A few weeks ago G and I were heading back from the beach and we made our obligatory stop by Whole Foods for hot bar mac and cheese. After savoring every last bite, I made the declaration that the mac and cheese was one of the best things I’ve ever eaten. That started a conversation (that made me really, really hungry) about the best meals/foods I’ve ever had. So after a lot of thinking, I’ve managed to narrow it down to a top ten.
What really surprised me when I started thinking about this is how simple most of these foods are. No fussy sauces or delicate souffles… just quality food. Food like this is why I love food so much, and why I love to eat local (Whole Foods is the only chain on this list). You will never, ever have the best meal of your life at Chili’s or Outback.
And unfortunately, a couple of these meals happened before I started obsessively taking pictures of everything I eat, but oh well. It is what it is.
10. House Made Tots from Venture Kitchen & Bar in Hampton, VA.
Tater tots. Something I am absolutely powerless to resist. Especially when they are THIS. DAMNED. GOOD. These are made in-house and are the best potato dish you’ll ever have in your life! The insides are soft and fluffy, the outside is crispy, and they are perfectly seasoned. Basically, they’re deep-fried cubes of heaven.
9. Hot Bar Mac & Cheese from Whole Foods
It may not look like much, but this macaroni and cheese is the best macaroni and cheese I have ever had. Ever. First of all, as you can obviously tell, it’s super creamy. I loathe baked macaroni and cheese. I’m not sure why people bake it. It’s supposed to be creamy and cheesy, not dry and crumbly. This stuff… oh, this stuff. It’s super rich, so you can’t eat much of it (G and I usually share a portion this size), super cheesy, has the hint of onion in it and just melts in your mouth. I could eat this every single day, and be so, so happy. They’re opening a Whole Foods down the street from my apartment this spring, so there is a possibility that could happen. So, if I gain about 50 lbs. next year, you’ll know why.
8. Tuna Poke from Union Bistro in Little Rock, AR.
First, to anyone who thinks a Droid is as good as an iPhone, no. Just no. This picture is terrible, and was taken with a Droid. Second, sadly no one else will ever be able to enjoy this (or take a better photo of it), since the restaurant is now closed. But this tuna was life changing. I hadn’t been eating sushi or raw/rare fish very long when we went here for the first time and we ordered this to be adventurous. The tuna was served with caviar, wasabi aioli, sliced avocado and sriracha. When you put each component together, you got the best flavor explosion ever in your mouth. Every time we went to Union Bistro, we tried to order at least one or two different items, but we ordered this every single time.
7. Apple Crisp Ice Cream & Goat Cheese Honey & Fig Ice Cream from Rococo Artisan Ice Cream in Kennebunkport, ME.
We stopped at Rococo Artisan Ice Cream on our way back to our hotel in Boston, and we were blown away. It was a small shop, and didn’t look like anything special. They had some pretty exotic flavors and a few normal flavors, but it was all amazing. Graham had goat cheese with honey, whiskey & figs. I went the more traditional route and ordered apple crisp. Both were phenomenal. The apple crisp had HUGE chunks of apple and pastry throughout. And even though all of the flavors going on in G’s made me raise my eyebrows, I had a bite, and it was so, so delicious. I would happily eat one of these ice cream cones every day for the rest of my life.
6. King Salmon from Fahrenheit in Charlotte, NC.
I love salmon. LOVE it. It’s typically my go-to entrée when we go out to dinner, and this salmon was probably the best I’ve ever had. This salmon was served with wasabi mashed potatoes, blood orange saikyo miso and pickled cucumbers and carrots. This was AMAZING. The salmon was huge and perfectly cooked. It had an excellent crust, but was perfectly cooked inside. The potatoes had just a hint of wasabi, but not enough to be overwhelming. I gave Graham a bite, and all the flavors together reminded him of a sushi roll. This was one of those dinner where you ate really slowly, and savored every bite, because you just didn’t want it to end.
5. Hot Dogs from JJ’s Red Hots in Charlotte, NC (Specifically the Breaking Batter & the Big Cheesy).
It may make me a bad foodie, but I don’t care. I love hot dogs. LOVE them. I could eat them probably every single day if I weren’t somewhat concerned with my weight (not as concerned as I should be, but that’s a post for another day). And the hot dogs at JJ’s are as good as it gets. It’s always really hard for me to narrow down to just one favorite between these two. If I’m being completely honest, the more delicious one is probably the Breaking Batter. But the Big Cheesy is the first hot dog I had at JJ’s and made me realize I DO like pimento cheese, despite a lifetime of believing I didn’t.
