Cajun Flavors in the Fountain City

You might have an ahnvee and not even know it.

Ahnvee is Cajun slang for “hunger,” as in: “I’ve got an ahnvee for some good gumbo.” 

Uncle Mick’s Cajun Market & Café in Prattville can satisfy that hunger. In fact, the restaurant’s chicken and sausage gumbo is one of the 100 Dishes to Eat in Alabama. And it really is that good, with tender pieces of smoky chicken, spicy slices of andouille and finely diced “holy trinity” (onions, bell peppers and celery) in a roux-dark stew with a healthy, but not overwhelming, bite. 

But Uncle Mick’s shrimp creole over dirty rice or the wonderfully rich shrimp a la creme or the crawfish etouffee or even the not-so-Cajun-sounding pork tenderloin in a savory red wine cream sauce also are worth a visit. 

I visited recently for Alabama NewsCenter. You can see the entire story (and a cool video by my friend Brittany Dunn) here.

Mickey “Uncle Mick” Thompson opened his restaurant in February 2009, aiming to serve authentic, scratch-made Cajun food in a family-friendly atmosphere. 

Thompson is not Cajun, but he has a definite passion for this rustic Southern cuisine, and he learned from a Lafayette, Louisiana, native. The guy was a Cajun and a master carpenter. Thompson hired him for a two-week stint, and the man ended up staying on for 17 years. “We cooked and we ate, and we cooked and we ate,” Thompson says. “And that’s where I learned to enjoy Cajun.” 

Thompson is a businessman who, after some three decades of success in the Montgomery-River Region real estate market, retired and pretty quickly recognized that retirement was not working for him.

So, he did some research and realized that authentic Cajun food is hard to come by between Birmingham and Mobile. Plus, he loves this kind of country cooking. And, because Cajun dishes usually are made in large, one-pot quantities (and get better the longer they simmer), this kind of cooking lends itself to no-frills cafeteria-style dining. 

No frills, however, doesn’t mean an impersonal experience. A visit to Uncle Mick’s is exactly opposite. 

The first thing you’ll notice is Lacy Gregg, Thompson’s daughter and the restaurant’s manager, greeting customers at the beginning of the steamtable line. She’ll ask if you’ve been there before, if you have any food allergies, if you like spice or not. Then, even if there’s a line of people out the door, she’ll offer you some samples. After all, not everyone likes alligator, or they might not think they do. 

“Once I get them past the idea of eating gator,” Gregg says, “most people love it.” In fact, the alligator sauce piquante was one of the best dishes we tried during our visit—the gator was surprisingly tender and not at all gamey. Also, the spicy, tomato-based sauce had a delicious, back-of-the-throat bite.

This “try before you buy” approach with every customer is simply what they do here. “From day one, we’ve always done the tasting,” Thompson says. “And the reason we do that is because people don’t realize what it’s supposed to taste like … unless you’ve been to Cajun country.” New Orleans, he adds, is more about Creole cooking.

The tasting tradition is part of their commitment to customer satisfaction. “Good service doesn’t cost a thing,” Thompson says. “People take the time to drive from Montgomery or Birmingham—people come from all over to eat—they need good food and good service and a good place to sit down and enjoy it.” 

Uncle Mick is a Cajun ambassador of sorts. He’s the friendly guy with the gray ponytail walking around the restaurant greeting people and posing for photos with some.  His restaurant’s website has a Cajun FAQ section to explain dishes and guide pronunciations. It’s all to gently educate and encourage folks who might be unfamiliar with Cajun cuisine beyond gumbo. 

“People hear about Cajun … and think, ‘heat, it’s too hot’ Tabasco and all that,” Thompson says. “But Cajun is all about flavor. You can be flavorful without the heat. You can’t just put heat in there and call it Cajun.”

Here’s another cool thing they do at Uncle Mick’s:  You can order cups or bowls of the gumbo and other dishes as well as small or large plates of entrees and sides. And you can get two different entrees on both the small and large plates. It’s a good approach when there are so many great choices. 

Everything—from the Louisiana-style entrees to the country-cooking sides like lima beans, cucumber salad, field peas, deviled eggs and the absolutely delicious cornbread—is made from scratch. There’s regular potato salad and a Cajun version. Thompson says he knows the folks who visit from Louisiana because they want their gumbo served over potato salad. Desserts range from caramel cake to pecan pie; some are made in house, others come from Yesteryears (another of Uncle Mick’s businesses) a few doors down. 

