Back in June, on the eve of opening Old Etowah Smokehouse, chef Mike Moore admitted to Bold Life that “The Pig” has followed him his whole life. He grew up in Eastern NC, the dynastic home of pulled-pork barbecue.
Pulled pork is popular everywhere in the South now — indeed, it has hoofed a long way, even up to areas of the rural Great Lakes, where this reporter spotted it in July at a 300-person family reunion. Wherever large amounts of people gather, shredded pork is a natural unifier.
However, barbecue purists know that “real” pulled pork is best served with the NC-born vinegar-based preparation, not the rich, tomatoey sauce that started in Texas (or maybe it was St. Louis) and long ago became the de-facto sauce for barbecue eaters who might not know better. At his new restaurant — co-steered by Peter Raths, food-and-beverage manager at Etowah Valley Golf Resort — Moore puts three kinds of bottled sauce on the table.
Because Western North Carolina is, after all, a destination for all kinds of folks, and one can’t afford to be too precious about these things.
Besides the familiar sweet red sauce, he offers an expert vinegar topping populated with lots of pepper flakes, and a SC-style mustard sauce, also nicely spiced. Mustard-based preparations got popular in that state because of the large influx of German immigrants there beginning in the late 1700s — another historical morsel that shows just how integral barbecue is to Southern culture.
Like his predecessors in authenticity, though, Moore is most concerned with the meat. The founder and executive director of the charitable catering collective Blind Pig Supper Club, and head of the former upscale restaurant Seven Sows Bourbon and Larder, he’s deeply familiar with the fancier incarnations of The Pig. But, along with Elliot Moss of Asheville’s Buxton Hall Barbecue, a friend and fellow Eastern NC native, Moore’s gone back to the roots of the endeavor, favoring whole-hog preparation instead of cooking just parts of The Pig.
It’s not the easy way to make barbecue, but this old-school, time-intensive method is arguably the most esteemed — not to mention yielding a superior version of what foodies insist on calling a “flavor profile.” When Moore discovered the vintage wood smoker lurking in the nether regions of the Etowah space, he not only recreated a defunct restaurant in his own image, he also planted a stake in the whole-hog hierarchy that’s a healthy drive away from hip downtown Asheville, in a country spot with a perhaps trickier clientele of retired transplants, all-ages visitors, hungry-burly bikers, and various Henderson County natives.
Four months in, the place was going steady on a recent Friday night. A huge birthday party occupied one room, and smaller families filled out the other tables, with a lone singer on the patio offering resonant versions of Southern-rock staples via a vocal harmonizer.
The service, like the house cooking technique, is decidedly leisurely, sacrificing career-server briskness in favor of micro-local friendliness. Do not come here in a rush.
Moore and Raths have managed a neat combination of down-home with culinary flourishes. The salad bar will please those who don’t go out on Friday night looking for fussy boutique food, but the insets of rustic-chic decor, including canning shelves reimagined as wall art, suggest that the menu, too, will be on trend.
Where the restaurateurs can fit it in, creativity abounds — the hushpuppies are served with warm, sharp pimento cheese; the house cocktails are mixed with local Troy & Sons moonshine; the beets are roasted in cider; the requisite mac-n-cheese side is made with white cheddar. The menu is flush with these touches: the deep-fried chicken-livers appetizer is served with a mix of pepper jelly/sweet cream cheese, a vibrant combo that renders all other pairings second-fiddle.
Yet it all boils (or rather smokes) down to the meat, and Moore does not disappoint. Served plated or in a sandwich, whole-hog barbecue is indeed juicier, more tender, and just overall more interesting than lesser results of the pulled-pork practice. The beef brisket was magic — so soft and savory it made the heart skip.
Equally newsworthy ribs and smoked sausage also make the menu. The resurrection of that old wood smoker is such a triumph it’s likely to prompt a new discipleship of what barbecue can mean.
This reporter has often complained that trendy restaurants skimp on dessert — even sinking so low as not to offer any at all. So it’s a thrill to confirm that Old Etowah Smokehouse outdoes itself in this area. The list is long, including a house coconut cake, the expected banana pudding, and a bunch of specials on the blackboard.
The Rocky Road pie was a layered, luxurious delight. But it was “Lily Duke’s Butterscotch Pudding” that owned the night. Flavored with blackstrap molasses, with chunks of peanut-butter fudge embedded deep in its wicked depths, the outstanding parfait-style dessert was garnished with a butter cookie in the shape of a certain signature animal. The urge was to bow — The Pig is not just following Moore at this point.
Old Etowah Smokehouse is located at 6577 Brevard Road in Henderson County, open for lunch and dinner Monday through Saturday from 11am-9pm. On Sunday, the restaurant hosts a whole-hog country buffet from 11am-5pm. Call 828-513-1680 for more information or visit oldetowah.com.