Innovative restaurateur opens a high-concept bistro
A couple years ago, a brave chef introduced cricket tacos to Hendersonville. Last month, an inspired restaurateur opened a high-concept tattoo/tarot/trendy-tacos bistro on Main Street. And it doesn’t take a psychic to guess that the same quirky personality is behind both endeavors.
Jesse Roque, who holds a “Chef of the Year” award from the North Carolina Chef Showdown, made her name with exotic tapas and tacos, plus Southern-inspired delicacies, at downtown mainstay Never Blue. The type of unstoppable entrepreneur who uses a PR person to keep all balls in the air, Roque will be cooking at both locations, she recently confirmed to Bold Life via her assistant.
Roque’s newest invention, Madam Roqué’s Meat Emporium & Pickled Curiosités, was born out of her triple passions: unusual proteins, the highly personal art of tattoos, and tarot.
It’s well established that Roque likes meat, though she points out that “meat by definition is not just animal meat. The edible parts of fruits, vegetables, and nuts are also meat. We use the word liberally at our Meat Emporium … my restaurant [Never Blue] has always been accommodating to people with special dietary persuasions, and we are continuing that sensitivity at Madam Roqué’s.”
On opening day, though, it was definitely traditional (though adventuresome) meat on the menu, including braised pork butt from Hickory Nut Gap Farm, jerked and grilled chicken thighs, pork ribs, and beef brisket. A few nights later, when Bold Life visited, there was smoked pork butt and Yucatan-style braised turkey thighs.Some of the other featured proteins had sold out, thanks to a humming first week.
Logistically and aesthetically, the place is similar to regional favorites such as the festively hued Mamacita’s or Neo Burrito. You order at the front counter, pick your protein, and file down the line, customizing your meal with side items and add-ons. The food isn’t precisely Mexican/Southwestern fusion, as it is at those other eateries, but an array of delicious margaritas does await one at the end of the journey. No one has tired yet of this favorite beverage; the more interpretations, the merrier, seems to be the prevailing thought. (The blackberry margarita was divine.)
The pork butt was tender and savory, the portion rather modest, though the army of side items, the tortillas, a pause of pickled delicacies to choose from, and a well-stocked fresh salsa bar all did their part to fill up the tray. Roque is at full savory spectrum when it comes to the long list of creative side items: apple-fennel slaw with French vinaigrette, balsamic-glazed Brussels sprouts, “Sweet & Smokey” Vidalia Onion salad, smoked-cheddar mac and cheese, and so on. The “Harlem avocados” were marinated and piquant.
Her tarot readers, who change daily, are sequestered in a tucked-away niche in the restaurant’s back quarters. Diners can sign up for ten- or fifteen-minute increments, and at first, timing the meal to end right before the reading appointment began seemed like a major hurdle. Oddly, it worked out perfectly (cue a swell of knowing New Age music).
Veteran tarot practitioner Pam Shook was in the house that night, and a particular moment arose during the session — belly full, margarita buzz engaged, the intimacy of the bead-curtained room working its own kind of magic — where Roque’s big, wild concept seem to be gentling into place.
“The curiosity level for the tarot readings is through the roof,” says the entrepreneur. “People are leaving spellbound.” She notes that she’s been interested in tarot herself since she was 15, and owns a “massive” collection of cards.
“I want to make tarot and tattoos more accessible and less intimidating,” she explains. The tattoo part of the “emporium” is still in the works, though the future is written on Roque’s own skin. She translates the ink on her right forearm: “[It shows] a hemlock tree with a Theban prayer inscribed in the trunk. My brother was killed by a falling hemlock tree on Mt. Rainer on his first wedding anniversary. … Theban is a script that was often used by magicians to write down their tricks and acts. My bother was an amateur magician and always into codes and secret things. It reminds me of him every day, seeing it on my arm … the arm I work with, the arm I hug my kids with … it helps me to feel close to him.”
Going larger than life is her starting point — witness the mural homage to her, zany like a vintage carnival poster, painted in the restaurant’s foyer. “It’s important,” she says, “to do something that has never been done before.”
Madam Roque’s Meat Emporium & Pickled Curiosités, 117 South Main St., Hendersonville. Currently open Wednesday through Saturday 11:30am-9pm. For more information, see the restaurant’s Facebook page or follow on Instagram: @madameofmeat.