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Matthew Kang

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The Best of the Best: 2016's Restaurant Superlatives

These are the burgers, pizzas, tacos, and noodles you’ve been looking for

Even though my life centers around seeking restaurants to fill out the National 38, inevitably there are plenty of additional dishes, meals, and experiences that strike me as profound: a poetic restaurant in the Blue Ridge mountains that bonded me closer to friends, an exceptional example of a regional cuisine I love, an ideal afternoon snack in one of the most beautiful corners of the country. Here are the standout singularities of a year spent dining across America.

Best Burger

The Big Mec at Petit Trois, Los Angeles

I like my burgers gloppy, over the top, almost vulgar with toppings. For me and my tribe of fellow burger impurists, our holy grail is the monstrosity served by Ludo Lefebvre at his L.A. riff on a Parisian Bistro. Bordelaise and garlic aioli (both dripping into pools on the plate), caramelized onions, and American cheese never manage to overwhelm the duo of steak-strength, prime beef patties that demand knife and fork attention; the brioche bun is basically best used to mop up the sauces. Is this the part where I confess that I demolished this thing after a six-course tasting menu at Trois Mec next door? It’s that amazing.

Best Pizza

Pizzeria Bianco, Phoenix, AZ

We now live in an era where exceptional pizza can be found across the country, but a blitz through Chris Bianco’s four restaurants last year reminded me that the man who arguably kicked it all off 20 years ago is still the country’s king of transcendent pizza. It’s hard to go wrong with any combination of toppings on the charred, pillowy crust, but the right choice is always his signature pie, the Wiseguy, crowned with house-smoked mozzarella, slices of fennel sausage, and bronzed roasted onions.

Fried chicken at Big Jones

Best Fried Chicken

Big Jones, Chicago

Paul Fehribach chose the finest possible fried chicken muse: Southern cooking grand dame Edna Lewis. His take on the gospel bird soaks in an herbed brine; is dusted in a coating of flour and fine white cornmeal, gilded with sneaky spices like sage and nutmeg; and at last bubbles to a golden finish in a combination of lard, ham drippings, and clarified butter. If all that sounds ornate, the final effect is so fundamentally satisfying you’ll reach for piece after piece, lost in the crackling, dripping euphoria, until all that’s in front of you is a plate of bare bones.

Purest Taco Moment

Mariscos Nine Seas, San Diego, CA

Is it possible to reach nirvana in a half-empty grocery store parking lot at 2:30 in the afternoon? It is on a cloudless, 73-degree February day in San Diego with the Mariscos Nine Seas truck parked in the corner. Use both hands to wrangle an overstuffed taco filled with smoked marlin (it has an almost jerky-like texture); sauteed onions, peppers, and celery; and melted white cheese that glues all the ingredients to the corn tortilla. As part of the order, the cook hands out cups of seafood broth, sweetly aromatic and garnished with a small celery stalk. It’s all gone in two minutes but the mellow, multigenerational crowd tends to linger, content to lean against the truck’s bumper and squint at the sun.

Most Profound Noodle Revelation

Biang biang at Miah’s Kitchen, Redmond, WA

During a take-no-prisoners dumpling and noodle crawl, Eater Seattle contributor Jay Friedman led me to his favorite version of China’s northern Shaanxi Province specialty: biang biang (the onomatopoetic name refers to the sound of slapping pulled dough on the counter to form belt-width strands). Dressed only with hot oil and a deluge of crushed dried chiles, the dish directed all the attention on the noodle itself, its nuances of snap and tug and suppleness. Their utter vividness made more of an impression than any other dish in a whole that week of memorable eating in Seattle.

A combination plate (and more) at Garcia's

Finest Reminder That Tex-Mex Is A Glorious Cuisine

The deluxe Mexican dinner at Garcia's, San Antonio, TX

I fell in love with the eccentric, humble, and soul-stirring cooking known as Tex-Mex a decade ago, but eating the combination plate at Garcia’s this year renewed my devotion. Crammed onto an oval platter were two cheese enchiladas and a pork tamale buried under chili con carne and melty webs of yellow cheese; a freshly fried crispy taco stuffed with ground beef, shredded iceberg lettuce, and diced tomato; fluffy rice tinted auburn-blond by tomato paste; and a magma pool of refried beans, creamy with lard and bacon fat. I’ve had dozens of combination plates like this one over the years, but few — if any — have nailed each element of the plate with such finesse.

