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.

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