I love a good meal. I love food, but I’m not a foodie. I can appreciate the effort, thought and creativity that chefs bring to a dish, but I won’t value presentation over substance. All sizzle and no steak, does not, a good meal, make. A good friend of mine, who loves food like me, but is definitely more on the foodie end of the spectrum recently asked for recommendations for a place to eat at in New York. Specifically he wanted “Something new and exciting that takes food in unexpected directions. It doesn’t have to be fancy or expensive, but it has to be unique and different.”
I love the bar he set. But, quickly the conversation turned into a who’s who of New York restaurants. We of course had Nobu, Eleven Madison, Momofuku and the like. These are great restaurants. I’ve eaten at several of them. But, just like a designer pair of jeans, part of what you’re paying for and part of what skews your pov on these places are the name. Instead of being the name on the label, it’s the name of the chef. Why stop at Nobu? Let’s add Per Se, from Thomas Keller or Daniel or Le Bernardin. It’s now that these aren’t great places, but when I want a food adventure, I think of adventure in the way Anthony Bourdain sees the world, not the way the Michelin group hands out stars. You’re in New York, maybe the best city in the world for food and we end up with a list that reads like Business Insider’s Top Restaurants of New York list, which is basically a shrunken down version of the Michelin Guide.
Ultimately, there are only 3 things I want in a meal at a restaurant:
- I don’t want to leave hungry. I’m serious. The problem with so many “high-end” or Michelin rated places is they trade flash for substance. I get foam, which while beautiful, doesn’t exactly fill the belly. I once ate at La Belle Vie in Minneapolis, which while lovely, left us so hungry that we went to McDonald’s after we left. Thankfully, the dinner at La Belle Vie was paid for with a gift card…a $300.00 gift card, but hey, a gift card.
- It needs to be something I can’t make. Yours truly, can grill a damn good burger, but I can’t make the burger at Au Cheval, a burger so amazing, it’s life changing. I can make a great smoked brisket on my Green Egg, it’s not even remotely as good as the brisket from Franklin’s BBQ in Austin, Texas. What I love about this filter is that not only am I introduced to something that’s unique, it inspires me to cook something different.
- The overall experience needs to be worth getting off the couch and not ordering in. With platforms like GrubHub, Postmates and TaskRabbit, I can get a steak from Uncle Jack’s in NYC delivered to me, if I wanted. But, eating that steak, at home, is not the same as eating it at the restaurant and having Uncle Jack’s legendary service, killer Old Fashioned and deep fried, chipotle bacon, fresh from the kitchen.
I don’t think my bar is high, but it surprisingly difficult to find places that satisfy all 3 things. For example, Alinea, considered the greatest restaurant in the world, is great on #2 and #3, but woefully under-delivers on #1. I’ve been there twice and both times I ended up eating at Portillo’s on the way home. Yes, I’m serious. On the other end of the spectrum you have a place like Lugo Caffe in New York City, which has never sent me home hungry and creates a deep fried Lamb Shank that can’t be copied, but doesn’t offer a great or unique experience.
With that said, in no particular order, here’s my top 10 list of food places, across the United States, that deliver on my criteria.
- Katz’s Deli (New York, NY)
- The Slanted Door (San Francisco, CA)
- L&B Spumoni Gardens (Brooklyn, NY)
- Table 52 (Chicago, IL)
- Brasa (Minneapolis, MN)
- Morimoto (Philadelphia, PA)
- Franklin’s BBQ (Austin, TX)
- Crif Dog’s / Please Don’t Tell (New York, NY)
- Aureole (Las Vegas, NV)
- Rye (Louisville, Kentucky)
And more specifically, just so you don’t think I punted on the original question from my friend, these were my recommendations for places that provide “Something new and exciting that takes food in unexpected directions. It doesn’t have to be fancy or expensive, but it has to be unique and different.”:
- Fette Sau – this would take you to Williamsburg, so right off the bat, it’s a new experience. You get legit BBQ, that while not as famous as Dinosaur, is outstanding. You wait in an alley to get in, but you can drink while you wait. The fantastic selection of bourbon almost makes you wish the wait was a bit longer than it is…almost.
- Ajisen Noodle – There’s 3 locations, but the best and most legit of the bunch is in Chinatown. You can’t get more authentic than Mott Street. They’re located at 14 Mott Street which is just a few doors down from the iconic 8 Mott Street arcade that at one point in time had the famous Tic Tac Toe chicken. The food is simple, in that there’s not a lot of options, but what’s there is tremendous. In my opinion and the opinion of many other more credible sources, Ajisen has the best ramen noodles in the country.
- Tacombi at Fonda Nolita – First, visit the site. Look at the scene that is Tacombi. Yes, that’s a VW van in the middle of the restaurant, serving tacos. Only in New York. Oliver Strand of the New York Times said it better than I ever could “Tacombi at Fonda Nolita doesn’t feel like a restaurant as much as an art installation, a gallery with a taqueria set up in the middle of a concrete garage just off Houston Street.” It’s a completely transformative experience.
One of the things I love about food is how passionate people get about the subject. What I love, could be something you loathe and what you think is exceptional, I might find to be “meh.” Food is a personal thing. Similar to music, there’s more than enough options to go around, to satisfy everyone’s palette.