Santi and Little Sister tacos from West Asheville's taqueria, TacoBilly.

Thanksgiving weekend in Asheville

It’s the night before Thanksgiving and I’m with my husband and mother-in-law at Buxton Hall Barbecue in Asheville, North Carolina.  The gussied up South Slope barbecue joint was recently name checked as one of Bon Appétit’s Best New Restaurants 2016 in the US and it seems like all of Asheville’s young folks and their families have come to indulge in a little ‘cue before the official holiday of gluttony.

We scuttle over to Catawba Brewing Company next door to sip on a Le Session ale to wait out the 40-minute wait (Buxton does not take reservations). We’ve been here once before, but it’s the first time while staring intently at the coaster on the bar that I’ve noticed its mountain logo is an amalgamation of North Carolina and South Carolina flipped upside down—very clever, Catawba Brewing Co.

Pulled pork barbecue platter at Buxton Hall Barbecue in Asheville, NC.
Pulled pork barbecue platter at Buxton Hall Barbecue in Asheville, NC.

We move back to the dining room at Buxton and are seated next to the open kitchen where I see the two chefs move blistered, splayed-out hogs from the smoker to the chopping block throughout the night. One chef, with a cleaver in each hand, moves back and forth across the block, chopping the chunks of pit-smoked pork with the grace of a symphony conductor. The violent hacking sounds are muffled by the populated open dining space, which was once an ice skating rink.

The only disappointment of the night is that the mound of pulled pork arrives to the table slightly lukewarm, perhaps a victim of the fact that it may have not been placed in a warming dish. The ‘cue itself is juicy, smoky and tangy enough if you drench it with the Eastern-style vinegar sauce provided on the table and alternate it with nibbles of the cornbread block from the pulled pork platter. The chicken bog, similar to a New Orleans dirty rice, is spectacular, a mix of peas, fluffy rice and flecked bits of sausage . Collard greens at Buxton are “turnt” up to another level, braised low and slow in spicy vinegary pot liquor that will make your tongue tingle with gratification.

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Venture right outside the River Arts district in West Asheville and you’ll find TacoBilly right off Haywood Road. It’s hard to miss the kaleidoscopic-colored building and you would be remiss to overlook this quaint and hip taqueria. It’s a mix of Patagonia-swaddled out-of-towners and local tattooed hipsters clad in Conor Oberst tees cuddled in queue right inside the door of the cozy taco shop.

TacoBilly has a well-earned rep for its stellar breakfast tacos (especially for its migas taco), but we’re here for a late lunch and choose from a broad selection of tacos (mostly under $4 each) that use ingredients from local purveyors. It’s a mild day by Asheville standards, so we mozy swiftly to the backyard toward the rows of brightly-painted picnic tables.

Santi and Little Sister tacos from West Asheville's taqueria, TacoBilly.
Santi and Little Sister tacos from West Asheville’s taqueria, TacoBilly.

After munching on a generous helping of creamy guac and chips as we peer into the yard of the vintage shop next door filled with a menagerie of trinkets, we move onto to our tacos; the Yard Bird arrives as a tender buttermilk-tenderized hunk of fried chicken under an avalanche of chopped red cabbage and mango slaw, smothered in a Sriracha aioli, and cocooned inside a flour tortilla. Days later, I’m still thinking about the Good Lovin’—a jack-cheese covered medley of roasted vegetables and brown rice, drizzled in a jalapeno crema laid out on a corn tortilla mattress, so good that it could turn me into a full-time vegetarian.  I ponder if there’s a place similar to TacoBilly in the Triangle in between gulps of the Jamaican flavored housemade aguas fresca and walk away vowing to return in the future.

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The South Slope outpost of Wicked Weed becomes the informal gathering spot for folks wishing to escape their family members the day after Thanksgiving. Indeed, the Wicked Weed Funkatorium is hopping on the Friday afternoon post-turkey day with locals and visitors alike eager to toss back a few snifters of the barrel-aged sour ales inside the Coxe Avenue taproom and outside on the dog-friendly patio.

For the coterie of folks who enjoy tart and funky beers, it’s the Disney World of craft breweries. Servers in Wicked Weed baseball tees swirl around the bar, and tend to thirsty guests with a selection of over a dozen barrel-aged brews like the Silencio, a black-aged sour made with Madagascar vanilla beans and coffee from local roastery Mountain Air Roasting.

If you wander towards the back, you can pick up beer to-go or purchase some Wicked Weed gear and glassware as you peer at the stacks of wine and Kentucky bourbon barrels in the back–it’s where the magic really happens.

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Despite its laughably fustian television commercials (“it was last week…at Biltmore”) I’ve always been somewhat curious of what Biltmore at Christmas time in Asheville might look like. The entrance fee to Candlelight Christmas Evenings at the Biltmore Estate is far from cheap at over $100 per person (after taxes) though you might understand the hefty price tag slightly more after you see the sheer amount of staff and maintenance at the massive property known as “America’s largest private residence” requires.

The two-mile winding drive up to the various visitor parking lots around the estate gives you ample time to ponder about the Vanderbilt family and to wonder if there are any descendants still living  (there are, and they include CNN anchor Anderson Cooper, son of Gloria Vanderbilt).

