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Fried Okra and Folk Rock

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Fried Okra and Folk Rock
Kwon at home, in his garden. Photo by Andrew Kornylak

At Home or on Tour, Joe Kwon is Ready for His Next Meal

As the cellist for the Avett Brothers, Joe Kwon is typically on the road for more than half the year. But when he gets home to Raleigh, he focuses on his other passion: food—growing it, cooking it, and seeking out the best places to eat it. The seed was planted early. Growing up in the small town of Archdale, North Carolina, Kwon’s extended family gathered together for Korean feasts every Friday or Saturday night. It wasn’t until he was older that he realized the impact of those dinners. “I’ve carried that with me through my life, how fortunate I was to have home-cooked meals like that,” he says. “Everyone in my family gardened, and nothing was taken for granted.” His reverence for food led him to launch tasteontour.com, where he blogs about the great restaurants he’s discovered on tour and at home. He shares some of his favorites with TLP.

TLP: What led you to start your blog? When I started touring with the Avett Brothers, we were at the mercy of whatever fast food was around. That became a reason for me to seek out good restaurants and chefs. I figured I might as well write about these cool little spots I found along the way and try to promote them.

What’s the first thing you cook when you come home from touring? I just want to eat something homemade. I raid the garden to see what’s growing, what I can throw together. I’ve been eating a lot of peppers and okra. When I get back, I get out [to the garden] and pull weeds, it’s a Zen moment.

How do you like to cook okra? I love the traditional Southern cornmeal-breaded okra. It’s probably the thing I cook most when people are coming around. I use a fennel curry seasoning and lightly dredge them in flour, then I cut them in half and I deep-fry them. I make an aioli of sriracha and mayo for a dip.

What do you think of when you think of Southern food? In Raleigh, you could go to a different restaurant and experience a different culture every day. You’ve got millions of people coming to the South who aren’t traditional Southerners. For me, the South is whatever you want it to be. We’ve got an amazing growing season, and there’s lots of land, so you can have well-raised pigs and chickens. It’s a melting pot of cultures and fresh food.

Duke’s or Hellman’s? Duke’s wins. Kewpie is a close second, it’s creamier and tangier.

As the cellist for the Avett Brothers, Kwon is frequently on the road. Here are some of his favorite eateries in the South.
Hog and Hominy in Memphis
Pie from Hog and Hominy, Photo by Faith Elizabeth Roane

POOLE’S DOWNTOWN DINER|Raleigh, North Carolina

Starting a food blog opened doors to meet a lot of chefs, says Kwon. Case in point: Chef Ashley Christensen. “She’s a good friend of mine.” He and his wife are big fans of her retrocool diner—so much so that they got married there last year.

BIDA MANDA|Raleigh, North Carolina

One of the dishes Kwon craves when he’s away from home is the crispy pork belly soup with coconut curry at Bida Manda, a Laotian restaurant not far from his house. He’s a regular. “I go at 4 pm when they’re having the staff tasting.”

Cúrate Asheville
Photo courtesy of Cúrate, Asheville

CÚRATE|Asheville, North Carolina

When the Avett Brothers record in Asheville, Kwon winds down at Chef Katie Button’s traditional Spanish tapas restaurant. “I love going there and bellying up to the bar,” he says. “It’s one of those places that you can go by yourself or with someone else and crunch through the menu.”

MATEO BAR DE TAPAS|Durham, North Carolina

With imaginative tapas like the roasted bone marrow with oxtail marmalade and pickled radish on toast, and the charred octopus with smoked mussel vera cruz and black garlic aioli, Mateo tops Kwon’s long list of local go-to establishments. “It’s probably my favorite restaurant in North Carolina.”

BÁNH MI SAIGON SANDWICHES & BAKERY|Greensboro, North Carolina

Kwon frequents this Vietnamese sandwich spot on High Point Road whenever he’s in Greensboro. His order? The classic bánh mi with extra jalapenos and pâté. “I’ll buy ten or fifteen sandwiches and put them in the freezer.”

SKYLIGHT INN BBQ|Ayden, North Carolina

Kwon’s a big fan of whole hog barbecue, especially the way his friend and third-generation pitmaster Sam Jones does it at the legendary Skylight Inn. “You get crunchy bits of cracklins throughout the meat.”

CITY HOUSE|Nashville, Tennessee

“There are a couple cities that I just love for food,” Kwon says. “In Nashville, I’ll go to City House.” He’s a low-maintenance diner, often leaving his order up to Chef Tandy Wilson, who won this year’s James Beard Award for Best Chef: Southeast. But the octopus, if it’s on the menu, is always a must. “They do such a good job with it,” he says.

HOG AND HOMINY|Memphis, Tennessee

Another favorite is Hog and Hominy, where chefs Michael Hudman and Andy Ticer are serving Italian food with a Southern soul (think biscuit gnocchi and grits al forno). “They make amazing pizzas,” Kwon says. The restaurant’s brick oven churns out some inspired pies, like the Red Eye pork belly, egg, celery leaf, and sugo.

COCHON|New Orleans, Louisiana

Chef Donald Link’s celebrated Cochon is usually on Kwon’s agenda in New Orleans. “The cured meats are amazing,” he says.

ARNOLD’S COUNTRY KITCHEN|Nashville, Tennessee

A Music City institution, Arnold’s almost always has a line out the door. For thirty-four years, the meat-and-three joint has been dishing up plates of candied yams, fried catfish, greens, roast beef, stewed okra—the list goes on. “Last time I went there was for Ashley Christensen’s birthday,” Kwon says. “They gave us everything on the menu.”

SHOYA IZAKAYA|Doraville, Georgia

Atlanta has a lot of great restaurants, says Kwon. His favorite is this Japanese spot in a suburban strip mall.