The restaurant’s dining areas (a front room, a long hallway and a light-filled back room) are almost as much a draw as the food. 

The spaces are filled with a wide variety of items Thompson has collected:  antiques (including a wood fragment of the Eagle and Phenix dam on the Chattahoochee River that dates to the late 1800s); paintings from regional artists; taxidermy birds, fish, foxes, squirrels, raccoons, deer and a bobcat; several framed wildlife conservation certificates; Mardi Gras beads and a vintage Second Line photograph; Alabama tourism posters; and architectural elements including a stunning stained glass window from a New Orleans church that Thompson had custom set in iron so he could hang it from the beadboard ceiling of the front room. 

People come to Uncle Mick’s in Prattville from all over the state and beyond. The nearby military base brings in customers, so does the Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail. “Golfers come here from all over the country,” Thompson says, “all over the world.” They play golf, and they eat gumbo.

The restaurant caters; sells roux as well as its own house-made hot sauce; and does a brisk business in to-go items in pint, quart and (with a little notice) gallon quantities.

Of course, the pandemic delt the restaurant a blow; but regular, loyal customers have kept the place going with take-out and, now, socially distanced in-person dining.  

“Back in March of last year when the whole thing started,” Gregg says, “we dropped 60% pretty much overnight, which was a very, very scary experience going from increasing business every year to all of a sudden your business is just pretty much non-existent.

“With our set-up, we were able to very quickly transition into to-go (orders), and being such a small town … we had a lot of community behind us. They were making sure that the small businesses were getting what they needed, customer-wise, to be able to make it through what was going on.” 

Uncle Mick’s customers, Gregg says, range from blue collar to professionals. “I’ve had Riley Green come in and eat, and the mayor of the town comes in all the time. The (Alabama) Secretary of State was in here a couple weeks ago. And it’s a lot of families; I love being able to see them come in.”

When Thompson and Gregg were worried about losing income from the holiday parties that usually book the back room during all of December, the Fountain City became a Christmas lights destination. “People came from everywhere to look at our Christmas lights downtown,” Gregg says. That influx of new business helped offset those holiday parties lost to COVID-19 restrictions. 

Thompson says he’s happy about the consistency (in product and in personnel) he’s had over the past 12 years. There’s very little turnover with the Uncle Mick’s staff. “I treat my people fair and treat them good,” he says. “We’re like a family.”

Gregg says she’s proud of her father and what he’s been able to accomplish with his life’s second act. 

“He has taken something that we didn’t know what was going to happen when we first opened the doors to something that is amazing and talked about all through town and talked about all over the state and talked about in other states. … I am proud of taking this community and making it part of our family and getting to know all these people.”

Uncle Mick’s Cajun Market & Café

136 West Main Street

Prattville, AL 36067

www.unclemickscajun.com

(334) 361-1020

Hours

Lunch served Monday through Saturday from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. 

Dinner served Tuesday through Thursday from 5 to 7 p.m. and Friday and Saturday from 5 to 8:30 p.m.

Closed Sunday

Celebrating Girls with GirlSpring

Friends,

I am on the host committee of GirlSpring’s Winter Party. GirlSpring was founded by my friend Jane Stephens Comer in 2010, and its mission is to empower girls by giving them access to accurate information, inspiring events, and positive female role models.

Their largest program is https://www.girlspring.com, an online magazine run and managed by GirlSpring’s teen leadership group, the Springboarders. Girls use the digital platform to create content and express themselves via blog-style articles, videos, poetry, and artwork on the topics they feel most passionate about, and as a way to connect with peers in Alabama and across the globe!

On average, 15,000 girls per month visit the website and now, with a newly launched app, we anticipate even more girls will be reached! Their website and app have been a wonderful space for girls to stay connected, even when schools were closed and in-person contact wasn’t possible.

Instead of GirlSpring’s annual Winter Party, in the spirit of safety, this year will be a “grazing box and wine delivery” direct to your door! Each grazing box and wine package feeds 2 people and comes with a specially created music playlist!

