Do you remember what you were eating when you realized the world was about to change? On the night of November 8, I was in my bedroom eating a beef roll, an L.A.-by-way-of-Shandong innovation that takes a traditional crisped Chinese pancake and fills it with slices of stewed beef, sweet-savory hoisin sauce, and an onslaught of cilantro and scallion. It’s a comforting snack, one that I enjoyed more this year than in any of my years prior. Because there was nothing I sought out more in 2016 than comfort.
Eating has always been a coping mechanism for me, but it took on a much bigger role in my life this year. I spent a week in Austin at the beginning of the year to fill an emotional and creative void in my life that had been created with the fall of Grantland; I traveled to Nashville to report a story that I’d essentially spent my entire life working on; I fulfilled another dream by challenging my boss’s old college buddy to an old-fashioned eating competition, and won. I ate a lot this year, and there’s a lot I’d like to share about my experiences. So, with apologies to the braised black cod at Jun Won, the plate of Southern vegetables at Husk, the fish and mango ceviche at La Guerrerense, the off-menu biscuits at Olamaie, the smoked beef rib at La Barbecue, and the hot fish sandwich at Bolton’s, here are the 10 best things I ate this year.
1. Smoked Brisket, Franklin Barbecue (Austin)
Let’s begin with a detour: In the early morning on a cold Saturday in January, I stood with a friend outside of Snow’s BBQ in Lexington, Texas, approximately an hour east of Austin. Snow’s is the domain of Tootsie Tomanetz, its 81-year-old pitmaster, a local legend who has been cooking barbecue the same way for half a century. The mythos of Snow’s is a triangulation of remoteness (Lexington has a population of under 1,500), exclusivity (it’s open only on Saturdays, and often sells out before lunchtime), and hype (Texas Monthly’s barbecue editor, Daniel Vaughn, has named it one of the four best barbecue restaurants in Texas; The New Yorker called it the best Texas barbecue in the world). Those of us waiting outside the door (closed to keep the cold out) turned our heads to the pits that Tootsie was lording over and saw Aaron Franklin, the proprietor of world-renowned Franklin Barbecue and the nerd-philosopher-king of Texas barbecue. They hugged; I likened it to Superman embracing Thor. He was there for breakfast, just like the rest of us.
This next part breaks my heart every time. We place our order for some brisket and pork ribs. The ladies behind the counter were just wrapping up a large order from the man ahead of us in line, so they brought out another brisket resting in foil wrap. Let me tell you something: It was the one. The way it glistened, the way its initial, rollicking jiggle upon slapping the cutting board gave way to something more sensually hypnotic — it was perfect. What a way to end this four-day BBQ excursion, I thought, with brisket that finally looked to be on par with what we had at Franklin (we’d also had La Barbecue and Micklethwait Craft Meats).
I snapped out of my lustful daze and looked over to my right; I noticed we hadn’t actually moved much in line. I looked at the man ahead of us, and I’ll never be able to forget that look on his face; it was a look that said I deserve more. Oh, no. “You know what, I’ll take that whole brisket, too,” he said. And so the ladies wrapped it back up and rang the order. If this was a dream, I was being slaughtered in it.
The next brisket possessed no magic. It didn’t yield the same way as the one before, as if it were still stubbornly clinging to its right to stay firm. Sitting at the table, my suspicions were confirmed. The brisket was dry, though the bark on the outside, crisp and bright in flavor and texture, was incredible. What a shame that interior couldn’t match the exterior.
This has been an extremely long detour away from what I considered my favorite meal of 2016. Why? Because sometimes peerlessness can be hard to articulate. Franklin’s brisket, for as much hype as it carries, is damn near perfect on every level. There are two distinct muscles in a whole cut of brisket — the point (more fat) and the flat (more meat) and because of their structural differences, they also cook differently. Slices from the point often produce what we imagine as brisket’s ideal state: almost untenably moist, with a sheen of slow-rendered fat that compels you to smack your lips after every bite. The fat lends its flavor, but it also serves as a shield for any imperfections in the process. The flat, on the other hand, has less of a safeguard; with less fat, it is prone to drying out much more easily, and so the act of eating brisket can end up being a Jekyll-and-Hyde experience.
