America’s 50 Best Casual Restaurants (Slideshow)
Gray’s Papaya is shockingly down to only one location, on the Upper West Side, after the one on Eighth Street in the West Village unceremoniously closed a couple of months ago, but it remains a New York institution as well as a great place to get a near-perfect hot dog. These colorful purveyors of old-school New York character grill their natural-casing Sabrett dogs on a flat top, nestle them inside a lightly toasted bun, and top them with mustard, sauerkraut, or the classic "onions in sauce," also made by Sabrett. Lean up against the ledge, wash down a couple with some papaya drink, and be on your merry way, full, content, and out only a few bucks.
flickr/ Ralph Hockens
Down the Old Las Vegas Highway (the original Route 66), the green chile cheeseburger joint Bobcat Bite, founded by Mitzi Panzer in 1953, has been hailed by Hamburger America's George Motz,Roadfood's Jane and Michael Stern, Food Network, and even Bon Appétit as not only the zenith of green chile cheeseburgers, but perhaps one of the greatest burgers in the U.S. of A, period. A recent dispute between the Panzer family and John and Bonnie Eckre, who took it over 12 years ago, means that they had to pack up and move to a new location with a new name, Santa Fe Bite. Despite the change in venue, the restaurant’s ginormous house-ground, boneless chuck, 10-ounce burgers cooked to temperature preference and blanketed with green chiles under white American cheese on huge, ciabatta-like buns remain, and are still one of the nation’s best burgers.
flickr/ Marshall Astor
Back in 2011, Taylor's Automatic Refresher, a popular California hamburger stand, renamed its three locations (Napa, St. Helena, and San Francisco's Ferry Building) because its owners, brothers Joel and Duncan Gott, didn't own rights to the name, and couldn’t persuade its owners to let them trademark it. It may have been jarring to see the name change and the neon-lit red G, but what didn’t change when they adopted the family name Gott's Roadside Tray Gourmet were the storied third-of-a-pound grilled Niman Ranch burgers. Cooked medium-well, but served "a little pink inside," topped with American cheese, lettuce, tomato, pickles, and secret sauce on a toasted egg bun, Gott’s cheeseburger gets pressed lightly in a machine at the end of the line (employees say this steams the bun, but it still leaves the underside toasted-crunchy). The effect is thick and juicy. An icon.
flickr/ Jeffrey Simpson
Brooklyn’s Fette Sau is one of the few smokehouses in America to use exclusively heritage animals from local farms. The full list of meats served by the restaurant is like a reference book of heritage breeds: Piedmontese beef; a mysterious delicacy called Akaushi Beef Zubaton; and all manner of pork cuts from Duroc, Berkshire, and Red Wattle hogs. Hungry locals line up daily to sample some spectacular and unique barbecue from a constantly-rotating deli counter: Berkshire pork cheeks one day, pulled lamb another, house-cured pastrami the next. No matter what, you’ll always leave full and happy, having enjoyed some of the country’s most creative barbecue.
The brisket, sausage, pork ribs, and smoked prime rib at Hill Country pay homage to — where else? — Texas’ Hill Country. They’re peppery, delicately scented with wood smoke, and in need of no sauce. Pitmaster Elizabeth Karmel has crafted a honky tonk-style restaurant with meat carved to order, weighed out, and served on butcher paper with plenty of down-home sides and delicious desserts. You’ll eat more than a few before you even realize that they don’t have any sauce on them, because it’s completely unnecessary. With a second location in Washington, D.C. and a third recently opened in Brooklyn, the Texas barbecue gospel thankfully shows no signs of slowing down.
Roscoe’s does two things, and they do them very, very well: chicken and waffles. Founded in 1975 by Harlem native Herb Hudson, Roscoe’s helped to popularize a culinary combination that many consider strange until they try it: the wide and flat waffles pair perfectly with syrup-drenched fried chicken, which is fried according to a secret recipe until it’s light and crispy. Often imitated, never duplicated, Roscoe’s is the true original, and a Los Angeles institution.
flickr/ Lynn Friedman
Like fried chicken? Then no trip to Nashville should be complete without a trip to Prince's Hot Chicken Shack, a homespun restaurant started by William and Thornton Prince more than 60 years ago that serves the Platonic ideal of Nashville-style fried chicken, known for its spiciness. There’s only one thing to decide: do you want your chicken mild, medium, hot, or extra hot? If the name of the restaurant doesn’t warn you, even the mild is fairly spicy, so be careful. Served with white bread and pickle coins, the chicken itself is crispy, crunchy, and fall-off-the-bone tender. A trip to Prince’s is one you’re not likely to forget any time soon.