I hope you’ll consider supporting GirlSpring this year by clicking here!

XOXO,

Susan

Hand-sewn masks

Back in mid-January, we got two weeks’ worth of pasta, beans and canned tomatoes. For Valentine’s Day, I gave my kids the usual heart-shaped box of chocolates along with some disinfecting wipes and their choice of lavender- or lemon-scented spray hand sanitizer. I thought I was prepared.

But then masks.

photo from WBAP.com

It is nearly impossible to get them now, so I decided to make them. I started with the New York Times’ pattern, which took a while. I made one with that. Next, I moved on to an easier pattern with a pocket for a filter from See Kate Sew.

But now, even fabric is hard to come by. I placed an order with JoAnn only to get one email after another saying, “Uh oh! Items from your order have been canceled.”

Then I came across this blog post from Free People about repurposing old clothing into homemade face masks.

That post was inspired by Becky Vieira, a super mom who created the website Masks For Heroes — pretty much overnight — in an effort to streamline support for making and acquiring masks, surgical grade and fabric alike.

As Becky says: “While cloth masks don’t offer full protection when dealing with COVID-19 patients, they serve other purposes: patients with less aggressive symptoms can wear them, freeing up Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) for health care workers, or they can be used as a covering for used N95 masks since, in some cases, many health care workers are having to reuse the same mask for up to five days.”

Visit Becky’s site to find an easy pattern as well as a list of nearby medical facilities in need of masks. In Alabama, Grandview Medical Center in Birmingham, Southern Family Health in Columbiana and Cahaba Medical Care in Centerville are listed.

Closer to home, there’s the Facebook group bham face masks. They are making masks by the thousands and offer practice tips and troubleshooting for participants.

The mask from the Free People blog is super easy. This DIY hand-sewn mask is made with elastic hair ties and whatever fabric you have around the house … even, perhaps, a shirt or skirt you no longer wear.

DIY Hand-Sewn Mask

You’ll need:

Needle & thread (or sewing machine if you have one)

Two elastic bands 

One 10-by-18-inch piece of new or freshly-washed fabric 

*NOTE: Most departments of health suggest that masks be made from two layers of tightly woven 100% cotton fabric.

Begin by folding your fabric in half along its longer edge, so that it measures 5 x 9 inches. Make sure that, if your fabric has a pattern, the pattern is on the inside. 

Take your needle and thread and sew along the long, open side of the fabric (a simple running stitch will work). You’re essentially creating a small tube, with two openings on each of the shorter sides.

Once sewn, turn the fabric inside out so that the stitches sit on the inside.

Take an elastic band and insert it around the cloth on the short side. Fold about 1” of cloth over the rubber band and sew along the length of that side, making a casing for the band so it fits securely in place. Repeat for the other side and, voila! You’ve made a mask! And best of all, you’ve played a definitive part in helping to safeguard yourself and the community around you. 

Here’s a link to a video showing you how it’s done.

(A shout-out to Free People: The retailer is partnering with Goldsheep, an LA-based factory that normally produces FP Movement leggings. They are producing masks that will be donated throughout the medical community.)

Finally, of course, here’s the simple bandana mask that requires no needle or thread–only a bandana and two hair ties.

Remember that social distancing is still key to staying safe–even with a mask.

My Favorite (Game-Changing) Hair Tool

My older daughter told me about the Revlon One-Step Hair Dryer and Volumizer Hot Air Brush when I was recovering from shoulder surgery recently. Blowouts at Blo Blow Dry Bar in Homewood were awesome (love that head massage!) but I couldn’t do that every week.

But even with very limited range of motion (happy to say I’m better now!), I was able to use this brush-dryer combo to get smooth and sleek, yet still full, results. It really is an amazing product.

And now that most of us are spending more time at home anyway, this is a good item to have on hand.

While I’m all about supporting local stores, most are not open now so you can order it from Amazon here.

But when all this is over, I encourage you to visit my friends at Blo. They do a really great job and it’s such a treat!

Virtual Dance Party

I miss my friends (and the energy!) of The Bike Room at Ignite Cycle at Pepper Place. Often I was the oldest rider in the room, but that never mattered. We all become equal on those bikes, riding for ourselves and, recently, for each other.

Also, I loved, loved, loved going to class there with my grown kids!

