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Where to Go Next: 10 Best Restaurant Dishes $12 and Under

Who says a hot dog can't be a revelatory dining experience? Here, the year's best and most democratically priced restaurant dishes.
Best Restaurant Dishes 2009

Photos of All 10 Best Restaurant Dishes $12 and Under

Black Truffle Gnocchi: Perennial, Chicago

When I ordered the truffled gnocchi at Perennial ($12), I was expecting a bowl of rustic dumplings in a rich sauce, topped with a little truffle oil. When the dish arrived, I assumed there had been a mix-up. In front of me, on a slab of slate, was a geometric configuration of perfectly browned, perfectly shaped cubes of pasta beneath sautéed mushrooms and a tangle of frilly greens. Chef Ryan Poli favors Roman-style gnocchi, which he makes by stirring semolina on the stove in an indulgent mix of black-truffle broth, chopped truffles, truffle oil and a little Parmesan butter. Once the semolina firms up, Poli cuts it into precise squares and fries them until they're crisp on the outside, but still creamy inside. At this time of year, Poli serves the gnocchi with earthy parsnip puree, glazed parsnips and hen-of-the-woods mushrooms, but the topping changes with the season. I'll be excited to eat them in the spring with morels, asparagus and a poached quail egg. —Tina Ujlaki

slideshow Best Places to Eat in Chicago

Lamb-Meatball Sliders: Locanda Verde, New York City

Andrew Carmellini didn't grow up eating meatballs. "I'm half Italian, but that half is from Friuli and Tuscany—there were no Neapolitan meatballs whatsoever," he says. Still, Carmellini (an F&W Best New Chef 2000) prepares awesome lamb-meatball sliders. Except for the Italian goat cheese, every part of the dish is made in-house: Carmellini grinds the lamb with onion, simmers the meatballs in tomato sauce, then serves them on Parmesan-onion buns with cucumber pickles ($12 per order). They're fantastic and reminiscent of the old-school type—the kind one might think Carmellini grew up with.—Kate Krader

slideshow Best Places to Eat in New York

Crispy-Fried Pigs' Tails: Craigie on Main; Cambridge, MA

I never knew I loved pigs' tails until I had the ones Tony Maws (an F&W Best New Chef 2005) offers for $11 at Craigie on Main. They have a great ratio of skin to meat to bone—and there's a bit of shock value. Maws cuts the tails into meaty chunks, so they look like small spare ribs, before confiting and frying them until they're meltingly tender. Then he serves them with pungent Vietnamese garlic-chile sauce. I now have a favorite part of the pig.—Christine Quinlan

Best Places to Eat in the Boston Area

Fried Chicken & Waffles: Simpatica and Laurelhurst Market; Portland, OR

Every restaurant I eat out in now serves fried chicken, from high-end places to gastropubs. In Portland, Oregon, chef David Kreifels has it on the menu at two of his spots—and it's great at both. At Simpatica, the cult dining hall, he serves the curry-seasoned chicken at brunch, paired with cakey waffles and a vanilla-infused dried-fruit syrup ($12). The chicken also appears every Tuesday at Laurelhurst Market, Kreifels's new restaurant and butcher shop, where it's sold at the counter hot from the fryer starting at two in the afternoon ($6 a pound). —Kate Krader

Best Places to Eat in Portland, OR

Fried Calamari Salad: Annies Café & Bar; Austin, TX

At Annies, the crispy fried calamari—first dipped in buttermilk, then coated in seasoned flour—is so good all by itself. But chef Tony Amplo makes it extra-great with thin slices of battered, fried cherry peppers and lemon. (In season, he uses Meyer lemons from a tree in his yard.) He serves it all over arugula with a powerful, creamy Sriracha chile sauce dressing for $10. —Pat Sharpe

