Most Memorable Meals of 2011 Slideshow
White Spinach, Mushroom, and Gorgonzola Pie — The Original Frank Pepe Pizzeria Napoletana (New Haven, Conn.)
Whether you're an amateur or professional pizza aficionado, you've made the trip to New Haven, Conn., to visit Frank Pepe on Wooster Street, where New Havenites have been feasting on thin, well-crafted pies since 1925. Of course, these days, you can visit other Pepe locations in Connecticut (Fairfield, Manchester, Uncasville, Danbury), and as of 2009, even in New York (Yonkers). Most conversations about Pepe's involve clam pie, and most comparisons to New Haven's other storied pizzerias involve it and other classics like the tomato pie, and tomato pie with "mozz."
But there's another excellent Pepe's specialty pie that doesn't get as much attention: White Spinach, Mushroom, and Gorgonzola Pie. There's the same thin crust, but with tangy Gorgonzola, chopped spinach, and juicy mushrooms, all topped with "mozz" and grated cheese. It won't dethrone the clam pie with bacon, or the tomato pie with shrimp, but it's a tasty third specialty pie.
The Narwhal — Commonwealth (San Francisco)
At Commonwealth, chef Jason Fox's progressive American restaurant in the Mission district of San Francisco, there's a cocktail that has garnered more attention than its chef might have anticipated. The Narwhal uses modernist technique, but not cloyingly. The summer version is a high-end slushie consisting of ambrosia melon, lime, filtered sake, mint, and Floc de Gascogne, made with liquid nitrogen. The winter version (pictured) also featured pomegranate seeds.
Why is it so good? It's not too sweet, there's soft ice, tartness, and crunch from the seeds. Call it an opening act cocktail, a palate cleanser, or if you're reverse-coursing, the best way to start a meal with dessert.
Western Bacon Blue Ring Burger — Gott's (San Francisco)
In March, the popular California burger stand, Taylor's Automatic Refresher, changed the name of its three locations (in Napa, St. Helena, and San Francisco's Ferry Building). Owners Joel and Duncan Gott (brothers), didn't own rights to the name and were unable to persuade its owners to let them trademark it. After 10 years, Taylor's took the family name: Gott's Roadside Tray Gourmet. The large, neon-lit red G outside may have been jarring, but what didn't change was the fact that the roadside institution puts out great burgers. At Gott's (formerly Taylor's), the patty is topped with an onion ring, its center filled with crumbled blue cheese that softens from the heat. The burger is placed on a toasted egg bun and finished with thick, curled-over bacon strips, pickles, barbecue sauce, and raw red onion slices. It's wrapped in paper and pressed lightly in a machine, which employees said steams the bun, but the underside was still toasted-crunchy.
The effect is thick and juicy — best in the center, where that crumbled blue is soft and stinky, accented with the occasional sour crunch of the ridged pickles. There's a hint of sweetness from the barbecue sauce and the egg bun — nothing cloying, just enough for a hint, and to take a bit of the cut off the cheese.
Crab — PPQ Dungeness Island (San Francisco)
There's nothing particularly special about the setting or the service at PPQ Dungeness Island in San Francisco's Outer Richmond district, but the crab and garlic noodles, well, that's a different story altogether.
PPQ (Pho Phu Quoc) refers to Vietnamese noodles, with Phu Quoc being Vietnam's largest island (at the very south tip of the country), a place known for fish sauce and black pepper. That fried black pepper application to Dungeness crabs is amazing. Sweet, juicy Dungeness covered with black peppercorns. But the other preparations are equally enticing — roasted, drunken, curried, and spiced. Sure, it's some work to eat, but man, what reward! Sweet, spicy, flavor made even better with garlic noodles, booze, and friends.
Tacos — La Taqueria (San Francisco)
People in San Francisco swear by their taquerias, getting fiercely loyal when conversation turns to the best. If you plan on getting into one of these arguments (prepare to spend some time), you have to have been to La Taqueria in the Mission.
When you've had any of the others, El Farolito (what's the fuss?), La Corneta, Papalote Mexican Grill, or Taqueria Los Coyotes (great fixings bar), tell them what they should already know, that the no-rice burritos and tacos at La Taqueria rule. The tortillas are warm, the meat packed in — no skimping. It's soft and melts away. Minced onion and small chopped tomato, cilantro, salsa. A large soda cup filled with fresa, orchata, or pia to wash it down. Contentment.
Margherita Pizza — Una Pizza Napoletana (San Francisco)
When Anthony Mangieri, pizzaiolo for the East Village Una Pizza Napoletana, closed "to make a change," move West, and open shop 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 people who denigrate New York's Mexican food? So you can canoe and mountain bike? Traitor!
Good for Mangieri and San Franciscans, who inherited one of the country's best Neapolitan pies, if only Wednesday through Saturday, 5 p.m. until they're "out of dough." That's a bit precious, but this is still a contender for America's best Neapolitan pie. Thin crust with chewy cornicione, a sauce that's tart and alive, an appropriate ratio of cheese... you could almost imagine yourself in Naples at Da Michele.
Blood Pappardelle with Testa — Incanto (San Francisco)
At Incanto in San Francisco, you order offal as though you were on a mission to do so. Heart tartare? Check. Trotter cake? Check. Spaghettini with cured tuna heart and egg yolk? Please. Oxtail sweetbreads with rutabaga? Another helping. You can't go wrong at Chris Cosentino's Noe Valley restaurant.
Heart tartare is a checklist item, but the blood pappardelle with testa, well... thick strips of pasta, salted slices of testa with spongy give — it's difficult to save room for anything else.
Taquitos — Yoshi (New York City)
Listen, in the world of New York's sushi scene, Yoshi, in the East Village is not bringing in any major awards — it shouldn't be mentioned in the same sentence as the city's best sushi restaurants. But when it comes to having a local sushi spot that delivers to Alphabet City, Yoshi on Avenue A hits the mark.
The Yoshi dish that should be anyone's guilty pleasure is Crispy Yellowtail or Salmon Taquitos with cilantro, onion, and spicy oil sauce. Hard taco, yellowtail or salmon tartare, spicy mayo — yes, it's Americanized delivery sushi, yes it's this reporter's go-to, but on many an East Village night, Yoshi's taquitos hit the spot, and are thus distinguished as of one of the best restaurant delivery dishes I had all year.
Roast Beef — Defonte's (New York City)
In the annals of the roast beef sandwich in New York City, there are strong contenders, pretenders, and old-school defenders. Consider This Little Piggy, the now-closed Boston interlopers Bowery Beef, and old-school Brooklyn joints Brennan and Carr's and Roll-n-Roaster. Heck, Minetta Tavern's French Dip is breathing new life into this classic, too.
Here's the thing, as good as these others are for various reasons, one of New York City's best hot roast beef sandwiches has to be #20 made by Nick at Defonte's. Thin-sliced, pink, juicy roast beef; jus dripping on your fingers and the sandwich paper. Tang, spice and sweetness with savory jus that sops into the bread. But be sure to order it per The Daily Meal's the GutterGourmet instructions: "Ask for Nick Defonte. Tell him you want roast beef, bloody-heart-still-beating-red rare, on a soft egg roll, and to dip the roll in the jus. Fresh mutz, hold the eggplant, and add sweet and hot peppers. No lettuce or tomato!"
Sashimi — Zooma (Miami)
Zuma Miami is one of seven international izakaya joints (London, Hong Kong, Istanbul, Dubai, Miami, Bangkok, and Beirut) headed by chef Bjoern Weissgerber and designed by Tokyo-based Noriyoshi Muramatsu. Yes, a Japanese izakaya in Miami by a German chef with experience in Japan, and at Arzak and elBulli in Spain.
The waitstaff wasn't particularly friendly (even no-flash photography was verboten) and it's not cheap, but the quality of the fish is fantastic. Sushi rolls and sashimi platters feature fish that does what it's supposed to, with little help from seasoning or the staff — it makes you roll your eyes back and savor. So, kudos to the craftsmen that do what they do at Zuma. If you're looking for sushi in Miami, you won't go wrong here.
Tortellini with Black Truffle — Michael White (South Beach Food & Wine Festival)
You eat a lot of food at food festivals that's good, even great in the moment. But there aren't always dishes that stick with you because they just, taste so damn good. So it was during the South Beach Food & Wine Festival last February at the Delano. Chef Michael White's Dolce Brunch at Blue Door Fish was hosted by Bravo's Top Chef judge Gail Simmons, and featured appearances by White and frequent Food Network judge Alex Guarnaschelli of Butter.
Forget who was there or if chef Michael White prepared the dish. When it comes to the tortellini with panna fresca, black truffle, and Parmigiano that was served at this brunch, you wouldn't care who made it or where you were eating it. There was a rich, buttery sauce draped with black truffle shavings that sent you looking for a spoon and someone who couldn't finish theirs.
Omakase — O Ya (Boston)
"'O Ya' is a Japanese expression of curiosity," former restaurant critic Frank Bruni noted years ago after visiting the restaurant and trying to decide whether he was more in love with it or the West Coast vegetable-centric restaurant with yoga studio, Ubuntu. And if you could see yourself while eating there, or if you're just observing your dining companion's expressions, you'd understand its inspiration: "I'm in Boston? This place isn't run by someone Japanese? And I'm falling over myself, plate after plate? And I think I'm a sushi snob?"
Yes, you're in Boston. And you're fortunate to be there eating the tasting menu at O Ya. Partially seared fish. Delicately beautiful eel. High quality fish — all gorgeously prepared. So good. One of the best meals I ate all year.
Hot Pepper Bar Pie — Colony (Stamford, Conn.)
This thin crust bar pie institution in Stamford, Conn., is notorious for its no-frills demeanor, no-special-options policy, and for not making exceptions (though it occasionally bends the rules, as was the case with 2011's special Corned Beef and Cabbage Pizza for St. Patrick's Day). No matter, the standard fare, a bar pie that's no more than about three centimeters thick, is why everyone's here (and why some former employees may have left to start their own thin crust joint, Rico's Pizza). The basic move here, of course, is to drizzle Colony Grill's famed hot pepper oil over the pie, but even better is to order the bar pie with stinger peppers and then drizzle even more oil on top — sweet and spicy with a zesty sauce and cracker crust.
