Our ‘Best Bites’ Of Last Year Will Help Guide Your Eating In 2017

Last year, our staff talked about food a lot. It would be a normal day, everyone going about their work-lives, and then someone in the Slack staff chat would casually mention, “I just had a pretty okay cheese steak.” All of a sudden, PANDEMONIUM. People would argue over the “right” cheese for such a sandwich, the best places on earth to procure one, and the differences between cheese steak and chopped cheese. Before long, a power ranking of some sort would emerge.

Literally every time food came up, it launched a flurry of activity on Slack that would reach crescendo when someone casually wondered, “Seriously though, is a hot dog a sandwich?”

As the new year begins, I thought we’d ask our writers to share the very best dishes they ate in 2016 to inspire your food journey for 2017. Not surprisingly, they had some thoughts.

— Steve Bramucci, Life editor

Josh Kurp — Laab Moo at Dee Dee (Austin, TX)

Austin, Texas, is a haven for barbecue, obviously, and food trucks, obviously, and barbecue food trucks, obviously. But it’s also become a destination for Laab Moo — assuming your destination is Dee Dee. Started by husband-and-wife duo Lakana Trubiana and Justin Tribs, the unassuming East Austin trailer serves Northern Thai street food like spicy Pad Ka Pow and Om Gai, which you’re suggested to eat with your hands. Here is where I’d usually single out a specific dish, but that would be doing you a disservice — try everything. There are limited options on the menu, so it’s easy to do.

Dee Dee (which translates to “good good”) is tasty, and spicy, and authentic, and — in a year otherwise defined by uncertainty — comforting. It’s important in this life to take solace where you can find it. Mine’s located in a to-go order of Laab Moo.

Andrew Roberts — Steak at The Big Texan Steak Ranch (Amarillo, TX)

Trying to remember every meal you ate across the year to determine the best bite is quite the task. Sometimes a cheap hotdog from your local gas station hits the spot in a certain way that makes a dent in your memory and other times it’s an elegant dish that’s meticulously crafted to attack your taste buds on a variety of levels. For me, it’s somewhere in between — in Amarillo, Texas at The Big Texan Steak Ranch.

My bite isn’t from the Big Texan itself, the massive 72 oz steak meal that many have attempted and failed over the years. (The current record holder ate two in like 20 minutes, but I couldn’t imagine even tackling a piece of it.) You’ve probably seen the place on television, like on Man Vs. Food, so the assumption is that the myth possibly overshadows the actual quality. Not so.

The steak I ordered was the best I’ve ever had. That’s not to say it’s the best on the planet or the best in Texas, but it was certainly a personal best. The right mix of seasoning, seared and prepared to perfection, and willed into existence at the perfect timing. It was like eating whatever is living in that briefcase from Pulp Fiction.

For the weary traveler caught in the wastes of the Texas panhandle, you can’t go wrong.

Vince Mancini — Mussels Tamal at Cala (San Francisco, CA)

I’m sure I had a lot of great bites last year, but I guess I tend to remember the weirdest or most surprising. And the first thing that comes to mind is the mussel tamal from Cala. I ordered it because I couldn’t imagine mussels inside a tamale, but it was somehow better than either. Mussels (shell on) and broth, all inside cooked corn masa. Sounds bizarre, I know, which is probably why I remember it, but it was wonderful.

Stacey Ritzen — Shrimp and Grits at Surrey’s (New Orleans, LA)

Surrey’s Cafe and Juice Bar in the Lower Garden District of New Orleans is hardly a hidden gem. In fact, it’s been featured on the Food Network’s Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives and there’s rarely not a wait for a table. My visit to Surrey’s this summer was not my first trip to New Orleans, much less my first time dining at the popular cafe (last time I was there for breakfast I ordered the crab meat omelet), but it was first time trying the shrimp and grits and it was a damn near life changing experience.

When I raved to the waitress she matter-of-factly informed me that it was “mostly butter,” but even that failed to ruin the effect. For less than $15 you get a decent-sized bowl full of plump gulf shrimp sitting on top of creamy grits, covered in a rich sauce and garnished with bacon and baguette slices. I could literally fill a baby pool and dive in face first.

In the months since I have not been able to get the dish out of my head, and have even gone so far to order shrimp and grits any time I see it on a menu in Philadelphia, which is… Well, not the south. Let’s just say that.*

(*The closest I’ve found is Common Wealth in Old City, which does low-country style food in the northeast surprisingly well.)

Andrew Husband — Blue Crab Mac ‘n Cheese at East Coast Grill (Boston)

This February, I joined fellow Uproxxer Dan Seitz for the final “Hell Night” at the East Coast Grill near Boston. As the event’s title suggests, the entire menu for the evening was full of the spiciest dishes the famed restaurant’s kitchen could cook up. One of the best was the Blue Crab Mac ‘n Cheese doused in something called “Scorpion Buffalo Sauce.” Surprisingly, crab and mac ‘n’ cheese go together like chips and salsa, but the inclusion of piri piri (otherwise known as African bird’s eye chili) made the dish wholly unique (though very close to inedible). If you can look, smell and taste beyond the spices — and attain the crab, pasta and cheeses in the process — your pain will be richly rewarded.

