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Asheville has beer, frog jam and a serious foodie scene

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    Wedge Brewing Company (Judson Berger)

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    Indian food served up at Chai Pani in Asheville (Judd Berger)

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    Charlies Bunyon along the Appalachian Trail (Judd Berger)

At the edge of Asheville, N.C. on a sunny Friday afternoon is a bar scene few American cities could boast.  

A brewery, in a warehouse that used to store dead hogs, is the setting. Railroad tracks and empty trucks are the scenery.

The mood? Think family picnic.

In a beer-snob town (and I say this lovingly), the crowd at Wedge Brewing Company is anything but pretentious. Armed with pints and pitchers of local brew that run just a few bucks, the locals clatter around outdoor picnic tables and games of cornhole.

My wife and I got there shortly after the 3 o’clock opening. By 4, it was packed. Nobody really goes inside, except to order or pee.

“This is Asheville,” the guy next to us tells his buddies.

The road to Asheville, for us, was a long one. My wife and I decided to conduct a meandering tour of the South to get there – shipping off from D.C. and hitting Charleston, Savannah and the outskirts of Columbia along the way. We scheduled it so we’d spend just a few days hitting those points of interest before settling into Asheville for the real vacation.

Good call.

I’d been hearing a lot about this place for several years now. My aunt and uncle bought a condo there. Our friend just moved there. My other aunt and uncle recently visited. Oh yeah, and the Obamas vacationed in Asheville.

In some ways, it’s what I expected. As in, it’s quirky. It’s one of those “keep so-and-so weird” kinds of places. It’s a little bit of Portland and a little bit of Vermont and a little bit of country all rolled into one.

But Asheville’s doing more than daring to be different.

Start with the beer. City promoters flaunt Asheville’s ranking in recent years as “Beer City USA” – it most recently shared that title with Grand Rapids, Mich., according to the unscientific online poll that bestows the honor.

Home to several breweries, the city knows how to serve up the suds. At the Thirsty Monk bar, patrons choose between American-style beer upstairs and European-style downstairs. For a dizzying selection of tough-to-find bottles to bring home, there’s the Bruisin Ales store on the north side of town. Even the pizza parlor we went to was lined with micro-brews on tap.

Stick to the beer, though. Cocktails do not seem to be one of Asheville’s strong suits.

Beyond the booze, Asheville has plenty more pursuits – albeit less blurry ones -- on offer.

The food scene is budding. The hiking, outside of town, is abundant. And in Asheville, the arts are an industry.

If you visit, do yourself a favor and do not overlook the River Arts District. On first glance, the row of run-down-looking studios seems unimpressive. But by late morning, the artists start opening their doors to visitors, and the street becomes a gallery.

This is also home to Wedge Brewing Company. And it’s where we had two of our best meals – 12 Bones Smokehouse and White Duck Taco Shop. Visit the former for a premier barbecue experience with plenty o’ sides, the latter for over-the-top tacos. And it’s only a matter of time before White Duck gets the Guy Fieri ‘triple-D’ treatment.    

The restaurants downtown are a bit less casual, but great places to learn about the area. After a few minutes talking to the bartender at The Market Place, a downtown restaurant and lounge, we learned about a new hiking route, to us anyway, along the Appalachian Trail. We ended up taking it -- from Newfound Gap to a foreboding piece of rock called Charlies Bunion – the next day. The 10-mile hike obliterated us, but rewarded with an edge-of-the-world view and that rare feeling of total seclusion.

On the way back, we puttered through Cherokee country, stopping frequently to keep our joints from locking up. I don’t know what to say about that experience other than I think I might be a member at Harrah’s. Also, what is frog jam? (Don't worry, it's not made out of anything that hops.  It's jam made of figs, raspberries, oranges and ginger--F.R.O.G--get it?).

Back in the city, we nibbled around the rest of the restaurant scene during our last two days, in between frequent naps at Hotel Indigo. Tupelo Honey Cafe, a Southern-style kitchen, for breakfast – which included their signature goat-cheese grits. Cucina24 for an upscale Italian meal, with a Mediterranean-meets-Appalachia vibe. The hit of the trip was Chai Pani, a niche restaurant that specializes in Indian street food – in western North Carolina, so go figure.

But the wine bars and fine dining spots never tweak the quirky Asheville mood.

Maybe you tired of these in college, but drum circles are a deal-with-it tradition here. And by sunset, there’s typically music right around the corner, being played on fiddle or gutbucket or plain-old guitar.

People-watching, and people-listening could be a hobby. And if I lived in this town, I’d probably want to start an ‘Overheard in Asheville’ blog.

The lead entry, dated June 7, 2012, and overheard from an apparent guide on a local ghost tour, would be as follows:

“After the exorcism, everything’s fine. It’s just a really great place to get tapas now.”