Pistachio Pie — Pizzeria Bianco (Phoenix)
Hype and food... it's sometimes a toss-up, whether the food at a storied place lives up to everything you've heard and read. Regardless, for pizza aficionados, Pizzeria Bianco in Phoenix, is a Neapolitan pilgrimage that must be done if they have any hope of being taken seriously when discussing America's best pizzas. Is it the country's best? It's excellent, but Motorino, Roberta's, Paulie Gee's, and Company in New York City might have something to say about that. So too Una Pizza Napoletana and Flour + Water in San Francisco. But one truly memorable pie at Bianco that you're not likely to see often elsewhere is one with pistachio, thinly sliced red onion, rosemary, and Parmigiano-Reggiano. Finely crushed pistachios spread evenly across the entire surface of the pie give great flavor and texture. Not a pie you're likely to forget.
Crespelle — Pane Bianco (Phoenix)
Pane Bianco, Chris Bianco's sandwich shop on North Central Avenue along the Valley Metro light rail line in Phoenix, does some mean sandwiches and, honestly, even better entrées. The antipasti and handmade mozzarella with local tomato and basil with olive oil are great; meatballs are moist and flavorful with a tangy, chunky sauce; and the tuna sandwich is good enough to convert the most devout tuna fish sandwich hater. But the crespelle are the kind of dish that sends you to your kitchen trying to replicate them — delicate and delicious with whole basil leaf in the sauce — awesome. You get to sop all that great sauce with the free Bianco bread, a thin, hard crust with soft, airy give inside.
Double Double Animal-Style — In-N-Out (Scottsdale, Ariz.)
Living on the East Coast means that ever since I first tasted In-N-Out's glorious Double-Double Animal-Style, anytime I'm remotely near In-N-Out I make it my mission to get my fix. In San Francisco on vacation? In-N-Out. Vegas bachelor party? In-N-Out. Wedding in Los Angeles? In-N-Out. L.A. eating tour? In-N-Out (twice, once on the way to LAX). So it was that while out in Arizona for the Scottsdale Culinary Festival judging an event, I found a way to continue this tradition. It's no secret the toasted bun, grilled onions, cheese-covered patty, and of course, In-N-Out's special sauce make the Double-Double one of America's best fast-food burgers. Sure, Shake Shack is better, but In-N-Out is still a destination burger.
Fried Chicken — FnB (Scottsdale, Ariz.)
Pavle Milic's restaurant in Scottsdale, Ariz., has garnered local acclaim and national attention since opening in late 2009. In the small kitchen behind the restaurant's 14-seat counter at FnB (Food & Beverage, a hat-tip to the service industry), chef Charleen Badman serves good seasonal food sourced from local farms and vendors. FnB's most famous dish may be the one Food & Wine named one of the 10 best restaurant dishes of 2010, the braised leeks with mozzarella, mustard breadcrumbs, and a fried egg. It's delicious, but even more memorable during a meal in April were the fried green tomatoes with green goddess dressing and feta, and the fried chicken (pictured), which had a crunchy exterior and fantastic moisture. If you can swing it, try to get in on Sunday nights where industry folks graze on dishes like chilaquiles, pho, sancocho, mac and cheese, Sonoran dog, and ramen.
Sichuan Button — Marc Forgione (New York City)
No offense to Iron Chef Marc Forgione, but of a tasting menu sampled at his eponymous TriBeCa restaurant in April, a palate cleanser was most memorable — a Sichuan button. They're by no means a new thing — they've long been known to people in South America, Asia, and North Africa — and have been making inroads in the States for years. Regardless, Marc Forgione was the first time I'd had one. There was a slight tingling and numbing of the tongue, a chill, a temporary electric zip that made you smile, if also make you wonder if you hadn't just blown out your palate ahead of the next course.
Prime Rib Sandwich — Eataly (New York City)
When Eataly opened, it sealed the reputation of the neighborhood in and around Madison Square Park as one of New York's food-scene darlings. But the crowds and the hype made it a tiring hassle to navigate. Still, there are some great sandwiches at the Rosticerria (Eataly's roasted meat station) worth pushing your way past tourists to sample.
After sampling all of them (click here to read about them all), it's clear that the sandwich served daily, the Prime Rib, is the best. It's the wettest sandwich and its rub is made with porcini powder, brown sugar, salt, black pepper, and chile flakes. It creates a slight crust, but the inside is very moist, like the best rare roast beef.
"Pacific Burger" — RUB BBQ (New York City)
At RUB BBQ in New York's Chelsea neighborhood, pit master Scott Smith takes time out of his barbecue duties every Monday to do a special burger. If you haven't sampled Smith's burger, or his weekly homage to regional and famed renditions, you've missed one of New York's City's most underrated burgers. In late April, Scott made what he called a "Pacific-style" burger, an homage to In-N-Out's Double-Double Animal Style. It was as close as you were going to get to satisfying a craving for the West Coast classic in New York, and in fact, it was better than the original. Scott's wet burgers are his best, and this one was wet with a wonderful char that's absent at In-N-Out.
Greek Salad — Taverna Cyclades (Queens, N.Y.)
You've heard about Taverna Kyclades, "that Greek place in Astoria," that one among the many there that's supposed to be the best. It has an hour-long wait (if you're lucky), a taxidermied swordfish on the wall, cramped and lacquered wood tables, and free galaktoboureko at meal's end (if they don't run out — they often do). Does it live up to the hype?
Roasted lemon potatoes, steamed dandelions, grilled quail, and the grilled seafood options (octopus, bass, red snapper, striped bass, dorata, and shark) are fresh, moist, and delicious with a squeeze of lemon. Most memorable may be the collection of cold antipasto dips (which includes skordalia, tzatziki, and taramosalata), and the Greek salad. There's not much to it — hunks of tomato, cucumber, slabs of feta, onions, and peperoncini — but covered in vinegar, olive oil, herbs, salt, and pepper, it's a culinary odyssey.
Pig Burger — Dixson Bar-B-Q (Knoxville, Tenn.)
Dixson Bar-B-Q is not always open, it's not in the best part of downtown Knoxville, it's easy to miss because it's set back from the street, and its signature dish, the pig burger, isn't much to look at, but it sure tastes like a heck of a lot. It's just two slices of white bread sandwiching grilled onions, barbeque sauce, and a pork patty. It's wrapped in foil, whether ordered to go or to eat there. The barbeque sauce is tomatoey and sweet with great smokiness. And the pork patty is juicy — made in front of you in about two minutes. You don't need much else in life. And I say all this having never been to Knoxville, but having had the sandwich brought back to me on an airplane and having eaten it no fewer than five or six hours after it was made. It was still one of the best things I ate all year.
White Asparagus, Mozzarella, Sorrel, Finger Lime, and Parmesan — JBF Pop-Up with Iñaki Aizpitarte and David Chang
Day 18 of last year's very successful JBF LTD (the James Beard Foundation pop-up in Chelsea Market) featured a meal by chef Iñaki Aizpitarte of Le Châteaubriand in Paris, and David Chang of the Momofuku empire. The many glasses of prosecco at the event couldn't fog memories of Iñaki Aizpitarte's white asparagus, mozzarella, sorrel, finger lime, and Parmesan ice. There was cooked, cold white asparagus, sorrel paired with tiny bursts of finger lime, a vague bacony essence, and wow, that Parmesan ice "shredded" over it all and dissolving in your mouth.
Oysters and Pearls — Per Se (New York City)
Eating the nine-course tasting menu on my birthday at Per Se with my girlfriend Angela was definitely one of the culinary highlights of our 2011. If you dream about food, if your pursuit is dishes, iconic and otherwise, Thomas Keller's Oysters and Pearls at Per Se in New York City is one of those dishes you've seen, heard, and dreamed about. And the sabayon of pearl tapioca with Island Creek oysters and sterling white sturgeon caviar tastes as good as it looks, and better than you imagined. There's a luxurious mouthfeel and plump, buttery oysters, and as you're eating it, you're simultaneously frustrated by and grateful for the small mother-of-pearl spoon it was served with. After all, you could eat a much, much bigger portion, and the spoon at least forces you to slow down.
"Pimm's Cup" — Per Se (New York City)
There were some wonderful dishes presented at Per Se after the signature amuse and Oysters and Pearls: torchon of Élevages Périgord Moulard duck foie gras with black winter truffle coulis, a sautéed fillet of Quinalt River sturgeon, butter-poached Nova Scotia lobster, herb-roasted Diamond H Ranch quail with "ranch dressing," and Snake River Farms' "calotte de boeuf." So it's funny that as delicious as these courses all were, a palate cleanser toward the meal's end was perhaps the most memorable dish.
The "Pimm's Cup" description — strawberry glace, English cucumbers, and Pimm's-lime granité — may not sound otherworldly, but it could serve as a standout dessert at most of the country's best restaurants. There was a paper-thin strip of dried rhubarb on top, tart and slightly sweet, and varying levels of not-too-sweet refreshment beneath.
Caviar - Urchin — Le Bernardin (New York City)
Started in Paris in 1972 and moved by Maguy Le Coze and her brother, the chef Gilbert Le Coze to Midtown Manhattan in 1986, Le Bernardin has a storied history. It's one of only seven restaurants in the city with three Michelin stars, and it's the restaurant that has held on to its four stars from The New York Times for the longest. That's in no small part due to its chef, Eric Ripert (a partner since 1994, when chef Le Goze died). Still, until its redesign last year, this high-end seafood specialist was pretty stuffy. No longer. After its renovation, the dining room, designed by Bentel & Bentel (architects for Gramercy Tavern and The Modern) the restaurant is now sleek and sophisticated. There are leather banquettes, a few fewer tables, and on the back wall, a 24-foot triptych painting of a stormy sea, "Deep Water No. 1," by Ran Ortner.