[Note: After nearly a year away, East Coast Grill reopened last night.]

Mark Schrayber — The Impossible Burger at Jardiniere (San Francisco)

The first (and only) time I’ve been to Jardiniere — an ultra-fancy restaurant in San Francisco — was a painfully embarrassing experience. I’d gone for the Impossible Burger, a vegetarian meat that’s been hyped up due to the fact that it “bleeds.” I was so excited to get inside and drop $50 on a tasting menu (the burger is only sold in four locations worldwide and there are limited quantities), that I didn’t even notice that my pants had caught on something and that the crotch was flapping open as I stood in front of the maitre’d and proudly announced I was there to try the burger.

Despite the fact the torn pants, the restaurant gods were gracious and allowed me to sit the hell down and eat what I could only call the best burger I have ever had in my entire life. I am skeptical of vegetarian meat — even as a vegetarian — and was expecting a hockey-puck like veggie burger made out of soy, corn syrup, and whatever hydrogenated oils are. Instead, I got a cut of “meat” so juicy and tender that I almost teared up. I care about animals and everything, but I love the taste of meat even more, so to get something so close to what an actual cow may have tasted like without the murder and destruction that goes into eating actual cow was a fascinating and eye-opening experience that I wish I could have again and again.

Before, when people asked me what my goals were, I’d tell them that I wanted to be rich so I could have a pool and a giant tub and that I’d never have to do any cleaning. Now I tell people that my longing for wealth is in order to buy an unlimited supply of Impossible Burgers that I can eat while swimming in my giant pool (naked) and not being bothered by anyone else. If you or someone you know could help me make that dream a reality, hit me up.

Allison Sanchez — Al Pastor Taco at Chiquis Taco Truck (Los Angeles)

My absolute favorite taco in LA is bought in the parking lot of a Mobil gas station. And yes, I realize how completely unappetizing that sounds. But believe me, the al pastor taco at Chiquis Food Truck on Santa Monica and Vine is mouth-watering perfection.

You arrive to find an unassuming little truck parked in the corner of the parking lot, wafting incredible smells across the intersection. Splayed out on a folding table are mounds of all the toppings you could possibly want to load your taco with: cilantro, pickled veggies, salsas, grilled onions etc all in one brightly colored spread. These toppings make the experience extra delicious, but the heart of the taco is its meat. And that’s where Chiquis truly shines. Beside the truck, al pastor is being roasted on a spit, fresh each night, carved to order. Thick, juicy pork is layered with sweet pineapple. Placed simply on corn tortillas, you can add whatever toppings you want. But the meat is such a perfect, tender blend of sweet and spicy that you’d probably be just as happy eating it plain.

It’s the best al pastor I’ve ever had, plus, this truck is super cheap. Each taco is only about $1.50 — making it the perfect place for a cheap date night or a late night snack. Try grabbing a drink at one of the awesome dive bars in the area to complete your amazing cheap-o experience.

Kimberly Ricci — Keshi Yena at the Aruba Marriott (Aruba)

During a recent voyage, I was fortunate enough to receive a cooking tutorial for an authentic Aruban dish, keshi yena. The most appealing part of this meal is how one can toss almost anything into the skillet and make it work, but the one essential ingredient would be an ultra-gooey wrapper of gouda cheese. Why? Back when the Dutch settled in Aruba, supply shipments arrived so infrequently that residents made use of gouda rinds, which they stuffed with table scraps. Traditionally, families prepared the dish with the entire rind, but in restaurants at the Aruba Marriott Resort, mini-versions fly out of the kitchen.

Typically, this savory recipe includes shredded chicken, but vegetarians like myself can toss in olives, tomatoes, garlic, parsley, raisins, or mango sauce. This sounds like overkill, but the nutty taste of gouda counters the tanginess within for pure Caribbean comfort food. And although the final product appears rich, there’s plenty of healthy stuff under the surface. Plus, the dish is just filling enough to satisfy without bogging down a bod for water sports. In other words, keshi yena is perfect beach vacation food.

Dan Seitz — Pasta From Hell, East Coast Grill (Boston)

Back in February, Andrew Husband and myself teamed up to experience Hell Night, Boston’s premiere spicy food torture session. The true agony of Hell Night is that the food is insanely spicy and yet ridiculously good. We both have our favorites, but mine was the Pasta From Hell. Each mouthful was a perfect balance; immaculately prepared pasta, a creamy sauce that contrasted with a lovely herbaceous crunch from the raw hot pepper slices, and a spice level that was somehow insane and but complimented everything.