It really is a wonderful, welcoming community. It’s a giving community, too. They share their fantastic setlists on the Ignite Cycle website, and when I’m not in The Bike Room, I use those sometimes as running playlists.

In an effort to reach out and lift up, the Ignite team is hosting virtual dance parties Monday-Friday and on Saturdays, too. Over the last two nights, more than 500 people joined in!

One participant left this message on Ignite’s Instagram: “as I danced alone, all that weird lonely energy that had been building up all day melted away. your INCREDIBLE vibes filled me to the brim with joy and gave me the motivation to keep going. I’m grateful to wake up today and to have something *totally stress-free* to look forward to🖤”

If you want to dance along with the uber-cool Ignite girls, tune into their IG Live for a 45 minute set from @djkallima Monday through Friday at 5:15 p.m. and Saturday at noon. It’s easy. Go to their Instagram at the appropriate time, and click on the profile picture and watch the live video.

It’s free. They say: “Community is too important for us to charge for it at a time it’s hard to find 🖤

The lyrics will be CLEAN … they know some people have “little ears” at home. Go on; dance with your fam!

It’s easy. Just hop on IG Live and get on the digital dance floor. Maybe you FaceTime with some friends, and it really does become a party.

Meanwhile, connect with the Ignite team @ignitecyclebhm on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter.

Fresh, Bright Flavors at the Wildflower Cafe

Over the years, Wildflower Café has become a dining destination in Mentone, which is, of course, its own awesome destination atop Lookout Mountain.

I traveled to Mentone recently for Alabama NewsCenter to spotlight this unique restaurant. You can read the entire story here.

Café owner Laura Catherine Moon (just “Moon” to everyone she knows and meets) is as much of a draw as the regionally famous tomato pie or the carefully curated small general store with handmade art and crafts or the eclectically furnished, hippy-chic dining rooms or the colorful, peaceful wildflower garden surrounding the 1800s log cabin that houses the café and store.

Moon has owned Wildflower Café for more than a decade, but she never really intended to go into the restaurant business.

“It’s true,” she says. “I didn’t mean to.” She had owned several shops in and around Mentone throughout the years. One of them was a natural health food store called Mountain Life. “I sold organic produce and natural foods,” she says. “I sold herbs and my herbal blends. It was a store for wellness. It was sort of a convenience health food store up on the mountain.” Whenever the produce would start to wilt, she would think to herself:  “Well, if I could just cook it, then people could know just how good this food is.”

About this time, the Wildflower Café became available for purchase after being open for about a year. Moon first wanted to team up with the café’s chef, thinking he could run the restaurant and she would run her store. When he left three months later, she stepped up.

“I never even worked in a restaurant before I owned this one,” she says. “So it was a huge challenge to learn the ins and outs and the ropes and how to do it. And it just turned out that I’m really good at it.”

People come up from Birmingham and Montgomery to visit the café; they drive down from Nashville and Chattanooga. They travel over from Douglasville and Atlanta.

They come to Wildflower Café for the grilled or blackened wild-caught salmon and trout; the gourmet chicken salad with grapes and almonds; the big Canyon Burger made with freshly ground sirloin and filet; grilled chicken smothered with sautéed onions, bell peppers, honey-mustard sauce and cheeses; the prime rib with its crust of cracked peppercorns and spices (all these meats are hormone-free); angel hair pasta with a flavorful strawberry-balsamic sauce (there’s a vegan version of this dish, too); and signature shrimp and grits made with polenta. They come for hummingbird cake and old-fashioned chess pie and homemade crepes filled with sweet cream cheese and topped with house-fresh strawberry puree. And a great many of them come for the savory, cheesy tomato pie, which is so popular that Moon also offers a tomato pie wrap, a tomato pie salad, a tomato pie burger and a loaded tomato pie entrée (vegetarian and not).

A few words about this famous tomato pie:  It is worth any drive. Ripe, roma tomatoes are cooked down to sweetness and marinated in balsamic vinaigrette. Some cheddar and mozzarella and a beautifully flaky crust make it completely delicious.