Biggest Cocktail (Re)epiphany

The Buckskin Playmate at Ticonderoga Club, Atlanta

Overlooking the tongue-in-cheek name, the Buckskin Playmate’s sweet-potent mix of bourbon, rye, Madeira, and herbsaint was the embodiment of a genteel Southern libation. Greg Best, Regan Smith, and Paul Calvert, three of the Southeast’s finest bartenders, teamed up this fall to open a bar-restaurant that immediately set new standards in the region. In an era when boozy concoctions contain more and more outré ingredients (funghi, seaweed, Pop Rocks), sipping a drink like this one — riveting simply for its flawless balance — reminded me why this country had a cocktail resurgence in the first place.

Most Remarkable Single Bite

Banana with caviar at Atelier Crenn, San Francisco

Something this strange and wondrous could only come from the mind of Dominique Crenn: a nugget of banana mounded with caviar, pecans, and gold leaf — a salted caramel banana split catapulted into luxurious, savory stratospheres. The bite showed up near the beginning of her nearly 20-course tasting menu, a four-hour meeting of the intellectual and the sensual, but of all the meal’s wonders, this was the one unlikely marvel I kept reliving in my mind long after the meal was over.

The blueberry grunt at Loyal Nine

Most Unforgettable Sense-Of-Place Sweet

The blueberry grunt at Loyal Nine, Cambridge, MA

The grunt, a New England forefather of cobbler, finds a capable revivalist in Loyal Nine pastry chef Adam Ross. His blueberry version is baked in the oven until the juices surge over their cast-iron dish and halfway submerge the tender dough on top. When it’s served, vanilla ice cream melts across the golden crust in rivulets; each bite is a perfect taste of summery goodness.

Best Reason to Go to Charleston on a Thursday

Oxtails at Addielee’s, North Charleston, SC

On Thursdays only, owners Ann and Charles Whitlock stew oxtails to utter submission, the beef melting into pot-roasty hunks and the bones adrift in a rich broth. It comes in a Styrofoam container even if you ask to eat it in. Surround the meal with collards, lima beans cooked nearly to a puree, ruddy okra soup, and mac and cheese. And ask the Whitlocks to spoon the oxtail over tomato-tinted Lowcountry red rice, rather than plain rice, to give it a local kick. Addielee’s is about seven miles from Charleston’s epicenter, but so worth the trek for the oxtails’ sultry savor.

Best Reason to Stray From the Beaten Path

Knife and Fork, Spruce Pine, NC

The small town of Spruce Pine is about an hour northeast from Asheville; there, you’ll find Knife and Fork, a destination restaurant in the most literal sense. Accomplished chef-owner Nate Allen folds in global nuances to his modern American menu, but the ingredients largely hail from the region, most strikingly in the form of wild fauna that liberally peppers his dishes — grilled trout with bamboo shoots and wild ginger, or a pork chop accented with a nutty-tasting herb called Solomon’s plume. And the restaurant’s setting, alongside curving train tracks cradled in the Blue Ridge Mountains, is pure enchantment.

Tagliatelle with crab at Cotogna

Best Spot For a Solo LuncH

Cotogna, San Francisco

It’s depressing to me that the relaxingly paced lunch, where the food is made with as much thought and care as at dinner, is a dying American institution. I’ve found it’s really easiest to steal away and appreciate the quiet noontime meal on one’s own. Solo lunch at Cotogna can remind us what we’re all missing. The dining room is cozy, but if it’s a beautiful day sit outside along; the restaurant resides on a slow, leafy street in the Jackson Square neighborhood. For a stellar solo lunch in April, I took my time savoring golden tagliatelle nestling sweet-sweet crab sparked with lime juice and espelette pepper, and then feather-shaped fillets of Petrale sole with peas. For dessert: rhubarb clafouti with pistachio gelato. The sweet was enough for two — the whole impeccable meal was, to be honest — but I contentedly polished it all off myself.

Finest Meal Finale

Tea service at Eleven Madison Park, New York, NY

If you’re looking for a cup of Earl Grey or chamomile among the 50 or so choices presented to you at the end of a meal at this Manhattan cathedral of fine dining, it’s there. But for the curious and the obsessed, dining room manager Christopher Day oversees arguably the finest restaurant tea list in America. Order, say a 1960’s vintage pu-erh or a rare oolong, and Day or one of his crew of five will wheel up a trolley and prepare your drink Gong Fu style, steeping an abundance of loose leaves in quick succession and serving the brews in small cups. The beguiling sequence of flavors is subtle and somehow reassuring,an elegant, theatrical denouement to an elegant, theatrical meal.

Header photo: Matthew Kang. All other photos: Bill Addison.

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