Aqua Cafe and Bar

Soy Lentil Green, at its core, has always been about celebrating restaurants that give vegetarians happy places to eat in Asheville.  We made a decision early on to be positive with our reviews–not to gloss over things that weren’t stellar, but also not to go out of our way to give bad reviews to places that deserved them.  It’s part of the supporting-local-business ethos that our site was founded on, and also why you’ll never see us reviewing a chain on this site, unless it’s a very micro chain.

That being said…I have broken my ethos, and it actually hurts.  Sean and I consider ourselves connoisseurs of Bad Mexican Food.  We’ve had “grilled vegetable” chimichangas that were made with frozen succotash (that hadn’t even been sufficiently unfrozen before serving).  We’ve had enchiladas so greasy and marginal that we couldn’t decide whether to send them back or just eat them to put them out of their misery.  We’ve had glasses of water that tasted like they’d been doused with a shot of chlorine, which probably gives you some idea of what the rest of the food tastes like.  But we’ve never, and I truly do mean NEVER here, had Mexican food as bad as what we had tonight.

We should have considered it a bad sign that Aqua Cafe and Bar received only 2 out of 5 stars on UrbanSpoon (I was lazy and didn’t stop to read the reviews until afterward–they were spot-on, by the way).  Additionally, we should also have been concerned that the restaurant, which is located in the old Fiore’s restaurant on College Street–a prime piece of real-estate in downtown Asheville–was nearly completely deserted at 7pm on a Friday night.  One intrepid table of four was there when we arrived, but we couldn’t get a read on how they were enjoying their meal so far.  We took a look at the menu.  The vegetarian pickings were slim, but Sean seemed excited that the specials board boasted Chilaquiles–one of his favorites.  Surely I could find something to eat on the menu that wasn’t egg-based?  (I’m attempting a 23-mile run tomorrow, so I was trying to go more carb-heavy tonight, and eggs didn’t really fit the bill.)  I scoured the menu.  I mean scoured it.  Eggs.  Salad.  Pizza.  (Yeah, you heard that right–pizza.)  Finally, after asking the waitress if there were any other vegetarian options (she helpfully pointed to the two egg dishes), I reluctantly settled on the pizza, even though it is a Mexican restaurant.  (No really, she didn’t even offer to make us bean burritos, or cheese enchiladas, or anything.)

So we waited.  And waited.  Finally, Sean asked if we could please have some chips and salsa, which turned out to have a surcharge.  The chips were greasy and over-salted.  The salsa was either Tostito’s brand or maybe El Paso–it was hard to tell.  It was delightful.  (Surely the sarcasm was evident in that last statement–as far as I know, there’s no emoticon for “disgusted.”)

Oh, and the beer.  Sean had a nice almost-local brew, because local brews are so hard to come by in Asheville (!!!).  I wanted something lighter that wasn’t totally awful, so I chose the PBR.  They watered it down.  Seriously.  I’ve had Coors Light with more body.  It was almost, but not quite, undrinkable.

And then, lucky us, the food arrived.  Sean had to dump almost an entire bowl of hot sauce on his chilaquiles, just to make them edible.  My pizza came out about fifteen minutes later, after several false alarms in which we were informed that it would be out in just “two more minutes.”  When it got there, I realized why it must have taken so long…the defrost setting on the microwave must have been broken.  It had almost been cooked long enough to get rid of the freezer-burn taste, but not quite.  My two toppings (pineapple and onions), were essentially not in evidence on the pie.  I did occasionally find a piece of pineapple hiding in the cheese, but certainly not enough to justify the price per topping.  The only place the onion showed up was on the bill.  The sauce was straight out of a Sam’s Club can, and to call the crust cracker-like would be a disservice to crackers (particularly the Carr Whole Wheat ones, which are like crack to me.  And Wheat Thins. But I digress.).

If the service had been good, it might have redeemed the place a little.  As it stood, at one point, after the four-top left, we were two of a total of four customers in the restaurant (two more people came in after us), and STILL I had to ask to have my water refilled, after she’d passed our table no less than three times.  (I was ashamed at how little I tipped her, as I am usually a 20%+ kind of gal, and yet…I couldn’t…seem…to make myself tip any more than that.  There, I said it.)

In a word, our experience at Aqua was AWFUL.  But, in its defense, it seems to be aptly named, considering the state of my PBR.  Not only would I recommend against your going there, dear vegetarian readers, I might even suggest that you warn your meat-eating friends as well.   Like one of the reviewers on UrbanSpoon, I predicted as we were sitting there that this restaurant will last three months, tops.  Asheville, for all its open-mindedness and localism, has no stomach for bad restaurants that don’t even appear to be trying.  Maybe the tourists will be fooled the first time, but with the internet only a click away, even that well is going to run dry.

So, now we’ve done it.  We’ve given a heartlessly bad, and yet breathtakingly accurate review of a local restaurant.  It doesn’t feel good to do it, but then again, neither does the stomach acid roiling around in my middle right now.  Vegetarians, caveat emptor.  Trust me on this one.

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