Before the renovation, I sat down to a birthday celebration tasting menu at Le Bernardin. It's going to sound like bragging, but it was a big birthday (35) and this was the second tasting menu I ate with my girlfriend in one day, the first being at Per Se. It was a gift, and as you can imagine, it was quite possibly one of the top three eating days in my life. Of the tasting menu at Le Bernardin, the most memorable dish was a shallow bowl of Osetra caviar nestled in tagliolini covered with warm sea urchin sauce.
Spicy Ramen — Ippudo NY (New York City)
When it comes to eating great ramen in New York City, here's what you have to ask yourself: How much do you mind being utterly annoyed? Because if you're heading to Ippudo NY, that's what you're going to be. On a Wednesday night at 7 p.m., it's a two and a half hour wait. Go on a Tuesday at 8 p.m. and it's a two hour wait. On a random Monday afternoon at 3 p.m., the waiting list will be longer than the kitchen will be open before closing to set up for dinner. On a Friday or Saturday... wait, never go on a Friday or Saturday unless you want to rack up a $200 sake bill at the bar and be so wasted you won't remember eating. Who knew the best way to get great ramen in the East Village without attitude was going to be to head to Momofuku Noodle Bar (you can usually walk away from a two hour wait at Ippudo and sit down at Momofuku within 15 minutes, why wait?).
Still, when you do get past the foyer and the unsympathetic hosts, the staff is friendly and the ramen, well, despite all the East Village ramen shops, it's hard to find places that match the umami flavor, the just-right cooked noodles, and the satisfaction you get from tipping the bowl to empty the last drops before walking out into the cold. That goes double if you order Ippudo Karaka Ramen — a spicy ramen served with minced pork and spicy paste. Make sure to add kakuni (braised pork belly).
Spicy Chicken Platter — Chick-fil-A (Hapeville, Ga.)
Visiting the spot where a chain's origin myth started can be fun. Such it is with Chick-fil-A, which started at The Dwarf House in Hapeville, Ga., an outlying part of Atlanta. There are 11 Dwarf House locations in the Atlanta metropolitan area, the main difference between them and other Chick-fil-A locations are that they are full-service restaurants in addition to fast-food service.
The spicy chicken platter with waffle fries comes with a toasted, buttered bun with dill pickle chips. The bottom bun gets condensed to become thin and a little sweet. Crunchy, crispy, salty, with a little mustard and zest. There's also a bottle of vinegar-soaked hot peppers for heat, and of course, sweet Chick-fil-A sauce and buttermilk ranch. It's a pretty tasty fast-food sandwich. Just don't tell the cows.
Cheeseburger — Varsity (Atlanta)
You can go inside the storied Varsity in Atlanta, but why would you when the carhop wants to chat you up? This place is a classic, one of 10 Classic American Drive-In Restaurants — the original opened in 1928. The Varsity claims their downtown joint is the world's largest drive-in. With two acres of space that "can accommodate 600 cars and over 800 people inside," it's hard to argue. They say when the Yellowjackets play at home, more than 30,000 people visit.
I've been hearing about the Varsity since Frank Bruni did his cross-country fast-food tour in 2006 for The Times. He called it one of two favorite stops in America. I wouldn't go that far, but these flat, greasy, pressed burgers have an addictive appeal. There's something going on with the buns around these parts — they get condensed and sweet, barely thick enough to contain the fine ground chili and gooey cheese. It goes down well with the chocolate milk shake, which is like an icier Wendy's Frosty.
Pimento Cheese — Empire State South (Atlanta)
If you've spent much of your life in New York, the words "pimento cheese" are likely to conjure up images of nasty solid cheese put out halfheartedly at bad dinner parties. The pimento cheese (usually sharp Cheddar blended with mayo, pimentos, salt, and pepper) at Hugh Acheson's Empire State South will realign your perception — it can be fantastic. It's one of the items offered "In Jars" at Empire State South — served with toast and bacon marmalade. Incidentally, the dude is funny. On a visit in May, chef Acheson came out to say hello, reinforcing his title of Top Chef Masters' king of the one-liners.
Burger — Holeman & Finch (Atlanta)
George Motz came up with the epic list of old-school American burgers, but there's a younger buzzworthy class. If you haven't eaten them, you've heard of a few — at Minetta Tavern, Father's Office, and Holeman & Finch. Each night at Holeman & Finch in Atlanta, 24 double cheeseburgers are assembled on house-made buns and served with hand-cut fries, homemade ketchup, mustard, and pickles. Sometimes they sell out in less than a minute.
I'd heard about this burger for a year and had a chance to score one during the Atlanta Food & Wine Festival. But why chance it at night when you can easily get one at Sunday brunch when chef Linton Hopkins says they serve about 200? It was a tasty burger, but the condiments are some of its most distinctive attributes — homemade ketchup and mustard with more aroma and texture than you're used to. Linton noted that when he was going through treatment for cancer and lost his appetite, he never lost his palate for cheeseburgers. This was the burger he could eat. You can see why.
Chicken and Dumplings — Mary Mac's (Atlanta)
Mary Mac's Tea Room was opened in Atlanta in 1945 by Mary McKenzie, one of several enterprising women (some widows) who opened restaurants in the area featuring Southern cooking in the days after World War II. The restaurant changed hands twice, to Margaret Lupo (1962 — 1994) and then to John Ferrell, Mrs. Lupo’s handpicked successor. You're not going to get Michelin-starred food, and a visit may be more about nostalgia, but here's what you do get: a friendly hello at the door, a sheet that you scribble your order on, a complimentary cup of collard greens pot likker, and for anyone who loves Southern food, an array of classics — fried green tomatoes, okra, mudbugs, country-fried steak, meatloaf, fried whole catfish, fried oysters, sautéed chicken livers... you get the idea. There's something about knowing Mary Mac's is there that's comforting. The chicken and dumplings were just as satisfying six years after the first time I had them, and there's the added benefit that it's open on Sundays when many other places are closed.
Duck Lunch — Momofuku Ssäm Bar (New York City)
It's always exciting when David Chang does something new with his Momofuku empire (now that he's expanding internationally, it's becoming a bit harder to keep up with everything firsthand), especially when it's a large-format meal, so when the chef closed down the Ssäm Bar Milk Bar and reopened it across the street, and started a rotisserie duck lunch in the former Milk Bar space, you got yourself there quickly. So it was with the duck lunch when it launched in May.
The duck lunch options (all using Crescent Farms duck) include duck dumpling soup, rotisserie duck over rice with chive pancakes, fried duck dumplings, a duck sandwich, and dirty rice with duck gizzards and hearts. Of these, rotisserie is best, but second is the duck dumpling soup with scallions, bok choy, and jicama — a well-seasoned, smooth consommé with deep flavor and juicy dumplings.
Spiedino di Pesce — Eataly (New York City)
When the weather improves in New York City, New Yorkers start shedding layers and wanting to eat outside during lunch. This year, at the temporary outdoor food court in the pedestrian plaza between Madison Square Park and Eataly, just north of 23rd Street and Fifth Avenue, one of the stalls was actually an outdoor stand for Mario Batali's Eataly. The stand served a spiedino di pesce. Now, embarrassingly, I'm unable to remember what kind of fish it was, but it was truly one of the best lunches I had all year. There were two skewers of alternating fish and potato fried in a tempura-like batter that was studded with huge caperberries and accompanied by caramelized lemon. The fish was super flavorful and moist, with punctuation bursts of briny, sour caperberry. Here's to hoping spring 2012 means a return of this dish.
Pretzel Soup — Moto (Chicago)
Moto is in Chicago's West Loop on the same block as chef Grant Achatz's new restaurant Next, and the revolutionary adjoining cocktail lounge, The Aviary. To put it nicely, that's about as close as chef Homaro Cantu's Moto gets to being avant-garde. Moto has high ambitions, and mostly, it falls far short of them. There's too much form over substance — lots of ideas and showmanship, and little to back them up. You get the feeling during your meal that the folks are out of town, and the kids have free reign with their chemistry sets. That said, despite its cutesy snowman amuse-bouche, faux Cuban cigar (really, Chris Jones, you did that on Top Chef Texas too?), and eye-dropper desserts, there was a dish at Moto that's flavor truly was memorable: Pretzel Soup.
A teardrop bowl is brought out with cubes of 4-year-old Wisconsin Cheddar, macedoine "brats," and freeze-dried scallions at its bottom. The server then cracks open a "bottle of beer," which really contains a clear "pretzel" consommé, and pours it into the bowl. It may all sound just as convoluted as the other dishes on the tasting menu seemed, but the flavor of this soup really was impressive. It truly reinterpreted the cheese, brat, pretzel, and beer combination and brought them together in a deeply satisfying way.
Double Dog — Wolfy's (Chicago)
Wolfy's may not have the following or fame of Hot Doug's, Wiener's Circle, Portillo's, or Superdawg, but it's clean, it's been around since being founded by Mickey Becker in 1967 (it was taken over by Peter Romas in 1999), and something about its name and roller-rink décor makes it comforting and appealing. There are now two locations, one on West Peterson Avenue and one on West Roosevelt Road. They do the Chicago signature soft top-loading bun lined with mustard and a long pickle spear between two juicy franks covered by onions, relish, celery salt, sport peppers, and two half-moon slices of red tomato. The Vienna Beef double dog is the perfect ratio of meat to toppings.
Ginger Cocktail — The Aviary (Chicago)
At The Aviary, Grant Achatz and Nick Kokonas' cocktail venture in Chicago, the experience, from sense of place to taste, is achieved with playfulness, authenticity, and even restraint — creating one of America's most interesting cocktail pilgrimages.
The Ginger has to be considered one of the best cocktails at The Aviary. It consists of Peychaud's, shiso, lime, vodka, and a light, quasi-powdery "ice" that's more like snow, the lightest snow you can imagine. And are those tracing-paper thin slices of hot pepper? You're instructed to pour in the vodka, then mix the drink using the lemongrass swizzle stick. The texture approximately puts the Ginger in a genre of ice slushie that also includes the Commonwealth Narwhal in San Francisco, and the amazing liquid nitrogen caipirinha at The Bazaar in L.A. But it's in a class of its own. It's the best cocktail I've ever had. Besides its flavor and texture, there are fingerling lime vesicles that burst in your mouth while you're drinking and then even after you've finished the drink. During a seven-flight cocktail tasting, this effect of flavor lingering seemed to occur several times — amazing.