Franklin’s point is majestic, the best I’ve ever had; Franklin’s flat might be even better, which goes against all established order in my mind about how any of this shit works. The calculus of the barbecue process, how time and technique affirm both barbecue’s soul and science, leaves me slack-jawed; we call the men and women who make barbecue pitmasters, and the intrinsic reverence in the language is deserved. The brisket at Franklin’s makes me want to throw my hands up and declare it all an act of occultism.
Another side note: I got a few OkCupid messages during my five-day stay in Austin from a cutie who remained exhaustingly vague through the course of our correspondence. Anyway, the thing about Franklin’s is you get there early, sit around in lawn chairs, drink beers, and talk to those around you for hours until the shop opens. In that time, someone will walk around and ask how much you’re expecting to order to get a sense of how their inventory will fare against the masses. That person will also walk around and chat it up with those in line, just to kill time. So you engage, thinking nothing of it, because thinking nothing is part of effective small talk.
Eventually, we walk in, we order, we eat, we rejoice, we become catatonic. We tended to our meat sweats back at the hotel, and I woke up to another message on OkCupid. She asked me how I liked the brisket.
2. Confit Maitake Mushroom, Qui (Austin)
Franklin’s brisket was the best thing I ate in Austin, but it isn’t the first dish I think of when I think of the city. For that, I turn to Top Chef winner Paul Qui’s now-defunct former flagship restaurant, Qui, where, for the third course in a seven-course tasting, I was served a small maitake mushroom floret. It was ugly as sin, tarred-and-feathered with egg yolk, a few specks of opal basil and sal de gusano, a Oaxacan salt infused with chile costeño and, yes, ground agave worms (the best way to describe the flavor would be the dusting on a Lay’s K.C. Masterpiece barbecue potato chip). How could anyone have predicted what happened next?
After my first bite, the flood of Proustian memory was so overwhelming I damn near lost my wits. I tasted my past colliding with my present, folding up into accordion ridges. If you’ve never had a maitake (also known as hen of the woods), its flavor can resemble that of a clam, taking more from the ocean than the earth it was pulled from. It reminded me of the sauteed clams in basil sauce that I loved eating as a child at Tan Cang (Newport Seafood Restaurant) with my dad; it was also a dish with a defined sense of place — its embrace of fat in the form of a runny yolk, and the smoky elements in the sal de gusano were clear Austin signifiers. I didn’t expect one bite of a mushroom to put my entire Austin trip in perspective, but, you know, maybe I should have. I’d never eaten anything that so succinctly, so vividly, like a photograph, captured a moment in time.
3. “Pancit” Egg Noodle, Lasa (Los Angeles)
I was 7, and I wanted a kumquat tree. Our backyard back then would’ve made Bill Pullman smile: We had apricots, guavas, and both hachiya and fuyu persimmons every autumn. But I was babysat by my great aunt in my youngest days as a toddler, and her garden at the back of a townhouse in Monterey Park, California, had small kumquat trees everywhere. I’d walk out to the garden every day and pick a few kumquats and pop them in my mouth, bracing for the sharp jolt of acidity, and waiting for the mildly sweet flesh to placate the shock. So, we got a kumquat tree, or at least we thought we did. Come summertime, the fruits the tree yielded were spheroids, not the oblong shape I was used to. They also didn’t taste that good when you ate them whole — the rind was too bitter. I was upset. Then my mom made lemonade out of them.
What we had on our hands was a calamansi tree. Its flavor, largely in its essential oils, is big and round, like that of a mandarin orange, but with the mandarin’s sweetness swapped out for the tartness of a kumquat. It’s a lovely hybrid of profiles, and one that, outside of Filipino households, is severely underutilized.
If you were lucky enough to have tried Lasa’s pancit over the summer, perhaps it, too, had you reconsidering the dimensions of citrus fruit and how calamansi might fit as a permanent fixture in a kitchen pantry. Lasa’s version of pancit (the Filipino word for “noodles”) is relatively spare: noodles tossed in calamansi-infused butter, sliced scallions, and a dusting of egg yolk cured in Filipino fish sauce, dried and grated like one would bottarga. Acid rounded out fat, in turn being rounded out by umami; everything in its right place. “I could eat this for breakfast every day of my life,” I told the acquaintance I was with, completely forgetting the fact that I actually don’t eat breakfast most days. Lasa’s pancit has returned to the menu as part of the restaurant’s a la carte expansion. I really can’t recommend it enough. A quick round of word association would conjure the word “comforting”; pry a little deeper, and maybe I’d go with “Sundays,” back when they were easy.
