One thing I miss very much about Pennsylvania is the ability to go to almost any bar and get a decent dinner for a reasonable price. Like, I crave a $9.00 order of wings (I know we’re in a wing shortage right now, but even before that, Asheville’s wings have been ridiculous…does a Thai chili sauce or spice rub really warrant a $5.00 price hike?), a $12.99 burger and fries (I recently went to a very popular West Asheville restaurant/beer garden situation where you had to pay extra for a side of fries, which honestly I think should warrant a fine of some sort from the health board), and chicken parm hoagies of honestly, any price because I’m that hard up for one of those.
Asheville has excellent food, but the longer I live here, the more I feel that much of it is…overrated. Also, I can’t help but think it’s all a marketing scheme. I’m not going to name names, but there are several places I almost guarantee aren’t really serving farm-to-table burgers from local purveyors, and I don’t care how organic a hot dog is, it should never be more than $5.00.
The same(ish) goes for the beer. I love the brewery scene, but sometimes I just want a cheap pitcher of domestic beer with no flavor profile, mouthfeel, or hints of cardamon.
Another thing I miss very much about Pennsylvania is the ability to find pierogies in the wild. I don’t know when the pierogi will get the attention it deserves. Kimchi had its moment! Kombucha had its moment (I’m shocked there’s not a kombucha brewery in Asheville yet)! Almost every taco in Asheville is now a “street taco,” people are putting turmeric in lattes, and I’ve seen bone marrow on the menu of more than one Asheville dining establishment, but pierogies have yet to be trendy? At one point, I’d say it’s probably because they aren’t exotic enough to warrant the foodie love, but poutine is also sort of trendy at the moment, so I’m genuinely confounded.
For the uninitiated, pierogies are Polish dumplings traditionally filled with a blend of potatoes and cheese. They’re often sauteed with butter and onions or deep-fried and served with sour cream. I enjoy mine fried up in a pan with butter and eaten with ketchup—I recently posted a dinner of pierogies and ketchup on Instagram and was informed by several concerned individuals of Polish descent that I am a garbage person for eating them this way. I have two defenses. A) Pierogies are 100% a member of the french fry/tater tot family, and thus ketchup makes sense. B) I learned to eat deep-fried pierogies with ketchup at the St. Michael’s annual Summer Block Party in Simpson, Pennsylvania—St. Michaels and Simpson are both very Polish.
Pierogies are delicious, and the frozen stock my parents left when they visited were at a critical low when a friend who knows of my pierogi love let me know we had to check out The Barrel House in North Asheville, which not only regularly serves two large pierogies for $6.00, but also has a standing pierogi night on Tuesdays. Obviously, I was sold. I couldn’t wait for Tuesday though, so visited The Barrel House on a Saturday.
I felt a familiarity as soon as I entered The Barrel House. There was no curation. No industrial decor. It wasn’t even a kitschy dive. It felt like just a run-of-the-mill bar more worried about the food and drinks than ambiance, which is to say, it felt very much like the part of Pennsylvania I grew up in. And there’s one of those black-light friendly “white” boards with the various daily specials, which is also very Pennsylvania. The most Pennsylvania, though? Sunday’s special is two-dollar Busch Light cans (my favorite television scene of 2021 could’ve 100% occurred at The Barrel House).
It turns out the owner of the Barrel House is from Allentown, a city in Pennsylvania’s Lehigh Valley famous in my mind for once having the best rest stop on the Pennsylvania Turnpike and famous on a more national scale for Billy Joel’s eponymous song. When I learned that, the bar’s look and feel made sense, as did the inclusion of a pierogi night (although I am a bit saddened to think an Asheville pierogi night is more indicative of this gentleman’s Keystone State heritage rather than some sort of precursor to pierogis finally having their street-taco moment).
The pierogies were delicious. I naturally ordered mine sauteed with butter and onions, which I scraped off before dipping them in ketchup. An order of wings is $10.00, and they don’t taste like spice rub or fish sauce (that’s not being xenophobic, I just used fish sauce the night of this writing in an Asian-fusion pasta I love, but it has no place on a buffalo wing), but Frank’s red hot and butter, which is what I want. I had the pierogies, wings, and three Narragansett drafts and my bill was $27.00. I didn’t feel God in the Barrel House that night, but I did feel home. I’ll be back too. They have a patty melt that’s calling my name and a “Cap’n Crunch French Toast A’La Mode” dessert option that needs investigating.