Moon relies on area farmers for lots of her fresh ingredients like the humanely raised pork and poultry from Mildred’s Meadows Farm or fresh tomatoes, squash, corn, herbs and lettuces from The Farm at Windy Hill, Mountain Sun Farm and Feel Good Farm. “Nena’s (Produce and General Store), in the valley down here, carries some of the local farmers’ stuff,” she says. “So I’ll go down and buy from her as well.”

She brings local musicians to Wildflower on Fridays, Saturdays, Sundays and sometimes Thursdays. The country store is a gallery of local and regional arts and crafts:  clothing, wood crafts, jewelry, soaps, pottery, paintings, candles, music, books, foods like honey and jams and organic chocolates and Moon’s own natural lip balms and skincare (when she has the time to harvest the ingredients).

Moon says she’d like for customers to tell other people that “they came here and had an amazing experience and that the staff was friendly, the food was great and they just felt good when they were here. That’s what I want them to say,” she says. “And that the Wildflower is a great complement to Mentone. That would be a huge compliment to me, because Mentone is one of my favorite places on the planet. No matter where I’ve ever traveled, Mentone is the best.”

Wildflower Café

6007 Alabama Highway 117

Mentone, AL 35984

256-634-0066

http://www.mentonewildflower.com

Reservations are highly suggested for dinner and must be made by phone at 256-634-0066 or in person.  The café does not take reservations for lunch or Sunday brunch.

Hours:  Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday
Lunch 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. General Store open 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.

Thursday, Friday, Saturday
Lunch  11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Dinner 4 to 8 p.m.
General Store open 10 a.m. to 9 p.m.

Sunday
Brunch 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. General Store open 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.

(On holiday weekends, the restaurant closes at 6 p.m.; call and check before you visit.)

Art Alive!

AIDS Alabama brings together local artists to create art and opportunities through an art auction with a real-time twist.

AIDS Alabama does serious work, but the fundraisers this organization puts on tend to be lots of fun.

On the heels of April’s successful Dining Out for Life, when AIDS Alabama teamed up with local restaurants like Bottega Café and Chez Lulu for a day of giving, AIDS Alabama presents its 3rd Annual Art Alive!

Art Alive! is set for Saturday, July 27 from 6 to 9 p.m. at Canary Gallery  (2201 Second Ave. N. in downtown Birmingham). Guests can watch eight local artists create original artwork—ranging from abstracts to more realistic pieces—during the event. These works will be available that evening through a silent auction.

Tickets are $50 each. There will be foods from El Barrio Restaurante Y Bar, a friend to AIDS Alabama that also participated in Dining Out for Life; complimentary beer from Cahaba Brewing Company; and wine from International Wines & Craft Beer. Matthew Carroll Band will entertain the crowd.

The silent auction is an exciting focal point for this event, but people other than the winning bidders can go home with new art, too. Several previously completed works in the artists’ gallery will be available for immediate purchase.

Art Alive! featured artists include:

“We are so grateful to our talented and extremely generous featured artists,” says Caroline Bundy, director of development for AIDS Alabama. “To have the opportunity to actually watch these artists as they create their work is a thrill, especially considering the different methods each uses to create their own individual piece. You don’t want to miss this fun and unique event!”

Fundraising like Art Alive! allows AIDS Alabama to devote more of its energy and resources statewide, helping those with HIV/AIDS live healthy, independent lives and working to prevent the spread of HIV.

Right now, there are more than 14,000 Alabamians living with HIV/AIDS, Bundy says, and, according to the Centers for Disease Control, Alabama ranks 11th in the nation for new HIV diagnoses.

AIDS Alabama works tirelessly to meet the needs of Alabama’s HIV-positive population, providing safe, affordable housing to low-income people living with HIV in Alabama. Additionally, AIDS Alabama’s prevention education and outreach efforts provide free and confidential HIV screening, accurate HIV information and links to care for thousands across the state

There have been many important medical advances that make HIV manageable as a chronic disease, Bundy says, but HIV rates in the South remain high and within epidemic proportions, making AIDS Alabama’s prevention, transportation, mental health and housing services more vital than ever.

For more information and to purchase tickets, click here, or go to www.aidsalabama.org.

Summer Edit Part 3: Beauty and the Beach

I have a couple of friends with whom I routinely share beauty tips and news about clever, effective products. It’s funny, really. These women are highly successful professionals, truly amazing at what they do and I know them mainly in a business sort of way. But when one of us finds something good to slather, dab or spray upon ourselves, we always are ready to share it with each other.