Sazerac — The Aviary (Chicago)
If you're a cocktail geek, you've no doubt seen or heard about the Sazerac at The Aviary. The ice sphere contains the drink (demerarra, Peychaud's, and rye). It's cracked open and the cocktail spills out. When you experience something like this, the adjective "cool," as simple and overused as it might be, seems to have found its higher calling.
"Potato" — The Aviary (Chicago)
It may be listed on the menu at The Aviary as "Potato (custard, malt vinegar chips, chive)", but it tastes like the most amazing tater tot in the world. Imagine the lightest, smoothest, savory potato custard rolled in something akin to tater tot Rice Krispies.
Chili Cheese Fries — Devil Dawgs (Chicago)
You know there's absolutely nothing healthy about it — crispy fries served in a tall, thick Styrofoam cup that are completely covered and smothered with wet, small-grind chili and liquid cheese. But you really just don't care. You stick your finger and thumb into that thick, molten yellow-gold mess and try to find that first fry, the one that will unlock the others from the tasty mess above. One after another the Devil Dawgs chili cheese fries disappear the same way, a messy puzzle that halfway down the cup is still full of enough toppings to get you to the bottom.
Hot Dog — Murphy's Red Hots (Chicago)
There are many great hot dogs in Chicago, but there's something special about Bill Murphy's dogs. They come with all the regular Chicago fixings, but the difference here is that they're split, char-grilled, and placed on a split roll — not a conventional hot dog bun, but a fresh bread roll, which also makes Murphy's hot dog more filling as a meal.
English Pea — Alinea (Chicago)
From the red hallway entrance and the open kitchen where you can watch chef Grant Achatz in his kitchen, its cooks operating with quiet precision, to the course after course of playfulness and delight, the tasting menu at Alinea in Chicago is all that you've heard, all that you're hoping for, and more. It's hard to choose one dish to represent a whole meal, so following are four of the 18 served.
The dish that offered most in terms of both flavor and texture was English Pea (olive oil, chamomile, and green apple) — three layers in an orb with two removable parts. On top was a pea purée, with skinned peas and pea shoots dressed with lemon. Smooth, fresh, and garden beautiful. Underneath was a layer of freeze-dried peas, pea meringue, grape jelly, and olive oil jelly. Cool, smooth, sweet, and savory. Then under that there's Parmesan cream, apple sorbet, and a cold pea soup. Tangy, salty, sweet, and creamy. A central ingredient, three ways, all delicious.
Black Truffle Explosion — Alinea (Chicago)
Chef Grant Achatz's Black Truffle Explosion was the dish he served to Henry Adaniya when trying out for the job of chef of the Evanston, Ill., restaurant Trio, where he really started to make his name. It was a dish Achatz was inspired to create at the French Laundry, while watching the staff butcher remove chilled sous vide bags filled with duck confit from the refrigerator, seeing the gelled stock melt in his warm hands while removing the duck, and noticing a fellow chef making agnolotti from an egg yolk-laden pasta dough using a recipe handed to Thomas Keller by a Piedmontese grandmother. Needless to say, Achatz got the job.
After being discontinued for a while, the dish found its way to Alinea, where Achatz's partner Nick Kokonas noted, "If he didn't make it at Alinea, someone would shoot him. Probably me." In order to make the raviolo, they buy a mountain of black truffles at the end of the year and make a stock. "Last year we had three huge stockpots going at once," Achatz explained in his Alinea cookbook, "The kitchen smelled incredible." The Black Truffle Explosion is just what you'd imagine from its name, a truffle broth soup dumpling (topped with Parmesan and romaine) — the kind of dish that you savor judiciously, the kind of dish that the folks with more money at the other table order another round of. It really is one of the best bites of food I ate all year.
Agneau — Alinea (Chicago)
It's not everyday you come across an Escoffier dish at a restaurant, but having one at chef Grant Achatz's restaurant, Alinea, kind of makes sense. Not because you feel like the chef has anything to prove about demonstrating technique, but because hey, the truly great artists didn't just start out by going free-form, they actually learned classic technique and knew how to draw first. Here, with "Agneau," an Elysian Fields lamb loin was served on croutons with asparagus tips, artichoke hearts, chorron sauce (like a béarnaise but with tomato purée), and Yukon Gold potatoes. If this is part of what inspired Next's Paris 1906 menu, the folks who got to sample the full tasting truly were lucky.
Chocolate, Blueberry, Honey, Peanut — Alinea (Chicago)
You eat 17 courses at Alinea in Chicago, each with its own nuances and surprises, and when you reach dessert, you're simultaneously sad to know your meal has come to and end, and still ready for one last surprise. You get two. A delicious dessert, "Chocolate," artfully plated, on most nights by chef Grant Achatz himself. "I think that coming out to the table for dessert enhances the experience as well, not because I think I’m better at it than my sous chef or anyone else, but because people get a kick out of it," he noted in a recent interview. Blueberry, honey, and peanut are listed on the menu, but something about it just reminds you of a fresh, light Reese's Peanut Butter Cup in the best possible way.
Watermelon — Riverpark (New York City)
Sometimes the simplest dishes are the most memorable. A new presentation, or just something you've never seen sticks with you, alters your perspective, gets incorporated into your culinary repertoire, and shared with your family and friends. I'd never had chile pepper and salt on watermelon until the opening of Riverpark, Tom Colicchio's newest restaurant on a garden plaza in Kip's Bay on Manhattan's East River. Now, I've never eaten at the restaurant, but at the opening in June, there was a nice spread of food on the tables outside and a plate of watermelon wedges covered with lime, sea salt, and espelette chili powder really struck a chord. Zip, salt, and juicy sweet melon made for a spicy, refreshing treat.
Alsatian Flatbread — Edi & the Wolf (New York City)
It's pretty amazing to live around the corner from one of your favorite restaurants in New York City. I had that situation for a year when living literally around the corner from Momofuku Ssäm Bar. To move farther east into Alphabet City and to live around the corner from another favorite New York City restaurant, Edi & the Wolf, is a real treat. Executive chefs Eduard “Edi” Frauneder and Wolfgang “the Wolf” Ban created a packed, comforting, and unpretentious spot on Avenue C inspired by the “Heuriger,” the casual, neighborhood wine taverns popular in their native Austria. There are many fantastic things to eat, including baby back ribs, the slow-poached farm eggs, and the wiener schnitzel. But the Alsatian flatbreads are the dish I look forward to having every time I go. No, it's not pizza, but a thin crackly bread topped with blue ricotta, pears, crème fraîche, cipollini onions, Gruyère, speck, and horseradish.
Love Shack's Nachos — Fort Worth, Texas
The best nachos are those with as much, or more, toppings as chips. At Love Shack, chef Tim Love's burger joint in Fort Worth, Texas, they've got this figured out. The chips are crisp and fresh, and there's an even, gooey, coating of cheese. It almost seems as though they layer it on the bottom before creating the chip layer. You won't find yourself in that situation where you reach the bottom and there's no cheese. And how often can you say that? There's shredded lettuce, guacamole, fresh and spicy jalapeños — these are nachos to contend with.
Imperial Cane Sugar Dr Pepper — Dublin, Texas
I drink soda on rare occasions — Cherry Coke with popcorn at the movies, Coke with a New York City pizza, Orangina with a Neapolitan pie in Naples. No, I'm not particular or anything. OK, I am, but it's because I'd prefer to spend the calories on great food, and because diet soda tastes like chemicals. An exception is Mexican Coke, always difficult to turn down because it uses real sugar. So it was a revelation to taste Dublin Dr Pepper in Dublin, Texas, which uses Imperial cane sugar, for a flavor that would rival any Mexican Coke. The bottling plant is 100 miles southwest of Forth Worth, in a town that for 51 weeks a year is called Dublin. That other week, by proclamation of the Dublin City Council, the town takes on the honorary name of the soda, becoming Dr Pepper, Texas. That is, that's the way things were before Dr Pepper Snapple sued the mom-and-pop business and won in early January, ruining a small town in Texas.
SnoSour — Coconut Hut (Stephenville, Texas)
No one's saying the Coconut Hut in Stephenville, Texas, is the best ice spot in the country, but it introduced me to two things I personally hadn't ever tasted: SnoSour and pickle ice. SnoSour, for the uninitiated, is a sour acid that's stronger and tarter than citric acid. A squirt of this on sweet shaved ice adds a more interesting, if literally face-puckering, dimension to your run-of-the-mill grape or cherry ice. As for the pickle juice sno-cone, well, they were all out. So until I'm able to find a place that's not, I'll have to make do with a recipe I conjured from my own imaginings.
Ribs and Hard 8 Beans — Hard Eight Barbecue (Stephenville, Texas)
There are three locations of the Hard Eight BBQ in Texas, but the first one was started in the little town of Stephenville in 2003. It's named for a small whitetail ranch in Brady, Texas, that the owners named “Hard-Eight Whitetail Ranch” after a huge 8-point buck that became its mascot (and well, because they like playing craps in Vegas). Outside in the vast parking lot, there's a huge woodpile that fuels the outdoor barbecue pit underneath the wood covering. You point, the pitmaster piles on juicy pork ribs and brisket, and you head in for sides, the best being the Hard 8 Beans (free!), cooked low and slow with enough whole jalapeños that every eight or so people could probably pick out their own. Pop open one of those peppers and shovel the spoonfuls in one after another. You'll be surrounded by locals, few BBQ tourists, and real folk with cowboy hats.
Garlic Cheese Fries — Yankee Stadium (New York City)
The inaugural year at the new Yankee Stadium marked the first appearance of garlic fries at a New York ballpark. And they're good — a fan favorite. But as any pinstripe believer waiting on line between innings could tell you, a funny thing started to happen. Fans asked for garlic fries with cheese. Sounds nasty, right? You'd watch it happen time and again, and concession stand workers would say no. "We're not allowed."
