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By The Way
Detours with locals. Travel tips you can trust.
Aloo tiki chaat and the matchstick okra fries at Chai Pani. (Photographs by Tim Robison for The Washington Post)

The latest hot food destination is nestled in the Blue Ridge Mountains

Asheville has become a can’t-miss culinary city with spots serving Indian street snacks and summer camp-inspired food

ASHEVILLE, N.C. — Growing up, I was lucky enough to spend many magical summers exploring the beauty of the Blue Ridge Mountains of western North Carolina. I hiked through mossy forests, overturning stones in clear streams to look for slippery newts, and screaming as I slid down slick rocks into pools of cold river water. In the summer, the area is full of sleepaway camps, for good reason as the temperate summer weather means that you can dine outside without breaking a sweat.

What sweetens the deal even more is the culinary renaissance happening in Asheville today. The city has award-winning restaurants sitting just blocks apart and homegrown chefs making national headlines. The local tourism board has leaned in and nicknamed the town “Foodtopia,” and they’re not wrong. At last year’s James Beard Awards, two of the town’s restaurants earned top prizes. Yelp recently named Asheville the top Foodie City in the U.S.

Sticky rice meets Southern hospitality at Buddhist temple festivals

There must be something in that delicious spring water, because Asheville is now a can’t-miss travel destination for anyone who loves to dine out.

Down-home breakfast at Benne on Eagle

35 Eagle St.

Shrimp and grits is an almost mandatory dish on menus across the South, especially in the Carolinas, but there’s a big difference between a good version and a mediocre one. Chef Robert Alexander’s take at Benne on Eagle is not just good but excellent. Located on the ground floor of the Foundry Hotel, the restaurant highlights Asheville’s African American history in a mural of the historically Black area called “The Block” and an emphasis on the flavors of America’s Black foodways. Alexander, who took over the kitchen last July, adds andouille sausage to grits, lending the dish a smoky flavor that pairs well with a mimosa.

Elevated street snacks at Chai Pani

22 Battery Park Ave.

The most outstanding restaurant in America, according to the James Beard Foundation, is an Indian street-snack spot in Asheville. Chai Pani is dripping in orange marigolds and inspired by the chaat shops that make up a typical Indian street food scene. The kitchen, helmed by five-time James Beard nominated chef Meherwan Irani, excels at weaving together texture and spice. That forte is exemplified by dishes like sev potato dahi puri, little puff balls filled with yogurt and chutneys, and side plates like lime-seasoned crunchy matchstick okra fries. As an added bonus, you can purchase herbs and spices from Irani’s Spicewalla brand to take home, like garam masala or chai-spiced hot chocolate.

Fine dining at Neng Jr.’s

701 Haywood Rd., Suite 102

The 17-seat Neng Jr.’s is hidden up a stairway in what locals refer to as “walkable West Asheville,” offering a delightful, quirky escape from the stuffiness of a typical fine-dining experience. The tiny restaurant has grabbed foodies’ attention since opening last year: Eater named it last year’s Best New Carolinas Restaurant, and Esquire Magazine called it one of the best new restaurants in the country.

Chef Silver Iocovozzi draws inspiration from their Filipina mother, as tasted in dishes like Filipino spring rolls called lumpia or creamy, fire-roasted Chinese eggplant. Their husband and partner, Cherry Iocovozzi, is the restaurant’s wine manager and a remarkably proficient server, patiently interpreting the beguiling menu for guests and guiding diners toward standout cocktails like the pandan daiquiri or the adobo martini.

Bar bites at Cúrate Tapas Bar

13 Biltmore Ave.

This sprawling tapas bar located in the thick of things in Asheville is hard to miss, thanks to the buzz around the door for hard-to-snag reservations. The clambering is thanks to upscale Spanish plates crafted under the leadership of entrepreneur and chef Katie Button, such as skewers of anchovies, calatrava olives and Spanish piparra peppers, or bits of eggplant fried and sweetened that taste like funnel cake. The wait staff helps pair dishes with sparkling sangrias and hard-to-find sherries from Andalusia, leading the restaurant to win the coveted outstanding hospitality prize at the James Beard Awards last year.

Cocktails and records at Session at Citizen Vinyl

14 O’Henry Ave.

If your idea of happy hour involves clinking ice cubes while dancing around a vintage record player, (think “Mad Men”) then Session bar at Citizen Vinyl is probably your heaven. The small bar is located inside one of the few remaining record presses in operation in America, which itself is located inside the building that once housed the area’s newspaper. Take a free tour of the record press, shop the racks, and then pick up a craft cocktail at Session, which Esquire magazine has named one of the best bars in the country. The bar isn’t open late, so come by for a lunch. The menu changes but you’ll find dishes like pork sliders, smoked rainbow trout or French dip sandwiches, and a coffee-infused creation, like the cafecito, which combines cappuccino foam with rye and mole bitters.

Summer camp vibes at Burial Beer Company’s Forestry Camp Taproom

10 Shady Oak Dr.

This part of North Carolina is known for its breweries and its summer camps, and those worlds collide over the wooden decks of a defunct camp, now known as Forestry Camp. The restaurant inside Burial Beer Company’s taproom is located on the southeastern edge of Asheville, near the famous Biltmore Mansion. There, spicy Korean gochujang-glazed chicken wings and standout french fries accompany craft beer in a kid-friendly setting.

Sims is a writer and travel consultant based in Louisiana and Texas. Her website is Find her on Twitter and Instagram: @shannongsims.

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