Our Best Bites of 2014

In a year that includes travel to China, it's hard to choose a most memorable bite. [Photo: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt]

As 2014 draws to a close, we've been reflecting on the meals that stood out most—the bites that we just can't stop thinking about.

Ed Levine's Best Bite: A Hot Dog in Paris

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[Photo: Ed Levine]

Everyone knows that the best hot dogs in the world are found in Paris. That couldn't be, you're thinking. Croissants, oui, but of course, but hot dogs, non, it is not possible. Well, maybe the first sentence is a bit of hyperbole, but I will tell you that the best bite of food I ate this year was the hot dog at Frenchie To Go.

And I know from hot dogs. My hot dog-eating exploits started when I was five and my parents would take the four Levine boys to the Nathan's in Oceanside, Long Island. Formerly the Roadside Rest, it was the second Nathan's, the first being the iconic spot on the boardwalk in Coney Island. The Oceanside had a separate line for every kind of food they sold. I drove my parents (and my brothers) crazy because I would spend the two dollars they gave each of us a little at a time, sometimes waiting on four or five lines in total to get hot dogs, french fries, a lobster roll, a burger, or the strange foodstuff known as the chow mein sandwich, which was just that, chow mein on a bun. But I would really drive everyone up a wall by hitting the hot dog line twice, once in the beginning of what could loosely be called a meal and once in the end. But I wanted to start and finish my meal with my favorite item, a Nathan's hot dog with mustard and sauerkraut.

Those original Nathan's hot dogs were plump, all-beef kosher-style wieners with a natural casing that gave them an incredible snap. I liked the snap as much as the taste.

Though I have searched America for a hot dog as good as the ones I remembered at that Nathan's in Oceanside, my search didn't end until more than a half-century later at Frenchie To Go, the tiny take-out spot on the Rue du Nil, what might be Paris' hippest little food street. On it you'll find the Frenchie bistro, the Frenchie wine bar, and a great coffee shop that also sells really good chocolates.

I actually didn't hit Frenchie To Go for the hot dogs. I came for the pastrami sandwich, but the completist in me took over, and I ordered just about everything on the menu except the lobster roll (too expensive) and pulled pork sandwich (even I have limits). The woman at the counter seemed a little dazed when this American dude who had come with his wife at 3:30 (when the place was virtually empty) ordered a hot dog, a pastrami sandwich, a breakfast sandwich, french fries, a sticky bun, a chocolate pot de creme topped by a slick of olive oil and more than a little coarse sea salt, and two housemade lemon ginger soft drinks.

The hot dog in its brioche bun is a work of art, maybe not deserving a place in the permanent spot in the Louvre, but worthy of a gallery showing on the Left Bank for sure. I took a bite. The memory of Nathan's flooded back to me. It had that snap, the grind gave it a perfect, just chewy enough texture, it had been properly smoked, and the garlic and salt that seasoned the hot dog were perfectly proportioned. And it even had a surprise, an innovation that US hot dog sellers should take note of: the housemade sauerkraut, redolent of juniper, was beneath the hot dog, nestled in the depths of the brioche bun. It was the hot dog equivalent of finding the surprise gift in the old boxes of Cracker Jacks. (For those keeping score, the fries were also great, though, alas, the pastrami sandwich was a bit of a letdown.)

So the next time you find yourself in Paris, by all means enjoy the baguettes, the croissants, the chocolates, the caramels, and the Berthillion ice cream at the source on the Ile de Saint Louis. Make sure you eat most if not all of your meals at the plethora of unpretentious and relatively inexpensive bistros that have open recently. But leave room for a hot dog and fries at Frenchie to Go. And when your friends, like mine, ask you what the best thing you ate in Paris, shock the hell out of them when you tell them it was the hot dog.

J. Kenji López-Alt's Best Bite

[Photo: J. Kenji López-Alt]

It started with eating my way through Istanbul, moved on to ticking off my New York bucket list, continued with an amazing cross-country road trip, and has concluded with all the great stuff I've been discovering in my new home in San Francisco (not to mention all of the recipes I've worked on). Yeah, I'd say it's been a fantastic year for me foodwise. Man, I'm making myself jealous here.

Oh, and lest I forget, there was that 2 1/2 month journey through Southeast Asia my wife Adri and I have been planning for the last five years, which is where all the truly mindblowing eating occurred. It's taken a Herculean effort to narrow down the field into a single best bite. The khao soi or larb in Chiang Mai? The fried century eggs in Bangkok? Maybe the simple soft eggs and kaya toast in Singapore or the dozens of Muslim-influenced dishes in Xi'an?