Now, I've tried to get this answered, but the Yanks are mum. But I'll tell you, maybe it's the fact that they won a World Series in the park's first year that loosened them up, but over the past two years things have changed. You can have your garlic fries with cheese. And as this-is-why-you're-fat as it sounds, it's really something not to miss. A few napkin pockets layered on the tray filled with ketchup and hot sauce, and you're in business. It's a gooey, garlicky, cheesy mess with zip, sweetness, vinegar, and salt. You get a large thinking you'll share it, but it'll be halfway gone by the time you reach the bleachers.
Burger — Korzo (New York City)
How many signs outside restaurants in New York read, "Best Burger in New York City"? Probably as many as there are "Best Coffee," "Best Pizza," and "Best Line of Baloney." That's what you think when you walk by Korzo on East Seventh Street between Avenue A and B across from Tompkins Square Park. Then you figure, "Eh, let's give it a shot," and you end up telling everyone about it and asking why, if they knew about it, for crying out loud, they didn't tell you. It's a deep-fried burger for the love of all things holy! The couple behind Korzo are Maria and Otto Zizak, who met in "the 2nd grade of their grammar school, in the mountain resort town of Poprad — an eastern region of what was then Czechoslovakia." The restaurant serves Eastern European comfort food, and one of the city's most underrated burgers.
Langos, the Hungarian fried bread is made according to Maria's three-generation-old family recipe. Otto makes mustard from organic Saskatchewan seeds soaked in Korzo Organic Ale (which he brews with Peak Organic Brewing Company). The meat gets mustard and apple-smoked organic bacon and is wrapped in the langos dough and deep fried. They halve it and the resulting burger is juicy and delicious as all hell, its juices self-contained in a fried dough pocket. You don't understand. You need to eat this burger.
Duck Dinner — Momofuku Ssäm Bar (New York City)
You've had the Momofuku Noodle Bar fried chicken dinner and the Momofuku Ssäm Bar bo ssäm, and you think the Momofuku crew can't one-up themselves. It just can't get better. Then you have the Má Pêche beef seven ways as imagined by David Chang's co-chef Tien Ho, and after a good, but less transcendental experience, you think, "Yup, they met their match. It just didn't click the way the other two did." So you're skeptical when you hear about a second large format reservation at Ssäm Bar. But you have the duck lunch and after a great meal you're intrigued and you go ahead and make the rotisserie duck dinner reservation. From there you never look back.
Order some pickled vegetables while you wait for the platter: chive pancakes, Bibb lettuce, hoisin, duck scallion, crispy shallots, and your choice of two sides. The duck has a crispy skin and the meat inside is so moist, airy, and juicy that it's hard to believe. It's almost like duck breast masquerading with sausage flavor. And then there's the duck confit patty they slide in there. Crispy, juicy, and crazy good. You make your Bibb taco with breast, confit, sauces, scallion, and shallots, and forget Chinatown Peking duck altogether.
Chopped Liver — Sammy's Roumanian (New York City)
Sammy's Roumanian has been schticking it up in that fluorescent-lit basement on the Lower East Side since it was opened by Stan "Sammy" Zimmerman in 1975. You imagine this Jewish steakhouse just sprang into existence, with all the following years' now-faded photos already taped to the wall. When it comes to the atmosphere and the live music, that's actually almost the case — violinist Ruby Levine, whose regular gig was playing Sammy's, started the first week it opened, and entertained customers until his death in 1998. Sammy has moved on (his son took over), but the music continues, and so does the fun atmosphere, steady pour of ice-cold vodka, and the iconic New York dining experience that is Sammy's.
Of anything eaten at Sammy's, the chicken liver mixed tableside has to be one of the most tasty and memorable. The caramelized onions, strips of turnip, grated radish, chopped onions, gribenes, and the stream of chicken fat poured into the bowl, make for a sweet, salty, full-contact flavor and texture. One of New York's best chopped livers? Hard to say. Most entertaining? You bet.
Double ShackBurger (with Pickle) — Shake Shack (New York City)
Slowly, steadily, Danny Meyer is changing the landscape of the burger world with Shake Shack. It all started in Madison Square Park in 2004 when he opened the first of his "roadside stands" serving burgers, hot dogs, and custards, which if you recall, closed during winter. Now there are six more locations in New York City (one in Brooklyn, and one introducing legions of Mets fans to the best thing to do in CitiField given the state of the team), and six more in Miami; Connecticut; Washington D.C.; Saratoga Springs, N.Y., Dubai, and Kuwait, with rumored plans for more on the way.
This was the year that I started beating the Shake Shack drum, noting to Californians and anyone else I could find, that Shake Shack is better than In-N-Out, better than Five Guys, and better than most other burgers you'll find in New York, and anywhere else in the country. It's a hard sell, but most people, if they're open-minded and honest, usually do come to the same conclusion. It was also the year that more of Shake Shack's nuances (and "secret" menu) were revealed. You can for example, ask for you burger with pickles and onions, for an even better burger, one with crunchy tang and vinegary flavor.
Ebi — Bohemian (New York City)
From your first approach, Bohemian inspires that sense of unease, of not being in on the secret. There's no sign or indication of a restaurant on Great Jones Street in NoHo. The first time you walk down "Basquiat Road" (he died in his loft at this address) the plain hallway adjacent to Japan Premium Beef in search of one of its only six tables, you're likely to be rebuffed for not having a reservation. Trouble is, the phone number isn't online and the article you read calling it the "most mysterious restaurant in New York," says something about friends passing along "Bohemian's secret phone number" and having your references "checked." It's not that complicated. Go down the hallway, get rebuffed, ask for the number and you're given a card with it.
Once you have that reservation, you get access to the small, homey dining room, some à la carte options and a six-course tasting menu. Some rave about the Washugyu beef sliders, whose meat is the first pick of the good stuff being sold at Japan Premium Beef. They're pretty good, but the quality of the seafood and its expert presentation is more impressive. On a visit in August, raw ebi presented spritzed with a bit of lime were fresh, sweet, and tangy.
Foie Gras Soba — Bohemian (New York City)
Hurricane Meatballs — Maroni (Northport, N.Y.)
You don't know quite what to expect from chef Michael Maroni's tasting menu at his Northport restaurant, Maroni, on Long Island — baked clams casino, sashimi, lobster bisque, Memphis-style barbecue ribs — there doesn't seem to be a cohesive theme. He could send out Fruit Loops and you wouldn't be shocked. Truthfully, it's not the best tasting menu you'll ever have, but it's more than worth the trip for "Grandma Maroni's Famous Meatballs and Spaghetti." The order of the phrasing makes sense here — it's about the meatballs. They're the juicy and moist, and served in a smooth, tangy gravy that's not too sweet, allowing the flavor of the meatballs to keep your attention. These are the kind of meatballs you'd even be happy to eat cold out of the fridge.
And that's exactly what I did at the end of August because my reservation for the tasting happened just as Hurricane Irene descended on Long Island. The restaurant finished serving the tasting menu as rain started to strike the windows. After paying the bill, we were presented with a parting gift: a free, huge, full pot of "Hurricane meatballs." They were closing early and didn't want them to go bad. Forget duct tape, that's hurricane preparedness. I'll tell you this, two days of eating Maroni meatballs wasn't enough.
Pastry — Lagkagehuset (Copenhagen, Denmark)
In 2007, I quit my job working the line in a New York City restaurant, packed a backpack, bought a ticket to London and a Eurorail pass, and left behind everything for a four-month culinary walkabout through Europe. I ate too many wonderful things to recount (among them a five-Euro pizza at Da Michele in Naples that I'd pay 10 times that for if you could put it in front of me right now). But one of the highlights was eating pastry in Copenhagen, which before I sampled them at Sankt Peders Bageri, were described to me as so good that they would make the "birds cry." But the pastry at Lagkagehuset was transcendental. There's a thin layer of pastry, a layer of sweet, but not-too-sweet cream, and a thin layer of chocolate powder-dusted marzipan.
Unfortunately, I didn't make it back to Copenhagen this year. But my folks did, and they went to Lagkagehuset, and brought one back. A day old, it was still delicious, bringing back a flood of great other food memories in Denmark and at least 10 other countries. There's a reason they call these things "Danishes."
Taco Bar — Taqueria Los Coyotes (San Francisco)
On a Friday or Saturday night, a block and a half from Mission, near the corner of 16th and Julian, the open door and well-lit sign of Taqueria Los Coyotes in San Francisco shines like a welcoming beacon to the hungry, forlorn, and weary East Coast traveler starving for tacos in a city that's restaurants close far earlier than anyone back home would ever understand (La Taqueria closes at 9 p.m. on a Friday?!). But it's not just the late hours that make Los Coyotes great. If it was, you could just go to the dirty and overrated El Farolito nearby that's open until 3 a.m. daily (why would you pervert your taste bud recall of a burrito at La Taqueria with inferior meat, flavor, and assembly at Farolito?). It's the taco bar that makes Coyotes stand out. The five different salsas (including the renowned mango salsa); beautiful, fresh pico de gallo; whole roasted jalapeños; pickled jalapeños, onions, and carrots; lime wedges, radish wedges, and many kinds of hot sauces make this taco bar one of a kind.
Michelada — Taqueria Los Coyotes (San Francisco)
You want a michelada? Taqueria Los Coyotes knows how to make a michelada. This is a michelada made for a king. It's served in a goblet for crying out loud. The rim has a thick ring of spicy chile salt, there are some serious ice cubes, citrus, and hot sauce. It's spicy, tangy, and completely refreshing.
Special Pie — Cheese Board (Berkeley, Calif.)
Cheese Board gets pizza lovers in Berkeley lining up outside and sitting down on the grass median between traffic. That has to be some good pizza, right? Yeah, it is pretty good. And the whole idea behind Cheese Board is cool, too. But you probably know the story by now: The spot opened as a small cheese store in 1967, and four years later, the two owners sold it to their employees, creating a 100 percent worker-owned business of which they remained a part. Cheese Board's pizza program started in 1985. During shifts, employees "started making pizzas for [them]selves by cutting off hunks of extra sourdough baguette dough, grabbing favorite cheeses from the counter and throwing on vegetables from the market next door." After regular hours on Fridays, they started serving one vegetarian pizza, using fresh ingredients, and unusual cheeses atop of a thin, sourdough crust.