A diner unlike any other, Little Goat is chef Stephanie Izard’s follow-up to her acclaimed (and perpetually mobbed) flagship, Girl & the Goat, which is a perennial member of our 101 Best Restaurants in America club. The menu includes all-day breakfast featuring items like dark chocolate chip crunch pancakes, shrimp and cheese grits, and the insanely delicious “Ooey Gooey Cinnabuns.” Sandwiches include the Los Drowned (braised beef, avocado, butter case cheese, pickled peppers and onions, and spicy mayo), fish tostadas (crisp whitefish, shallot aioli, chickpea onion salad, and harissa vinaigrette), a sloppy Joe made with goat, and a grilled cheese filled with smoked gouda, Mont Amore cheese, pork guanciale, and smoked tomato. And we haven’t even gotten to the burgers, salads, and desserts! So go and see for yourself how delicious the food here is.
flickr/ Edsel L
Locals and visitors alike fill this big, boisterous, absolutely dependable Tex-Mex restaurant and bakery — bedecked with Christmas lights and open 24 hours a day — for fajita platters, enchiladas, quesadillas, and more (including first-rate menudo for breakfast). The flour-tortilla tacos are possibly the best in town — especially the ones filled with carnitas Michoacán, pieces of pork marinated in orange juice and spices, perfectly fried and presented with guacamole, pico de gallo, and beans.
“Our restaurant is very small, very cramped, and very loud,” notes Night + Market’s website. You can almost imagine chef Kris Yenbamroong warning, “Know what you’re getting yourself into!” While Yenbamroong has no formal culinary training, he’s not without a Thai food pedigree; he’s the son of the family behind the well-respected West Hollywood Thai restaurant Talesai. But Night + Market dances to its own beat, serving Northern Thai street food in the nightclub district of the Sunset Strip with a style and philosophy Yenbamroong describes using Thai term “aharn glam lao,” which he explains means making “the most delicious and authentic Thai food to facilitate drinking and fun-having amongst friends." Fried pig tail, fried pig ear with chile and garlic, Isaan-style grilled fatty collar, lots of Thai beer and Mekhong whisky (actually more like a rum) are served in a setting that has been described as a G.I. Bar in '70s Bangkok.
Night + Market
With six locations, Dick’s is a Seattle institution and its owners know that if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. For nearly 60 years, Dick’s has been serving an unchanging menu of never-frozen, one-eighth-pound burgers that are delivered daily, hand-cut fries, and milkshakes. The Double Deluxe is a hamburger version of the Platonic ideal: two patties, melted cheese, lettuce, tomato, and pickle relish, on a soft, squishy bun, sold for a whopping $2.70. Want onions? That’ll cost you an extra five cents, please. Dick’s is family-owned, and they treat all employees like family as well, offering full benefits, scholarships, child-care assistance, paid community service, and a starting hourly wage of $10.
flickr/ Curtis Cronn
Spend the afternoon at this homey tavern among locals at the more-than-a-century old building that overlooks the Bayou St. John. The beer is cheap, and the po’boys might just be the best in town. Opt for the fried oyster if available, or go for the home-cooked hot roast beef with gravy or hot bar-b-q beef (they’ll now let you add bacon if you want it), and you just might never want to leave.
Charles Vergo's Rendezvous is consistently ranked among the best barbecue joints in the country, and you do not want to miss out on their ribs. What makes these ribs so good is the rub, or as they call it, "the seasoning" (word is that it’s not called a rub because it’s not rubbed in). The baby back ribs are cooked hot and fast, which might seem against-the-grain, but the proof is in the pudding: the technique works. Don’t miss the pork shoulder, and if you give them 24 hours’ notice they’ll whip up a skillet with five pounds of barbecue shrimp for you.
flickr/ ramblin rose
Opened by Russian immigrants who relocated from New York to Los Angeles, Langer’s is a deli steeped in tradition. The deli is known best for its #19 sandwich made with hot pastrami, coleslaw, a slice of Swiss cheese, and Russian dressing on hot rye bread. What makes the rye bread so special is the process of double-baking. The bread is received from the bakery, and then re-baked at 350 degrees for 30 minutes to give it a crispy crust. It also has its own take on matzoh ball soup which includes chicken, noodles, matzoh balls, and vegetables served in a warm pot.
flickr/ lw yang
The conversation about New Orleans' best po'boys is a serious enough one to have set The Times-Picayune's own restaurant critic Brett Anderson on one of the city's most cherished endeavors: to find the best roast beef po'boy. Sure, that meant hitting up places like Mother's and Parkway, but it was at Domilise's on the unimpressive corner of Annunciation and Bellecastle streets at the end of a trolley ride fairly far west of Bourbon Street that you can be expected to find one of New Orleans' best. Is it NOLA's best? The quintessential light bread characteristic of the genre topped with supremely thin-sliced roast beef, dressed with a touch of Creole mustard, and covered with gravy will certainly get tongues wagging. Consider Anderson's own words: "I’m prepared to defend these propositions: If a template for a classic New Orleans po’boy joint exists, it’s Domilise’s."
flickr/ editor b
If you find yourself in Memphis and in the mood for quite possibly the best fried chicken you will ever eat, head on over to Gus’s, or even better, the original location, a small shack located 40 miles outside of town. No-frills and all about the chicken, you’d be wise to order a half-chicken so you can try a little bit of everything. Supremely crisp and crunchy on the golden-brown exterior, it remains moist and juicy on the inside. Seriously, time stands still while you’re eating this chicken. It’s insanely good.
