In late summer, driving through Fruitland and Edneyville is an exercise in languid suspense. Most of the apple trees, in their long, low rows, are in their eleventh hour of ripening. The signs for the packing-and-shipping centers and the U-pick places look dusty, but everything is set to burst for the fall picking season just around the bend.
In between the orchards are three restaurants whose hearty, basic fare is still simpatico with the region’s rural culture. Autumn Leaf Cafe is an area mainstay; although it’s open in all seasons, its theme suggests that fall, i.e. apple time, is its whole reason for being. Ceiling fans are designed like enormous whirring acorns, and a spray of colored leaves is the brand motif.
The menu goes heavy on breakfast, and, for lunch, includes a section of gyro sandwiches and platters: the combination of homestyle and Greek influences adds up to classic Southern diner. Here, the staff is friendly but laidback, the sweet tea tastes like real sweet tea should taste, and you can still get a “cold plate” — big scoops of homemade tuna or chicken salad, potato salad, and coleslaw on a bed of greens with fresh tomatoes.
“What kind of coleslaw do you have?” one patron was overheard asking her server. Indicating the region’s inevitable expansion, this diner was seeking the modern kind of slaw with vinegar and shreds of exotic vegetables, not the classic variety offered at Autumn Leaf. But really, she seemed like an anomaly. This is a place for regulars, in the deepest sense: even entering Autumn Leaf for the first time, most folks would understand that this is country food in a country setting.
As with every real diner located in farm country, the rush happens early: dawn early. There’s a reason Autumn Leaf opens at 6am. If you ramble in for a late lunch, you will likely miss out on the place’s famous homemade cake. It was Krispy Kreme-flavored that day — yes, Krispy Kreme cake. Sadly, by 1:30 pm, the last slice was long gone.
Further down the road, just before Route 64 curves into Chimney Rock and Lake Lure, Griffin’s Grocery & Cafe hums with new life. It reopened early last year from a devastating fire, rising up with a brand-new building, although the operation still retains the basic flavor of a country store. In the back, a pocket restaurant with faux-brocade booths faces not an apple orchard but a giant cornfield. The crop swells all the way to the horizon, a scene more native to the Midwest than the mountain South.
Breakfast is a big deal here, too, with the specials trending toward cute titles like “The Farmer’s Almanac” (a build-your-own omelet with plenty of veggies and a choice of cheeses) and “The Tourist,” rich French toast at a nice price, considering the bacon or sausage is included for $5.95. Later in the day, Griffin’s is prized for its full pizza menu and it’s fresh-tasting grilled burgers.
“Bubba’s Burger” is the best of the bunch, especially when topped with pimento cheese and the cafe’s gigantic onion rings on a bakery-style bun. Though there’s not a Latin-flavored section on the menu, the day’s lunch special happened to be Tacos Al Pastor: it had sold out by early afternoon, according to staff.
This nudges the theme back up the road a bit to Edneyville’s other compact hotspot, Taqueria El Chuy. A red food truck with a permanent air, thanks to adjacent covered seating strung with festive lights, it’s the kind of real-deal Mexican-cuisine experience that drives Yelp reviewers mad with delight. Taqueria El Chuy been declared the most authentic place of its kind in Western North Carolina, and even “the best taco truck I have ever been to,” according to one traveler.
Tacos, burritos, salad plates, telera-bread sandwiches, quesadillas, etc. — it’s all here, offered in abundance for very little money. Most dishes are accompanied with a choice of red or green salsa, plus a little blizzard of cilantro and jalapeños, as desired. Tongue and tripe are available along with pork, steak, and chicken — the vernacular choice of meat confirms the authenticity.
The awesome chorizo quesadilla, served with a plate of avocado, sour cream, and tomato, requires two hands to eat. Its filling (sausage, cheese, and spices) was flawlessly blended, not a set of ingredients to be marveled over, just a lip-smacking fact of life.
Autumn Leaf Cafe, 3591 Chimney Rock Road, open Monday through Saturday, 6am-2:30pm, plus prime-rib or fish dinner on Friday, 5-8pm (closed Sunday); 828-685-3100.
Griffin’s Grocery & Cafe, 3779 Chimney Rock Road, open Monday through Saturday, 6am-8pm, and Sunday, 8am-2pm; 828-513-1544.
Taqueria El Chuy, 3687-3705 Chimney Rock Road, open every day, 10:30am-10pm; 828-490-6020.