Works for me, I typed instinctually. Given my position as this website’s occasional food columnist, I was asked to compile my 10 favorite dishes of the year. I agreed without a second thought. As I sifted through hastily written notes scrawled in all corners of my myriad Google Docs accounts, revisited all the poorly lit photos I’d taken of fish collars, lamb ribs, and ornate salads, and made last-second trips to taco trucks and star-studded hot spots just to get into the spirit of things, I thought about how much and how little these lists can mean to those who produce them and those on the receiving end of them. I thought about the stories that such lists help create or even obscure. I thought about Jonathan Gold and Anthony Bourdain, culinary North Stars who passed this year, and their disdain for the gamification of food culture and the complexes they helped maintain—I wondered whether they, at times, felt like Galactus, building and destroying worlds just to sate their appetites. Perhaps that’s a tension that I’ll have to live with for as long as I do this, for as long as I consider it worthwhile to tell stories about food, and what those stories tell us about who we are.
So, with apologies to the sour cherry vareniki at Kachka in Portland; the lau mam at Lau Dong Que in Westminster, California; the seafood gumbo at Chef Ron’s Gumbo Stop in Metairie, Louisiana; the tlayuda de morongo at Poncho’s Tlayudas in Los Angeles; and George Motz’s fried-onion burger I ate at Smorgasburg L.A., here are the 10 best things I ate in 2018.
Rabbit, Wolvesmouth (Los Angeles)
I’d imagine this is what it feels like trying to explain an alien abduction. A rabbit albóndiga, breaded and deep-fried, reminiscent of the shrimp balls one might find at Sunday morning dim sum, sits atop a tart salad of prawns, jicama, celery, and a lime remoulade. Both are dusted with some sort of fluorescent powder; their hue eerily reminiscent of strawberry- and grape-flavored Nerds. A churro—a literal churro, with cinnamon-flecked sugar and everything—leans against the albóndiga, and a corn tamal hides in the shade behind. A distorted, hypnotizing spiral of green (poblano chile sauce) and brown (mole sauce) are there to let you know you might not be in your right mind.
Crude science would suggest the chefs found harmony amid the intensely sweet, salty, sour, and spicy incongruousness of it all. It was a magic trick, and I found myself laughing alongside my fellow dinner guests at Wolvesmouth, a clandestine supper club where disorientation becomes the bond that turns strangers into fast friends over the course of the tasting menu. This dish should have been a disaster, and I cannot tell you why it wasn’t. With that one plate, Wolvesmouth chef Craig Thornton effectively recreated Dock Ellis’s iconic LSD-aided no-hitter for the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1970: a psychedelic trip where nothing makes sense, but everything works out in the end.
Corned Beef Soo Yook, Han Oak (Portland, Oregon)
From my profile of Han Oak’s Peter Cho and Sun Young Park:
Han Oak’s corned beef soo yook is a dish I think about often; it’s a Peter Cho autobiography on a plate: A classic Korean comfort dish of boiled beef in bone broth is tilted, incorporating the techniques internalized through working in meat-centric April Bloomfield restaurants in New York City. Han Oak’s soo yook, however, has perhaps a deeper connection to another Korean dish, jing-gee skhan, or Korean-style hot pot, inspired by Peter and Sun’s trips to Seoul Garden in Los Angeles. At Seoul Garden, gossamer shavings of raw beef are presented with a bevy of vegetables before a boiling pot of bone broth. Peter’s version is a reconstruction of the deconstructed cooking process: Thin slices of corned beef wade in a shallow pool of marrow-rich bone broth, with a lightly dressed radish and cabbage salad on top. The dish itself is a visual representation of the hot pot experience. The corning of brisket preserves the red hues of rare beef; each slice recreates the sensation of watching raw beef transform into something more.
It’s also a dish that contributes to the ongoing dialogue of how cultures absorb and refract outside influences back upon themselves. Corned beef was a common C-ration available for American troops stationed in South Korea during wartime; canned foods like corn and Spam, which would go on to achieve unimaginable popularity in the country, were embraced in times of food scarcity, smuggled into restaurants and households from U.S. military bases. People adapt, and flavors meld and become familiar. Great cuisines are grounded in the bedrock of making the most of what you have; as cultures continue to cross-pollinate, pushing cuisines further will also require making the most of what you know.
Machoo Kroeung, Nyum Bai (Oakland, California)
Two of the best restaurants in California’s Bay Area have the same name, just in different languages. Kin Khao, the Michelin-starred Thai stronghold in San Francisco, and Nyum Bai, the Cambodian eatery in Oakland earning national acclaim this year, both colloquially translate to “Let’s eat!” Literally, they mean “Eat rice.” It’s become hackneyed to say, but walk through the doors of any Asian mother’s house and the first thing you’ll be greeted with is the question “Have you eaten rice yet?” Rice is an object of reverence in East Asian culture, a symbol of life’s essential equipment for living. The question is rarely literal. She just wants to know whether you’re doing OK. (But if you are hungry, sit down and join her for dinner.)