It’s the sign of a great food city when you can find two crazy restaurants within three blocks of each other. So it is in the case of Hot Doug’s and Kuma’s Corner, some would argue Chicago’s best hot dog and burger joints. It’s not a quiet place to eat — the restaurant’s ethos is "Support your community. Eat beef. Bang your head." But with all the pyrotechnics that go off when you take a bite, the heavy metal doesn’t just make sense — it’s a perfect fit. There are burgers with tomatillo salsa and fried chiles, and burgers with Sriracha and grilled pineapple, but you have to start with the signature Kuma Burger: bacon, sharp cheddar, lettuce, tomato, onion, and a fried egg. It’s not as though there’s not enough flavor in the burger, but that egg... whoah.
flickr/ Steven Vance
With several no-frills locations in New York, including Flushing, Chinatown, and the East Village, Xi’An is one of the only places in the country to get your fix of the traditional foods of the Chinese city by the same name. You’ll be glad you did: go for any of the hand-pulled noodle dishes, like the spicy cumin lamb, or try the $2 lamb ‘burgers,’ which are more like spiced meat patties. The flavors you’ll try will be unlike any you’ve ever had, and we suggest getting your order to go so you can experience them in the comfort of your own home.
This "modern Mexican" restaurant does things its own way: there's a sea trout ceviche with pineapple-ají sorbet, a roasted cauliflower "steak" with chipotle-raisin purée and chile de árbol vinaigrette, and a lump crab tostada with green mango and grapefruit, among other things, so it's hardly surprising that the tacos are non-standard as well. The "Arabic" tacos, for instance, which get high marks for originality and intensity of flavor, combine seared venison with pickled cucumber, chipotle harissa, fennel pollen yogurt, and cilantro, wrapped in a tortilla made — in decidedly non-Arabic style — with bacon fat. Neither classic Mexican nor Tex-Mex, this place is just plain good.
Bob Gibson worked for the L & N Railroad and hosted barbecues in his backyard on the weekends. In 1952, he opened Big Bob Gibson Bar-B-Q on Sixth Avenue in Decatur. Gibson’s grandson, Don McLemore, took over in 1972. When the restaurant burned down in 1988, the family rebuilt it next door, salvaging the original neon sign. Today it’s helmed by legendary pitmaster Chris Lilly, who invented the rubs used on the meat as well as the sauces, the most famous of which is a zippy mayo-based Alabama-style white sauce that pairs perfectly with his barbecue chicken.
When Anthony Mangieri closed the East Village’s Una Pizza Napoletana in 2009 "to make a change," move West, and open somewhere he could get "a chance to use his outrigger canoe and mountain bike more often," it was the ultimate insult to New Yorkers. You're taking one of the city's favorite Neapolitan pizzerias, defecting to a temperate climate, to serve people who denigrate New York's Mexican food? So you can canoe and mountain bike? Traitor! Good for Mangieri, and good for San Franciscans, who with Una Pizza Napoletana inherited one of the country's best Neapolitan pies (if only Wednesday through Saturday, 5 p.m. until they're "out of dough").
Biting into a thin crust with chewy cornicione, a sauce that's tart and alive, an appropriate ratio of cheese... you could almost imagine yourself at the pantheon to pizza in Naples Da Michele, a place where the pizza is poetry and pizza poetry is on the wall. Mangieri harkens that same ethos on his website — check out the pizza poem "Napoli" — and delivers the edible version to his patrons. There are only five pies, all $25 (a $5 hike since last year), plus the Apollonia, a special Saturday-only pie made with eggs, Parmigiano-Reggiano, buffalo mozzarella, salami, extra-virgin olive oil, basil, garlic, sea salt, and black pepper. But when you’re this close to godliness, you don’t need extras. Keep it simple with the margherita (San Marzano tomatoes, buffalo mozzarella, extra-virgin olive oil, fresh basil, sea salt, and tomato sauce) and know the good.
flickr/ tasting sf
When it comes to leaders of a culinary genre, there are few restaurants in America with greater gravitas for their respective focus than San Francisco’s La Taquería has for tacos. That challenges it, and its tacos (carnitas among them, quite arguably the best) with quite a heavy reputation to live up to. Just one of the Mission’s casual Mexican joints, La Taquería does things the way they should be done: fresh.
flickr/ vision 63
Is there anything about Pink’s that hasn’t been said? Hard to imagine. Even detractors define themselves by it. But you won’t find many of those — just check out the line at this family-owned hot dog stand that has been around since 1939. At our last count, owner Richard Pink said he sold 35 varieties of hot dogs and toppings and sells on average about 2,000 hot dogs a day. Credit much of Pink’s success to its chili which once led then New York Times restaurant critic Ruth Reichl to go dumpster-diving to figure out the recipe (true story). And while he wouldn’t divulge its ingredients, Pink did note in an interview with The Daily Meal, "that it needs to be relatively smooth, but still have enough texture to make it stand up to hot dogs and hamburgers." For all the bacon, sour cream, guacamole, pastrami, and nacho cheese topped hot dogs, The Three Dog Night is the move. This "dog" (shouldn’t it really be called a meal?) features three hot dogs wrapped in a giant tortilla with three slices of cheese, three slices of bacon, chili, and onions. It’s a top-seller that was born the Laker Three-Peat Dog, was then renamed after Matrix Reloaded, and after the movie had its run, finally settled into a permanent homage to the '70s rock band.