Years later, most of the trees in our backyard have been uprooted, paved over to create more walking area. But the calamansi tree is as strong as ever, crawling up and over the southeast edges of our house’s boundaries. It’s now the tallest tree in our garden, and it still makes a hell of a lemonade.
4. Spaghetti alla Chitarra, Union (Pasadena)
Pasta, in all its forms, was the most persistent craving I had all year. I wanted that frozen Stouffer’s lasagna with meat sauce; I developed an unlikely affinity for cacio e pepe; at L.A.’s Bestia, I actually stammered to my waiter, “OK, wait, so it’s fusili with a beef ragu, but then you’re gonna up the beef with shavings of veal katsuobushi? That’s wild. Yeah, fuck yeah I want that.” The dish that has haunted me on a near-weekly basis, though, was the spaghetti alla chitarra from Bruce Kalman’s Union in Pasadena. There’s not much to it: housemade spaghetti that is extruded from a contraption that resembles a bunch of guitar strings and tossed in a tomato sauce cooked with Fresno chilies. Throw a few leaves of basil on there. That’s it. It’s served dead center on a plate in a tightly wound quenelle, almost like a pharaoh’s tomb, and drizzled with chile oil. It’s basically perfect. Kalman shared the recipe on Vice, but no thank you. This is not a dish I’m going to try at home. For once, I withhold myself from ruining something beautiful.
5. XXXHot Chicken, Prince’s Hot Chicken Shack (Nashville)
Read all about it!
6. Australian Spanner Crab With Sea Urchin and Ossetra Caviar, Providence (Los Angeles)
Providence was both the most expensive and least memorable meal I’ve ever had in L.A., though the latter isn’t necessarily the restaurant’s fault — burrowed so deep in my pre-Ringer ennui, I opted for the full wine pairing in addition to the tasting menu. Before our amuse-bouche arrived, I asked our server whether it was possible for anyone to finish all the wines offered and walk away without feeling completely blitzed. It didn’t take longer than half a beat for him to say, “No.”
So, yes, the meal was hazy. I did remember one dish, though. A perfect orb of spanner crab enveloped in a creamy sea urchin sauce, topped with a small mound of caviar, itself topped with a gold fucking leaf. I gasped and said aloud, “This is the most baller thing I’ll ever eat in my life.” What did it taste like? It tasted like being caught in a bizarre love triangle with Ariel and Sebastian. It tasted like a GIF of Scrooge McDuck swan diving into his disgusting wealth. In those two bites, I felt pretty. And then, like antibodies attacking a foreign toxin, I was quickly overcome with a feeling of inadequacy and self-loathing. That’s what the wine is for.
7. Fried Green Tomatoes, Arnold’s Country Kitchen (Nashville)
Arnold’s Country Kitchen is a James Beard Award–winning meat-and-three landmark in Nashville — so much so that, while I was in Music City to report on hot chicken, I actually planned my dizzying three-day trip around being able to accommodate Arnold’s odd schedule. It’s open from 10:30 a.m. to 2:45 p.m. on weekdays, with a rotating daily menu of entrees and sides (a meat-and-three is a cafeteria-style restaurant where you generally order some kind of meat entree and three sides). The chicken and dumplings were good, the turnip greens exquisite, but the fried green tomatoes were one of the highlights of my Friday morning, if not my entire stay in the city.
Here’s what I learned about the process: slices of green tomatoes are coated in flour, dipped in a mixture of egg whites, tabasco, and apple juice (yep!), and then finally get a dredging in cornmeal before frying. The result is a dish that runs the gamut on the checklist that is human craving: sweet, tart, savory, with a dense crunch from the cornmeal. The bit of apple juice in the dredge highlights the unique flavor of the green tomato without imparting much more than a bit of sweetness to round the palate.
Here’s something I learned about Nashville: the people like things sweet. Sense-numbingly sweet. At Prince’s Hot Chicken Shack, your beverage options include the two Pepsi vending machines right by the ordering window, or “lemonade” and “fruit punch” from Purity Dairies, which is kept behind that same ordering window with the workers in what I have to imagine is a public service. A bottle of their lemonade contains about 64 grams of sugar. It is lemon-scented simple syrup.
The fresh-squeezed stuff you get at Arnold’s isn’t much of a reprieve. What’s fun about the setup at Arnold’s is their dessert offerings come up first in the cafeteria-style line: It is a direct (and enabling) appeal to the fantasies of childhood. I’m not big on sweets, and having already felt the pangs of sugar overdose during my stay, I managed to sidestep the wonderful array of pies (the spicy chocolate looked great). I was plenty happy with my fried green tomatoes, which were as close to dessert as I’ll ever need to get.
