On the Road
If you’re roadtripping to Asheville, pack an appetite
by Gay Lyons
For me, part of the fun of traveling comes from the opportunity to try new restaurants and to partake of cuisines not found in Knoxville. In the August issue of Knoxville magazine, Jack Neely writes that one’s goal on arrival in a new city should be finding the most authentic place to have a beer. That’s a fine goal, but for me finding the best or most interesting food in town is the bigger priority.
If I’m traveling to a new city or to one I haven’t visited in a while, I start my research before leaving home. There are websites that offer restaurant listings and reviews such as www.cuisinenet.com , but I’ve gotten good results by simply Googling “restaurants” plus the name of my destination. This generally leads to all kinds of helpful information, including restaurant guides, restaurant reviews from local writers and individual restaurants’ websites.
Online research is a good start, but talking to local people is also helpful. The staff at inns and hotels is a conventional source, but I’ve often found better information by conversing with people in bookstores, galleries or small shops. I’ve never stopped a random stranger for a restaurant recommendation, but apparently some do. I don’t have the words “restaurant writer” tattooed anywhere, but at least once a month someone from out of town stops me on the sidewalk downtown to ask for a recommendation.
Some of the best discoveries are made on the street. In any urban area, you’ll pass restaurants as you meander and explore. Lots of them have posted menus. One probably unintended benefit of sidewalk dining is that you can check out what’s on the plates as you walk by.
I recently spent a couple of days in Asheville, N.C., with my daughter Liz. Now that she is past the “chicken-fingers” phase, we have a lot of fun traveling—and dining—together. Since Asheville is a frequent destination, we have favorites: the Laughing Seed Café and Jerusalem Garden, both of which are downtown. We also like Tupelo Honey Café, Salsa, True Confections and The Market Place to name just a few, but regardless of where else we eat, we always visit our two favorites.
Laughing Seed Café serves international vegetarian cuisine. If you’ve never eaten there, you simply must. You do not have to be a vegetarian to enjoy. You just have to like really good, fresh, robustly flavored food. This time we selected two easy-to-share dishes. One was the low country roll-ups: sweet and tangy tofu barbecue wrapped in whole-wheat tortillas with Monterey jack cheese, topped with tahini mustard sauce, served with salad and brown rice. We also ordered the east/west quesadilla: a creamy Indian-influenced filling of potato, scallions and cheeses flavored with curry, layered with fresh spinach and mole sauce and topped with roasted red salsa, served with salad and blue corn chips. We highly recommend the mango-lime vinaigrette for the salads.
Jerusalem Garden, which serves Moroccan and Mediterranean food, has a fun atmosphere: draped fabric that gives the impression of a tent, brass trays used as table tops, murals and some low tables with just above floor level cushions for seating. The moussaka is fabulous, but this time I went for the vegetarian platter: grape leaves, tabouli, hummus, baba ghanoush, falafel and olives. Their tabouli is lighter on the bulgur than most, allowing the mint and parsley flavors to come through. The warm pita is outstanding even before it’s dipped into the creamy hummus or baba ghanoush. Liz’s pita sandwich stuffed full of falafel came with well-seasoned fried potatoes.
Too often, baklava’s ingredients are tightly bound with honey, making the dish too sweet for my taste. The large triangle of baklava which completed our meal was flaky with a looser filling and a hint of sweetness.
We have some very good restaurants in Knoxville, with some taking fresh, inventive approaches to cuisine. We have some vegetarian and vegan menu options as well as a few establishments serving decent ethnic foods, but not nearly enough of those. I vividly remember discovering, while teaching a college-level class in 1986, that not a single student had ever eaten Chinese food. How far have we come in the last two decades? Could a restaurant like the Laughing Seed Café or Jerusalem Garden be as popular in Knoxville as in Asheville?