4. Pizza from Lou Malnati’s in Chicago, IL.
When we went to Chicago back in 2012, I had a huge list of potential places to get authentic, Chicago style pizza at. Lou Malnati’s got the most votes, so we ended up getting a pizza one night. The smell tortured us on the drive back to the hotel. When we opened the box, it was kind of a “meh” moment. The pizza was thick, but didn’t look very big. It looked like a smaller, thicker crusted version of the pepperoni & sausage pizza we got at a local chain in Arkansas. That “meh” moment flew out the window the second we had that first bite. Holy. Mother. Of. God. There were layers of cheese and sausage beneath the top layer of cheese and toppings. The sauce was excellent, the toppings were good, and we happily ended the night lying in bed, comatose from too much pizza. And when we have a house again, and have space for a deep freezer, it will be filled with frozen Lou Malnati’s.
3. Anniversary dinner at Zaytinya in Washington, DC.
This may be cheating, to pick an entire meal, but we ate everything in one sitting, so I say it counts. Since we had two weddings, we get two anniversary dinners. For our December anniversary in 2013, we spent the night in DC and had dinner at Zaytinya. Zaytinya serves a HUGE menu of Greek/Mediterranean style tapas, and after much consideration, we were able to narrow it down to six items. And everything we picked was a winner. However, Graham and I walked away that night with differing opinions on which was the absolute best. I argued it was the scallops served in a harissa-carrot puree, orange sections & radishes. Graham thought it was the octopus Santorini (grilled Mediterranean octopus, marinated onions, capers, & yellow split pea puree). The grilled hangar steak with arugula tabbouleh, roasted hazelnuts & pomegrante seeds was pretty spectactular as well. See why I have to narrow it down to the whole meal, instead of just one dish?
2. THE Buffalo Chicken Pizza to end all Buffalo Chicken Pizzas from Tavern on the Square in Salem, MA.
I have this pizza on such a pedestal, it’s borderline insane, and unfortunately, it’s pretty much the one food I’ve loved that I didn’t take a photo of. Over five years ago, my mom & I roadtripped up to Boston for the week. We had such a wonderful time seeing historic sites and visiting so many beautiful places. But by far, one of my favorite parts of the trip was eating a buffalo chicken pizza in Salem. It was a place called Tavern on the Square and our lunch was delicious. Well, mine was. My mom had momentarily lost her mind and was on a low carb diet. Who goes on a low carb diet on vacation? So, while I was indulging in amazing fried pickle spears and the best pizza of my life, she was eating salads and mashed turnips. That pizza though… it was divine. It came out with the cheese perfectly browned and bubbly, the crust was good, and the flavor was amazing. The pizza was spicy, but not too spicy. It was also huge, so I took the leftovers with me and snacked on them throughout the rest of the trip.
When Graham and I were in New England this fall, I debated over whether or not to go back to the restaurant and order the same pizza. I’m not exaggerating when I say that I seriously gave this way more thought than a logical person ever should. But I have this pizza on such a pedestal, I was terrified that I would order it again and be disappointed. So, we’re in Salem and I finally decide to go for it. We get to the restaurant, and I’m sure the waitress thinks I’m crazy as I start gushing about a pizza I had four years ago. She tells me she hasn’t been there very long and tracks someone else down to see if the recipe had been changed.
It had been. My heart broke a little, and at the same time I was a little relieved. The pizza that I had in 2009 would remain the perfect pizza, and I wouldn’t have to worry about what I ordered living up to it’s memory. Graham ordered the “new” buffalo chicken flatbread. It was very mediocre. It had corn on it. Who puts corn on a buffalo chicken pizza? It seriously didn’t work. At all.
Not to be melodramatic or anything, but I’m going to quote Titanic right now (only change the him/he to it): “I don’t even have a picture of him. He exists now… only in my memory.”
1. Seared Scallops & Squid Ink Linguine from So! in Little Rock, AR.
People don’t give Arkansas enough credit. When I first moved there, I didn’t give it enough credit. But I grew to love it, and throughout my two and a half years of living there, I had some amazing meals. We had so many wonderful dinners there, but So! was our go-t0 restaurant for our special meals. Birthdays? Yes. Anniversaries? Heck yes. Deployment homecomings? Yes x1000 (when Graham returned from that first deployment of our relationship, we actually had dinner there the night before we got engaged). And almost every time we ate there, I ordered the same thing: the seared scallops & fennel with squid ink linguine. I know the pasta looks a little scary, but don’t be intimidated by it. It’s salty, garlicky and absolutely delicious. The very last time we went was the only time I ordered something else, which made Graham very happy. He refuses to order the same thing as me when we go out, so he finally ordered this dish for himself. I loved this dinner so much, and when we eventually make it back to Arkansas (one of these days…), I’m going to stop by Crye-Leike first to visit with the people I miss oh so much, and then we’re heading to So!