On a visit in September, the special pie was one featuring Roma tomatoes, onions, Bulgarian feta, mozzarella, cilantro, garlic olive oil, lemon zest and juice. While the cornicione was a bit heavy, sitting on the median was fun, and you really have to love the liberal use of lemon. That's something to steal.
Fried Wolfe Ranch Quail — Chez Panisse (Berkeley, Calif.)
On an early September afternoon, my first Chez Panisse experience started off perfectly fine. The dining room was still papered with the menus collected during the past 40 years of the Chez Panisse experience. There were menus for meals in honor of Hillary Clinton, the Dalai Lama, and other famous people. You looked around thinking, "Now that's pretty cool wallpaper — they should keep that up."
It started off memorably in the way that for anyone interested in food, it was a necessary checklist experience, if not an experimental, otherworldly one. There was a pizza with wild nettles and Pecorino; a pizetta with gypsy peppers and capers; and a pipérade — wood oven-baked peppers, tomato, and eggs with paprika and garlic toast — all respectable. That all changed with the fried Wolfe Ranch quail with shell beans, amaranth, and tomatillo salsa. There was a delicate fry, the bird was juicy, with garlicky wet beans beneath, and tomatillo tang — a dish to recall fondly for its execution, comfort, and paired flavors.
Mission Hot Dog — San Francisco
Lucero Muñoz Arellano has gone legit, going from unpermitted hot dog vendor dodging cops to, as SFWeekly's Lauren Smiley called her, "legit queen of the scene," only to learn that a permit isn't a golden ticket. Turns out going into the trailer meant the smell of her bacon-wrapped dogs disappeared from the sidewalk. No worries. She's set up her illegal stand in front of her permitted trailer, and the cops seem OK with it. So once again, you can show up in the Mission and follow your nose to some of the best dogs outside Chicago.
But these bacon-wrapped dogs have no allegiance to the Windy City's "no ketchup" mantra. They get covered in onions, squirted with mayonnaise, mustard, ketchup, and topped with a healthy scattering of about 12 slices of pickled jalapeños. The bacon gets crunchy, the dog spurts juice, you've got creaminess, tang, and spice — you knew the Mission did tacos and burritos, but those street dogs... expect more ink on them.
Xiao Long Bao — Yank Sing (San Francisco)
Yank Sing (said to mean "a delight of the heart"), the popular dim sum restaurant in the financial district, was founded by Alice Chan in 1958. This third-generation family-run restaurant creates almost 100 items a day that are rolled out into the dining room. On weekends, the crowd spills out into the Rincon Atrium, where long catering tables are set up with white tablecloths a little farther from their normal squeaky journeys inside.
Stepping into a conversation about San Francisco's best dim sum with a visit to Yank Sing is dangerous, but complimenting the merits of its xiao long bao, well, that's well-tread ground — after all, SFWeekly included them in SFoodie's 92 just a few years ago. Thin dumpling skin, pursed plump dumplings, a dash of vinegar, perfection. Wait, was that a xiao long bao haiku?
Barbecued Oysters — Hog Island Oyster Co. (Tomales Bay, Calif.)
Hog Island is one of those in-their-parents' garage stories, only in this case, it was a $500 loan that John Finger and Michael Watchorn took out from their parents, and a five-acre lease on northern Tomales Bay on which they used the French rack and bag method for cultivating oysters in 1983. Their first bushels were delivered to Zuni Café, Pacific Heights Bar and Grill, and Chez Panisse — not bad.
Now they seem to be everywhere. But the most fun place to eat them may be right on the water along Highway 1 in Marshall, where if you make picnic reservations (or you just drive up and get lucky) you can go up to the boat half-buried in the ground, and order some barbecued oysters. Dressed with garlic, butter, beer, chipotle, and honey, they're hot and plump, briny and sweet. You could easily put away two dozen before even realizing you've forgotten to share.
Grilled Oysters — Tomales Bay Oyster Company (Marshall, Calif.)
You motor up, down, and around the hills and roads of San Francisco, take the Golden Gate Bridge out of town, take 101 to Highway 1, and drive, just drive, hopefully in a muscle car. But even navigating these turns in a jalopy would make a man happy, looking at the water on the left, the landscape on the right, all in the face of oncoming traffic with equally distracted, heavy-footed drivers. It couldn't get better, right? Wrong. Pull off in Marshall at the Tomales Bay Oyster Company, buy some oysters and charcoal from the stand with the logo of the scantily clad, blousy-bodiced lady, and set to grilling. The sun glints off the water, smoke spreads over the picnic area, everyone's talking, and the oysters finally steam open, plump, juicy, and hot. A quick jigger of hot sauce, you slurp one back, and there's no reason to ever go back to wherever you're trying to get away from.
Boudin Blanc — Bouchon (Yountville, Calif.)
Bouchon is based on chef Thomas Keller's memories of the bistros he frequented while traveling in France, where meals were served family style in very small dining rooms. It's really hard to find any flaws with the décor, the service, or practically anything inside — this is the kind of place where you sit down at the table and star moaning over the restaurant's freshly made bread and butter. But you'd better save room for the raw bar, Terrine de Foie Gras de Canard, and Soupe à l'Oignon.
But perhaps the best dish at Bouchon, the best dish I tasted all year, was the Boudin Blanc. Don't mistake me, I expected this to be good. I just didn't expect it to be this good. The casing was thin and sauté-tanned on top and bottom, cradling French prunes and potato purée. You sliced through the casing and inside the sausage was truly beyond description. I don't tend to gush, but I've had one better sausage in my life, and that was in Zurich. Airy, juicy, soft — truly amazing.
Orange Rind, Green Tomato, and Melon Float — Ubuntu (Napa Valley, Calif.)
When The New York Times' then-critic, Frank Bruni gushed over Ubuntu in 2008, you knew you had to go: "You don’t just walk out on Angelina. You stay until she makes you go." The Napa restaurant, for the uninitiated, is a next-level vegetarian affair with a yoga studio on the second floor. Diners, expect sweaty yogis in the dining room mid-tasting. With chef Jeremy Fox moving on, you wondered about Ubuntu, but last September, that was me, believe it or not, walking out of the yoga studio and through the dining room. "How can you visit Ubuntu," we thought, "and not do yoga?"
I'm no yogi. I've done 15 classes. And the padded floor studio upstairs was hot. But it looked out on beautiful landscape, and while you didn't smell food, you could hear plates and cutlery — incentive to nail the crow pose. After walking out through the dining room and changing in the car, we dug into a meal, that due to physical exertion, we felt we deserved more than most others I remember. As good as everything was, the opener was most memorable: Orange Rind, Green Tomato, and Melon Float with local "Marcona" almonds, homemade vadouvan, and sweet herbs. Imagine the best cold soup you ever had — cool, sweet, salty, and refreshing. It certainly didn't seem as though the restaurant had fallen out of position.
Caviar and Champagne — Domaine Carneros (Napa Valley, Calif.)
Eating caviar and drinking a champagne flight at Domaine Carneros in Napa Valley, overlooking the green valley and squinting to make out the wooden sheep on the green hill facing the chateau, you feel like you've done something to deserve such a life — permanently. And given the champagne, caviar, and the view, you get the feeling that it would make you feel that way even if you'd been born with a mother-of-pearl spoon in your mouth. American Sturgeon and crême fraîche with a 2007 flight of vintage brut cuvée, brut rosé, and vermeil demi-sec — if, like me, this was not a lifestyle you grew up with, you sure want to figure out a way between swallows of caviar and sips of champagne, to make it one to go out on.
Amuse Bouche — Meadowood (Saint Helena, Calif.)
You have to marvel at Meadowood in Napa Valley, Calif. Chef Chris Kostow helms a three-Michelin-starred restaurant, but that's not good enough. The whole thing has to undergo a renovation under the direction of architect Howard Backen and designer George Federighi, one that stretches from the dining room to the kitchen, which is supposedly being outfitted with "new 'superior' equipment," and a five-seat Chef’s Counter, all slated to reopen on March 12.
If Meadowood is getting better, and you have a reservation, you're in for a treat. A tasting menu in September was on a par with a meal at Per Se, and was possibly one of the three best start-to-finish meals we ate all year. The opening dish involved cured horse mackerel with green grapes and a sorbet of unripe tomato was tart and texturally brilliant. But the amuse stuck in my head even more — cold "snow" from under which crunchy vegetal stems protruded, an innovative, side-open bowl.
Carnaroli Risotto — Meadowood (Napa Valley, Calif.)
A meal at Meadowood is one that's difficult to describe without hyperbole. Following the light, cool opener, there was course of garden cucumbers roasted in pine, and served with smoked potato, borage (starflower), and sesame. Not long after, there was foie gras enrobed in licorice, with wild fennel, glazed cherries, and pinch cake. And as the sun disappeared, and shadows cast through the dining room, there was abalone and chicken thigh with geoduck clam, matsutake, and cress. I don't typically get excited about rice, but the carnaroli risotto with roasted chanterelles, brown butter, and young walnut was outstanding for its richness and vinegary tang.
Oysters — Drake's Bay Oyster Co. (Inverness, Calif.)
If you're leaving from San Francisco and looking to hit the major oyster quartet off Highway 1 (Tomales Bay, Nick's Cove, Hog Island, and Drake's Bay), you're going to want to get an early start. Of these, none is more remote than Drake's — to its detriment, in fact (it's at risk of closing). Far from a slight detour, depending on the time of day, it's a twisty, fog-filled, one-car-only drive off the scenic strip. But it's worth it. The oyster farm is run by the fourth generation of the Lunny Family, which took over local stewardship a century ago. It's a beautiful setting, and these are some of the largest oysters you're ever going to see. They're as big as your hand. No hyperbole. Find an NBA player. Give him a Drake's Bay oyster. It will be as big as his hand. They're monsters — tough to open — and when you do get them open, they're hard to swallow without chewing. They're huge. While likely better eaten fried, grilled, pan-roasted, or hell, as steaks, Drake's Bay oysters are still delicious raw — super briny, wet, and made even better with a splash of hot sauce while sitting on one of the nearby picnic baskets by the water.