For those who know, it’s a familiar beckon. For those who don’t, it’s an open invitation. And by all accounts, there is a whole lot that Nyum Bai chef-owner Nite Yun wants to show us. The restaurant’s machoo kroeung might be the soup of my dreams: a spicy-funky-sour elixir of beef, eggplant, water spinach, and tamarind on the far end of a soup spectrum that includes Filipino sinigang and Thai-Muslim sup hang wua. Where other acid-forward soups tend to rifle through the palate in linear notes, machoo kroeung presents itself as a series of curlicues. No doubt, that effect is due to the inclusion of prahok, a salted and fermented fish paste, that instills a murky depth of flavor that invites contemplation.
Jibarito de Morcilla, Jibaritos y Más (Chicago)
When is a sandwich more than a sandwich? When its buns are replaced with two slices of fried plantains and topped off with a marvelously pungent garlic oil. My first jibarito—which I had with morcilla, a rice-stuffed blood sausage common in all of Latin America—was a revelation. From my Chicago food diary:
After my first bite, on a park bench on a gorgeous Saturday morning, I lost control of my wits and inadvertently cursed out loud in front of several families. I wasn’t prepared for Jibarito y Más’s flame-orange hot sauce that tasted like a chile-infused olive brine. I wasn’t prepared for the garlic oil brushed on the top plantain piece. I wasn’t prepared for how quickly it all would hijack my pleasure centers. It was the most memorable bite of the trip, enough to turn me into an evangelist. The jibarito is a perfect food, and a snapshot of how I’ll think of Chicago from now until forever.
Handmade Noodles With Braised Meat and Preserved Sauce, Xi An Tasty (Monterey Park, California)
Two terra-cotta soldiers stand guard outside Xi An Tasty, a restaurant built in the upstairs annex of the Hong Kong Supermarket in the Los Angeles suburb of Monterey Park. Those two statues—replicas of the watchmen built to protect the first emperor of China on his voyage into the afterlife 22 centuries ago—will let you know you’re in the right place, because the restaurant’s existence isn’t made very clear. Its neon sign rests behind the supermarket’s window pane. Its front-entrance door is covered with low-resolution printouts of the menu, but in a way that suggests the restaurant may have already shuttered. Walk through the door, and the only thing separating the supermarket and Xi An Tasty is, in essence, the kind of room divider you’d purchase for a shared studio apartment to establish the illusion of privacy. A few palm-tree-printed stairs await (this restaurant is decidedly not disability accessible). Enter through the back and you might bump into the cook in the kitchen.
Noodles are the focus here, particularly the thick, wide-cut “handmade” ribbons. The lamb noodle soup and the spicy beef noodle soup are winter comforts, but the best showcase is their “handmade noodles with braised meat in preserved sauce,” Xi An Tasty’s version of youpo che mian. The bowl will arrive larger than expected, modestly adorned with a few chunks of braised pork and blanched bok choy, covered in dried, ground red chile powder. The magic lies at the bottom of the bowl, a combination of Chinese black vinegar, spices, and hot oil. Mix it all quickly; the residual starch from the noodles will act as a binder for the makeshift vinaigrette. Despite the noodles’ appearance, the dish isn’t a conveyor belt for sauce. The noodles themselves are the main attraction. They don’t have to stand up to anything but their own weight.
Upstate Abundance Potato, Smyth (Chicago)
Chef John and Karen Shield’s two–Michelin star restaurant was my favorite fine dining experience of the year. From my Chicago diary:
One dish I felt lucky to have experienced was a humble potato, no larger than a golf ball, draped in a jus of yeast and chicken stock fortified with dried scallops and a spoonful of cured California trout roe. The potato came via seeds from Row 7, a New York–based seed company founded by vegetable breeder Michael Mazourek and chef Dan Barber, one of America’s farm-to-table pioneers. Row 7 breeds produce for flavor; the Upstate Abundance potato, as it’s named, was specifically designed to create velvet-smooth starch granules that would mimic a potato that had been cooked in butter. Its silkiness is contrasted by the trout roe, which was selected for its particularly thick skin — the pressurized pop of the roe’s vessel feels more akin to a crunch. The jus keeps everything in orbit, a flavor every bit as complex and comforting as the Chinese superior stock (shàng täng) it was likely modeled after.
Thrice-Cooked Garnet Yams, Rustic Canyon (Santa Monica, California)
There is no shortage of brilliant minds ready to vouch for Jeremy Fox’s cooking (one hosts a show on the Ringer Podcast Network). At Rustic Canyon, one of my favorite restaurants in L.A.—and one of the few reasons I’ll voluntarily commit to spending time on the west side of town—Fox makes mind-numbing intellectual exercises like making vegetables taste good look easy. His dishes go through countless renovations and entire sagas emerge from his love-hate relationships with a few of them. One dish that has remained on the menu for years, in its current iteration, looks like a nighttime raspberry foraging expedition in Central Park and tastes like the most composed beet and quinoa salad Whole Foods will never offer.