When it comes down to it, I picked the one dish that not only was in the upper echelons of the most delicious things I've ever eaten, but also holds a special place in my life. Mapo tofu—the Sichuan classic of soft tofu flavored with ground beef, mouth-numbing Sichuan peppercorns, and fermented chili bean paste—has been my favorite food for as long as I can remember. It was my favorite when I grew up eating my mom's sweet and sloppy Japanese-inflected version with no chilies to speak of. It was my favorite when I learned how to make it the real way from a Sichuanese chef in Boston.

It's no small surprise that I was insanely excited when I finally got the chance to taste it not only in its original city, but in the very restaurant that was built on the reputation and recipe of Grandma Chen, the woman who actually invented the dish as a simple supper for travelers. The version at Chen Restaurant in Chengdu comes served in a screaming-hot cast iron bowl that bubbles fiercely as it's placed on the table. Tender cubes of silken tofu laced with ground beef under a layer of chili oil, fragrant with toasted Sichuan peppercorn and fermented horse beans. It doesn't have the blast of chili heat you might expect from looking at it. Rather, it has a more subtle, layered heat with chilies that come through alternately as sweet and hot with the rich, almost raisin-like flavor of dried fruit.

It's been months since I've left Sichuan, but I still wake up in the middle of the night from dreams of hot, mouth-numbing, chili induced sweats. This is a good thing.

Max Falkowitz's Best Bite: Spicy Lemongrass Salad at Chao Thai in Queens

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[Photo: Max Falkowitz]

Allow me to brag for a minute.

Here is a sample of the restaurants I can walk to in 10 minutes from my new apartment in Queens. Tibetan dumpling shops. Indian kebab houses. Peruvian chicken joints. Colombian arepa-makers. Mexican ladies selling tamales on the street for a dollar a pop. And a pizzeria with a secret taco menu in the back.

These are all wonderful, but they are not my favorite thing. My favorite thing is the dozen or so Thai restaurants that form New York's Little Bangkok, all of them at least good and some kind of earth-moving. And as I used to visit restaurants in this little corner of Elmhurst all the time growing up, coming back has felt like getting re-acquainted with a childhood friend. My favorite of the lot, right now anyway, is the small, unassuming Chao Thai, long a hit with intrepid diners for its unforgiving spice, ample Thai specialties (plenty of blood and Thai river fish if you ask!), and especially fresh, fragrant flavors.

I'm slowly making my way through the diner-length menu, but there's one dish I can't help but order every time I visit: the spicy lemongrass salad. It's a tall mound of shaved lemongrass, sliced thinly so the chewy stalk becomes fragrant and easy to eat. There are roasted cashews for buttery bite and nubs of dried shrimp for a burst of briny flavor. Scallions and red onions make it even more fresh, but the real stroke of brilliance is the tiny nubs of chopped lime—skin, pith, and all—that deliver concentrated blasts of acidity with a subtle bitter chew. A fiery lime dressing brings it all together, and you have to take care with it. Even if you can handle heat, know that ordering this spicy may lead to a meal full of tears.

Not every hole-in-the-wall restaurant serves great food. But some do. And a select few make you keep coming back until the staff smile when they see your face.

Maggie Hoffman's Best Bite: Chicken at Zuni Cafe in San Francisco

[Photo: Maggie Hoffman]

Since I moved to San Francisco a few years ago, I've been thinking a lot about what comes after California cuisine. When everything is farm to table, when local, sustainable sourcing is a foregone conclusion, what's next?

In part, I think the next move is inspired by the global fermentation pantry: upping the ante on local flavors by drawing on age-old traditions to deepen flavors. Nick Balla and Cortney Burns at Bar Tartine offer a menu full of their own kefir, black garlic, pickled everything (from green beans to honey). Stuart Brioza at State Bird Provisions layers flavors by incorporating dehydrated fermented ingredients like sauerkraut into dipping salts. John Thurmond at St. Vincent Tavern makes some of the best steak tartare I've ever had, amping up the umami with fermented shio koji.