And why not crowdsource this sort of thing in between all the important stuff? I think it’s a lovely thing to do.

So, in order to share that love … here’s a look inside my summer travel bag. These are some of the products I took with me to the beach where minimalism is the key, sunscreen is highly important and looking good is as effortless as possible.

This sunscreen from Supergoop! is something my daughter Allison shared with me. It’s a light, lightly scented (sort of citrus) mousse that just melts into your skin. It has shea butter to moisturize and blue sea kale for antioxidants. I use it on my face, neck and chest, and a little goes a long way. Note that it’s SPF 50. I don’t go for anything less.

I love to multitask, and OUAI Haircare Rose Hair & Body Oil is a great double-duty kind of product. I use a few drops to smooth the ends of my hair. I rub a little into my skin (hello, shoulders!) for hydration and a subtle bit of sheen. And it smells amazing, so it works as a summer-perfect perfume, too.

This Essie Treat Love & Color ultra sheer nail polish in Tonal taupe is my go-to for beach nails. I don’t have to worry about chips because I really can’t see them! It’s just a little wash of color, and I swear my nails are better for wearing it. Tinted Love is another great almost-not-even-there shade.

I picked up this rollerball of Persian Rose fragrance from Pacifica at Target right before my trip. I wanted something light and a little different. This is it:  floral and a tiny bit smoky. And at only $12, perfect for tossing in a travel bag. It’s TSA friendly, too. The description mentions the Persian poet Rumi. I can’t remember the last time I had a Rumi-inspired impulse buy.

I keep a jar of Aveda stress-fix Body Cream on my bedside table. I carry a smaller jar everywhere I go. The certified organic lavender, lavandin and clary sage are proven to reduce stress. Also, the aroma reminds me to breathe deeply. That surely can’t hurt.

This is how I clean up at the end of the day. Derma-E Anti Wrinkle Scrub has marine plant extracts, vitamin A, glycolic acid, apricot seed powder and papaya to smooth and really, really exfoliate. Another multitasking product!

As I get older, I’ve become a fan of facial oils. I believe I got a sample of True Moringa Pure Moringa Simplicity Facial Oil in one of my Birchbox shipments. Or maybe Allison gave it to me. In any case, it’s made with 100% pure, cold-pressed moringa oil, which is great for moisturizing after a day of sand and surf. True Moringa works directly with a network of 1,600 smallholder farmers throughout Ghana providing sustainable livelihoods through access to credit, agricultural training, nutrition programs, and fair wages. So there’s that, too.

Finally, a product called Captain Blankenship Mermaid Sea Salt Hair Spray almost screams to go on a beach trip. I spray it onto damp hair and scrunch. It’s made with Atlantic sea salt (for after I wash out the Gulf of Mexico sea salt) as well as organic aloe vera and sea kelp and essential oils of geranium and palmarosa. Because beachy waves should smell nice.

44 Hours (approximately) in Asheville, NC

I love sharing Birmingham with friends. I love just as much when friends share their own special places with me–opening my eyes to something I don’t see every day.

My husband, Rick, and I recently spent about 44 hours in Asheville, North Carolina, with our friends April and Sid and Bob and Tondee. April was the resident expert, and she curated a trip that was food-focused, art-centered and absolutely awesome. April clearly delighted in doing this, and she’s incredibly good at it! We left town after our long weekend having seen and done (and tasted) so much. I am grateful beyond measure, and I’d like to share some of April’s favorite things. You’re going to want to take a road trip.

FRIDAY NIGHT

We arrived at Sid and April’s home, stopped briefly to unload our bags and enjoy a glass of rose and then headed to Gan Shan Station for dinner. Patrick O’Cain (he’s the tall one you’ll see behind the chef’s counter) was born and raised in North Asheville. He spent time in the kitchens of Asheville’s Curate and McCrady’s restaurant in Charleston, South Carolina. He left McCrady’s and opened Charleston’s Xiao Bao Biscuit as sous-chef. Then he returned home to his own dreams and opened a restaurant in the neighborhood where he grew up. Gan Shan Station is in an old gas station in North Asheville. The open, airy place is named for Sunset Mountain where Patrick spent his childhood.

