Food

Bending Barbecue Tradition

  • By Leah Hughes
  • Photography by Matt Rose

At Luella’s Bar-B-Que, customers find enough familiarity to make them comfortable and enough diversity to remind them they’re in Asheville.

The-Big-Boy's-Blue-Ribbon-BBQ-Platter

Jeff Miller knows Southern barbecue. He knows how to cook it, how to chop it, and how to make a business out of it.

Miller’s smart. So when he opened Luella’s Bar-B-Que four years ago, he created a restaurant with a strong sense of place and a deep understanding of its customers. Located just north of downtown Asheville on Merrimon Avenue, Luella’s attracts a varied crowd — 70-year-old retirees, businessmen in neckties, and a few students from the University of North Carolina at Asheville just across the street.

Luella’s is a North Carolina barbecue joint marinated in the Asheville vibe. Multicolored lights trim the dining room’s orange walls. Classic-rock music flows through the speakers at just the right volume — no need to shout. Or sometimes a bluegrass band strums in the corner.

Behind the wooden bar with a guitar inlay, 14 beer taps — with six spouts from Asheville microbreweries — line the wall. Miller worked with an architect to create the facade on the back wall made of wooden fence-post ends cut at different lengths. It reflects the careful balance Luella’s maintains between the wood-paneled barbecue bastions that North Carolinians love and the diverse culture that thrives in Asheville.

Luella’s top seller is still the pork barbecue sandwich with slaw and a side of macaroni and cheese. But the fresh-baked buns come from City Bakery just a few miles away, and the cheese comes from Ashe County Cheese company.

“We wanted to put a new line around barbecue,” Miller says. He doesn’t know exactly how to define it. Maybe it’s the decor. Maybe it’s the five different sauces. Maybe it’s the brisket, turkey, and chicken in addition to the pork.

But whatever it is, it’s authentic. Nothing about Luella’s feels contrived. It’s familiar. When you sit down with a glass of Cheerwine or Luzianne sweet tea and bite into a chopped-pork sandwich doused with a vinegar-based sauce, you realize that Jeff Miller knows what he’s doing.

Culinary quest

Miller grew up in Iowa, where he wasn’t fond of the local barbecue overpowered by thick, sugary sauces characteristic of the region. “Iowans don’t understand barbecue at all,” he says. “If they think they do, it’s coming from Kansas City or St. Louis, which are great barbecue cities; it just doesn’t suit my taste.”

Miller always had an interest in food. As a child, he picked raspberries in his grandmother’s patch, admired his grandfather’s blue ribbon that he won at the state fair for his prize hog, and sat around on summer nights eating his uncle’s homegrown popcorn. But he never thought of food as a career until he moved to Durham in 1993 on the recommendation of a friend attending Duke University.

During the day, he worked as a line cook at Nana’s and Magnolia Grill. At night, he dissected and devoured recipes in cookbooks he checked out from the Durham County Library. On his days off, he traveled back roads with another foodie friend. They listened to Del McCoury and Ralph Stanley on barbecue pilgrimages to Wilber’s in Goldsboro and Allen & Son in Chapel Hill, which Miller still considers the gold standards.

“I don’t think that barbecue is a main-street affair,” he says. “It’s sort of always off the beaten path a little bit. That’s just part of barbecue’s story to me. People want to quest to find it.”

He didn’t think he would miss Carolina ’cue when he moved out west following his culinary curiosity to California, Colorado, and Montana. He worked his way up in high-end restaurants at the forefront of the farm-to-table movement. But that fancy food didn’t fill the same storied, comforting niche as barbecue. So he met Missy, a Southern girl longing to get back to her roots; married her; and headed east.

“We’d been visiting Asheville to see her family, and I was like, ‘Man, that town needs a barbecue place,’” Miller says.

In 2007, Miller opened Luella’s, named after his grandmother and his 6-year-old daughter, who loves the macaroni and cheese.

It takes all kinds

Miller knows that good food alone doesn’t sustain a restaurant. It takes passionate people who care about what they do. When he hired his staff, he paid more attention to a candidate’s approach to life than he did to job skills. Miller can teach anybody how to run a cash register.

On a typical morning, in the back of the restaurant, kitchen manager Nate Whiting, 30, opens the heavy doors of the smoker that cycles meat over hickory coals 24 hours a day. He pulls out pork butts, racks of ribs, and whole chickens and lines them up in trays, their smoky smell filling the air. Whiting’s from Pennsylvania, but he stopped in Asheville on his way to Nashville, Tennessee, seven years ago and decided to stay.

