I began my journey of eating my way through Asheville by eating at a wide amount of restaurants, and truly, it’s a good strategy – you could eat at one or two restaurants a week in this town and be unlikely to truly run out of options for first-time visits before new restaurants pop up!
However, way faster than I expected, I found myself heading back for a second, third, and fourth time to one place because of a few factors. White Duck Taco just checked a lot of boxes, so many that I wanted to understand why I find myself drawn back so much.
First, location. Everyone wants to know a top-notch option that isn’t too out-of-the-way for friends while still being only a short walk or drive from your own home. White Duck Taco’s Riverside Drive location delivers that for me.
They also have a truly enormous parking lot, which means that even when they are packed to the max, I don’t have to scrounge for parking elsewhere. Other locations in downtown and South Asheville boast similar vibes and attentiveness to their customers, so I am sure they get high marks on location choice, too.
The location aspect is deeper than just where they are on a map. The Riverside Drive location is a fairly humble taco restaurant, but it’s right on the banks of the French Broad River, offering riverfront views from your picnic table as you messily spill slaw or aioli all over your hands while trying to scarf your corn-tortilla-wrapped flavor bombs before they collapse.
There’s also a walking path off the parking lot that takes you down into the River Arts District walkway, a lovely greenway that is a good fit for biking, roller skating, or walking. It’s $50-a-plate views for only a few dollars per taco.
This leads me to the second reason why White Duck Taco ranks so highly for me: price. With many tacos that are between 4 and 6 dollars, putting together a filling meal with two tacos and a side dish is pretty darn affordable, especially when you consider their unique offerings.
You can opt to go in a rich-food direction, with chips and queso or a taco full of pork belly, but there are also lighter options that feature a lot of lean protein and veggies; often, a restaurant that focuses on light, fresh fare opts for higher prices, but here, you can have your vegetables and save a little cash too.
Third is adaptability: I have taken multiple out-of-towners here because there are so many ways to attack the menu and make a satisfying experience for a variety of palates. Traditional taco purists can order one of the kids’ quesadillas and a Steak & Cheese taco, no problem, while my foodie friends can try Korean Beef Bulgogi and Tofu Banh Mi tacos full of fusion flavors.
With the option to sub jackfruit in tacos that would otherwise feature meat, the options for vegetarians and vegans are also substantial, and while they do cook their chips in a fryer that has gluten, they are clear about marking which items are and aren’t gluten-free.
Finally, I love their values: the space is not fancy but full of eclectic designs and bright, splashy art, and the counter service structure means that they can churn out lightning-fast meals. They put a lot of focus on a great meal, but most of the accouterments are humble.
If you arrive and see that the line is literally up to the door, don’t get worried – it moves fast and you’ll barely notice the time if you have someone with you to chat with for a few minutes.
They also have committed to paying their staff a living wage, which is reflected in online reviews of the company from past employees. I imagine they are wiped by the end of a shift since I have never seen an employee who isn’t moving and getting something done, but it makes an eater feel better knowing that these hardworking folks are making a living wage.
On this particular visit, I came by myself to truly re-see this place that I’d gotten so used to enjoying. The building itself seems reused, a half-pipe-shaped building made of some industrial material that has been insulated and painted yellow.
The chairs are simple and eclectic, and at least a few of the tables seem to be upcycled doors that were painted bright colors and covered in clear plastic. From the high ceiling are suspended beautiful multi-colored glass art panes, helping to use the space to good effect.
The focal point of the room is the large bright-chalk-markered menu. I’ve seen items come and go on this menu, and the menu isn’t always featured online, depending on the location, simply because the varieties of tacos available do change often.
I’m lucky that some of my favorites seem to stay in heavy rotation: The Chicken Tikka Masala taco has a substantial portion of grilled chicken covered in a spicy and flavorful sauce and dotted with crispy fried chickpeas, and the BLT features fried chicken with bacon, lettuce, and mayo for a much less spicy but still incredibly satisfying taco.
Besides the menu, other visuals draw the eye – beautiful artwork done in spray paint with waves in one place and a mountain vista in another, brightly colored picnic tables outside, and the excellent sunshades they’ve strung up to make the outdoors more tolerable in the midday summer heat.
I loved hearing nostalgic favorites by bands like the All American Rejects blast out of the speakers while I surveyed kids running around in the wide-open spaces and playing cornhole. The whole space outdoors is just so large that I can see why it’s a family-friendly hot spot – kids can be themselves and still not bother those nearby.
For the purposes of this visit, I opted away from my favorite tacos to try two I hadn’t had before. I’d had their falafel taco, named The Zorba, before, but I hadn’t gone with their other Mediterranean-themed taco, the Lamb Gyro. I was also drawn to the crispy fried shrimp of the Bangkok Shrimp taco, which promised a bit of sweetness with a sesame glaze as well as chili aioli – it sounded like a lot in a good way.
The Lamb Gyro taco came with bright tzatziki that made the mouthfuls of cucumbers, tomatoes, and lamb meat extra tasty, and I am a huge feta cheese fan, so the tangy and salty addition was welcome. The Bangkok Shrimp taco might have been even better, offsetting the many flavors and textures of the chili aioli, sesame glaze, and fried shrimp with a handful of cucumbers for a watery crunch.
These taco options are truly just the beginning: my friends have opted for the Spicy Buffalo Chicken, the Thai Peanut Chicken, the Duck w/ Mole, the Mushroom Potato w/ Romesco, and the Seared Ahi Tuna tacos, all enjoying flavors you don’t typically see on a taco. There are also Black Bean, Steak & Cheese, and Fish tacos that seem much more in line with Mexican-inspired flavor profiles – you can eat very adventurous here, but it’s not a requirement.
One last shoutout for the sides menu – my husband is a huge chips and salsa fan and he likes their fresh salsa trio. I’m a big fan of the house-made queso, and the watermelon with fresh mint is a great way to lighten up what can be a heavy meal if your taco-ordering eyes are bigger than your stomach.
The beer and wine menu is solid, though my personal favorite drink is very indulgent: they create a frozen slushie out of Cheerwine, the popular cherry-flavored NC soda, and will add a shot of liquor to it upon request. Yum! They seem to favor local beers and wines, which is nice if you want to try something Asheville-made with your tacos.
The White Duck Taco brand has expanded, despite still having more locations in Asheville than anywhere else, and I can really see why. They offer unusual and varied food combinations for the kind of prices you end up paying at much less exciting restaurants, have their own style and artistic look, and pick locations that make dining a pleasure, all with good, fast service.
If you get the chance to try White Duck Taco in Asheville, don’t be surprised if you get there and I’m biting into a Chicken Tikka Masala taco with crispy fried chickpeas falling out – I’m proud to call myself a regular there these days!
River Duck: 388 Riverside Drive, Asheville
Downtown Duck: 12 Biltmore Avenue, Asheville