April arranged for the chef’s table tasting menu, and it was a stunning mix of Southern foods and Asian flavors–and clever drink pairings from around the world. Sichuan salt and pepper tofu (a table favorite even with people who don’t like tofu) was paired with a cocktail made of mezcal; whole flounder, sprinkled with fresh flowers and herbs and served over crispy Laotian rice, came with a Tuscan white. A miso-glazed pork chop with pickled blackberries and buttermilk dressing was paired with a French merlot. Six people fell in love with Sichuan pepper that night.

Gan Shan Station

143 Charlotte Street

Asheville, NC  28801

828-774-5280
info@ganshanstation.com

Monday through Saturday 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m., closed on Sunday

SATURDAY

We started our day at Hole Doughnuts with cooked-to-order, served-hot-y’all doughnuts and great coffee roasted at the nearby PennyCup Coffee Co. At Hole, the yeasty dough is rolled out by hand, right in front of you. The doughnut varieties change all the time, but expect them to be glazed, dipped or sprinkled as you watch. Our doughnuts were crisp on the outside, wonderfully fluffy inside with vanilla glaze; a seasonal topping of hand-crushed wineberries; a dusting of cinnamon and sugar; and a crunchy, slightly savory topping of almonds, toasted sesame seeds and cinnamon.

Hole Doughnuts

168 Haywood Road

Asheville, NC 28806

(828) 774-5667

7:30 am – 2:00pm, Closed Tuesday

We spent the rest of the morning walking through the River Arts District where converted warehouses and industrial buildings along the French Broad River house studios for all kinds of artists. We looked at Cheyenne Trunnel‘s dreamy acrylic, pencil and watercolor landscapes and talked with Cindy Walton about her contemporary oil and cold wax paintings.

We were delighted with what we found at Splurge. Artist Robert Nicholas is collecting eclectic antiques and vintage objects and creating awesome things for his gift shop. What we loved: pendant lights made of huge commercial mixing-bowl attachments (whisks, paddles), mirrors surrounded by industrial floor-polishing brushes (I have a wall waiting for one of those, and you can see them here), chandeliers made of wire and wood.

Next stop:  Lexington Glassworks, where we saw a demonstration and bought a few colorful things.

For lunch, April guided us to Chai Pani with its Indian street food by two-time James Beard Foundation nominee for Best Chef Southeast Meherwan Irani. The self-taught Irani also owns a Chai Pani in Decatur, GA, as well as Botiwalla, a traditional tea and kabab place.  He teamed up with Chef Elliott Moss (another James Beard Best Chef Southeast nominee) to open Buxton Hall BBQ  in Asheville’s South Slope area. Buxton Hall features wood-smoked, whole-hog barbecue, Low-Country dishes, Southern favorites, seasonal pies and a daily slushy. Irani also owns MG ROAD Bar & Lounge and a Spicewalla spice store, both located near Asheville’s Chai Pani. Spicewalla spices are sourced, selected and blended by Irani. Some of these spices are available (along with cool t-shirts) at Chai Pani.

During our lunch, we enjoyed butter chicken thali with marinated Joyce Farms chicken; uttapam (savory crepes made of rice and lentil batter) with corn, peas, onion, cilantro, curry leaf, ginger and hot peppers; and (our surprise favorite) crispy masala fish roll with cumin, lime, chili powder, ginger and garlic in hot-buttered naan.

Chai Pani

22 Battery Park Avenue

Asheville, NC 28801

828-254-4003

info@chaipani.net

Monday to Thursday 11:30–3:30 / 5:00-9:30
Friday and Saturday 11:30–3:30 / 5:30-10:00
Sunday 12:00–3:30 / 5:00-9:30

 

We shopped at Nest Organics for vintage-feeling, Asheville-themed dish towels made of flour sacks, and we ducked into Asheville’s own East Fork Pottery because we had so admired the beautiful stoneware on our table at Gan Shan Station the night before.