flickr/ snap man
Abe Lebewohl was a true New York original: a Polish immigrant who came to America in 1950, his first job was a soda jerk at a Coney Island deli, where he graduated to counterman. In 1954 he invested his life savings in opening a small luncheonette on Second Ave. and 10th St. in Manhattan, which over the years became the beloved institution known as the Second Avenue Deli. In 1996, at the height of the restaurant’s success, Lebewohl was murdered while walking to the bank to make a deposit, and his death made national news.
The original location closed in 2006 after a landlord dispute and is now a bank (such is sadly the way of many New York institutions), but Lebewohl’s legacy lives on at the two locations that have opened in Manhattan since. One of just a handful of strictly kosher delis remaining in New York, Second Avenue is the place for authentic Jewish cuisine in New York: kasha varnishkas, knishes, matzoh brei, cholent, noodle kugel, kippered salmon… the possibilities are endless, artery-clogging, and delicious. If you have to order one thing, though, make it the hot pastrami on rye. Thinly sliced, perfectly spiced, and smoky, it’s one of the most delicious things you’ll ever eat. So drop by, raise a glass of Dr. Brown soda to Abe, and enjoy some real-deal Jewish deli.
flickr/ gandhu and sarah
Chef Alon Shaya (who was just nominated for a James Beard Award for Best Chef- South) serves some of America's best pizza at John Besh Restaurant Group's New Orleans restaurant Domenica (Italian for "Sunday") in the renovated and historic Roosevelt Hotel. You’ll have a hard time choosing between the 17 pizzas made in the Pavesi pecan-wood-fired oven. Just look at the photos — the slightly imperfect circles ringed with light, puffy, and black-blistered crusts, the center of the pie sauce-speckled and beautifully topped with stellar (and fun) ingredients like cotechino (sausage made from pork, fatback, and pork rind), bacon and eggs, apple and pecans, mortadella, spicy lamb meatball, roast pork shoulder, and duck with sweet potato — ordering just one pizza is a tough call. So don’t. Order Domenica’s most popular pie, the Margherita (tomato, basil, fresh mozzarella), then wild-card your second and third choices with the Tutto Carne (fennel sausage, bacon, salami, and cotechino), the Roasted Carrot (with goat cheese, red onion, Brussels sprouts, beets, and hazelnuts — wow!), or give the clam pie a shot. It may not beat Pepe’s, but whose does? Be on the lookout for spinoff Pizza Domenica, opening in Uptown New Orleans soon.
If you’ve ever been to Mother’s, the very mention of it should get your mouth watering. Since 1938, folks have been lining up daily to enjoy heaping breakfasts and traditional Cajun specialties. But the real star of the show here is the carving station, where po’boys that are just about perfect are served to those who come to worship at their altar. Your best bet would be to order the Ferdi Special, filled with homemade baked ham (you’d be hard-pressed to find a better ham anywhere), roast beef, gravy, and a special addition that’s one of the most delicious foods on earth: debris (pronounced ‘day-bree’). What’s debris, exactly? Shreds of meat and char that fall from the roast beef as it slowly cooks, steeping in rendered fat and juices. You’re welcome.
"There’s no mystery to my pizza," Bronx native Chris Bianco was quoted as saying in The New York Times. "Sicilian oregano, organic flour, San Marzano tomatoes, purified water, mozzarella I learned to make at Mike's Deli in the Bronx, sea salt, fresh yeast cake and a little bit of yesterday's dough. In the end great pizza, like anything else, is all about balance. It's that simple.''
Try telling that to the legions of pizza pilgrims who have made trip to the storied Phoenix pizza spot he opened more than 20 years ago. The restaurant serves not only addictive thin-crust pizzas but also fantastic antipasto (involving wood-oven-roasted vegetables), perfect salads, and homemade country bread. The wait, once routinely noted as one of the worst for food in the country, has been improved by Pizzeria Bianco opening for lunch, and the opening of Trattoria Bianco, the pizza prince of Arizona’s Italian restaurant in the historic Town & Country Shopping Center (about 10 minutes from the original). This is another case where any pie will likely be better than most you’ve had in your life (try the Rosa with red onions and pistachios!), but the signature Marinara will recalibrate your pizza baseline forever: tomato sauce, oregano, and garlic (no cheese).
flickr/ jess and colin
If you’re looking for authentic Oaxacan cuisine in Los Angeles, look no further: Guelaguetza very well might be the best in the country. The expansive menu ranges from breakfast dishes like huevos rancheros to chicken enrobed in red and black moles (complex sauces made from chiles, nuts, seeds, spices, and Oaxacan chocolate), from grilled meats and carnitas to barbacoa roja de chivo (slow-cooked young goat in a bowl of broth). The comfortable restaurant also boasts one of the country’s largest Mezcal selections, and if you find yourself craving more mole, they also sell it by the jar.
