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A Year in Photogenic Dishes

12 months of eating across America, captured in the best photos from a roving restaurant critic

During my yearlong travels as Eater’s national critic, I eat hundreds of meals to report on America’s dining culture as it changes and unfolds. At the beginning of 2018, it makes sense to stop and revisit some of the standout experiences that weren’t mentioned in other stories last year.

Since I toggle between a fork and a camera at dinnertime (I’ve come to love the double-duty of being my own photographer), I approached the task visually. Themes like trending cuisines and blockbuster openings often emerge among the 15 shots below. There are also glimpses of established restaurants that prove vital to their communities, and chefs whose cooking I found especially inspired. Mostly though, I flipped through reams of unedited images on my overcrowded photo-editing app and plucked out the pics that made me say, “Oh, right. That moment. That food was a feat.”

See more from Bill’s time on the road in our America’s Essential Restaurants package, and subscribe to his newsletter for more beautiful photos and dispatches from his travels.

All the tacos, Taqueria El, Oakland, CA

I spent a lot of time last year eating Mexican flavors in their many expressions across the U.S. It wasn’t so much to formulate a grand unified theory of Mexican dining in America, but more to savor the profound and ever-growing influence our neighbor to the south wields on our own culinary culture. Early in my 2017 travels, with a tip from Bay Area writer Luke Tsai, I had some exceptional tacos — elemental, uncomplicated, sublime tacos — in Oakland’s Fruitvale district, at a taqueria with a righteous name and a fast-moving line. Eight tacos (strewn with meats like chorizo, lengua, cabeza, tripa, and pork al pastor) came fanned across a platter scattered with radishes, wedges of lime, simmered strips of nopales, and sweet cipollini onions. El deserves a bold-font highlight on the map of America’s must-try taquerias. 4610 International Boulevard, Oakland, CA, (510) 610-6398

Chochoyotes, Verlaine, Los Angeles

Diego Hernández Baquedano, a native of Ensenada, Mexico, runs the wonderful Corazón de Tierra in the country’s Valle de Guadalupe. Last year he waded into the LA dining scene with Verlaine in West Hollywood. Dishes like a conceptual tamal enveloped with sorrel juice, mole amarillo, and onion ash flaunted Hernández Baquedano’s style, an intersection of the cerebral and the sumptuous. One front-runner at an early meal at Verlaine was chochoyotes — corn dumplings anchoring an intense combination of beefy, mole-like chichilo negro and pickled pork trotters. 8715 Beverly Boulevard, West California, CA, (424) 288-4621

Breakfast tacos, Valentina’s Tex Mex BBQ, Austin

Whenever I’m dining through the stronghold of breakfast tacos that is Austin, Texas, my mornings tend to start with a migas taco from Veracruz All Natural. Of late, food writers kept nudging me toward Valentina’s, a serious barbecue and Tex-Mex mashup started by Miguel Vidal and Michael Lerner in 2013. Monsters like the Real Deal Holyfield (in the lower right hand corner) heap a homemade flour tortilla with refried beans, fried egg, potato, bacon, tomato serrano salsa, and either mesquite-smoked brisket or pulled pork. Whether they’re turbo fuel or tranquilizer, they are inarguably great. If made to choose, would I remain in the Veracruz camp? An Austin breakfast taco crawl is in my near future to decide. 11500 Manchaca Road, Austin, TX, (512) 221-4248

Halibut ceviche, Chalino, Portland, OR

Johnny Leach, an alum of David Chang’s Manhattan kitchens, and Dave Haddow, who cooked at Donald Link’s Cochon Butcher in New Orleans, playfully referred to their style of cooking as “inauthentic” Mexican when their restaurant Chalino opened in spring 2017. The signature that won deserved raves: halibut ceviche in a post-that-pic tableau of purple shiso leaves, cubed watermelon radishes, habanero, and bitter orange. 25 North Fremont Street, Portland, OR, (503) 206-6421

Turkish-ish breakfast, Kismet, Los Angeles

In my perfect world, there would be more restaurants in every corner of America that highlight the cooking traditions of the Middle East. Israeli foods are getting their share of attention, but I hope at some point we will more broadly know the specific pleasures of Lebanese, Syrian, Jordanian, Palestinian, and other regional cuisines — Turkish among them. In the meanwhile, chefs like Sarah Hymanson and Sara Kramer are making gentle forays into Middle Eastern spicing, many of which easily harmonize with California aesthetics. Their breakfast platter looks generous but really feeds one hungry person. The small dishes whiz through the flavor spectrum; pay extra attention to the dense spoonful of zhoug, a herbed Yemeni condiment reinterpreted with arbol chiles. It’s even wonderful smeared on the dates. 4648 Hollywood Boulevard, Los Angeles, CA, (323) 409-0404

Bread and all the spreads, Mh Zh, Los Angeles

Speaking of both Israeli cooking and California, one of my more quirky and joyful meals in the last year was at a rickety sidewalk table on a well-trafficked corner of LA’s Silver Lake neighborhood. At tiny, crowded Mh Zh (a riff on the Hebrew expression mah zeh, which broadly means, “what’s that?”), the server handed us a menu scrawled on a stained paper bag and the meal that soon arrived was a feast in bowls built on yogurt and tahini and pureed chickpeas. 3536 Sunset Boulevard, Los Angeles, CA, (323) 636-7598

