Elliott Moss takes in the quiet moments as they come. As pitmaster and co-owner of Asheville’s Buxton Hall Barbecue, he hasn’t gotten a lot of them recently.
“When I’m in here, I cut all the lights off except this little lamp, and it’s just like I’m outside, cooking a pig, standing in front of the burn barrel,” Moss says. “I get to stare at these coals glowing. It’s just what we do.”
From 10 p.m. to 8 a.m., someone is tending the restaurant’s pits. When it’s not his sous chef or another employee, that someone is Moss.
The work isn’t always glamorous, but neither was the first cooking job he took at Chick-fil-A when he was 17. On nights spent smoking whole hogs for Buxton Hall, Moss recalls those formative years when he prepared iconic chicken sandwiches at the fast-food chain.
“Just being up all night for hours and hours, I’ve had a lot of time to think about things,” he says. “I’ve realized how much that time meant to me and how much I did learn.”
Buxton Hall’s own succulent, crispy chicken sandwich has developed a feverish following, too. Perhaps it has to do with the fact that Bon Appétit billed it as 2016’s “Fried Chicken Sandwich of the Year.” And yes, it probably doesn’t hurt that the magazine just named Buxton Hall as the ninth best new restaurant in the country.
But it’s not just the chicken sandwich. You could say Buxton Hall is having a moment, much like the rest of Asheville’s South Slope neighborhood. In North Carolina, tried-and-true ’cue joints have their fair share of fanfare, but let’s face it: Other places aren’t being written about for their in-house pastry chef or imaginative cocktails boasting native sumac or an artisanal version of Mountain Dew.
But if your elixir of choice is steeped, sweetened, iced, and not spiked, Buxton Hall’s got that, too. And if you swear that the best banana pudding is topped with meringue, you’re in good company here. Buxton Hall isn’t some hipster spinoff of the genuine article; it is the genuine article — one that just so happens to wear Buddy Holly glasses.
It took Moss three years to fully sketch out his vision for Buxton Hall. Like pork, the best ideas are cooked low ’n’ slow.
Buxton Hall is having a moment, much like the rest of Asheville’s South Slope neighborhood.
He grew up in the Pee Dee region of coastal South Carolina. There, he got hooked on whole hog served with a vinegar-and-pepper sauce, similar to eastern-style barbecue in North Carolina. (If you’ve witnessed families getting torn apart over the endless eastern-style versus Lexington-style debate, pity the Palmetto State. South Carolina households have four distinct styles to argue about.)
When Moss moved to Asheville in 2007 to open The Admiral, he hoped to find a local joint that served eastern-style, whole-hog barbecue. No dice. That’s when the wheels started turning.
Moss’s attention to detail impressed Meherwan Irani, who owns Chai Pani, a downtown restaurant known for its bright Indian street food.
After Moss’s initial restaurant deal fell through with a potential partner, Irani reached out to him within 48 hours. It was meant to be.
“I love good food, and yes, I do Indian restaurants because that’s who I am, just like for Elliott, it’s doing barbecue because that’s who he is,” Irani says. “But I also love the idea of people doing what they’re meant to do.”
When Moss and Irani, both James Beard Award nominees, eventually opened Buxton Hall in August 2015, they cut no corners.
First off, they use wood. “I don’t even know how to work an electric smoker, so why would I want to buy one to open a restaurant with?” Moss says.
The pigs are pasture-raised on local family farms, too. “The original idea was that we would actually start looking at hog production.” Irani pauses. “Then we saw what hog production actually looks like.”
The ideas that drive Buxton Hall are grand, but the restaurant’s success lies in the simplicity of its dishes.
“To me, the sign of a truly great chef is to do simple things really well,” Irani says.
Consider, for a moment, the hash. The pig’s fatty bits and organs that would otherwise go to waste are rendered down to a gravy-like mixture that’s seasoned and served over rice. Before you turn up your nose, know this: Its savory, well-melded flavor is nothing short of ethereal.
“I don’t know of another place in North Carolina that does hash, but I’m scratching my head, thinking, ‘What do they do with all of that other stuff?’” Moss says.
“All of that other stuff,” those less-desirable parts of the pig, matter to Moss. Leftover lard makes its way into piecrust and even bar soap here.
When dining at Buxton Hall, you never forget where you are. Many of the side dishes have a smoky flavor, from the baked beans to the pimento cheese.
The food’s made right in front of you, too. The wide-open kitchen looks into the dining room. Sunlight floods through large warehouse windows. The space once belonged to the old Standard Paper Sales Company. In the 1930s, the building was a roller rink, and the murals from that time remain on the walls.
That kind of history is important to Irani and Moss.
“I didn’t go into this thinking it was going to be a trendy restaurant for two years because barbecue is popular right now,” Moss says. “I want Buxton to be a place where all the little kids who look at those pigs come back with their kids 20 years from now.”
When they do, they’ll surely remember the long, painted sign out front, the kind that the cola companies used to send new businesses when they opened. The sign reads, BUXTON HALL BAR-B-CUE.
Moss had it specially made to evoke an old-timey feel. The painter offered to make the sign look weathered.
“I said no,” Moss says. “We gotta earn that.”
The sign will fade with time, but at Buxton Hall, the flame burns bright.