Papa’s & Beer, Asheville NC

Not every restaurant in Asheville is a farm-to-table, low-footprint indie, although quite a few of the places in the city’s wonderful downtown are. As you get away from the downtown area and into the sprawl, you’ll find the fern bars and the chains, although there are actually a couple of decent places to eat alongside the Olive Gardens and Red Lobsters on Tunnel Road. One of these had been Fiddlin Pig Bluegrass and Blues, which had shared a parking lot with an Outback Steakhouse or something. Marie and I had eaten here on our honeymoon and we were looking forward to a return visit, but were disappointed to find that the business had closed quite some time earlier and nobody had yet updated Urbanspoon with the news. Then again, it was on Tunnel Road, and most restaurant hobbyists are not interested in what happens on Tunnel Road.

We had, by this point, been completely exhausted by Bele Chere and checked into our hotel on Tunnel Road for a nap. Somewhat refreshed, we went out for supper and were stymied by Fiddlin Pig’s closure. We didn’t want to return downtown to fight for and pay for parking and yet we still wanted to visit someplace new for the blog. Electing the quickest solution, we drove across the street to the oddly-named Papa’s & Beer, a huge, very popular barn with a big crowd and a wait, to try our luck with their California-styled take on Mexican food.

There are three Papa’s & Beer locations around Asheville and Hendersonville. The first opened in 2003, and they are always packed. Unfortunately, they’re so well-known that they might have drawn unwelcome attention from a really big chain of nightclubs in California; the blog Ashvegas recently reported rumors that the Asheville restaurants might be forced to change their name.

Serving families, frat boys and bikers in equal number, this place is known for its margaritas and its enormous portions of food. I don’t know that I have ever seen quite so many people waiting happily and without complaint any time recently. There was a mob, but everybody was patient and pleased to kick back and enjoy each others’ company and the fun, mission-style decor – it’s Zapata’s Mexico by way of Six Flags – and the half-hour passed in a breeze.

I was expecting the usual snack of chips and salsa, but the restaurant surprised me. Instead of a bowl of the usual red stuff, they brought a small bowl of bean dip and invited us to try out their salsa bar. This had ten different dips to try, and my favorite was the pumpkin jalapeno.

The portion sizes here are past enormous and well on their way to ridiculous. None of us finished our meals, though everything was pretty good. I had a burrito with pork in an arbol sauce and about half of it was enough to leave me stuffed. A couple of tables over, two girls were sharing a margarita in a glass so large that it looked like a movie prop. You can see why the college students adore this place. It’s all about conspicuous consumption. They’ve even got one of those twenty-dollar burritos about the size of our three-month-old, and if you can eat it in half an hour, they’ll give you a T-shirt. I enjoyed it, and I wouldn’t mind a bucket of that pumpkin jalapeno salsa, but with so many amazing restaurants in Asheville, this doesn’t seem like a place that we’ll be revisiting too often.

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