Kebabs, Dearborn Meat Market, Dearborn, MI

For its wealth of Middle Eastern restaurants, Dearborn, Michigan — just a 15-minute drive from Detroit — remains among my favorite places to eat in America. My recent trip included lunch at Dearborn Meat Market; as the name implies, it is first a butcher shop. At the counter, order skewers of seasoned beef (including heart, liver, and kidney), chicken, and sausage for $2.50 each and a staffer cooks them over the charcoal-fired grill in the small back dining room. Devour them wrapped in pita, toum (Lebanese garlic sauce), tomatoes, and onions, with perhaps a side of hummus or baba ganoush. 7721 Schaefer Road, Dearborn, MI, (313) 581-8820

Crepe cake, Bellecour, Wayzata, MN

When we look back at the major culinary trends of this decade, the resurgence of French cuisine — in its many restaurant guises, from bistros and brasseries to Continental-style pomp — will be high on the list. The Gallic re-infatuation began simmering in Los Angeles and New York a few years back and has now reached raging nationwide boil. One upshot: After a few too many years of modernist, deconstructed desserts, the French fervor is bringing back some classics. Case in point: pastry chef Diane Yang’s light, gorgeous crepe cake at Bellecour, the second Twin Cities restaurant from Gavin Kaysen. 739 Lake Street East, Wayzata, MN, (952) 444-5200

Strawberry tart, Mirabelle, Washington DC

At his downtown DC stunner, former White House chef Frank Ruta went for full Continental-French grandeur: gilded carts, curving banquettes, and a menu full of words like Bourguignonne, quenelles, consomme, and boulette. At a dinner in June, the Marylander in me reveled in the veal Oscar remade with a shoulder cut and crab mousse. Pastry chef Aggie Chin is a dessert savant; her strawberry tart packed in many moving parts, but the final effect came together as a clear decree of springtime. 900 16th Street NW, Washington, DC, (202) 506-3833

Foie gras ribbons, The Pool, New York

I agree with my colleague Ryan Sutton that, when assessing the Major Food Group’s takeover of Midtown Manhattan’s timeless Seagram Building restaurants, the Grill (retro excess at its finest) outshines the Pool (precisely executed but outrageously expensive seafood). One dish I did love in its utter wit is the Pool’s shaved foie gras ribbons — a frozen foie gras terrine, served with orange chips, shaved using a girolle machine (aka a cheese curler) to mimic the traditional presentation of cheeses like semi-firm Tete de Moine made in Switzerland. The display arrived looking like a leaning tower of foie, which somehow added to the charm. 99 East 52nd Street, New York, NY, (212) 375-9001

All the bagels, The Purple House, North Yarmouth, Maine

Last year, Portland, Maine, continued its dominance as the most exciting small-city food destination in America. But any food obsessive visiting Portland should also drive the 15 miles to North Yarmouth for Krista Kern Desjarlais’s spectacular Montreal-style bagels baked in a wood-fired oven. The Purple House’s hours — Thursday through Sunday, 8 a.m. to 2 p.m — are narrow but worth navigating. 78 Walnut Hill Road, North Yarmouth, ME, (207) 808-3148

Tuna tartare, Chefs Club, New York City

Spheres of tuna seasoned with benne seeds and curry and set on shiso leaves neatly encapsulated the merger of African, Asian, and American influences that JJ Johnson unites in his cooking. Johnson was formerly executive chef of Minton’s and the Cecil (which closed last December and recently revamped as the Cecil Steakhouse) in Harlem. He left Minton’s in June to pursue his own projects; his first stop was an extended residency at Chefs Club, which ended on December 31. My dinner there a few weeks earlier has me anticipating whatever may come next for Johnson. 275 Mulberry Street, New York, NY, (212) 941-1100

Uni nigiri with caviar and sushi, Robin, San Francisco

The first on-the-job meal I shared with Eater’s new San Francisco critic Rachel Levin was at Robin. Chef and owner Adam Tortosa’s omakase definitively nails the Japan-meets-Bay Area sensibility, using seafood both imported and locally caught and serving dishes like sesame noodles blanketed in black truffles. His caviar-topped uni nigiri was in such a soluble state that he served it to us on spoons. 620 Gough Street, San Francisco, CA, (415) 548-2429 (text only)

Har gow dumpling, Eight Tables, San Francisco

Levin and I reconvened a few months later for a meal at Eight Tables, the hushed high-end apex of George Chen’s China Live project. It’s an expensive, ambitious, otherworldly place; frankly, I’m still mulling over our dinner. One example of its wild sense of luxury was a shrimp har gow dumpling reimagined with aortic valves filled with osetra caviar, trout roe, uni, and creme fraiche. 8 Kenneth Rexroth Place, CA 94133, (415) 788-8788

Crab claws, Hog & Hominy, Memphis

I haven’t much covered Memphis in my Eater travels, but I can say without reservation that my favorite restaurant in the city is Michael Hudman and Andrew Ticer’s Hog & Hominy. Lunch in October affirmed that opinion; before a beautifully charred pizza and poutine with neckbone gravy and a fantastic variation on chicken and dumplings with gnocchi, a friend and I started with crab claws doused in butter, garlic, lemon, and panna gratta. The dish speaks to the gratifying affinity between the cooking of Italy and the American South; looking at the image now makes me eager to hit the road again to seek out similar triumphs. 707 West Brookhaven Circle, Memphis, TN, (901) 207-7396


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