Pomodoro Pie — Flour + Water (San Francisco)
As if you needed more evidence that the Neapolitan pizza trend has taken over America, there's Flour + Water, a great neighborhood spot on the corner of Harrison and 20th, halfway to Potrero. But it's not just that owners David White and David Steele (longtime Mission residents) are doing Neapolitan pizza with Thomas McNaughton, their 2011 James Beard finalist for Rising Star Chef. They're doing great Neapolitan pies.
The baseline Pomodoro (heirloom tomatoes, gypsy peppers, stracciatella, basil, and arugula), and the spicy Salsiccia (tomato, sausage, gaeta olives, smoked mozzarella, and chile), both have super-thin crusts, the kind that make you realize that it can't just be all about what's in the water in New York and Naples.
Clam Chowder with Jalapeño Mignonette — Swan Oyster Depot (San Francisco)
Swan Oyster Depot was founded in San Francisco by the four Danish Lausten brothers in 1912. Check out the black and white photos on the walls — at one point, it was uncluttered! Swan started as a fish market. In 1946, it was bought by Sal Sancimino and his cousins Frank, Al, and Pat LaRocca. Sal's kids took over in the late '70s, but little else seems to have changed. That fishmonger sensibility and sense of humor continues behind the some 20-odd stools facing the counter. You get fresh oysters, Dungeness, shrimp, oyster, clams, smoked fish, Maine lobster, and Boston-style clam chowder.
There are two power moves at Swan. The first, ask for the off-the-menu crudo. You get to watch the jocular guys give each other a hard time, while one delicately lays out thin slices of fish dressed with chopped onions, capers, and olive oil. The second move is chowder, but with a twist. Listen to the advice of the guys who work there. They know. Take some jalapeño mignonette and mix it into the chowder. It gives that creamy soup a zing and zip that you'll be looking for in renditions across the country forever after.
Slice — South Brooklyn Pizza (New York City)
Quick, who makes New York City's best slice? Joe's on Carmine in Greenwich Village? DiFara in Midwood, Brooklyn, at $5 per slice? It's a tricky question. Everybody in New York City swears by their place, and well, most of them don't know what they're talking about. For being known as a great pizza city, the state of the slice isn't what it you'd think it is, especially today, when the city is in the grip of the Neapolitan craze and $.99-cardboard drunk food. Hell, you'd almost prefer to see D.C.'s jumbo slice take hold. But there is hope, and it's the form of South Brooklyn Pizza in the East Village.
A slice at South Brooklyn takes time (on average, about five to 10 minutes), but it's worth the wait, so much more than the cardboard being served at Artichoke nearby. At South Brooklyn, pizza is layered with sauce that's neither too sweet nor acidic, topped with layers of thin, ovoid mozzarella slices, and dotted with Fontina cubes. The conventional gas oven gives the upskirt a slight char, and the pie is finished with a generous drizzle of olive oil, basil, and grated Pecorino. The thin crust cracks, but carries the cheese and sauce all the way up the slice, tangy bite after bite.
Thai Burger — Ngam (New York City)
Thai food in the East Village next to The Penny Farthing, a pre-fab Irish bar that gets an NYU velvet rope crowd on weekends — you might be forgiven for not expecting some of New York's best Thai food. But as my high school Shakespeare teacher Mr. Bridges noted, "It's all about appearance versus reality." The reality of Ngam is that it deserves more attention. This is not your local pad Thai spot. Ngam, "Thai" for beautiful, is also part of its chef's name: Ngamprom “Hong” Thaimee. Her bio includes stints at: Kittichai, Spice Market, Perry St, and with Thailand’s most celebrated chef, M.L. Sirichalerm Svasti (McDang). There's a spectacular banana leaf steamed tofu, Thai marinade chicken wings, Chiang Mai sweet potato fries, a great red curry, and whole fish.
But two dishes stand out. One is the Papaya Pad Thai, made with crunchy, juicy papaya noodle and your choice of chicken, pork, tofu, vegetables, shrimp, or calamari. The other is the Thai burger. I know. A Thai burger? No offense to the chef, but it sounds like the worst of the worst in terms of comfort trends meeting trendy cuisines. But I'm telling you, this is one of New York's best new burgers. Ordered medium-rare, the burger sits on an airy, moist bun slathered with Sai Oor curry paste and cilantro lime mayonnaise, then topped with crunchy green papaya kraut and served with Chiang Mai fries. There's tremendous flavor, fresh ingredients, and fantastic texture. Did I mention the chef was a model in Thailand who represented Pantene and Nescafe across Southeast Asia? I know how it sounds — a model making a great burger next door to a college bar — never thought I'd make that recommendation. But go get that burger.
Fish Tacos — Ricky's (Los Angeles)
Just four blocks from Umami Burger in the Silver Lake neighborhood, the self-described former florist-turned Baja fish taco maker, Ricky Piña, plies his trade by a fryer filled with shrimp, fish, and lobster under a tent just off the sidewalk. What's in his batter? "Wheat flour, oregano, mustard, salt, and pepper," he explained. Beer? "No beer, but if I were going to use beer then Tecate."
Go ahead, be skeptical — you've heard the hype about Ricky's Fish Tacos. And that goes double when you see all the par-fried seafood sitting around the fryer. "It's pre-fried?" you first wonder. No. It was par-fried just minutes ago, and it contributes to the hyperbolic golden delicious fry that Baja fish taco dreams are made from. For $10.75 you order a lobster taco ($8) that's longer than your hand, a fish taco that's wider than the corn tortilla it's served on, and a shrimp taco. The huge pieces of seafood are fresh, large, and crispy — fried in a batter that becomes really crispy and crunchy, while letting the seafood stay juicy inside. There are good corn tortillas, a covering of super-fresh slices of cabbage, and a variety of sauces (including a fresh green tomatillo salsa). Everything simple, but delicious.
Burger — Father's Office (Los Angeles)
Nick Solares of SeriousEats used 959 words to call the Father's Office burger a "submarine sandwich disguised as a burger." You can read the other 953 words, but what you actually might want to know is that the restaurant's chef's name is Sang Yoon, and that many people in L.A. refer to this as the city's best burger. There's nothing bougie or frou-frou about it — nothing more than any other buzzed about burger to make you want to refer to it with that misnomer. Here's what you get: caramelized onion, bacon, Gruyère, Maytag blue, and arugula. It's a very, very juicy burger with funk, flavor, freshness, and great flavor. One that might even be better than an East Coast burger darling down South at Holman & Finch.
Porchetta at "Meat in the Middle" — Lukshon (Los Angeles)
This is what a food festival should be about: two great chefs creating a special meal they find fun, that you'd never experience otherwise. So it was last October during the first Los Angeles Food & Wine Festival. At chef Sang Yoon's new Culver City restaurant Lukshon, he and chef Chris Cosentino, of Incanto in San Francisco, constructed a four-course, snout-to-tail lunch, one that, to be modest, you should be envious of. Amuses included porchetta di testa in a cone, an Iberico de bellota satay, and crunchy Sichuan pork rinds. Following courses included oyster, serrano, and blood sausage with uni, and an Iberico lardo crostini; Iberico de bellota crudo with Douglas fir and chestnuts; and a fromage de tête and trotter terrine. But the highlight was the "meat in the middle" porchetta with broccoli rabe and black rice. Each chef took a side of the pork, stuffing it as they saw fit (Cosentino decided on an "Italian XO sauce"). The dish was fantastic. There was a brittle, sweet-salty skin crackle, but underneath, the meat was moist and flavorful.
Charles Phan's Fried Chicken with Sriracha Butter — Los Angeles
You won't find me anywhere near chef Charles Phan's spot in the Ferry Building. It's a tourist trap, and the takeout kiosk doesn't serve anything I need on the run. That said, the man can cook. During the Los Angeles Food & Wine Festival last October he was there on the Santa Monica Pier at an event hosted by Guy Fieri, serving fried chicken with Sriracha butter. I asked what the sauce was and Phan's cooks just chuckled and said, "Sriracha and butter, Sriracha and butter." Well, then those are words to live by.
Omakase — Sushi Zo (Los Angeles)
Buried in a discussion between former New York Times critic Frank Bruni and the world's most famous chef, Ferran Adrià, at the New York City Wine & Food Festival in September, was a culinary riddle wrapped in nori somewhere in between the 101 and the 10. Ferran contended that the world's best sushi was in L.A., at a place whose name he had forgotten, but that he'd visited with his friend chef José Andrés. Andrés couldn't remember the name, but his assistant suggested it might be Sushi Zo, a small place in a strip mall next to a taco joint.
Sounds like something to be skeptical of. But a visit in October made the case that if strip malls across America are serving that kind of sushi, there's more to Americana than meets the eye. Fine, maybe you shouldn't expect to find high quality sushi next to Red Lobster's along I-40 across the U.S., but when you go to Sushi Zo, expect course after course of fresh, expertly cut, beautifully presented sushi.
Chico's Tacos — El Paso by Way of New York City
Thirteen years ago, I fell in love with Chico's Tacos in El Paso, Texas. But I hadn't had them since. So when I heard family members were going to pass through El Paso on a road trip, I begged them to bring it back. That's how I recently ate Chico's in New York — deconstructed, and brought back in Tupperware that cost more than the tacos ($1.83 per order).
Sauce gently warmed on the stove, flautas thawed from the freezer where they'd been stored, then flash-fried, placed in the lovingly transported boat, covered with cheese, broth, and jalapeño sauce — I paused to appreciate a dish I'd built up for more than a decade, wondering, "Would it live up to the memory?" Bite after bite of that crisp, cheesy, spicy mess did. No, I couldn't feel the hot El Paso sun, and New York's skyline didn't disappear — but that sense of satisfaction, comfort, the feeling of finding some secret culinary home to luxuriate in, that was there.