 

SATURDAY NIGHT
For dinner, we headed to Nightbell for some shared small plates and (individual!) craft cocktails. Executive chef and owner Katie Button serves dishes made with local Appalachian ingredients in the intriguing setting of a former nightclub (you’ll notice the colorful disco lights here and there). Katie was a semi-finalist for the James Beard Foundation Rising Star Chef award in 2012 and 2013 and a nominee in 2014, semi-finalist for Best Chefs in America in 2015 and a nominee for the JBF Best Chef Southeast award in 2018. She was one of Food & Wine magazine’s Best New Chefs of 2015, and she hosted an international television series, The Best Chefs in the World.
Katie and company source ingredients mostly from small, local farms, and a nose-to-tail butchery program, in partnership with her Cúrate, has them serving sustainable (often lesser-known) cuts. Nightbell gets its name from the days when guests rang the “nightbell” for entrance after 5.
What we loved:  the “deviled eggs,” which are an airy mix of corn sabayon, sunburst smoked trout gravlax and pimenton in an egg cup (certainly like no other deviled egg we’ve ever had); brown butter skillet cornbread with chicken butter and seasonal jams; grilled baby beets with bresaola, puffed Carolina gold rice and béarnaise yogurt; seared scallops with roasted sweet potato, sour corn and dashi; and house-made French fries with rocket sauce.
Nightbell
32 South Lexington Avenue
Asheville, NC 28801
828-575-0375
Open at 5 p.m. Tuesday to Sunday
Closed Mondays
SUNDAY
Before heading home, we went to Limones for brunch. This cozy, downtown restaurant specializes in Mexican and California cuisine.
We shared a plate of lobster nachos with crema, guacamole and Serrano peppers to start. Other favorite dishes highlighted the inventiveness of this kitchen and included roasted fennel and organic snap pea slaw enchiladas with mole Amarillo, chipotle rice, crema, guacamole, queso fresco and pickled onion; huevos divorciados with chipotle rice, bacon, refried beans, queso fresco and avocado; and smoked chipotle chilaquiles with two eggs, epazote, refried beans, crema, queso, pico de gallo and Southern farm bacon.
If you go, begin with the awesome bloody Mary or the Basil Refrescante (Oronoco rum, muddled basil, fresh lemon juice and simple syrup) or a peach-chipotle margarita (Patron Reposado, Patron Citronge, fresh lime juice and house-made peach-chipotle puree).
And you must end the meal with a cup of anise-scented hot chocolate served with the best churros ever!

Limones

13 Eagle Street

Asheville, NC 28801

828-252-2327

Monday through Sunday 5 to 10 p.m.

Sunday brunch 10:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.

 

We made one more stop before we left–a quick trip into Mast General Store for some last-minute souvenirs:  postcards, local honey and a black bear-shaped cookie cutter. Perfect! That cookie cutter is going to my dear friend Maria who lives in Germany and makes amazing sweets. The postcards already have arrived, she told me.

April, thank you for a wonderful weekend … and for helping me share the love and your special place!

Come to the Table

When women help other women succeed, good things happen. Tasty things do, too.

This year, $10,000 in scholarships and awards from a group of women leaders in our food community will help four college students pursue their food-science studies, three high schools better serve their culinary-arts students, Jones Valley Teaching Farm connect with more kids, and entrepreneur Nancey Legg grow her business and make more kombucha.

The Birmingham chapter of Les Dames d’Escoffier International (LDEI), a philanthropic organization of women leaders in food, beverage and hospitality, awarded its $3,000 2018 New Entrepreneur Award to Legg, who owns better kombucha. Jones Valley Teaching Farm received the $2,000 Non-Profit Organization Award.  The Birmingham chapter gave four $1,000 college scholarships this year; recipients were Rebecca Klang from Jefferson State Community College; Hope Etheridge and Sydney Smith, both of whom are majoring in dietetics at Samford University; and Ally Cound, an Auburn University nutrition major. And three high school teachers—Lauren Bolding, Albertville High School; Melissa Allphin, Moody High School; and Diann Pilgrim, Wenonah High School, Birmingham City Schools—shared a $1,000 teachers’ grant.

Read the entire story here on Alabama NewsCenter.

Then join in. Southern Soiree is the main vehicle for the Les Dames philanthropy.  It’s an al fresco, sunset dinner with wine and cocktails in the gardens of Jones Valley Teaching Farm.

Consider yourself invited.

This year the event will be October 7 from 4:30 to 7:30 p.m., and scholarship and grant recipients will be recognized there.

You can get tickets here.