The Best Bites of 2019
From a hauntingly beautiful bowl of pasta to a spectacular salad worth donning a bib for, these outstanding dishes stayed on our Restaurant Editor-at-Large Jordana Rothman’s mind long after the last plates were cleared.
Dish of the Year (Prawn Toast, Nightshade, Los Angeles)
Chef Mei Lin’s homage to shrimp toast, topped with minced prawns and fried curry leaves, sits in a fragrant bowl of Cantonese curry flavored with garlic, chiles, ginger, lemongrass, and coconut milk. It’s just one reason Nightshade is a 2019 F&W Best New Restaurant.
Best New Burger(s) (Steamburger at Canard, Portland, OR)
In times of war and times of peace the burger battles rage reliably on, true as the tide. The latest, greatest entrant into the discourse offers a hat tip to a lesser known style, the Connecticut steam burger, most commonly associated with White Castle sliders. 2007 F&W Best New Chef Gabriel Rucker has dreamt up a revision of the low brow icon for his PDX pub Canard: a griddled patty seasoned with French onion soup mix in an overcoat of American cheese, wedged between squishy halves of a sweet Hawaiian roll. Order a bunch (three is a good place to start) for $6 apiece and $3 during happy hour.
Most Soul-Rattling New Pasta (Morcilla creste di gallo, Friday, Saturday, Sunday, Philadelphia)
Why creste di gallo isn’t an ubiquitous pasta shape baffles the mind. The sweet, sweet love child of elbow macaroni and ruffly mafaldine, creste—so named for its resemblance to a rooster’s comb—is a sauce-capturing superhero. And that’s exactly why Philly chef Chad Williams chose it for his instant-classic ragu, a chunky, minerally, astonishingly savory mix of blood sausage and sticky pork skin, depth charged with funky Parm. For a sauce so special, no other shape could do.
Jawdropper of the Year (Guinea hen yakitori, Birdsong, San Francisco)
Christopher Bleidorn knows you’re going to have to take a photo of it, so go ahead and take your time. The chef serves a stunning, deeply personal tasting menu at his SF hit, but it’s this mid-meal stunner that will stay with you: Bleidorn shapes ground guinea hen into something between a French quenelle and a Japanese tsukune, skewers the meatball on the bird’s roasted talon and serves it on a bed of speckled feathers. The end result is as gorgeous to behold as it is to eat.
Mashup of the Year (Ddukbokki lamb ragu, Passerotto, Chicago)
Chef Jennifer Kim grew up straddling multiple cultures—the Korean touchstones her immigrant parents valued, and the many international influences present in the midwest where she was raised. In particular, Kim spent a lot of time around pasta, and so when she opened her Chicago restaurant, it felt only right to pull from Italy—and from all of the pantries that left their mark on the young chef. Behold Kim’s ddukbokki lamb ragu, a brilliant east-west synthesis that subs in Korean rice cakes where gnocchi might have been, and bathes the chewy wonders in a gorgeous Italian ragu spiked with Korean red chili paste known as gochujang.
Best (And Only) New Reason To Wear A Bib (Radicchio X.O., Angler, San Francisco)
You might bristle at the suggestion that you, a sophisticated adult human, might require a bib to successfully consume anything that doesn’t have claws. But reader, when the server at Angler presents you with that cloth and gleaming clips, just say yes. At his new San Francisco restaurant, chef Joshua Skenes (a 2011 F&W BNC), offers the world’s messiest salad—a towering purple cone of bitter radicchio bathed in beet juice and soy that splatters like a crime scene when you take a knife to it. The rest of your meal at Skene’s ode to the treasures of the California coast will ask less of you (sweet spot prawns, abalone in its sparkling shell) but nothing is nearly as fun.
Best Single Bite Worth Lining Up For (Chivichanga, Sonoratown, Los Angeles)
The queue starts early, before any decent lunch hour, and by noon it may be stretching down East 8th street, the patient crowd looking alive thanks to the aroma of grilled steak wafting out the front door. This is Sonoratown, LA’s cult taqueria dedicated to the flavors of Northern Mexico where co-owner Teodoro Diaz-Rodriguez, Jr. grew up. Sonoratown is a testament to the power of doing just a few things—in this case, things like that grilled costilla beef, crispy tripe or vivid salsa verde—and doing them extraordinarily well. You could easily order everything on the menu, but the chivichanga may be the single most essential bite in Los Angeles right now: a stew of blistered tomatoes, Anaheim chiles, a mix of cheeses and shredded beef rolled into a perfect, lard-enriched flour tortilla and finished on the grill.
Condiment of the Year (Crystal Hot Sauce Pulp, Picnic, New Orleans)
Louisiana-made Crystal Hot sauce is a way of life in New Orleans, but leave it to chef Tory McPhail to take it a step further. For their casual Picnic Provisions & Whiskey project, McPhail with partners Ti Martin and Darryl Reginelli, partnered with Crystal to offer a one-of-a-kind condiment: the hot, tart, vegetal pulp leftover from juicing the cayenne peppers used in the hot sauce. The crumbly, bright orange mash is a natural partner for McPhail’s juicy fried chicken but it shows up elsewhere too: on top of molten pimento cheese, stirred into hollandaise, and tossed with citrus and sea salt for crudos at big sister restaurant Commander’s Palace.
Cheese Pull of the Year (Focaccia, Fox & the Knife, Boston)
In the hands of Karen Akunowicz, focaccia becomes a blistered, crispy rosemary-crowned round, split right through its equator and packed with mellow, oozing Taleggio cheese.