I'll bet you a new pair of hiking boots the word "cuisine" isn't heard much in and around mountainous Ashe County. The northwesternmost corner of North Carolina, it has always attracted a few tourists who canoe-the-New (River) in summertime and choose-and-cut (trees) at Christmastime, but its landscape alone is reason enough to visit. At the first bend in the New River, you'll swear it's Tuscany, with orderly rows of dark shapely firs on grass-green hills. By the next turn you'll be conjuring Scotland, rocky moors and all.
Now the landscape is changing—the social landscape, that is. Next door in Watauga County, home of Boone and Blowing Rock, fancy housing developments are luring new folks from up and down the Eastern Seaboard. It has caught on over in Ashe County, where construction seems nonstop.
Let's table the inevitable pro- and anti-development debate, for now. The point is: These new residents bring with them a taste for high-falutin' cuisine. Which means if you're driving up from the Triangle you'll appreciate the expanding restaurant scene, whether you're there to hike, bike, raft or watch the leaves turn.
As the longtime private chef for the wealthy Pannill family of Palm Beach, Fla., Isabel Tomé cooked for Lady Bird Johnson, Margaret Thatcher, Sandra Day O'Connor and many other luminaries. Each summer, she accompanied the Pannills up to their estate in Roaring Gap, N.C., until 10 years ago, when she decided to make Ashe County her home.
To kick off her "retirement," Tomé rented a modest space in the town of West Jefferson, next to a gas station, and named her restaurant Isabel's. Not much bigger than a single-wide, with only four or five booths, it felt like lunching in a clown car. The one-rump kitchen, food counter and cash register were bunched together. Customers paid, socialized, sat and refilled their plates all in the same narrow aisle. If there was A/C you'd never know it—the ovens burned all day, and even with a mountain breeze, it was sweltering.
Yet the place became legendary. The word got around about Tomé's guava and cheese empanadas, her pork in tangy salsa verde, her baked chicken enchiladas (in a hotel pan, comfort-food style), her brilliant skirt steak (with the unapologetic charred, fatty sheen of Brazilian churrasco), and her signature rice and beans. To cover the bases with the American palate, she also began offering a burger basket with hand-cut fries that rivals The Raleigh Times' burger.
Isabel's is now one of those off-the-radar, in-the-know kind of joints. I first heard of it about four years ago from a former chef in Durham who stumbled across it on his honeymoon. I believe he said something about there being so many pickup trucks in the parking lot it had to be good. Recently, all the way in Chicago, my father met a famous writer who raved about a visit there.
"I get a lot of chefs coming here," admits Tomé. "I got judges, and all the lawyers in town, all the doctors in town, the police chiefs." Sometimes they'll pay her off-menu to make a true paella, though she only does it to order, and prefers it to be for 50 people. (She carries her pricey saffron over from Spain.)
Nine weeks ago, Isabel's moved to a new space, an auction warehouse on Highway 16 north of West Jefferson.
"I was forced to leave, with three weeks' notice," says Tomé. "I panicked. And the owner here [at the new location] came to me and said 'You're the only one I want.' I wish I'd done it many years ago." It's five or six times larger than the old single-wide, with a generous kitchen, and has a low-key, family diner kind of feel. People wave to one another; many flag down Tomé to greet her.
Tomé characterizes her food as more South American than Spanish. "In Spain, the basic food is seafood, but we can't make seafood here [in the mountains] at my budget." Budget is a consideration: She serves a lot of food for a little money. ("I'm never going to become rich here, but I make sooo many people happy," she says.)
The format is full-serve buffet, and the offerings change daily; Tomé's sister staffs the serving station, her nephew the cash register. The meat platter, which most people order, is $7.75, which includes two meats of your choice, a vegetable and rice/ beans. Spicy greens were on the menu when I visited last, as were flaky fried tilapia, skirt steak and fiery kielbasa. (If she has mushroom empanadas, pay the $1.50 extra.)
The biggest crowd-pleasers are the bowls of complimentary buñuelos. She always has two batches of these fried round fritters, free for the taking: one savory, one sweet (the sweet sometimes hide chunks of banana, fig or pineapple, and are dusted with plenty of sugar). Then there are homemade salsas, creamy homemade tartar sauce, and always a bowl of fresh-cut fruit.
Though she was born in Spain (Galicia), Tomé spent her teenage and early married years in Argentina and Colombia. As if that weren't glamorous enough, her husband, a professional soccer player, was recruited to the New York Cosmos, the renowned now-defunct team that also lured Pelé to the United States in the 1970s. Ashe County and its visitors are fortunate to have Isabel Tomé. She could have gone in many directions, not least of which would have been to stay on in Palm Beach feeding the rich and famous.