8. Millennium Falco, Roberta’s (New York City)
I was absolutely ready to call Roberta’s pizza a sham, a construct of self-reflexive Williamsburg hype and lifestyle branding that I, a lifelong Angeleno, wanted to believe was true about a particular kind of NYC existence. Instead, I’ll call it the best sausage pizza I’ve ever had.
9. Golden Soup With Sliced Beef, Szechuan Impression (Alhambra, California)
There are countless Chinese restaurants along Valley Boulevard’s 25-mile belt that runs from just outside downtown Los Angeles all the way to the outskirts of Orange County. As such, L.A. will never have an end-all, be-all Chinese restaurant. The regional taste preferences are too specific, and the breadth of cultures and subcultures within the first- and second-generation Chinese immigrant population in L.A.’s San Gabriel Valley is too wide for it all to fit under one roof. Thankfully, because of L.A.’s expanse, there are hundreds of roofs to choose from.
Getting the full SGV restaurant experience can often entail going to several restaurants in a day, combing through the particular specialties of a restaurant in the area before moving on to the next; there is no point in wasting your time eating something subpar when a truly exceptional version of the same dish is likely just around the corner.
I think that’s why diving into the deep cuts of Szechuan Impression’s menu was a personal highlight of the year. It’s a selection that honors the classics (their chicken doused in chili oil is superb, as is their mao cai, a prearranged hot pot with ingredients simmering in a blisteringly hot soup), but is also playfully withholding (no dan dan noodles or twice-cooked pork), nudging you toward the fringes, toward dishes you’d never seen at a Sichuan restaurant before. At S.I., a traditional tea-smoked duck is transformed into tea-smoked pork ribs, by far the most beautiful dish on the menu, and one that could hold its own against L.A.’s whimsical Instagram titans like Sqirl and Baroo.
I would highly recommend the golden soup, though, one of the restaurant’s more interesting creations. The broth is hard to describe, though it has a flavor somewhat reminiscent to hot and sour soup. It draws its namesake color from a puree of pumpkin, but the texture of the soup is neither as watery as stock nor as viscous as a bisque. It’s served with your choice of razor-thin slices of brisket, lamb, or fish filets along with enoki mushrooms and glass noodles. There is a merciful option of getting it without chilies, but I wouldn’t recommend going that route. Unlike most of what we consider Sichuan staples, golden soup isn’t powered by vermilion pools of oil or the ubiquitous Sichuan peppercorn; the heat from the fresh chilies they include in the golden soup isn’t a frontline assault, but a floral counterbalance to the spike of vinegar that hits the palate first.
Eater’s Bill Addison recently named Szechuan Impression one of the best restaurants in America, a well-deserved distinction. It’s Sichuan with sleight of hand, not content with simply perfecting traditions. It’s a cultural portal that invites you to go deeper than just the greatest hits. Viewed through that lens, it is a perfect representation of what Los Angeles does better than any other city in America.
10. Mole de Chipotle, Las Molenderas (Los Angeles)
I love mole for the same reason I love nature documentaries: However imagined, however brief, there exists, in those moments of enjoyment, a deeper connection between the self and the soil we walk on. It’s at least partially why, a few months ago, when a bartender described a cocktail as tasting of wet clay, I instinctively said, “I need that.” Mole poblano is a disorientingly complex sauce of around 20 to 40 ingredients, including chilies, seeds, spices, and a bit of chocolate rendered and rendered and rendered until it reaches a deep color and consistency that one might describe as “elemental.” No two moles are alike, but each mole is built off a blueprint five centuries old. When you’re lucky enough to come across a particularly good one, you might wonder if you’re not tasting the primordial soup that gave this forsaken planet life to begin with.
Las Molenderas (which, ironically, has nothing to do with mole; molenderas are tortilla makers) in the Boyle Heights neighborhood of L.A. makes a damn fine mole. Their classic mole poblano is great, but opt for the version with chipotle, which has the right amount of heat to complement the sauce’s inherent earthiness. I like it served with rice and beans and some of their homemade tortillas. You can also ask them to slather it all over cheese fries or nachos, if you’re feeling nasty. It’s on the table for me, sometime before the year is through.