Luella’s Bar-B-Que, Asheville NC

We made our third 2010 trip to Asheville this past weekend, this time in part to show off the city to my daughter in the hope that she would love it like we do – mission accomplished, by the way – and in part to just soak up the mountain air, the wonderful people and the excellent food. I sort of cheated on the meal selections, however. I first suggested that Marie pick where we would eat, hoping that we’d try some new things and maybe revisit one of the places that we enjoyed on earlier visits, and then immediately started looking around myself, greedily and hungrily.

Asheville has not revealed itself to be a great barbecue town. Most of its offerings seem to be are Tennessee-styled shoulder pork with tomato-based sauce, but I did hear about Luella’s, which sounded very promising. I then started hinting to Marie that this would make a very good selection, and that it sure would be nice if she were to pick it as one of her three. I really can be an insufferable ass sometimes, but Marie indulges me anyway. After lunch here, there weren’t any recriminations; it was one of the best of the many good meals that we have had in the city and Marie was very glad that I suggested it.

I hate to make comparisons in these chapters, especially when one of the restaurants really didn’t get a fair shake, but taste trumps logic and fairness every time. On our last visit, we tried a downtown barbecue place and thought it unsatisfying but promising, chalking up its deficiencies to poor quality control in the heat of a giant music festival. Luella’s meat and sauces reminded us of that place, and not merely done right, but done spectacularly well.

The pork was very moist and tender, and the sauces just divine. At each table, they have two, a tomato-based “Pisgah” sauce and a traditional eastern Carolina vinegar sauce called Scooter’s. The Pisgah sauce is pretty good, but the vinegar was really excellent. In addition, the kitchen mixes up a few other concoctions daily in smaller batches, and they’ll bring these out to you as you like. I tried a “lusty mustard” which had a terrific kick and proved an awesome dip for the hush puppies, and a jalapeno-serrano-vinegar hot sauce that was the best of the lot.

We enjoyed a variety of very good sides, including vinegar slaw, red beans and rice, mac & cheese, and calico baked beans. Unfortunately, Luella’s is among that minority of restaurants that does not include Brunswick stew as a regular side, but as a higher-priced offering like chili. I believe that was my only note of dissatisfaction with my meal; otherwise, everything was perfect, although I am regretting not trying the garlic green beans. This was one of the daily specials on the blackboard and right about now, that does sound awfully tasty.

I had written in July that one of the best things about Luella’s downtown competitor was their soda fountain, which included both Cheerwine and RC Cola. Turns out those good people can’t even hold that up as a reason to return; Luella’s has the same fountain. We almost always just order water with our meals, occasionally getting sweet tea with barbecue. But hell, fountain Cheerwine or RC, now those are worth the extra couple of bucks for both the flavor and the novelty.

Service at the restaurant seemed pretty fast and attentive across the board. In a nod towards a corporate look for an otherwise down-home place, they’re all all dressed in matching black T-shirts which guests can purchase from the carry-out counter. It’s the sort of look which means that we won’t be surprised to hear that one day Luella’s might expand to other cities and start franchising. On the other hand, we were very amused to see that outside the front door, they have set aside a few games for guests to play when the lines get long, including bean bag tosses and hula hoops, which my daughter can keep going around her neck for the better part of ten minutes. If Luella’s ever does go the corporate-franchise route, I really hope that they can carry their originality, their recipes and their quite lovable spark along with them. Until then, there’s just the one location, about a mile north of the I-240 perimeter on Merrimon in a very cute little neighborhood. I wonder what houses go for here?

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