Being able to do the mental gymnastics intrinsic to understanding the history behind one of New York City — er, Brooklyn’s most storied pizzerias isn’t required for you to enjoy a slice of its famous pizza, but we have a few minutes while you wait in line anyway, so here it goes.
Gennaro Lombardi opened what’s generally regarded as America’s first pizzeria. He supposedly trained Pasquale (Patsy) Lancieri who opened the first Patsy’s in East Harlem. Lancieri’s nephew Patsy Grimaldi opened his own place, also called Patsy’s, in Brooklyn’s DUMBO neighborhood in 1990 (he’s said to have also learned his craft from Jerry Pero, son of Anthony Totonno Pero, who founded Totonno’s — that’s another story), but was forced to change the name of it to Grimaldi’s after his uncle died and his aunt sold the Patsy’s name to a corporation. Three years later, Patsy sold the Grimaldi’s at 19 Old Fulton St. to Frank Ciolli, whose two children expanded the Grimaldi’s brand to nearly 40 restaurants in the Tri-State Area and Midwest. But Ciolli lost the lease to the original space and had to move into a larger former bank building right next door on 1 Front St. That’s when Patsy came out of retirement and swooped into the original Grimaldi’s space to open Juliana’s.
Here’s what it comes down to: Patsy Grimaldi, whose pizza lineage goes back to family members being trained by Gennaro Lombardi, is making pies at a restaurant called Juliana’s in the original Grimaldi’s space, and Grimaldi’s is right next door.
With that all said, you’re just about at the front of the line to get inside (remember: no credit cards, no reservations, no slices, and no delivery!). So sit down and order something simple: a margherita pie made in a coal-fired oven that heats up to about 1,200 degrees and requires about 100 pounds of coal a day. It’s crispy, smoky, tangy, cheesy, and delicious.
flickr/ Gene Krasko
New Yorkers have shed the barbecue wasteland moniker in large part because of the influence of the Big Apple Barbecue Block Party, an annual festival that has acquainted Gothamites to great barbeque from some of America's most significant pitmasters for more than a decade. As a proper education has taken hold, the city has fairly quickly caught on to the nuance and import of a great American discipline. Several contenders vie for attention, and the city has even been called by some a new capital of American barbeque. That's a bit much, but if there's anyone in New York City who deserves attention for great Texan brisket, it's Daniel Delaney, the man behind BrisketTown in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Sure he's from Jersey, but after several years of experimentation ("brisket labs"), Delaney has in a short time given New York City more barbeque cred than it could possibly have otherwise imagined. The brisket has the proper salt and pepper coating and falls apart, well... the way it should, as close to Aaron Franklin's Austin brisket paragon as you're likely to find beyond the Franklin Barbecue parking lot.
As legend has it, on the evening of March 4, 1964, Dominic Bellissimo was tending bar while his mother Teressa manned the kitchen. When a group of his hungry friends showed up, Dominic asked Teressa to whip up some food for them, so she took some chicken wings, which were intended to go into the stockpot, and instead tossed them in the deep fryer. She concocted a simple butter- and hot sauce-based sauce, mixed them together, and Buffalo wings, arguably the greatest bar food of all time was born. This is the place that started it all, and many would argue that they’ve been often imitated, never duplicated. The wings are juicy, crispy, spicy, and served to teeming hordes of hungry masses, and those who make a pilgrimage here never leave unsatisfied (especially after knocking back a few tap Genesee Cream Ales).
Ramen Shop has been absolutely slammed since three Chez Panisse alumni first opened the doors early last year, and with good reason: Even though there are only five appetizers, three ramen varieties, and a few desserts available at all times, everything that’s available is made from scratch (the noodles are made in-house on a Japanese noodle machine), is organic, sustainable, and incredibly inventive. The menu changes daily, but a sample appetizer would be scallop and chashu donburi with spicy mayo, spring onions, pickled ginger, red cabbage chutney, and kombu; a sample ramen would be miso ramen with Manila clams, ground pork belly, shoyu egg, leeks, tanaka, and shungiku (spring for chashu — a slab of slow-cooked pork belly — for an additional $3). The flavor combinations might sound insane, but they work better than you could ever possibly imagine.
flickr/ Derrik S
Yes, John's of Bleecker is on the tourist rotation, but there's a reason this place has become an institution. Pizza is cooked in a coal-fired brick oven the same way it's been done there since 1929. You can choose from their available toppings (pepperoni, sausage, sliced meatball, garlic, onions, peppers, mushrooms, ricotta, sliced tomato, anchovies, olives, and roasted tomatoes), and you can scratch your name into the walls like the droves who came before you, but what you can't do is order a slice. Pies only, bud. And in this case, you’re going with the Bruschetta: mozzarella, diced Roma tomatoes marinated in olive oil, fresh garlic, and basil (no sauce).
flickr/ Midnight Talker
When Rich Torrisi and Mario Carbone opened a small restaurant called Torrisi Italian Specialties in 2009, serving sandwiches by day and an inexpensive tasting menu by night, they likely had no idea what a phenomenon it would become. The place blew up immediately, with lines out the door on a nightly basis, and in 2011 they opened a small annex next door called Parm, focused just on sandwiches. And what sandwiches these are. Their humble turkey sandwich has been praised by many as the city’s best, meatballs are brilliantly in patty instead of ball form, and the chicken parm sandwich is, hands down, the best in the country.
