Saturday, October 5, 2013

Rocky’s Hot Chicken Shack:

Homecooked, Homemade Southern Soul Food, Served Hot

by Pasckie Pascua

CHICKEN is a no-brainer. Why is that? Well, for one—I am a Filipino. Back home in the islands, we could prepare a chicken dish 101 ways, and that is an understatement. We also consume almost all of the fowl's endowments: Meat, feet, head, blood, bones, entrails. The feathers and claws also serve other purposes other than as food.

       But I am not in the Philippines at this juncture. I am wombed in Asheville, in the mountains of North Carolina. Yet, chicken remains “easy” to me. Why is that? Rocky’s Hot Chicken Shack, that is why. This is “homecooked, home-made Southern soul food” marvel the way granny cooked them, with some modifications. “Our hot chicken experience is a pleasure you keep on coming back to,” owner Rich Cundiff told The Indie recently. “It is addictive and face melting!” “Face-melting” means spicy cayenne face melting, that is—that could definitely rival Indian cuisine's tikka masala or the Filipino chili peppers on coconut milk plate, “Bicol Express.”
        Rocky's “Tennessee Style” hot chicken, says its menu folder, “... is brined and cooked in small batches, to maintain freshness and flavor, then prepared to order with the spice level as you like it—from plain to xx hot.” Hotness is categorized as (not so hot to hottest): Plain, Honey, X-mild, Mild, Mildium, Medium, Hot, Foothills, Xxhot. The fried chicken, spicy or not, exudes an intimate kick that—yes, reminds us of what exactly grandma used to prepare. The dry rub, thin flour dredge, and flimsy oil wash makes for an exquisite crust and body. Juicy but never greasy—and with a choice of 4 sides out of 13, an order is already a full meal at below $12.
        Meantime, chicken “hotness” and its standout choice of side dishes aren't really the very reason why one ventures at Rocky's. Cundiff, who was Earth Fare's chief operating officer, took over Rocky's Hot Chicken Shack more than two years ago, from a friend when it was still located in Arden. “I bought the recipe, and expanded it,” he says. “From then on, we have enjoyed steady growth.”
        Said unprecedented surge in patronage in a relatively far-flung locale – away from Asheville's restaurant row in downtown, somewhere down Patton Avenue beside a tiny car auto dealership and honky tonk motel – isn't just credited to Cundiff's finger-lickin' good fowl on a plate. Rocky's “casual family dining concept,” ably shared by its staff of 20 on 7-days rotation, makes the restaurant more of destination for locals, not for tourists. That's hardly a marketing hook, it's an honest invite. Rocky's Hot Chicken Shack is one of Asheville’s locally owned and operated restaurants, and Rich is an active board member of Asheville Independent Restaurants (AIR) association.

       “You get that feeling of being taken cared of,” prides Lauren Cundiff, Rich's wife and co-owner. “And we also share these blessings with the community by way of donations to local churches, food banks, and school system.” Adds Rich, “We also help local musicians, individually,” which makes Rocky's stand out among other businesses in town, being the only local establishment that treats local performers with special love.
       Localness that almost instantaneously comes with healthy eating certainly add sublime fervor to Rocky's “mercilessly hot” and “psychedelic” chicken allure. “We source quality and local ingredients for the recipes that we make from scratch,” says Rich. “Our natural birds are raised without antibiotics or other additives.” The Cundiffs' menu doesn't end with the obligatory slew of enflaming birds. “We have a crowd-pleasing menu and daily specials based upon seasonality and freshness,” offers Lauren. These favorites include waffles, desserts like their own “banana pudding in a jar,” and what Rocky's prides as “our daily soul bowl”--all chased down by freshly squeezed lemonade, sweet southern tea and other soft drinks. Not to be missed, of course, is the bar's choice of locally crafted beers.
       There you go. My islands-chicken fix is pretty well served and pleased right here in Asheville. I may boast that Filipinos like me could prepare a fowl 101 ways... But, I bet Rich and Lauren Cundiff and their staff could whip out 102 “hot” ways to cook and savor a chicken, the Appalachian way. So get hot like a true Southern spirit at Rocky's Hot Chicken Shack. It's all good.