Upon exiting the shuttle bus that takes you to the grounds of the estate, you’ll see a glittering lit 40-foot evergreen and forest in the front lawn. Guests can mill around the estate’s stables, now converted into shops for souvenirs, confections and snacks while they wait to get into the “house” at staggered times.

Candlelight Christmas at the Biltmore Estate in Asheville, NC
Candlelight Christmas at the Biltmore Estate in Asheville, North Carolina. This year’s theme is “Hearth and Home” and showcases the home’s fireplaces.

Once you’re in, you’ll be greeted with tuxedoed carolers, and guests at Biltmore are free to roam around through the various posh rooms that include George Vanderbilt’s gilded bedroom, the Gentlemen’s Lounge, and the pool and dressing rooms downstairs in the basement floor at their own leisure, as long as you stay tucked behind the confines of the velvet ropes. The rooms are adorned with towering Christmas trees throughout (nearly 70), the fireplaces are blazing for this year’s theme “Hearth and Home” and the luxe mansion is decorated with bows, wreaths, garland and poinsettias everywhere.

If you’re lucky, you can can get a glimpse of the enormous 35-foot fraser fir in the grand banquet hall advertised as the centerpiece of the Christmas decor. Interestingly enough, the servants quarters upstairs are inaccessible during Candlelight Christmas Evenings, which are typically accessible during regular daytime tours. Christmas can only extend so far in the aristocratic Biltmore household.

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Vortex Doughnuts is to Asheville what Krispy Kreme is to everyone else. For the Asheville crowd that loves artisan doughnuts, it’s the holy grail. It’s where one isn’t relegated to only glazed doughnuts, but is rife with an abundance of made-from-scratch choices like espresso, salted caramel, banana lemon topped with locally-sourced ingredients.

At Vortex, don’t be surprised if you see someone behind the counter sporting a septum ring–it only adds to the charm as she helps you decide between a  doughnut that is regular or vegan, and cake or yeast. And don’t expect just plain old drip coffee to drink at Vortex, you can choose between 1000 Faces artisan coffee or local soda, tea, and kombucha. Yes, it might be straight out of a Portlandia sketch and it’s not cheap, but you’ll be two bites into your soft, yeasty doughnut slathered in rich dark local melted chocolate and you won’t really care. The New York Times once called Asheville, a Southern “Shangri-La” and you might agree after one of Vortex’s doughnuts.

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The sprawling East Coast mecca of New Belgium Brewery is located alongside the French Broad River, in the River Arts district right across the railroad tracks. If you take the free 90-minute guided tour through the facility, you’ll learn interesting factoids as you sample some of their brews: how the company is 100 percent employee-owned, the cute Belgium bike-related origin story, how the company is committed to being eco-conscious, the various employee perks of working for the Fort Collins-based brewing company like free beer from the employee cooler and paid sabbaticals after working for the company after several years.

New Belgium Brewing's east coast campus in Asheville.
New Belgium Brewing’s east coast campus in Asheville.

You’ll get an upclose look at the gigantic mash tuns, the lab, and the bottling facility. And perhaps, best of all, you will be able to slide down the rad employee slide that takes you from the second to the first floor. It’s not a bad way to spend an hour and a half in W. Asheville and you’ll be able to enjoy more its beers in the expansive tasting room inside and the outside dog-friendly patio.

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I visited The Admiral years ago, whose chefs like Elliot Moss started at the hip West Asheville dive restaurant but later departed to start their own projects, long before the birth of Raleigh’s Stanbury and Buxton Hall Barbecue. Years later, I return to find that the eclectic, creative fare from the small, assuming cinder block building continues to fire on all cylinders.

Duck adobo at The Admiral in W. Asheville.
Duck confit adobo at The Admiral in W. Asheville.

The grilled endive salad, adorned with candied walnuts, blue cheese and pomegranate seeds lures you in with its tango of tartness and crispness. The plentiful amount of P.E.I. mussels are so good that you’ll want to sop up every little drop of the citric coconut milk and chimichurri broth with any piece of carb you can find.

The Spanish octopus is tender and delicate, paired with a warm smear of harissa and on a bed of crisped cannellini beans.  The ingenious mash-up of French technique and Filipino cuisine meld together wonderfully in the duck adobo, a leg of juicy, melt-in-your mouth duck leg, whose soy-vinegar broth will make you smack your lips with joy. The steak tartare, a well-executed  version, served with a 64 degree poached egg rounds out the beautiful meal and will have you in rank and file with The Admiral.

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The long lines that snake outside the downtown Asheville chocolatier French Broad Chocolates might deter you from stopping you, but you might regret not sampling some of the Costa Rican bean-to-bar chocolate.

Brownie and truffle at French Broad Chocolate Lounge in Asheville
Brownie and truffle at French Broad Chocolate Lounge in Asheville

The hand-crafted chocolate at the French Broad Chocolate Lounge takes many forms: truffle, ice cream, brownie, sipping chocolate, cake and chocolate bar. There’s a certain level of artistry that’s missing from the lounge and its vast range of desserts, but I get a feeling that Charlie from the Chocolate Factory would be just fine in this chocolate heaven.

 

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