In the meantime, catering director Ashley Rogers, 27, sorts out what she’ll need for this weekend’s wedding at The Farm in Candler, a popular venue for mountain ceremonies. Luella’s provides the full Appalachian experience. It’s one of the few restaurants around that will cart a whole hog to a wedding reception. They’ll even decorate the head. Rogers isn’t from here, either. She’s from Rome, Georgia, and attended Appalachian State University in Boone for two years to study Spanish. But Luella’s lured her in, too.

In the front, restaurant manager Lindsay Andrasik, 29, prepares for the lunch rush. Andrasik’s from Wilson, New York, but she wanted to escape the cold. Two years ago, she attended an open interview held in Luella’s parking lot under Cheerwine tents, and Miller hired her. He’s glad he did, and she is, too.

“We’re not order takers,” Andrasik says. “This is our house.”

Tradition meets innovation

Two years ago, Miller relocated Luella’s from south Asheville to the current building, which once housed Boston Pizza, a neighborhood gathering place and popular hangout for students.

“When we first moved in here, everybody wanted to come down during construction and tell us their stories of Boston Pizza,” Miller says. “So we’ve really breathed life back into this building as a landmark in north Asheville.”

While cleaning out the building’s attic, Miller uncovered about 30 years of a restaurant, the life of the building, he says.

He added an item to the menu called Big Boy’s Blue Ribbon BBQ Platter. Big Boy was the name of his grandfather’s prize hog. The platter — served on old pizza pans he found in the attic — includes a half-pound each of pork barbecue, pulled chicken, and sliced beef brisket, and eight ribs. With your choice of three sides and a dozen hush puppies.

Maybe Miller doesn’t know how to define Luella’s, but that one platter does a pretty good job.

At Luella’s, history is important, but so is the present. It’s where tradition and innovation meet. It’s an eastern-style barbecue restaurant in north Asheville with a free-spirited kitchen manager and a Spanish-speaking catering director and a Yankee restaurant manager.

“That’s the beautiful thing about barbecue in general,” Miller says. “It really transcends class, and it transcends everything …

“It just becomes the standard for a gathering, and that’s what makes it such an important part of our culture. It really does unify people.”

What’s your flavor?

When you visit Luella’s Bar-B-Que in north Asheville, you have to make decisions. Once you choose your meat — pork, beef, chicken, or turkey — you then have five sauce options.

“I think the days of just having pig and two sauces or one sauce on the table, I wouldn’t say that they’re over, but to open like that now, that’s a slippery slope,” owner Jeff Miller says. He developed Luella’s line of homemade sauces himself, drawing on his years of culinary experience and research on the Southern barbecue tradition.

He believes that the sauce shouldn’t overpower the meat, rubs, and smoke that make great barbecue — it should complement.

1. Hot Flash: named by a female customer in her 60s who said the spicy sauce reminded her of a hot flash.

2. Smoked Jalapeño: made from a whole case of smoked peppers blended with pineapple juice, vinegar,
and spices.

3. Lusty Mustard: a South Carolina-style sauce, made with Asheville-based Lusty Monk Mustard.

4. Scooter’s Vinegar: Devised from a recipe by Scott Howell, of the famed Durham restaurant called Nana’s, this sauce pays tribute to the eastern barbecue tradition that first caught Miller’s attention.

5. Sweet Pisgah: the most popular sauce at Luella’s, mellow with a hint of sweetness.

Eat

Luella’s Bar-B-Que
501 Merrimon Avenue
Asheville, N.C. 28804
(828) 505-7427
luellasbbq.com

Leah Hughes is the assistant editor of Our State magazine. Leah’s most recent story for Our State was “Engineered for Flavor” (August 2011).

This entry was posted in Dining, Mountains, September 2011 and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Bending Barbecue Tradition

  1. Pingback: Luella's Featured in Our State Magazine | Palettes of Perfection

  2. Pingback: Luella’s Featured in Our State Magazine | Palettes of Perfection

  3. jim b lackwell says:

    Excellent article. My congratulations to a job well done. Restaurants are not an easy business. Being able to put love into your cooking is a unique skill. One not accomplished by most restaurants. Good luck! BBQ forever.

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