Recently, the dine-around bunch and I decided to take the Economist, one of the Retiree’s out-of-town friends, for an evening’s outing at Tupelo Honey Café. Our new friend is a lifelong Southerner in all ways. Talking with her, you quickly realize that beneath the gentle, friendly manners and refined conversation is a Southern belle whose taproot drinks deep from an upbringing thick with Southern tradition and folkways. With this kind and able lady as our dinner companion for the evening, I was interested to see if Tupelo Honey Café “Gracious Food” would indeed speak to our new friend’s “Southern Roots.”
Johnson City’s version of this popular Asheville, North Carolina, eatery can be found occupying nearly all the restored and historic Clinchfield Railroad depot at the corner of Buffalo Street and West State of Franklin Road. Over the past four years, Tupelo Honey Café has become one of the key anchors of the still-ongoing downtown Johnson City renovation. The re-purposed and historic building has a dining area and bar inside, and outdoor dining on the renovated station platform itself.
Inside, Tupelo Honey Café has retained the ceiling’s spectacular oak support beams, and there is whimsical use of old screen doors and multi-pane windows to divide the dining area from the bar. The seating is mostly tables and booths, each seating four to eight diners apiece. The bar occupies the entire west end of the building, and is home to a glassed-in model railroad diorama of Johnson City back in the early 20th century that is worth taking time to admire. The open plan kitchen and its prep line spans the east end of the building, with restrooms located just around the corner to the left.
Black-eye pea hummus appetizer
While our server Lori brought our drinks and assisted with menu explanations, I decided that my friends could profit from munching on one of my favorite Tupelo Honey Café appetizers, that being the black-eye pea hummus ($5). Lori delivered this appetizer to our table inside of five minutes, together with a quantity of in-house produced kettle-cooked potato chips together with some locally-grown yellow carrots, both to be used for conveying the hummus from plate to mouth. My dining partner preferred the potato chips, while the Economist and I liked the way the nutty flavor of the hummus matched well with the mild sweetness of the carrots.
Fish & Chips
For our entrée, my dining partner and I decided to share a plate of Tupelo Honey Café’s fish and chips ($19). The order consisted of three sizable filets of Alaskan whitefish lightly breaded in a mixture of cornmeal and corn flour and then deep-fried until tender and delicious. Also on the plate was a good stack of freshly-cut russet potato French fries along with three or four of Tupelo Honey Café’s hushpuppies, each of these a miniature corn fritter made from nicely-seasoned cornmeal batter mixed with chopped jalapeno pepper bits and corn kernels fresh from the cob, then fried until crunchy outside, steamy and moist inside. The plate was also supplied with a ramekin filled with the house’s lemon-cherry pepper remoulade that was just right for dipping.
“Grateful Veg” burger plate
The Dieter was of a vegetarian bent for her evening meal, choosing Tupelo Honey Café’s “Grateful Veg” burger ($13.50). Here, a 6-ounce patty made from a pleasantly-seasoned mixture of black beans, crushed garlic and chopped onion was grilled and then stacked with grilled red onions and fresh arugula leaves. This vegetarian creation was finished with a dollop of Meyer lemon aioli, a lemon and garlic-infused mayonnaise. The Dieter’s side order of ten Brussels sprouts were first halved, then daubed with more of the aioli and then roasted. She really enjoyed her veggie burger, grilled onions, arugula leaves, aioli and all. After admitting that she was no fan of Brussels sprouts, the Dieter did say that Tupelo Honey Café’s version as served to her was the best she’d ever tasted.
Pimento cheese & fried pickle burger
On this night, the Carnivore was in his element, ordering the pimento cheese and fried pickle burger plate ($14.50) sided with some freshly-picked and lightly steamed green beans. His artisan-quality potato-based hamburger bun was topped with a hand-formed eight-ounce chopped patty made from a mix of top round and sirloin sourced from the 100 percent hand-selected Angus beef cattle herd at Creekstone Farms. Topping the burger was some of Tupelo Honey Café’s own pimento cheese mixture along with a stack of fried dill pickles. The Carnivore loved every bite of his burger. He even deigned to take a nibble at the steamed green beans, then commented on how tasty they were, making this a most memorable meal indeed.
Pork grilled cheese sandwich
The Retiree surprised the rest of us by ordering the pork grilled cheese sandwich ($13) together with a side order of baked macaroni & cheese. Here a good quantity of their slow-smoked Memphis-style pulled pork barbecue is stacked into two slices of dark, dense pumpernickel bread with some melted white cheddar cheese and a good squirt of Tupelo Honey Café’s proprietary chipotle & cranberry barbecue sauce. The pumpernickel bread is crispy and crunchy outside but still soft and savory on the inside, and usually served with some fresh-cut French fries. However, the Retiree was advised by her friend the Economist to try some of the house macaroni & cheese as her side order. The Retiree did so, and was pleased with her side order swap, the mac & cheese being extra cheesy and baked until bubbly; very nice indeed.
Fried green tomatoes
When it came to her order, the Economist did not linger long over her menu’s choice, but ordered a dish with a truly Southern bent, this being the fried green tomatoes ($10.50) off the Starters & Sharing portion of the menu. This appetizer arrived tableside as four breaded and deep-fried half-inch thick slices of green tomato, arranged on top of some basil-laced goat cheese artisan-grade grits surrounded by a ruby-red coulis made from some spiced-up roasted red peppers. The mixture of the grits with the goat cheese made an excellent flavor foundation for the green tomatoes, the pungency of the goat cheese complemented by the sour tang of the green tomato. When the Economist offered me some of the dish, I was not pleased with what I had received. The texture of my green tomato was too firm, almost to the point of toughness. This suggested that my green tomato slice was fried in oil cooler than was required. I remarked on this to the Economist who assured me that the other slices of green tomato in her entree were just fine, so this may have been an isolated incident.
Tupelo Honey Café made sure the evening’s get-together between the dine-around bunch and the Economist was both delicious and memorable. Our meals’ locally-sourced ingredients and method of preparation did (in my case) awaken memories of meals long past served and enjoyed graciously with family and friends. The Economist herself said that she was pleased with everything that she had sampled that evening, and that her meal of fried green tomatoes and heirloom grits had her recalling home-cooked meals with family and friends, her “Southern Roots.” Being able to easily tap one’s family heritage, to have a meal re-evoke one’s “Southern Roots” each time you sit down at the dinner table is a talent that leaves those of us unable to access it truly envious.
Tupelo Honey Café
300 Buffalo Street
Mon-Thu 11 a.m. – 9 p.m.
Fri 11 a.m. – 10 p.m.
Sat 9 a.m. – 10 p.m.
Sun 9 a.m. -9 p.m.
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Credit cards accepted