Meeting the Mountains

Blue Ridge Parkway

A view from the Blue Ridge Parkway

It might seem as though we’ve fallen off the face of the Earth since moving to Asheville, but the opposite is closer to the truth.  We’ve become more attached to it – spending weekends exploring the wrinkles of its surface through the mountains and valleys of the Blue Ridge and taking time at least once a week to taste the local food that defines this place.

Our favorite hilly hikes start from the Folk Art Center on the Blue Ridge Parkway.  From here you can walk North or South.  I say walk because even when I start out at a run, I need to walk at least one of the hills.  The further we go, the higher the hills climb, so I’ve quickly learned that a hill only seems daunting until you encounter the next one.  We’ve repeatedly renamed the “Big Hill,” as we venture further along the trail.

Graveyard Fields sign

Sign leading into Graveyard Fields

For a less strenuous climb, but an equally challenging foot terrain with several substantial creeks, I recommend Graveyard Fields.  We found this spot along the Blue Ridge Parkway south of Asheville, although several other overlooks tempted us along the way.  The parking lot here filled with cars, for a good reason: it’s a great family hike, suitable for young children or the furry ones in your pack.  Georgia loves the chance to sniff along the flat terrain while keeping us within her sight, and the waterfall at the end of the out-and-back trail made us human hikers happy. It was much cooler here than the surrounding area, so pack for a chilly atmosphere and the possibility of plunging into the water.

For those looking for a wider hiking path, we recommend a trip to the North Carolina Arboretum. Within a week of moving here, we became members, swayed by the parking fee ($8 a car, but free for members) and the foliage.  The gravelled roads traverse the entire 434 acres, with 10 miles of hiking and biking trails. Each is clearly marked for bikers, though some are designated foot-traffic only. Leashed dogs are welcome and a common site on weekends, and the trails lead into the surrounding areas, including a loop around Lake Powhatan.

After all this hiking, we definitely worked up an appetite, so here’s the short list of our favorite fare so far:

  • Homegrown does slow food right quick. Their sandwiches can’t be beat, and their ingredients are local and fresh.  And with sweet tea for just a $1, it can easily rival more common fast food restaurants that boast this same special. The dining area extends the homey feel, with several rooms and an outdoor porch to choose from.
  • Corner Kitchen is another hometown option, with an everlasting line of customers extending out the front door of the 1890s house in Biltmore Village. The flanking shops provide plenty of distraction during the wait, and the food is worth it.
  • Downtown can do no wrong when it comes to restaurants. From oversized burritos at Mamacita’s to sushi at Wasabi, we’ve found something for every taste.  Of course, there’s also the more well-known Tupelo Honey Cafe which draws its crowds with the tempting biscuits, honey, and jam, and the equally packed neighbor Mayfel’s, which is a great stop for a burger.

The Great Sandwich Debate

Taylor Gourmet

A well-lit meal at Taylor Gourmet

In honor of the Superbowl and Subway’s Februany month (where all of their footlong subs are a mere $5), I’ve recently engaged in a variety of sandwich eating endeavors.  Though Subway makes a fine, and by all accounts expected, sub, there are some other great sandwich shops in D.C.  My friend, Ashley, reviewed one for Borderstan, so when I found myself near the Taylor Gourmet after the D.C. Auto Show, I knew I had to try it.  The Cherry Street roast beef, brie, and arugula sub was  more than I could eat, literally. With meat piled high, it barely fit into my mouth, and as Ashley suggested, I easily had a half for lunch the next day.  Not only was this cost effective, but it made my co-workers jealous as well.

However, even after this delicious experience, I’m still partial to a closer and perhaps less well-known sandwich shop – Jetties near the Georgetown campus. Tucked away on Foxhall Road, this mostly outdoor spot is a favorite of families with dogs and the occasional pundit, and the menu varies from a loaded breakfast sandwich to the essential comfort sandwich creation pulled straight from the Thanksgiving left0vers, but served year-round.  On a recent visit, I sampled The Dreamland, a great combination of turkey, brie, arugula and fig spread, which added a nice layer of sweetness.  The proportions are equally substantial, for about the same cost, and everything is served to go, though just like Taylor, the shop has a few tables for those who want to dine in.

Consider the sandwich challenge served.

Close to Home

Barbara Kingsolver and Steven Hopp might be nationally known for their book, Animal, Vegetable, Mineral, but closer to home they have a difficult time selling their ideas about living off of the land.  In the book, they chronicle a year-long mission to eat only what they grow or source locally in Meadowview, Va. This feat or feast is easy during this time of the year, when gardens are plentiful, but more daunting in the dead of winter.  I picked up a copy of the book a few years ago to find out what grows when on the family farm.  Though I stayed on the lookout for asparagus in early March and took my chances playing trick-or-treat with the persimmon tree after the first frost in October, it did not revolutionize my eating habits.

According to this New York Times article about Hopp’s locavore restaurant idea, their attempt to get locals to eat local hasn’t worked so well yet. That’s because of the price tag. When everyone has a garden rather than the more traditional paved and manicured curb appeal and a grandmother who can cook as good as any trained chef, they don’t need to fork over $15 for a “local” meal.  Going out to dinner means eating something that you wouldn’t fix at home, Chinese food, for example.

Coming from the city now, I would probably try the fare at The Harvest Table, if only for a taste of the ideal that Kingsolver and Hopp strive for.  Then I would drive to a favorite roadside burger stand to savor some homemade raspberry ice cream.  It’s seasonal as well, but for less than $2, it’s a treat that doesn’t have to boast about where it comes from.

Open City

I spent early Sunday morning at one of my favorite places in the city, aptly named Open City.  With outdoor eating areas, that fill up even on 100 degree days, and the unmistakably smell of fresh coffee, it beckons even from across the district.

Perhaps part of that calling came from the street performers, whose electric violin and bass rendition of Pachabel’s Canon greeted me before I emerged from the lengthy Woodley Park escalator.  I could hear the music almost to the front door of Open City, though the rhythmic sound of spoons stirring colorful mugs quickly drowned out other sounds.  Each cup of coffee comes with two animal crackers, and I added a Earl Gray muffin, which turned out to be not only delicious, but as flavorful as some of its more famous muffin-cousins.

This breakfast location provided the perfect counterpart to my morning reading, Who’s Your City, by Richard Florida, which explores the important of place within economics and as an individual choice. So far, D.C. has welcomed us with open doors.