And I'm excited for all that. But glad, too, that California cuisine at its simplest and best can still offer an inspiring bite. The greatest meal I had this year was an old favorite. At noon, the light pours in the wall-to-wall windows of Zuni Cafe, flooding the tables where lunchers devour pungent caesar salads and mountains of crisp shoestring fries. They've been here since 1979. And the wood-fired roast chicken is still one of the best you'll ever find, with smoke-tinged skin giving way to juicy meat, nestled into a drippings-soaked bread salad better than any holiday stuffing. You're meant to linger, pouring another round of wine and making your way through a second tower of fries. For an afternoon at Zuni, time stands still. Perhaps that's why it's lasted so long.

Niki Achitoff-Gray's Best Bite: Black Spaghetti at Perla, NYC

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[Photo courtesy Perla]

We've waxed rhapsodic about Perla in the West Village before. A few times. It's hard not to—Gabriel Stulman's Italian restaurant, helmed by Michael Toscano,* takes ingredients you think you know and proceeds to show you just what an ignorant fool you are. There's the mind-blowing tripe garganelli; the obscenely tender beef tongue; chicken liver mousse smothered in marsala-caramelized cippoline onions. In short, expectations are defied. Food is never quite the same again.

* Toscano, who is the executive chef at Perla, Montmartre, and Jeffrey's Grocery, is moving to Charleston, South Carolina in January. He'll be replaced by chef de cuisine Jack Harris.

But this isn't a restaurant review. This is a story about a dish I never, ever would have ordered. See, I've always been proud of myself—even, admittedly, a little braggy—for being the kind of person who will try literally anything and likes almost everything. But at the end of the day, I'm pretty predictable when it comes to ordering food. I go for the heavy, meaty fare I'm unlikely to make for myself at home—short ribs, pork belly, offal, anything lamb. The kinds of dishes that Perla truly excels at.

Put me in front of a menu peppered with every kind of offal, and something like their black spaghetti with skate, corn, and habañero doesn't even register. Which is to say, shame on me. Because it's the best damn dish I've eaten all year; a dish my mom ordered and that I, upon tasting it, proceeded to co-opt (it was my birthday, okay?). I ate that pasta like a cavewoman: protective, wary of intruders, a little feral. I ate it like some people listen to opera music: eyes closed, head tilted to the side, nodding slowly, a faint smile on my face. The world fell away.

The concept itself seemed simple enough: squid ink spaghetti, studded with fresh corn and chunks of skate. But the skate was light and startlingly meaty; the corn, juicy and bright. And then there was the impossible sauce, smooth and jolting, briny-sweet, lightly creamy, with a low rumble of heat. I spoke to Toscano about that sauce (I was slightly drunk and gesturing wildly, elatedly), but I still don't understand how he straddled rich and refreshing, zesty and savory, with such remarkable balance and intensity. And frankly, though I'm typically inquisitive about these sorts of things, I don't know if I want to. This is one dish I'm happy to leave shrouded in mystery and just a little magical.

Daniel Gritzer's Best Bite: Lobster on Cape Cod

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[Photo: Daniel Gritzer]

What was my best meal of the year? Normally it would be easy to settle on an answer. It could have been one of the many fabulous things I ate in Mexico back in August, or David Waltuck's seafood sausage, which is once again on a menu in New York City.

But right now those kinds of answers don't feel quite right. Instead, my mind goes to a plate of lobsters, still steaming from the pot, in a house on Cape Cod about two months ago. My mom had bought them as soon as she'd arrived, her very first stop after crossing over the Bourne Bridge. It was fitting, not only because we were on the Cape, but because lobsters and crabs—she grew up on the Eastern Shore of Maryland—have marked many of my family's major events. On my mom's 60th birthday, for instance, she threw a party where only oysters on the half shell and lobster were served. If any guests didn't like it, they could just deal.

What I didn't know then, but what I know now, is that those Cape Cod lobsters would be one of the last meals we'd ever have together. My mom had been fighting lymphoma for nearly six years, and after a stem cell transplant in the spring, she had finally started to regain some energy and strength. Things were looking up, and then less than a month later she was gone.

The lobsters themselves were good, though honestly not the best, a little muddy from too much time in a tank, but I made sure to eat every last body left over from the few in the group who didn't like to pick—that was an undertaking my mom and I used to share, but her appetite was no longer up to it.

I'm fortunate to have a job that allows me to spend my time in search of deliciousness, and for my love of food, I have my mom to thank well before anyone else. But we all know that the one thing more important than the food itself are the people it serves to bring together. Normally, I just pay lip service to that idea, but this year I feel it deep within me. I can't bring myself to wax poetic about the juiciest taco or my favorite sandwich of the moment. In 2014, the best meal I had was with my mom, with my family, a small final feast that I can keep as a memory.