Hash Browns — (McDonald's ) New York City
A few years ago, McDonald's was faced with questions about whether it might be considering a move to serve breakfast all day. Considering the numbers indicating that breakfast accounted for 24 percent of McDonald's U.S. sales and 28 percent of transactions, it's not surprising that this was something the company was considering. Well, they didn't make the change to all-day breakfast service. But maybe they should have. McDonald's hasn't a clue how to make a burger these days, but between their fries and their hash browns, they sure do have a lot to teach everyone about how to cook potatoes. That fried oval hash brown is shamefully good — crispy-crunchy outside, wet but cooked inside — and when dipped in ketchup or spotted with hot sauce, it's hard to think of something savory that's better to kick off the day.
Minetta Tavern's French Dip — New York City
Among other great dishes, Minetta Tavern in Greenwich Village has made its reputation during the past few years on its fabulous Black Label Burger, dry-aged côte de boeuf with roasted marrow bones, and potatoes, man, its potatoes — frites, Anna, Aligot, and punched. But the crowds, and the 6 p.m.- or 10:30 p.m.-only reservations aren't for everyone. The newly launched lunch service solves this, bringing with it one of New York's great new sandwiches.
A halved, toasted baguette with its top half dipped in jus, the Minetta Tavern French dip features boldly red slices of nearly ¼-inch-thick, juicy meat. Slices are gently tucked in and speckled with fresh horseradish (you may want to ask for a little more) and presented with a bowl of jus for dipping. This jus is not a consommé, not a broth, but a thick jus with dense beefy flavor. Given the shape of the sandwich, the first bite or two is tough to dip, but the beef is juicy enough to tide you over until it fits. The only thing this beautiful, proudly bloody sandwich would benefit from is a touch of salt, and there's a little bowl of large salt flakes on the table for you to adjust as you see fit.
"Uovo" with White Truffle — SD26 (New York City)
After a 20-year run on Central Park South, Tony May's San Domenico closed in 2008, reopening as SD26 a year later with chef Odette Fada. Chef Matteo Bergamini (formerly of Daniel) has since taken over the open kitchen, viewable from the windowless two-story dining room. The "Uovo," a transplant from the original restaurant, is still on the menu, and when it was served in November, the soft egg yolk-filled raviolo with truffled butter was served with the addition of a generous helping of shaved white truffles. Your fork cuts through thin pasta, that warm yolk immediately gushes out, mixing with the truffle butter. Warm, rich, and comforting are understatements. The four or five bites I used to down this were some of the best of the year.
Blue Marlin — Shirley's Food Hut at Oistins Fish Fry (Barbados)
Two blocks of stand after stand serving fresh grilled and fried fish like mahimahi, blue marlin, and swordfish, as well as other types of seafood specialties and local cuisine. Macaroni pie, fish cakes, flying fish, Banks beer, fresh coconut water — Oistins Fish Fry in Barbados has it all, along with music, dancing, and enough people-watching to inspire a daytime soap (make sure to go on a Friday).
Pat's Place, one of the most popular spots at Oistins makes a mean swordfish, and Hot Legendary Fish Cakes' namesake dish is certainly delicious, but back through the crowds, Shirley's Food Hut shouldn't be overlooked. Of the many selections, the grilled blue marlin with macaroni pie was one of the best seafood dishes I ate all year. There's a zesty seasoning on each juicy bite, and the side of macaroni pie (made with mustard, ketchup, and Anchor New Zealand Cheddar) hits the spot.
Chicken Roti — Chefette (Bridgetown, Barbados)
It's not better than roti you'll find in the Guianas, or homemade stuff you'll find at independent joints in the Caribbean, but both the beef and potato, and chicken and potato roti at Chefette in Barbados are still very tasty. For those who don't know, imagine a hot, West Indian burrito consisting of a very thin wrap filled with a spiced meat and potato mixture. Ask for four tumblers of the Scotch bonnet sauce. Bite, pour sauce on, bite, repeat. Avoid the pizza, skip "broasted" chicken (pressure cooked and deep-fried), don't bother with sandwiches, go directly to the roti — some of the best fast food you'll find anywhere. You can order frozen ones that you can pick up at the airport to bring back with you. I've got two left in my freezer that I'm parcel out judiciously.
Blue Marlin Cutter — Cuz's (Needham's Point, Barbados)
Cuz's blue marlin cutter at Needham Point near the Hilton in Barbados is the only fish sandwich you'll ever need in life (including Richard's prosaic bake and shark in Trinidad). The cutter consists of salt bread (named because many Bajan breads are sweet), pan-seared blue marlin, tomato, lettuce, and pickle, Anchor New Zealand Cheddar (found at all local grocers), with an optional fried egg. You put the sauces on: mayonnaise, barbecue, and Scotch bonnet sauce.
The bread has a thin crust and chewy interior. Inside, the juicy fish steak has a very light, peppery breading. Anyone shy about mixing fish and cheese needn't worry — the meat isn't fishy, and the thick slice of soft cheese pulls it all together. The crunch of the pickle and its vinegar is key to flavor and textural balance, and the make-you-sweat Scotch bonnet sauce makes you feel like you've accomplished something. If you do nothing else in Barbados, eat this sandwich.
Fried Chicken with Mashed Potatoes — Babe's (Granbury, Texas)
Paul and Mary Beth Vinyard opened their first Babe's in Roanoke, Texas, in an old warehouse in 1993, and it doesn't seem like they've ever looked back. There are now 11 locations in Texas, opened in similarly storied buildings, and a few years ago, when Southern Living went looking for America's best fried chicken, they received more letters from readers vouching about Babe's than for any other place.
The menu is different at various locations, but it doesn't change that much. There's fried chicken and sides like "Grandma's" creamed corn, green beans, green salad (dressed with sugar and vinegar), and biscuits. In the cavernous food hall at Babe's in Granbury, you do get the choice of chicken fried steak, fried catfish, pot roast, and smoked chicken, too, but it's hard to pass up the fried chicken, served family-style on a big white platter (three birds came for five people). That crunchy fried skin and salty, juicy meat inside, gets covered with a thick white gravy that you ladle over the thin warm biscuits, and thick mashed potatoes that remind you of the texture of the instant stuff, but in the best possible way.
Macho Tostado Burger — Chris Madrid's (San Antonio)
When you're packed, and you've been around doing burgers since 1977, you must be doing something right. And they're doing at least two things right at Chris Madrid's in San Antonio: burgers and nachos. The "macho" tostado burger made George Motz's book, Hamburger America, and the author's 25 Essential U.S. Burgers Checklist. Chris Madrid reinvented the Texas beanburger (hamburger, refried beans, Fritos, and Cheese Whiz), which is said to have been created at the now-defunct Sil's Snack Shack in San Antonio, by subbing in Cheddar and housemade corn chips. The bun is soft and toasted crisp inside, but the weight of the burger and the moisture of the patty, beans, and cheese presses down on the bottom, condensing it, making it sweet. So you have that sweetness, the juiciness of the burger, the comforting refried beans, and cheese flowing out all over. What a burger.
Jalapeño Sausage — Kreuz Market (Lockhart, Texas)
For many people, Texas barbecue brisket and sausage begins and ends at Kreuz's Market (pronounced "Krites") in Lockhart (which is not really "Hill Country," mind you, most locals wouldn't give any place east of I-35 that moniker). And why not? It's an institution. Though not since time memorial in its present spot. In 1900, it was started a quarter mile south from where it is today by Charles Kreuz, and passed on to his sons who ran it until 1948, when Edgar Schmidt, an employee, bought it. He in turn, passed it on to his sons in 1984, where they ran it until 1999 when a dispute amongst siblings over rent forced Kreuz to its present location. All that said, the folks at the register at Kreuz are curt and the whole, "We don't do sides" thing really isn't true. That'd be fine if everything you ordered was amazing. But the brisket at Kreuz is actually a bit dry, making the whole, "We don't do sauces" thing kind of just annoying. But the jalapeño cheese sausage! Oh, the sausage. There's a snap of the casing as you slice into it — prrip! Salty, juicy, with a spicy zip that builds, but never crests.
Brisket — Franklin Barbecue (Austin)
If you're looking for the best barbecue brisket in America here's what to do. "Git yourself immediately to Franklin in Austin, or you will have failed miserably. Git a cup of coffee, and git in line between 9 a.m. and 9:30 a.m. Don't b*tch about it. Just git in line and wait for barbecue bliss."
These are instructions given by native Texans to native Texans, instructions you're wise to follow. By 10 a.m. on a Friday there will be more than 90 people on line. The 90 people who show in the next half hour will wait in vain. A waitress gets a sense of the crowd's orders and tells half the people there will be no barbecue for them. So it goes at Franklin, where Aaron Franklin serves some of the best Texas barbecue.
Brisket falls apart as you pick it up. There's a peppery savorful exterior and a quarter-inch smokeline. Fat is soft, flavorful, and manageable, falling off with the bits of meat, which stays moist long after being cut. Many barbecue joints get bent out of shape about sauce. Franklin is secure enough to serve three knowing you don't need them. Turkey is what presidentially pardoned birds aspire to — there's a mellowed black pepper flavor on the front followed by smokiness and juicy salt flavor. Sausage snaps loudly when you slice, juice splashing out and up. You pick up a rib by the bone and the meat slips off. Unbelievable.
"World Famous" glazed Round Rock Donut — Round Rock Donuts (Round Rock, Texas)
"Are they hot?" asks the native Texan I approached the counter with at Round Rock Donuts. "This is his first time here. He has to have them hot." It doesn't phase or annoy the teenager working at the famed Texas doughnut shop, "Yes, they're hot." The Lone Star Bakery was founded in 1926 by R.R. Moehring, who tinkered with the recipe for the shops orange-yellow doughnuts for about a decade. Five owners later, that same recipe still draws locals and doughnut pilgrims from around the world.
The cake doughnuts (plain, applesauce, blueberry, and chocolate) are fine, so too the other pastries, but the "World Famous" glazed Round Rock Donut is amazing — light, airy, quick to tear, and covered with a glaze that cracks softly. The chocolate-covered Round Rock is good, but unnecessarily sweet. Of course, if you're here, you have to order a Texas-Sized Round Rock Donut too, which is as big as your head (it's a little heavier and the texture is a bit more cake-like). Oh yeah, they're hot.