Since we are vegan/vegetarian, it’s been a constant point of ours to check the vegetarian options in each town we go to. It’s never a deterrent if there isn’t anything around. It would ridiculous to miss the Everglades just because we couldn’t get Tofurkey lunch meat nearby (even if it is Susa’s favorite). Not having a ton of restaurants or a Whole Foods to go to usually just means we save a bunch of money. You can find tofu and garden burgers in the most surprising towns in the country and to many people’s surprise, vegetarians can survive quite easily almost anywhere.
That being said, when we do find a town that has a really great vegetarian scene, we usually get pretty excited. And of all the towns we’ve stayed in in the last year and a half, Asheville has got every other city in the south beat when it comes to vegetarian options. Cities four times its size have nothing on Asheville for grocery store and restaurant options. You can often count Indian food and Chinese food as “vegetarian” because there are usually more than one good option there, but even without counting Asian food, Asheville has a heaping handful of cafes and restaurants to make west coast hippie towns blush.
The first place we went was the Green Sage Cafe, the first cafe on our way into downtown from Taps RV Park. The Green Sage was fairly busy, gathered foot traffic, tourists and locals in its convenient location near the Court Plaza, Shopping and of course some great local brew pubs. Its a “bus your own table” kind of place, with local art on the walls and a variety of seating. We usually sat befuddled beneath an average looking bicycle suspended from the ceiling. Not an antique, not surprisingly nice, just a bike with a basket on it. The food was good, though a little more expensive than we expected. After eating out several times in Asheville, we realized this wasn’t an isolated incident. I ordered a breakfast burrito and Ross a breakfast scramble (both with tofu). My coffee was not amazing and cooled quickly in its giant cup, but coffee didn’t really seem to be their thing. Overall I don’t remember being impressed though we did go back a couple more times, unable to stay away from the possibility of breakfast (even if we ate it at 3pm).
The second place we went was nicer than our usual places, The Green Light Cafe. It was more like a “european cafe in an art gallery” than what I expected from a vegetarian cafe but it proved a place can be both nice and vegetarian without being expensive or “health nut – elitist” vegetarian. The server was really nice and helpful, the place was quiet and open, and the food was amazing. I got the special, a chili relleno dish and Ross got the enchilada – “Saucy beans and greens baked in a sprouted tortilla, smothered with our homemade nutty mole & your choice of daiya vegan cheese or cheddar.” Not many places offer vegan cheese so that was a big plus, and the homemade mole was just the right amount of sweet and nutty. We only went there once but would defiantly try more things if we visit Asheville again.
The restaurant we visited the most was Rosetta’s Kitchen. It’s a marginally small place, average for a vegetarian cafe, with a small kitchen and one person running the till. What I liked most about this place was its typical vegetarian cafe attitude of “we make you huge plate of excellent food – you get your own cutlery and bus your own tables”. I definitely think more restaurants should adopt that business model. It saves the place hiring more people, therefore allowing them to charge less for potentially expensive plates and leaves people to feed and take care of themselves unharassed by a tip desperate waiter. I enjoy cooking and good food, and have an appreciation for people who work in the service industry. Possibly my experiences and perspective are a bit skewed.
The food at Rosetta’s was amazing. We get burned out on eating garden burgers, especially during our first year when it was often the only thing we could get eating out, but of all the options on the menu I decided to go for just that. They claimed on the menu it was “famous” and that always means they make it themselves. This can vary from place to place, a homemade burger can be full of grains and falling apart, bursting with little more than undercooked black beans and dry as a cotton ball, but sometimes homemade burgers are surprisingly moist and flavorful with just the right amount of everything. This was one of those burgers. I added jalapeños and cheese to make my favorite combination, and besides the fact that the jalapeños were barely hot, the burger was great. Ross got The Family Favorite, Peanut butter baked tofu, smashed potatoes and gravy and sautéed kale. Of course I had to steal some, tasty as expected. So far my favorite vegetarian meals in the South have been the “home cooking” style meals with things like pecan crusted seitan steak, grits with nutritional yeast and of course some good greens/kale cooked in a way I can only dream of accomplishing. Gravy is always a highlight of one of these dishes and the gravy on the The Family Favorite may be nearly my favorite. We asked the cashier what was in the gravy (to make sure it wasn’t a mushroom gravy) and practically got the whole recipe. I of course memorized this simple concoction and plan to work on and improve upon it over time (nutritional yeast, flour, fresh sage, salt, soy milk). In my version there will definitely be breakfast sausage, as soon as I see some around. After gorging ourselves on this meal, we eyeballed the cakes in the case by the register and wished we had room. On our next visit we made the mistake of buying the Indian and Pad Thai bowls, when we should have got the plates and took some home (for just a little $ more) but it worked out because we then had room for a huge piece of chocolate cake with strawberry frosting. The kind of frosting that sends me into sugary seizures, but a good rich frosting (not real seizures, more like a reaction when eating a lemon, but with sweet things instead).
On other visited we tried various things but my favorite is still the Ruben sandwich with grilled marinated local made tempeh, homemade sauerkraut (from red cabbage) and Swiss cheese smothered in a herb-walnut sauce on homemade rye focaccia. As with all of downtown Asheville, parking is pretty bad on a weekend unless you pay for a lot, but luckily we always found parking just a block from Mellow Mushroom (which we never made it to) and within 8 blocks of everything else.
There were about 5 more places we never made it to and a couple that were more expensive or too busy for our mood. Then there was Doc Chey’s Noodle House, a place with lots of good reviews but ended up being a disappointment (please don’t put jalapeños in your Thai food when I ask for ‘Hot’).
Asheville is also great for beer lovers with several brew pubs in the downtown area and of course, wine and whiskey bars run rampant downtown. Our favorite being the one we almost walked past, a hole in the wall with a dark entrance and black door (still don’t know the name but I checked in on Foursquare at “The Dirty South” while there).
Scully's Bar 13 West Walnut Street
Given more time, I would have also visited:
Firestorm Cafe, Laughing Seen Cafe, Tupelo Honey (on a slow night) and Early Girl Eatery.
These are still just a few of the options available in Asheville and why it’s definitely leading the South that I’ve seen so far in vegetarian concentration and quality.
We always hope to see more of this on our travels and places like Asheville are definitely at the top of our lists of places we would recommend to other vegetarians, health geeks or basically anyone who loves food, good beer, nature, shopping and a town designed for foot traffic.