There’s nothing too crazy about this sandwich. It’s just made using only the highest-quality, freshest ingredients, with a very deft hand, and it’s unlike any other chicken parm you’ve had before. It starts with a freshly baked soft round semolina roll from nearby Parisi Bakery. The bottom gets a layer of long-simmered tomato sauce, and a freshly fried chicken cutlet gets placed atop that, then another spoon of sauce. Fresh mozzarella’s melted on top of that, and it’s finished off with a few leaves of fresh basil. And that’s it. It’s served in a waxed paper-lined basket, and tastes just like the chicken parms you’ve always eaten. It’s just better.
When Andy Ricker opened Pok Pok in 2008, he took the Pacific Northwest, and many of the nations most devoted eaters, by storm with his uniquely refined approach to Southeast Asian street food. In fact, his Vietnamese-inspired chicken wings and boldly flavored array of house specialties are in such hot demand that Ricker opened a location dedicated specifically to wings in New York City, which has since transformed into a shop specializing in Thai-style noodles. In April 2012, he opened Pok Pok NY on Brooklyn’s off-the-beaten-path Columbia Street Waterfront, and it proved so popular that last year it was forced to move into bigger digs up the street — but his Portland original remains Ricker's definitive establishment.
The big, slurp-worthy bowls of New York City’s best ramen draws customers back again and again to the to this original Manhattan location in the East Village of one of Japan's best-known ramen chains (there is now a second location on the West Side). Sometimes you can see them sidling up to the bar to drown themselves in sake to make the wait at the glass-covered ramen bar at the front of the restaurant bearable. Once you do sit down… joy! There’s always the Shiromaru Hakata Classic, described as "the original silky 'tonkotsu' (pork) soup noodles topped with pork loin chashu, sesame kikurage mushrooms, menma [fermented bamboo shoots], red pickled ginger, and scallions."
But the various limited-time-only specials are most often the fun way to go. A recent example is the Szechuan-style spicy tonkotsu ramen with black sesame sauce, topped with "niku-miso dame" [Japanese meat sauce], chashu pork, cabbage, cilantro, fragrant shrimp oil, and fresh lime.
Although this San Francisco restaurant whips up some spectacular house-made pastas, their pizza is formidable. Baked in a wood-fired oven, the thin-crust pizza at Flour + Water blends Old World tradition with modern refinement, according to chef and co-owner Thomas McNaughton. Pizza toppings vary depending on what’s in season, making each dining experience unique, but Flour + Water’s textbook margherita is amazing. Heirloom tomatoes, basil, fior di latte, and extra-virgin olive oil… if only the simplicity implied by the restaurant’s name could be duplicated in pizzerias across the country.
Renowned baker and chef Nancy Silverton teamed up with Italian culinary moguls Mario Batali and Joe Bastianich to open Osteria Mozza, a Los Angeles hot spot where the famous clientele pales in comparison to the innovative, creative fare. The pizzeria, which is attached to the main restaurant, offers a variety of Italian specialties from antipasti to bruschetta, but the Neapolitan-style pizzas steal the show. Their list of 21 pies ranges from $11 for a simple aglio e olio, a classic cheese pizza, to $23 for a more unique pie with squash blossoms, tomato, and burrata cheese — a delicious and simple pizza that transports through the quality and nuance of its ingredients. So it’s no surprise that Batali and Bastianich have taken a stab at duplicating the success of this model pizzeria, opening in Newport Beach, Singapore , and San Diego.
Domenico DeMarco is a local celebrity, having owned and operated Di Fara since 1964. Dom cooks both New York and Sicilian-style pizza Wednesday through Sunday (noon to 4:30 p.m., and from 6:30 p.m. to 9 p.m.) for hungry New Yorkers and tourists willing to wait in long lines, and brave the free-for-all that is the Di Fara counter experience. Yes, you're better off getting a whole pie than shelling out for the $5 slice. Yes, it's a trek, and sure, Dom goes through periods where the underside of the pizza can trend toward overdone, but when he's on, Di Fara can make a very strong case for being America's best pizza. If you want to understand why before visiting, watch the great video about Di Fara called, “The Best Thing I Ever Done.” You can’t go wrong with the classic round or square cheese pie (topped with oil-marinated hot peppers, which you can ladle on at the counter if you elbow in), but the menu’s signature is the Di Fara Classic Pie: mozzarella, Parmesan, plum tomato sauce, basil, sausage, peppers, mushroom, onion, and of course, a drizzle of olive oil by Dom.
flickr/ Zagat Buzz
If you want to discuss the loaded topic of America's best pizza with any authority, you have to make a pilgrimage to this legendary New Haven pizzeria. Frank Pepe opened his doors in New Haven, Connecticut’s Wooster Square in 1925, offering classic Napoletana-style pizza. After immigrating to the United States in 1909 at the age of 16 from Italy, Pepe took odd jobs before opening his restaurant (now called "The Spot" next door to the larger operation). Since its inception, Pepe’s has opened an additional seven locations.