By the front door there's a custom-built floor-to-ceiling humidor, as wide as it is tall, stocking more than 50 types of cigars. On the patio, cheerful 1950s Top-40 hits pipe through built-in speakers. Customers vie for the three iron tables where they can enjoy a hot Reuben and a cold Perrier, and watch the world go by.
Inside are more than 850 wines, Belgian chocolates and a fine cheese and charcuterie section; on the wall are write-ups in Southern Living and the Charlotte Observer.
Did I mention it's also an Exxon?
With cultured stone pillars at the gas pumps, mature landscaping and wood trim everywhere, the Blowing Rock Market is a new breed of general store. Located on the main drag of an upscale resort town, it's a place to fill up, in all senses of the word.
The market is owned by Barry and Janet Bugala, originally of Atlanta, who bought the place in January, though it's been around since 2000. It is the only wine retailer in the main village area. Jordan Conner, the owners' son, does the buying. He's new to the business but tries to have something for everyone: "We carry everything from Beringer White Zin all the way to Opus One and Insignia," he says.
The deli area appears modest—just a counter, no kitchen—but produces fantastic results.
If you're hungry, try David's Special, $5.99, and ask for it hot: Boar's Head Deluxe roast beef and black wax cheddar cheese with horseradish on an onion roll. Or, go lighter with the Market Garden, at $4.99: green peppers, onions, mushrooms, tomatoes, cucumbers and alfalfa sprouts with Havarti on honey oat bread.
If you're adventurous, or tight on cash, get The Rock, at $2.99, (so-named because it sits like a rock in your stomach?): Boar's Head liverwurst and raw onions with mustard on pumpernickel. Or, try a twist on the classic Club with the Park Avenue, at $4.99: Boar's Head hickory smoked chicken breast, bacon and Havarti with lettuce and tomatoes on oat bread.
Then add to your pack some water, cheese and chocolate, and head off for a hike nearby. You won't be disappointed—in the food or the view.
Triangle residents can escape to the mountains of Ashe County in about three hours' drive. If you're looking for an excuse to try our dining finds, here are some ideas for the rest of your weekend. (A complete visitors' guide chock full of accommodations, attractions and a calendar of local events is online at www.ashechamber.com.)
The River House Inn (1896 Old Field Creek Road, Grassy Creek, 336-982-2109, www.riverhousenc.com) is an 1870s farmhouse turned fine-dining B&B overlooking a lazy stretch of the New River. There's hiking, tennis, fishing and canoeing right on the grounds, and stables nearby. The River House Inn is well known locally for promoting good food, good wine, and good music—and you don't have to sleep there to eat there.
Rental cabins are also easy to find in a variety of sizes, price ranges and settings, from the suburbs of West Jefferson to way out in the woods.
In Todd, a tiny hamlet in the southern end of the county, you can rent cabins overlooking the New River from Riverchase, www.rc-cabin-rentals.com.
Got kids? Head to the New River Zoo (3581 Big Flatts Church Road, Fleetwood, 336-877-9219, www.newriverzoo.com). It's a forested habitat for rescued and endangered animals, run by a trained naturalist. "Rustic" is not a word usually applied to zoos, but this one qualifies. While the upgraded chicken wire between you and the leopards can be somewhat alarming, it is also heart-racingly exciting. Check all preconceptions at the door. Open 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Monday-Saturday, 1-5 p.m. Sunday, $6/ adults; $4/ kids.
The Elkland Art Center in Todd offers lots of creative activities for youngsters, including a July 4 Liberty Parade, Circus and Picnic and a puppet festival in September, www.elklandartcenter.org.
Want views? Waterfalls? Cut over to the Blue Ridge Parkway and meander along to E.B. Jeffress Park at Milepost 271.9, where you can take a moderate one-mile hike to the impressive Cascade Falls.
Cruise the quaint shopping drag or people-watch in the village green in Blowing Rock before filling your daypack at Blowing Rock Market (see story, this page) and striking out for Moses H. Cone Memorial Park, where more than 25 miles of trails beckon (hike to the apple barn, or the lake if you're particularly hearty). A beautiful, if bizarrely anachronistic, horse and buggy will give you a ride if you prefer.
For a more spectator-like adventure, plop in a lawn chair at Cook Park in Todd any Saturday afternoon from June 21 to Aug. 9 for concerts in the Todd Summer Music Series, which features local bluegrass and Americana music, including an annual show by Doc Watson Aug. 9, toddnc.org. The Todd Mercantile just down the street from the bandshell offers bread, cookies and other baked goods made on-site, as well as locally grown, homemade treats like jam from area farmers and grandmas.—Jane Hobson Snyder and Jennifer Strom
Editor's note: As Triangle residents head for the mountains or the coast this summer, we'll occasionally highlight places to eat in some of our favorite escape spots. We'll focus on local-owned, local-flavored haunts. Got a story tip? E-mail us at email@example.com; put "Escapist Eats" in the subject line.