A Shepherdstown restaurant is drawing rave reviews for its “Tapa-lachian” menu.
photographed by NIKKI BOWMAN MILLS
In a small town known for its big food scene, new restaurants in Shepherdstown really have to stand out if they hope to stand the test of time. Alma Bea is doing just that, thanks to a mission of preserving the state’s Appalachian roots through the stories and traditions of its food.
Located in the Eastern Panhandle, the restaurant opened its doors in December 2021, offering a “Tapa-lachian” tasting menu of small tapas-style plates and larger entrees full of big flavors.
“My restaurant works to recreate and reimagine the cuisine of Appalachia,” owner Mary Ellen Diaz explains. “I have long been fascinated by the way cuisines develop as families immigrate into a particular geography and interact with each other and the land. You see people using what resources they have available, contributing their creativity, ingenuity, and traditions along the way.
Appalachia is a particularly rich culinary region in that way.”
That fascination goes back to her own West Virginia childhood, where she remembers visits to the farm and cooking with her Great-Aunt Gladys. “These trips made for many warm food memories, and some of our recipes in the kitchen now are inspired by those visits. We even feature Aunt Gladys’ coconut cake on our dessert menu.”
These are the stories she wants Alma Bea to celebrate, to help nourish your soul and bring you joy. And with a menu like this, how could they not?
You can snack on Rooster Farm Mushrooms with butternut squash spaetzle, collard green horseradish pesto, Kentucky Black-Sauce Chicken Wings with duck-fat sweet potato fries, or Oysters Antietam with local mushrooms, spinach, and smoked bacon butter.
You can munch on Crawdad Hushpuppies with creamed corn sauce, Maryland Crab Cakes with fried green tomatoes and Tabasco butter, or an Appalachian Chop Salad with smoked bacon, pickled corn, sea island peas, cheddar cheese, moonshine pecans, diced tomatoes, salt-rising bread croutons, and buttermilk dressing.
You can go big with options like Confit Rabbit Leg with an Appalachian rice salad, Cornmeal-Crusted Rockfish with squash succotash and bacon Brussels sprouts, or Smoked Bourbon-Brine Chicken with fried mac ’n’ cheese balls and potlikker greens. Or maybe the Smoked Beef Brisket with cheddar cheese mashers and Coca-Cola black-eyed pea sauce, the BBQ-Braised Pork Belly with jalapeño grits and chow-chow, or the Smoked Duck Breast with creamy rosemary heirloom grits and brandied cherry jus.
“Our menu changes depending on what ingredients are in season and inspiring to my staff,” Diaz says. “But three standouts are our potlikker greens, Appalachian salad, and smoked brisket. I love how people are surprised by our potlikkers, which take two days to make.” She says many people who order them say they don’t generally like greens, but they love these.
“Our smoked brisket is seasoned all night and smoked for 11 hours. We smoke a lot of ingredients, not only meats but tomatoes, butter, and fruit. We think of smoking as our way of honoring the generations of Appalachian women who cooked delicious sustaining meals for their families on simple wood-burning stoves.”
And people go crazy over Alma Bea’s pies, featuring flavors like maple syrup and old-fashioned potato candy paired with peanut butter and a bit of chocolate. Up next on the horizon are expanded takeout options, including new “Appalachian at Home” offerings like frozen chicken pot pies, Brunswick Stew, and other delicious dishes you can take and bake at home.
If the menu at Alma Bea sounds impressive, it’s no wonder. Diaz had culinary training in the U.S. and France, led the kitchen at a few restaurants in Chicago, and helped develop menus for new restaurants opening in Chicago and Las Vegas. She then spent a few years living in Europe before deciding to return to West Virginia and try opening her own place here in her mother’s home state.
That experience, she says, has been a roller-coaster. “Opening a restaurant during the pandemic and post-pandemic has been the hardest thing I’ve ever done. The supply chain was so challenging. Nevertheless, we are pleasantly surprised by everyone who has helped support us and inspired us to keep going. Shepherdstown is a wonderful, creative community filled with talented artists and musicians, and their support has been invaluable.”
Some of the restaurant’s regulars have even contributed menu ideas and food memories that have helped shape what Alma Bea prepares. Others have contributed their creativity to help develop garden art.
“All of this is just so gratifying,” Diaz says. “Alma Bea has always been about community, and we are so grateful to be a part of this one.”
202 East. Washington Street, Shepherdstown, @almabeashepherdstown on FB