What should you order at this checklist destination? Two words: clam pie ("No muzz!"). This is a Northeastern pizza genre unto its own, and Pepe's is the best of them all — freshly shucked, briny littleneck clams, an intense dose of garlic, olive oil, oregano, and grated Parmesan atop a charcoal-colored crust. The advanced move? Clam pie with bacon. Just expect to wait in line if you get there after 11:30 a.m. on a weekend.
Probably the most famous barbecue restaurant in America — thanks largely to the efforts of Kansas City-born writer Calvin Trillin, who in 1974 wrote in Playboy that it was "possibly the single best restaurant in the world." Arthur Bryant’s grew out of a place owned by Henry Perry, the so-called "father of Kansas City barbecue." When Perry died in 1940, Charlie Bryant, one of his employees, took it over, and after his death, his brother Arthur assumed ownership. Baseball players and fans alike, along with U.S. presidents, movie stars, and other notables, have been flocking to it ever since for its hickory- and oak wood-smoked ribs slathered in a tangy vinegar sauce. Arthur Bryant passed away at 80-years-old in 1982, in the middle of working a shift, but the restaurant continues to thrive.
It might tweak some Washingtonians to hear, but along with the Jumbo Slice, as bagels and pizza are to New York, so the half-smoke is one of the capital’s most iconic foods. The celebrity (and presidential) photos on the wall are clear indications of Ben's Chili Bowl's city landmark status, but the continuous lines out the door (and its election to both this list and The Daily Meal’s list of the 101 Best Restaurants in 2012) are evidence that the restaurant's chili cheese dogs are some of the best in the country. But those in the know don’t just order "dogs," they get the half-smokes, a half-pork, half-beef smoked sausage which is a native D.C. specialty supposedly invented by Ben Ali, the original proprietor, whose sons took over the restaurant after his death. As the U Street Corridor/Shaw neighborhood around it has gentrified and become trendy, it's a more than 50-year-old bastion of downhome D.C. where college kids, old-timers, and celebrities are all welcome as long as they're willing to stand in line like everybody else, though the President eats for free.
Ben's Chili Bowl
You haven’t truly had fried chicken until you’ve had it from Willie Mae’s, a legendary restaurant located in New Orleans’ Fifth Ward since 1956. Look around the two no-frills dining rooms and you’ll see nothing but fried chicken, even though other offerings, like smothered veal, are available (and delicious). But if it’s your first time there, take a cue from the regulars and other pilgrims alike. The chicken, perfected by Willie Mae Seaton (who just turned 100 years old) and today safeguarded by her granddaughter Kerry, is, simply put, otherworldly. Fried to order, the crust is shiny, craggy, light, not greasy, and shatteringly crisp and crunchy, coming away cleanly as you take a bite without dragging the rest of the breading with it. Underneath, the chicken is impossibly moist and juicy. We almost lost Willie Mae’s after it was destroyed during Katrina, but the community banded together to rebuild the restaurant exactly as it was before.
Unpretentious, classic Southern dishes are key at downtown Charleston’s Hominy Grill, where chef–owner Robert Stehling serves up stone-ground grits, house-made sausages, and fried green tomatoes in what was once a barbershop. The classic 1950s diner signage, extra-comfortable wooden chairs, and seasonal desserts like persimmon pudding embody everything comfort food stands for.
The restaurant’s signature smoked pork and chicken are roasted over a brick pit. The chicken is served with Gibson’s famous vinegar-based white sauce and the pork has a vinegar-based tomato sauce — though some diners insist on using the white sauce on the pork and ribs. Sides include a barbecue-stuffed baked potato. Save room for a slice of coconut cream Heaven High meringue pie, chocolate Heaven High meringue pie, or the lemon icebox pie.
While the white-hot New York location remains in limbo, chef Danny Bowien’s San Francisco original is still going strong, and very well just might be the most famous Chinese restaurant in America today, commanding hours-long waits that are only somewhat assuaged by kegs of free beer for those who decide to stick around. Thankfully, you can order takeout so that you can enjoy quirky, non-traditional dishes like kung pao pastrami, barbecued pig ear terrine, and an upmarket twist on beef with broccoli that incorporates tender brisket and smoked oyster sauce, without being crushed by hipsters.