<>Rocky's Hot Chicken Shack is located at 1455 Patton Avenue, West Asheville, North Carolina. Tel # 828 575 2260. Open Everyday. 11:00 AM to 9:00 PM: Sunday-Thursday; 11:00 AM to 10:00 PM: Friday and Saturday.

Saturday, June 29, 2013

Food Review and Restaurant Profile

POSANA CAFE: Conscious Artful Cuisine from Farm to Table

by Pasckie Pascua

POSANA Cafe's most-sought appetizer Lobster Mac and Cheese—a refined delight of ricotta gnocchi, chives and aged cheddar cheese, punctuated by premium Maine lobster—could pass off as an entree to a light diner. Such a thought doesn't worry Peter Pollay, executive chef and owner, of the 4-year old restaurant on Biltmore Avenue in downtown. He has more to offer. 

     Two choices from the menu's main dish lineup: the Chili Marinated Tofu and Zucchini Noodles (top grade bean curd surrounded with braised cippolini onions, jalapeno, tomato, caramelized eggplant) and Hickory Smoked Scottish Salmon, tossed in a sumptuous bed of roasted gold beets, grilled asparagus, basil, Looking Glass goat cheese cream, with confit lemon vianigrette—should make dinner a mini-feast. We don't end there though... A mouth-watering cornucopia of “artful cuisine” is a surefire come-on but Posana Cafe's main attraction is essentially Asheville's focal magic as well.   
   "The biggest thing about us is we are 100 percent gluten free and organic,” Pollay told The Indie. “That completely separates us from everyone else.” Posana Cafe has been awarded the Gluten-Free Food Service Accreditation from the Gluten Intolerance Group of North America and caters to diners suffering from a broad spectrum of food allergies.
     Suffice to say, the Pollays' (Peter and wife Martha) brainstorm found its soulmate in Asheville, long considered as one of America's go-to destinations in terms of “clean eating.” Residents and transplants alike achingly quiz even a “health” store and vegetarian restaurant details surrounding food products and ingredients. Thus, Posana promises on its website: “We know the best meals start with fresh ingredients straight from the garden that just need a little washing before they’re prepared for your plate.  We want the next generation to have this same love and understanding.”
     For the past four years, Posana Cafe celebrates its May time anniversary by supporting the education of the younger generation through the Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Program’s Growing Mindsinitiative. The primary focus of the Growing Minds initiative is to connect students and farms in all ways possible.
     Peter and Martha believe that it benefits the community to have a strong relationship with local food, and teaching youths the benefit of supporting local growers and producers is important. “We buy everything from close to 40 different local suppliers,” says Peter. “At any one time, up to 80 different products, all the way from fruits and vegetables to condiments to beers and beverages, all are local.”
     Posana Cafe banners Pollay's simple food philosophy: Source premium ingredients, work closely with the local farming community and never take short cuts when preparing a dish. “Because of that philosophy you will discover practically every item is made from scratch using high quality, natural ingredients. From the flavored syrups and freshly squeezed mixers behind the bar to the bun and pickles on your burger,” adds the website.

     Simplicity doesn't necessarily mean innovativeness is not a possibility. Posana's menu offers lots of it. While a number of the offerings, at least those that I tasted, exude an Italian plate's classic simplicity, whipped up around five to eight closely selected ingredients—these dishes also suggest Southeast Asia's complex flavors yet aromatic balance of fundamental taste senses. What results is a harmonious finish that is both elegant as it is delicious. Sample the intriguing Kale Salad—toasted pumpkin seeds, currants, Three Graces Dairy manchego style cheese, lemon, Theros olive oil—sweet, salty, and bitter. A balance of detail and variety. Then there's BBQ Spiced Sunburst Farms Trout—stone ground Boonville Mill Grits, white cheddar, fennel-olive oil slaw, charred tomato vinaigrette. Calabrian delight by way of the Appalachians!