Best Places to Eat in Austin, TX

Spicy Seafood Soup: Heaven's Dog, San Francisco

At the Slanted Door, Charles Phan became famous for his outstanding, ingredient-driven Vietnamese cooking. At the new Heaven's Dog, he pays homage to the noodle shops of northern China with a menu full of classic dishes. His sweet-and-sour pork, which he makes with pasture-raised pigs, is exemplary, but I'm going back for Phan's seafood soup, a searingly spicy broth packed with wheat noodles and copious amounts of wild shrimp, white bass, scallops and squid. The soup, served only at lunchtime, is a bargain at $10. The only way to improve upon it is to pair it with a cocktail from the bar, which many consider to be the best in town. —Jan Newberry

slideshow Best Places to Eat in San Francisco

The Tini Weenie: Tini; Providence, RI

A lot of things are little at Tini, the latest restaurant from the dynamic Al Forno team of George Germon and Johanne Killeen (F&W Best New Chefs 1988). The place seats only 19 people, and chef Darius Salko's ever-changing menu (which appears on an LCD screen on the wall) focuses on small plates like pork-confit tacos and gnochetti with bacon and creamed spinach. Tini's signature recipe is the four-inch Tini weenie, a tribute to the wiener joint that used to occupy the space. The house-made, all-pork frank ($7) is juicy and well seasoned, with the perfect snap; it's served in a toasted, buttered bun and topped with a spiced chowchow (pickle-and-vegetable relish) made with a mix of cabbage, carrots and onions. The bartender takes photos of first-timers as they bite into the weenie; later in the evening, the LCD screen runs a slide show of those pictures, which, according to Salko, "can get pretty racy." —Kate Heddings

Best Places to Eat in Providence, RI

Lamb Liver Fritters: Abattoir, Atlanta

I'm a confirmed liver hater, and apart from a few select foie gras pâtés, I avoid it. So I felt very brave when I chose the lamb liver fritters at Abattoir, the new meat-focused restaurant from local heroes Anne Quatrano and Clifford Harrison (F&W Best New Chefs 1995). Maybe I was emboldened by the setting—abattoir is French for slaughterhouse, which is what the building used to be. The fritters are irresistible: sausagelike patties of lamb liver and meat, with tart green-tomato relish alongside. There are three sizable fritters to an order for $8.50; maybe I can't afford not to eat liver anymore. —Kate Krader

Best Places to Eat in Atlanta

Blackjack Quesadilla: Kogi Trucks, Los Angeles

Devoted Kogi fans relentlessly track the Korean taco trucks' locations on Twitter (I do, and I don't even live in L.A.). But even Kogi's co-founder and chef, Roy Choi, was impressed by the 20-strong group that Tweeted him to say they were caravanning from Las Vegas just to have his food. Could Choi create something special? He could, and the result is phenomenal. His blackjack quesadilla mixes grilled, marinated pork belly, Jack cheese and a potent roasted garlic–jalapeño sauce. Choi personally served it to the Vegas contingent; the $7 dish is now a Kogi best seller. —Kate Krader

slideshow Best Places to Eat in Los Angeles

Philly Cheesesteak: The Bazaar by José Andrés, Los Angeles

The avant-garde chef José Andrés is well-known for fanciful dishes like foie gras cubes on lollipop sticks with a cotton-candy garnish. So when I saw Philly cheesesteak on the menu at his high-design restaurant, The Bazaar, I knew one thing for sure: Whatever the waiter was bringing me, it wouldn't be a traditional Philly cheesesteak. Sure enough, Andrés eschews the usual lumpen bread for something he calls "air bread," a thin, crisp, hollowed-out roll; trades bland cheese goo for tangy cheddar espuma (foam); and ditches greasy shreds of mystery meat for slices of seared wagyu beef sprinkled with fleur de sel and micro chives. His creation feels as decadent as the original, but it's as ethereal as something Tinker Bell might eat. And the cheesesteak ($8) tastes amazing, which is why someone at my table said, "I could eat 20 of these." The rest of us agreed. —Ray Isle

Published December 2009
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