Recently, Fox gave one of his crowd favorites a vegan face-lift: red garnet yams cooked three different ways in order to give them the crusty exterior of well-cooked home fries (which is itself a marvel, given the yams’ low starch content), dressed with a cashew aioli, and topped with celery, pickled onion, and benne seeds. It’s the type of dish that you can almost visualize being vertically integrated as though it were a case study on Samin Nosrat’s Salt Fat Acid Heat; a dish that is somehow better than the sum of its parts specifically because it isn’t striving to be anything more than the sum of its parts. Leave it to the guy who literally wrote the book On Vegetables to formulate the best possible sweet potato fries.
Fried Chicken, Willie Mae’s (New Orleans)
The chicken was immaculate, encased in a crust unlike any I’ve had previously. The exterior, almost auburn in hue, formed soft ridges, like waveforms of cooling lava suspended in time. Seaton’s recipe is heavily guarded, as all good Southern cooking secrets seem to be, but Willie Mae’s crust could only come from a wet batter, thin enough to yield an airy crisp, but substantial enough to essentially meld with the chicken skin, forming a sort of fritter that acts like a side dish unto itself. The waitress insisted I have a cornbread muffin; turns out it wasn’t necessary.
Squash Porridge With Duck Chicharrón, Porridge + Puffs (Los Angeles)
In a recent New York Times Magazine story, Minh Phan, the chef of Porridge + Puffs in the historic Filipinotown neighborhood of L.A. west of downtown, detailed the steps that go into her acclaimed porridges. It read like a rebuke of everything I’d ever learned about cooking rice: There is no rinsing involved, no soaking—blasphemous, I thought. The science was never explained to me as a child; I’d always thought of the process as a spiritual one. We’re purifying the rice. The first step in my education in rice was learning the ritual that goes into cooking it: It was to be rinsed three times, or until the water ran clear instead of cloudy from the residual starch on each grain. What I considered purification, Phan considered soul-reaving. It’s all a matter of perspective.
The Velvet, a dinnertime special at P+P, is immaculate: winter squash, heirloom rice, and brown butter melding in texture and flavor, establishing a rich depth that none of the components would be able to achieve without the aid of the others. Hobakjuk, a common Korean porridge made with kabocha squash, is a clear point of reference, as are the very basics of Chinese medicine. Winter squash, with its “warming” thermal properties, aligns with yang; as a topping, Phan adds an element of yin with a “cooling” braised winter melon marinating in Sichuan numbing spices. Like most of the porridges on the menu, the Velvet broaches very distinct cultural touchstones, but like a drive down Beverly Boulevard, the commonalities discovered can all run together in an intercultural, intertextual blur.
There is an option to add what the house calls “duck chicharrónes”—the intensely seasoned skin that is usually the best part of any Asian roast duck meal. I’d recommend it; on my first bite, I put down my spoon and heaved a sigh. Every month or so, I go out to a Chinese barbecue takeout counter and follow my dad’s longtime advice: Always order more duck than you think you’ll want to eat. Because the next day, the leftovers go into a stock pot, where all the meat, bone, and roasted bits of flavor mingle and create a deep, dark soup broth. All it needs is some additional soy sauce, star anise, and ginger. Add egg noodles, some bok choy, and it’s a completely different meal: mi vit tiem. Phan, whose ancestry lies in northern Vietnam, insists her food is not Vietnamese, but in that moment of recollection, you couldn’t tell me the dish wasn’t lifted from my own closest memories. Porridge, like mi vit tiem, was similarly always a Day 2 product; a way to make something soothing out of leftover rice, never the main attraction. At P+P, Phan embraces a neglected form and takes it places few would consider. Under her control, a warming bowl of porridge can be a portal where nostalgia folds on top of itself.
Oyster Mushroom Kebab, Bavel (Los Angeles)
Wood smoke wafts from the back of a former Arts District warehouse situated just off the 4th Street Bridge that heads into downtown, a by-product of the roaring fire that serves as the centerpiece of Bavel’s open kitchen. The mound of glowing embers that descend from the pyre is the catalyzing agent of L.A.’s best new restaurant and my single favorite dish of the year. Perhaps nothing on the menu more clearly presents fire’s transformative capacity than this: a metal skewer of plump oyster mushrooms, charred to excellence. The dish finds its balance in the occasional pucker from the tart sumac and the cooling, impossibly green puree of wild nettles and cardamom, which has a bright, bitter, and citrusy profile—reminiscent of lemongrass—that highlights the floral notes of the wood. The mushrooms contain within them the flavor of fire, the smokiness blurring the line that separates the fungi and animal kingdoms. The insistent heat kisses the contour of the mushroom tops, galvanizing the charred frills into a crown.
Chef Ori Menashe has crafted several dishes worthy of induction into an L.A. dining pantheon at his first restaurant, the perpetually booked, Italian-leaning Bestia (the pan-roasted chicken gizzards!). Bavel is Menashe’s personal ode to the kaleidoscope of Mediterranean-Israeli cuisine, and while the duck ’nduja hummus and lamb neck shawarma are both top-tier reflections of his cooking, those mushrooms are what haunt my thoughts on a weekly basis. Those mushrooms are the dish I’d humbly submit for pantheon consideration.