salmon or grouper they sear on the grill. "We don't have just fajitas and tacos," notes General Manager Alicia Tremblay. There's La Paz's signature combo dish, the Red White and Blue: It features chorizo (red), chicken and ricotta (white) and a blue-corn enchilada, she explains. Tremblay also mentions the cantina's kid-friendly menu ("Some kids have told me we have the best burgers"), its weekend no-cover live music ("We call that music under the stars"), and the impressive selection of vegetarian dishes (like the portabella veggie burrito with homemade salsa). And just for fun (and flavor), there's an "Ashevegas" salad that features shrimp or crab sauteed with pico de gallo salsa. !Ay caramba! -- MW
La Paz Restaurante and Cantina
10 Biltmore Plaza
What part of the cow do you want? From petite filet to 20-ounce porterhouse, the Outback Steakhouse delivers the red meat (or, as the menu puts it, "land rovers"). Rib eye, tenderloin, sirloin or any other cut you can think of -- the Outback will deliver it, still sizzling, to your table.
Maybe it's the trademark appetizers. Maybe it's the fact that you can upgrade any steak with the addition of a lobster tail.
Or maybe steak just tastes better when it's eaten with a big ol' Crocodile Dundee "that's a knife" blade. -- BP
30 Tunnel Road, Asheville
Do one thing and do it well: That could be the mantra of the Laughing Seed Cafe. And while most Asheville eateries have figured out that including at least a few veggie offerings on their menu is just good business sense, the Seed has stayed true to its decade-long mission of bringing delicious nonmeat dishes to Asheville diners. The downtown cafe is a Wall Street fixture, serving up old standards like the veggie sloppy joe and the Harmony Bowl, as well as new additions like Thai Green Curry. And for the past five years, this Hall of Famer has claimed Best Vegetarian honors in our readers' poll ... by a landslide.
Manager Brekken Casey says the restaurant's lengthy reign has become a standard of excellence. "There would be serious unrest if we ever lost," she reveals. Casey also credits both longtime loyal customers and a rising tide of converts with helping cement this year's win.
"People in Asheville are getting more adventurous," she observes, adding, "There is this other way to eat." -- BP
Laughing Seed Cafe
40 Wall St., Asheville
They may not necessarily know how to spell it, but Asheville's epicures know what they like, and they've handed relative newcomer Rezaz Mediterranean Cuisine the crown for Best Ritzy Food. Owner Reza Setayesh brings to the table authentic dishes culled from his Middle Eastern origins and his travels around Europe. Elaborating on traditional dishes from the Mediterranean regions of France, Spain, Turkey and North Africa, Rezaz serves up fare with flair, bringing to mind phrases like "clean, crisp and modern," and "light, innovative and new."
Opened just over a year ago, Rezaz quickly made waves among local flavor fans. And to find out what a Grilled Caesar Salad is, you'll just have to go for yourself. -- BP
Rezaz Mediterranean Cuisine
28 Hendersonville Road, Asheville
Ah, the humble sandwich. The simplicity of a few key ingredients nestled in soft bread. As the premier sandwich shop in Asheville, Two Guys Original Olde Style Hoagies (call it Two Guys -- everybody knows what you're talking about) has been raising the bar for years. Six-inch and foot-long subs? Oh no, no, no: Here, the sandwiches are 8 and 16 inches. Rounding out the menu is an extensive array of deli treats, all made with freshly sliced meats, cheeses and produce.
But owner Rick Weaver, who bought into a legacy when he took over in 2000, maintains a sandwichlike humility. In the shop's second outlet on Fairview Road, Weaver puts the finishing touches on another hoagie.
"I'm not in this to get rich," he reveals. "We just take it as it comes along." -- BP
Two Guys Original Olde Style Hoagies
132 Charlotte St., Asheville
790-B Fairview Road, Asheville
In recent years, scientists have been predicting a drop in lobster harvests in typically strong northern fishing zones, with catches estimated to hit rock bottom this year. But you'd never know it judging by the abundance that rules at Red Lobster Restaurants. Here, it's still a lobster luau, and diners can savor the succulent crustacean in many different ways. From a traditional whole lobster served with drawn butter to lobster linguini to something called Rockzilla, there's simply no end in sight. But Red Lobster isn't limited by its namesake, either. The restaurant, with branches throughout the U.S. and Canada, is now busily promoting Endless Crab! -- BP
Red Lobster Restaurants
139 Tunnel Road, Asheville
Is anyone else astounded by the number of sushi joints in this town? In the past year alone, three new contenders have opened up. But this year's winner is Biltmore Village mainstay the Ichiban Japanese Restaurant. For many, sushi is an acquired taste, beginning with elaborate rolls full of safe yet somehow different flavors. As the diner grows braver, the sushi often gets simpler, moving on to pieces of yellow tail on rice. Then it's on to sashimi, the pure Zen of sushi: an unadorned slab of raw fish.
Ichiban can help you negotiate all the stages of the path to true sushi love. -- BP
Ichiban Japanese Restaurant
2 Hendersonville Road, Asheville
Co-owner Rosie Beeby says that when she looked at Lexington Avenue 11 years ago, she saw the potential for a place for the alternative-minded to dine. As the story goes, she and her husband opened Max & Rosie's Cafe the same year their son was born, and the people came.
"I had a strong feeling that Asheville would support a business like this," Rosie says today.
Alongside a regular menu of organic and macrobiotic dishes, the cafe is Asheville's most popular place for smoothies.
All scratch-made from inventive combinations of fruit, the smoothies offer a nourishing respite from the summer heat. And for an extra health kick, you can add supplements like bee pollen, ginseng or protein powder. Want to make smoothies at home? You can find all the recipes in their cookbook, Cafe Max & Rosie's: Vegetarian Cooking With Heart & Spirit. -- BP
Max & Rosie's Cafe
52 N. Lexington Ave., Asheville
We have two words of advice: Come hungry. Like Thanksgiving hungry. Because the brunch at The Grove Park Inn Resort & Spa, like everything else the historic hotel does, is on a massive scale. The spread fills two rooms with everything from breakfast fare to crab legs. Smoked fish, cheeses, pork loin, even sushi. Brunch isn't just for breakfast anymore. Oh, and there are 20 varieties of dessert. All of a sudden, those rocking chairs in the Great Hall are looking pretty good.
Popular demand has forced the Inn to bump back the opening hour from 11 a.m. to 10 a.m., and the standard, mostly local crowd about triples on holidays.
Don't hurt yourself. -- BP
The Grove Park Inn Resort & Spa
290 Macon Ave., Asheville
Occupying a building that used to house a chain eatery, the Province 620 Restaurant has ample room to provide first-class handicapped access. The ground-level dining room has no need of ramps, and the double doors give easy access to the building, winning the popular eatery top honors in this service-oriented category. Notable runners up: Trevi Pasta Seafood & Pizza, Coral Bay Seafood, La Paz Restaurante and Cantina, and Laughing Seed Cafe. -- BP
Province 620 Restaurant
620 Hendersonville Road, Asheville
Trevi Pasta Seafood & Pizza
2 Hendersonville Road, Asheville
Coral Bay Seafood
164 Tunnel Road
La Paz Restaurante and Cantina
10 Biltmore Plaza (277-8779)
Laughing Seed Cafe
40 Wall St., Asheville