When Hot Doug’s first opened at its original location in Roscoe Village in 2001 (it moved to its current spot in 2004 after a fire), there were people who doubted its owner Doug Sohn’s vision of a menu limited to hot dogs and sausages — even Sohn’s own family.
"My brother told me, 'Don’t you think you’ll have to sell hamburgers?'" Sohn related in an interview, adding, "I have it on very good authority that the people at Vienna gave me a few months. They came in and they were like, “Well, this isn’t gonna last.”
Now? Along with Doughnut Vault, Hot Doug’s is probably Chicago’s most famous line for food. While the main menu is delicious, its items can be replicated elsewhere. The specials’ flavors and ingredients, however, differentiate Hot Doug’s. The normal menu ranges in price from $2 to $4 per order and the special sausages are $6 to $10. It is the type of place where you extend yourself monetarily and calorically because you don’t know when the next time that you will be able to carve out hours for lunch on a weekday or Saturday to soak up the experience. The signature order here of course, is the foie gras and sauternes duck sausage with truffle aïoli, which garnered quite a bit of press in 2006 following the banning of foie in Chicago. Defying the ban pushed by chef Charlie Trotter and Alderman Joe Moore, Sohn named the dog after Moore, was fined, but was ultimately victorious when the ban was repealed in 2008. It’s a brilliant pairing — the snap of the dog against the creaminess of the foie — a visionary move celebrated by gout-defying offal lovers everywhere.
Kreuz Market, originally a meat market and a grocery store, was founded by Charles Kreuz (pronounced "krites" in these parts) in 1900. Like most markets at the time, it pit-barbecued the better cuts of meat and made sausage out of the lesser cuts. Customers bought barbecue, sausage, and garnishes like bread, crackers, pickles, onions, tomatoes, and cheese from the grocery store, and ate it straight off butcher paper. The business was passed on to Kreuz’s sons, who ran it until 1948. That year, Edgar A. "Smitty" Schmidt bought the place, phased out the groceries, but continued to serve the same barbecue and sausage. Cabbage knives were chained to the tables so that customers could cut their meat (but not take home the cutlery). Schmidt’s son, Rick Schmidt, bought the business, and when he and his sister Nina went their separate ways, he moved, along with the Kreuz name, to a cavernous new 560-seat location nearby, opening in 1999. Nina kept the old location and named it Smitty’s. Today, Kreuz boasts eight 16-foot pits for barbecuing meat (it cooks for four to six hours, a short period by industry standards) and for grilling approximately 15,000 rings of sausage each week. The original menu has expanded to include baked beans, German potato salad, sauerkraut, and dipped ice cream.
By 10 a.m. on a Friday there will be more than 90 people in line at this modest establishment, which traces its roots back to 2009 and a turquoise trailer. The 90 people who show in the next half-hour wait in vain; a waitress will tell them that there's just no barbecue left. So it goes at Franklin, where Aaron Franklin serves some of the best of Texas's greatest culinary claim to fame. The brisket, with its peppery exterior, falls apart as you pick it up. The turkey is what presidentially pardoned birds aspire to. The sausage snaps loudly when you slice it, juice splashing out and up... You've heard the buzz. You’ve seen Franklin on TV. You’re heard his acolytes’ brisket gospel. It's not hype. It really is that good.
America’s best fast-food burger is Shake Shack. Yes, it’s better than In-N-Out, and yes, it has its own secret menu… kind of (it’s called Danny Meyer’s hospitality philosophy). What started as a hot dog cart in Madison Square Park in 2001 has made history. In 2004, restaurateur Danny Meyer’s Union Square Hospitality Group won the bid to open a permanent kiosk in the park, and the lines, buzz, cult following, and even a begrudging review from The New York Times followed. Why is it so good? Quality. And one of the juiciest cheeseburgers (100 percent all-natural Angus beef, no hormones, no antibiotics) you’ll ever find on a soft, grilled potato roll (ask for pickles and onions!). Shake Shack’s has a vigorous expansion program — Theatre District, Coral Gables, Abu Dhabi, Las Vegas — so you really never know where the next one will show up. Cross your fingers that one opens near you; these burgers are just about perfect.
Katz’s Deli, on New York’s Lower East Side, is a New York institution. Their corned beef and pastrami, made on-premises and sliced to order, are legendary, and the simple act of taking your ticket, standing in line, bantering with the counterman while placing your order, and finding a table has become as New York an exercise as, well, eating a hot dog with a smear of mustard and a little sauerkraut. It opened its doors in 1888, originally serving many of the immigrant families on the Lower East Side who landed in New York. Word to the wise: You’re doing yourself a great disservice if you leave without sampling the corned beef and pastrami on rye with some deli mustard. Corned beef is brined and steamed, pastrami is cured and smoked, and nobody does it better. Receiving a small plate with a taste of what’s to come from the counterman as he hand-slices your meat is one of those can’t-miss New York culinary experiences, surpassed only by the first bite of your sandwich. Katz’s isn’t just a restaurant, it’s an experience. And moreso than any other deli in New York (especially that touristy one near Times Square), no trip to the city is complete without a trip to Katz’s.