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What’s new in food: Tahini Jar rolls in with vegan Middle Eastern cuisine

Ron Jimenez had a literal eye-opening epiphany.

“I woke up one morning a couple years ago with an out-of-the-blue conviction to become a vegetarian,” he recalls. “From that day forward, I stopped eating meat and cut back on all animal products.”

Raised in Asheville, Jimenez later relocated to Florida to pursue his culinary education before returning to the mountains with his wife and children. At the time of his epiphany, he’d put aside his chef’s hat to work in the health care industry. But he says he missed cooking and witnessing people enjoy his food.

His change in diet led him to reconsider his educational background and training; he was also interested in seeing if he could create a concept that would encourage others to consider giving up meat. Jimenez briefly considered drawing from his Puerto Rican heritage to develop a Caribbean menu, but he felt Middle Eastern cuisine was a more natural option for plant-based dishes and possessed a flavor profile he has always loved.

In July, Jimenez parked Tahini Jar food truck at Asheville Outlets mall, opened the service window and debuted his vegan Middle Eastern menu. “Our first day was a huge success,” he says. “People in Asheville are very curious and willing to try new foods. And there are a lot of vegetarians and vegans here looking for something a little different.”

Though he ultimately wants to open a café or small restaurant, Jimenez decided to start with a food truck to test his concept. “It’s always a risk starting a new business and especially a restaurant, but a food truck is fun and relatively low risk, so we went that way.”

Currently, the truck can be found Sundays at Asheville Outlet and Wednesday evenings at Mission Hospital. On Thursdays, Jimenez is testing different locations and will add more days of service as he segues out of his part-time job.

Though his original intention was to combine vegan and vegetarian options, the menu is now fully vegan — even the baklava, which he sources from a Middle Eastern bakery in Michigan after failing to find local options. Tahini Jar’s most popular items are the mushroom shawarma pita with fresh-made toum (a Lebanese garlic sauce) the loaded shawarma fries. “People like that concept of loaded,” Jimenez says with a laugh.

For more information, visit avl.mx/bwu.

New chef on The Block

Benne on Eagle has landed its newest executive chef, Robert Alexander, who is tasked with overseeing The Foundry Hotel’s nationally recognized restaurant, in addition to all other food operations on-site. Alexander assumed the position on July 11, moving to Asheville from the Bridgehampton, N.Y., where he worked at Jean-Georges at Topping Rose House.

Foundry General Manager Larry Crosby says management was very intentional in the search to fill the role. “We wanted the restaurant to continue to have an African American chef at the helm,” he says. “Benne has had multiple chefs in the four years since it opened, and now it is chef Robert’s chance to show what he’s about and what his take on the restaurant will be.”

The restaurant’s previous chef de cuisines have included Ashleigh Shanti (a 2020 James Beard award finalist for Rising Star Chef of the Year), Malcolm McMillian and Cleophus Hethington (a 2022 James Beard award finalist for Emerging Chef). Hethington departed in June, not long after operating partner John Fleer (chef/owner of Rhubarb and The Rhu) ended his professional relationship with the hotel.

Crosby says that Alexander’s experience in boutique hotels overseeing multiple food operations lined up well with The Foundry’s new operational model. As importantly, Alexander was immediately drawn to the history of The Block.

“We talked about the original concept of Benne, honoring the culinary traditions created by the African Americans who lived there,” says Crosby. “We discussed the legends whose portraits are on the wall, such as [the late] Mary Jo Johnson and Hanan Shabazz. We want Benne to speak to them, to The Block, to Appalachia and the agricultural bounty we have here.”

Alexander, born and raised in Richmond, Va., first learned to cook at a young age in the kitchen with his father before studying culinary arts in high school. He later went to Johnson & Wales University Charlotte, interned at Walt Disney World and subsequently worked at several high-profile restaurants in Florida and Philadelphia.

Benne on Eagle serves breakfast and lunch weekdays, brunch Saturday and Sundays and dinner seven nights a week.