THE Pollays' move to Asheville from Los Angeles ten years ago was almost like a natural progression. They had just their first child and believed LA wasn't the place to raise children. “We had a few friends that had moved here and we came to visit. We liked it. We liked the seasons,” Peter, who hails from Chicago, recalls (Martha came from Wisconsin). “The winters weren’t as harsh as the midwest so we decided to move here and this would be our home.”
     The young family immediately found instant affinity with this tiny mountain city, which at the time, was all over national radar with a number of accolades, such as one of the "Best Places to Reinvent Your Life," "Top Seven Places to Live in the US,” “10 Most Beautiful Places in America," and "25 Best Places for Business and Careers," among others.
     The birth of Posana Cafe as a “conscious artful cuisine” bloomed as the Pollays nurture their “new” comfort zone. It fits their lifestyle as they fit within Asheville's mystifying persona. “Back in LA, we would go to the market and buy ingredients from tailgates or fresh market then go home and make it for ourselves. We figured there were already a few restaurants doing it here but not to the extent we wanted to do it.”
     So in the spring of 2009, the Pollays started looking for a restaurant spot. But the hunt for a place didn't come easy until a friend's suggestion finally satisfied them: 1 Biltmore Avenue in downtown. “You can’t beat the address. We are right next to the park, next to Vance Monument. We have the museum and Diane Wortham across the street. We always have activity here, people always walking around... It really is one of the best locations (for a restaurant) in Asheville,” Peter says.

THE economic downturn that drove a number of Asheville restaurants to fold up didn't faze the new transplants. Their sole passion for food and the building of healthy communities was enough to get them going. “It was a hard time at the start, we knew it was slow at first, and we had to purchase strategically, as well as hire strategically,” recalls Peter. “But we slowly grew as the economy grew so we didn’t have to slam on the brakes with the downturn because we started with the downturn. So we didn’t know any better. We just knew the bad times.”
     It also greatly helped that Asheville's relatively small but tight downtown community and its peripheries were already well-entrenched years before the Pollays' arrival. Although the city's climb from bankruptcy in 1930s to a degree of prosperity onwards through the 80s was slow, it was sure. Hence, two decades later, Asheville was already flourishing—as steady migration and continuous investments poured in from new residents and entrepreneurs.
     With the coming of new spirits in the mountains, a communal fervor and “new age” idealism—in all facets of life and living—set in. “This community is founded on the basis of why everyone is here,” Pollay philosophizes. “We all like to support each other... Just like saying hi! on the street or being nice to people, or holding the door open. More importantly, the locals really support the local small businesses here, including restaurants, which is great.”

     Pollay, who brings with him an education at the Culinary Institute of America in New York, plus years of restaurant experience to Asheville, adds: “You always need to re-invent yourself, stretch yourself and kind of get the vibe of what the public wants. If you don’t change with that or adapt with that people will stop going to you and sooner or later you will have to close.”
     It seems simplistic to say that philosophy alone makes a business endeavor succeed. Apparently, in the case of Posana Cafe, it is almost an understatement to conclude that, indeed, the Pollays know what their market wants: Gluten-free, organic, local cuisine—adulterated, unpretentious, straight through. They don't need to tinker with that. Yet in the end, as Peter boasts, “Our focus is the service... and the food.” He meant, in part, why don't you try the Lobster Mac and Cheese for a start...

[POSANA CAFE is located at 1 Biltmore Ave., Asheville, NC 28801. (828) 505-3969.]