I loved every minute of eating it and will never eat it again.

[Note: After nearly a year away, East Coast Grill reopened last night.]

Zach Johnston — Quadri Pizza at Frida Pizzeria (Palermo, Sicily)

As far as I’m concerned, there are two places on earth that make pizza to transcend all others — L’Antica Pizzeria da Michele in Naples and Frida Pizzeria in Palermo. da Michele is where pizza as we know it was basically invented, and their oven (with its 100+ years of baking pies) is a treasure for all of humanity. But I haven’t been to Naples in a couple years and I recently found myself in Palermo for the first time.

Palermo is a wonderland of food (like all of Italy, really). The scent of wood-fired ovens fills the air every day around lunch time and again as the sun sets and the tungsten lights flicker on in the evening. Frida sits on a piazza not unlike the hundred other piazzas in Palermo. The biggest difference is the long ass line out front — this pizza is that good.

I’d never had a Quadri pizza before, it seems to be a Sicilian specialty as I’ve rarely seen it around the rest of Italy. Basically they take a standard pizza and fold over the edges to make a square. This accomplishes something sort of amazing — it creates a stuffed crust. There are a mess of options for toppings. I went with tomato and pesto base topped with local cherry tomatoes, black olives, buffalo mozzarella, and ground walnut.

The cheese blended perfectly with the slightly spicy pesto and tomato base and the cherry tomatoes were mind-blowing (yes, a cherry tomato can be mind-blowing). There was a burst of the terroir and the sun in each bite. The black olives were sparse and each one offered a sharp umami contrast to the creaminess of the cheese and spiciness of the pesto-tomato base. The ground walnuts (always a great addition to any pizza) added a nice layer of very subtle crunch and meaty vibrancy. And the crust… it was doughy yet super airy, stuffed with cheesy/tomato-y/pesto-y goodness. Every bite was a little different part of the same pizza whole.

Jason Tabrys — Orangina from Any Supermarket Anywhere

My love affair with Orangina is long and true. So vocal am I about this love that my mother actually gifted me with bottles of it when I turned 18. It was simultaneously thoughtful and depressing. But beyond Orangina’s unique bottle and citrus-majesty, it’s also a sugary pop drink. This does not work for me as I am presently trying (and failing. A lot.) to cut added sugar and carbs in an effort to usher in the unfattening.

It has been months since I’ve tasted that sweet bottled nectar, but for Christmas, I cheated cause I am a SNACK SLUT! And it was amazing. Easily the best food and drink experience of my year. You can mimic this: It doesn’t even have to be Orangina. You can enhance your enjoyment of any favorite drink or food bit by withholding for a little bit and then indulging. Basically, you need to get tantric with your snacking.

Steve Bramucci — Spicy Cumin Lamb Hand Ripped Noodles at Xi’an Famous Foods (New York, NY)

I love food and travel for the sense of discovery. But discovery isn’t simply about “what’s new,” it’s about “what’s new TO YOU.” With that said, I tried the Spicy Cumin Hand Ripped Noodles at Xi’an because I’d heard the hype and I wanted to know if it was legit.

My god. It was just pure eating bliss. I never knew that a dish could be overloaded with a single pungent spice, the way these noodles are, and be better for it. Forget balance, this dish basks in a single flavor in a way that feels hedonistic. Each bite assaults your senses and it’s actually pretty thrilling.

That’s not to say it’s one note. Sure, you get the cumin first and foremost, but there are other flavors too. And the hand pulled noodles are the most springy, wonderfully glutinous things on earth. You should eat this.

Brett Michael Dykes — Dobites at Bakery Bar (New Orleans, Louisiana)

In the Lower Garden District of New Orleans — just a few blocks from Surrey’s, which was cited earlier in this piece for its shrimp and grits (which I also enthusiastically endorse) — there’s a place called Bakery Bar that’s exactly what it sounds like; a combination bakery and bar. Anyway, they serve these little cake bite thingies they call “Dobites” that kind of look like, well, buttplugs. But holy crap are those little buttplug-looking pastries delicious!

They’re not cheap (each Dobite runs $3 and there’s no discount if you buy, say, a dozen) but they’re so good that I don’t give a damn that 4 or 5 of them — which in cumulative size is about on par with your average slice of cake — sets me back about 20 bucks. Eating a dobite feels like a gift for being alive, a geniune treat to be savored and relished if there ever was one. The staff make different flavors each day, so you never really know which dobites they’ll have available on any given day, which is kind of charming but frustrating at the same time, because it’s a bit of a bummer when they don’t have any of your favorites (mine are the red velvet and lemon dobites). Anyway, when thinking about the best things I put in my mouth in 2016 — one of the best dining years of my life — the thing that I kept coming back to in terms of the sheer happiness they inspired each time I had them were the dobites. So there you go.