Benne on Eagle is at 35 Eagle St. For more information, visit avl.mx/8qq.

Pints & pups

Observe the waning dog days of August with a pint in hand and your pup at your side when Highland Brewing releases its final Pints with Purpose beer series of the summer, Hair of the Dog Indian Pale Ale. Gather in the brewery’s expansive meadow on Saturday, Aug. 27, noon-5 p.m., for a dog look-alike and costume contest, an agility course (for canines, not humans), wiener dog races and live music from The New Lefties. In addition, pet-related vendors will be offering the latest in pet needs: Paws Mobile is offering nail trimming and microchipping; Patton Avenue Pet Co. will have a table with prizes; and the team from the Asheville Humane Society will share adoption and donation information.

Highland Brewing is at 12 Old Charlotte Highway, Suite 200. For more information, visit avl.mx/bwi.

Hog heaven

Luella’s Bar-B-Que is celebrating its 15-year anniversary with whole hogs on open smokers at both Asheville locations. The events will also feature anniversary merchandise giveaways and the release of Luella’s Popcorn Lager, a collaboration with Green Man Brewery. The pig-pickin’ party takes place Thursday, Aug. 25, 3 p.m. until the hog is gone. The event will benefit Downtown Welcome Table and its efforts to combat food insecurity in Western North Carolina.

Luella’s Bar-B-Que is located at 501 Merrimon Ave. and 33 Town Square Blvd. in Biltmore Park. For more information, visit avl.mx/bwx.

Wasted away

Food Waste Solutions WNC is teaming up with Food Connection, the WNC Farmers Market and DJ’s Pickles to present a free community event at Wedge at Foundation, Tuesday, Aug. 30, 5:30-7 p.m. There will be food storage demos, quick-pickling tips from chef Don Paleno of DJ’s Pickles, tours of Food Connection’s new mobile meals truck and take-home gifts from the WNC Farmers Market. Local cookbook author Cathy Cleary and Asheville Buncombe Food Policy Council coordinator Gina Smith will also make a short presentation, “Save the Food: Storage Tips and Quick Preservation Hacks.”

Wedge at Foundation is at 5 Foundy St. Learn more at avl.mx/970.

Roll the rice

Two more Tuesdays remain to buy a raffle ticket for the West Asheville Tailgate Market Summer Rice Raffle contest. The lucky winner will take home a quartet of locally grown rice from Lee’s One Fortune Farm: 1 pound each of sweet sticky, purple, red and brown. Tickets are $2 each and can be purchased Tuesday, Aug. 23, and Tuesday, Aug. 30, at the market information booth. A winner will be drawn Wednesday, Aug. 31. All proceeds benefit the WAVL market, every Tuesday from 3:30-6:30 p.m. at 718 Haywood Road.

Learn more at avl.mx/bwh.

Crush on you

Just two more weeks remain to submit Western North Carolina amateur and commercially produced wines to the annual WNC Regional Wine Competition hosted by the French Broad Vignerons. There will be two separate competitions: the Vinifera and Hybrid Wine competition, judged Saturday, Sept. 17, and the Muscadine and Fruit Wine competition, judged Sunday, Sept. 18. Medals awarded to wines will be double gold, gold, silver, and bronze.

For entry forms and all the information on rules, fees and product requirements, check the organization’s website at avl.mx/bwj.

Raising the bar

Cheers to Asheville Rooftop Bar Tours for its third consecutive year in the top 10% of attractions worldwide as determined by Tripadvisor users. The award celebrates businesses that have received multiple excellent reviews from travelers the previous 12 months, recognizing the best experiences in tourism and hospitality.

Kaye Bentley launched Asheville Rooftop Bar Tours in 2018 to showcase city’s rooftop bars that serve crafted cocktails along with panoramic views of the Blue Ridge Mountains and the city’s art deco architecture. The tour also includes a narrated history.

For more information, visit avl.mx/5rl.


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