PHOTO: Peter Pollay, executive chef and owner.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

The Local Joint

An Intriguing Eggplant and the Best Reuben Sandwich in the Mountains

by Pasckie Pascua

THE glossy blackness of an eggplant with its white flesh, somewhat bitter taste, and meaty texture seems like a regular veggie enticement—yet it is not to most, unless you're into French cuisine, for example ratatouille, a traditional provencal stewed vegetable viand, or Balkan dishes, notably moussaka. Eggplants take kindly to gentle pairings, particularly starchy ones (pasta, potatoes and rice), which tame its rich, complex flavor and add enough bulk to turn a vegetable into a meal.
     Many eggplant recipes advise salting, rinsing and draining of the sliced fruit, to soften it and to reduce the amount of fat absorbed during cooking, but mainly to remove the bitterness of the earlier cultivars. Too much effort, isn't it—although back home in the Philippines, we simplify eggplant preparation like southern folks de-complicate cooking of taters here in the Appalachian mountains. Whatever the case, eggplant is considered an un-ordinary albeit exotic little vegetable with a strange shape in most American dinner plates. Hence, when I was served Eggplant Fries (!) as an appetizer at The Local Joint, a roadside restaurant in Fairview, a tiny North Carolina mountain town about ten miles east of downtown Asheville—I was intrigued enough to ponder it no end before I took a nonchalant bite.
     Fried golden and served with fresh tomato chutney, Eggplant Fries is one of TLJ's most popular “starters,” offers owner Chris Sizemore who sat down with us over four dishes on their loaded menu of “comfort food with a kick.” French toast, pancakes, eggs benedict, biscuits and gravy, huevos rancheros, Reuben sandwich, Cuban delights, chicken Philly, burgers, housemade potato chips and pickles, shrimps and grits, Cajun fried chicken, BBQ salmon, and beers, wine and Mimosas. A relatively small restaurant with—quite literally—a full plate!

WHAT's fascinating about Sizemore's “truck stop for the discriminating tastebud” restaurant is his fancy variations or culinary interfaces of flavors. “I traveled a lot with my wife all over the country, thus—we've been exposed to so many styles of food preparation... Italian, French, Asian to suit each everyone's preferences,” says Sizemore, originally from Knoxville TN. “My restaurant right off the highway is where lawyers share seating with truck drivers.” His wife Stephanie, who takes care of the creative look of TLJ, as well as, throws in ideas in the kitchen—hails from Georgia. 
     TLJ's Angel Hair Pasta—seemed like your casual pasta meal of fresh tomatoes, basil, garlic and virgin olive oil on pasta (with choice of chicken or shrimp)--but it's not. Chris's improvisation of the dish's basic elements pleases a Southeast Asian's mouth as well an Italian's. As for me, I brought home some to mix with my obligatory boiled Basmati rice, and that'd be a sumptuous dinner later.
     Meanwhile, I have to articulate my utmost love for the Classic Reuben sandwich. I am not a big bread or sandwich eater, so it takes a lot of cajoling for me to finish up one, more so—start a course. But this one with its house-made corned beef, kraut, Swiss cheese and Russian dressing—simply converted me. It's not too greasy, the beef's rich sweetness reminds me of grandma's “secret” recipes, and it's earthy flavor makes for a satisfying full meal.
     The Local Joint also prides itself with its homemade potato chips with vinaigrette dip. This is a kind of chips that cracks on each bite but melts on your tongue, with the suppleness of cheese and crispiness of old-fashioned fried potatoes.

 ASKED about moving closer to a more populous location, which is Asheville, Sizemore—who managed two downtown restaurants few years ago—before setting up The Local Joint, reasons that he intends to serve a smaller community that fits well with his vision. He says, “This is community. People come here like neighbors...”
     The Sizemores—husband, wife and children—are also active in local charitable programs via activities like “bake sales.” With Chris' characteristic baseball cap and work shirt, we know that he meant what he professes. He doesn't need to intrigue me with eggplant fries. The Classic Reuben sandwich had me at hello, and I haven't even tried a serving of Shrimp and Grits or the Barbecue Spiced Salmon.

The Local Joint is located at Old Charlotte Hwy., Fairview, NC 28730. Tel # (828) 338-0469. Check them out on Facebook.

PHOTOs (by Marta Osborne): (1) Chicken Enchilada with apple salsa; (2) Chris Sizemore, chef and co-owner of The Local Joint.