Our Best Bites of 2015

[Photograph: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt]

These last, waning days of 2015 have put the Serious Eats team in a reflective mood as we mull over the best slices, snacks, and, in at least one case, Sichuan-style feasts, we've enjoyed this year. Here are some of our favorites.

One Damn Good Bagel

(Beauty's Bagels; Oakland, CA)

[Photograph: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt]

When I moved to San Francisco from New York last year, I knew I'd have to give up on some of the staples I grew up on: the corner slice, New York-style hot dogs, pastrami, and the like. Really great bagels were on that list, too. What I didn't know back then was that I would end up finding a great bagel shop in the Bay Area—and that it would serve some of the best bagels I've had anywhere in the world, including New York. Beauty's bagels are perfectly sized (that is, not as big as your face) with an intensely blistered, crackly, eggshell-thin crust that reveals a dense, chewy crumb with well-developed flavor. They're ostensibly Montreal-style in that they're boiled and then baked in a wood-fired oven. Thankfully, though, they don't follow the no-salt-in-the-dough mandate that some Montreal bagel shops stick with, nor do they have that Montreal honey sweetness. Sure, their everything bagels are a little sparse on the toppings, but I love the scattering of fennel seed they add. It's not a traditional flavor, but it works. Like all good bagels, you should order them from the shop and eat them within half an hour. And for the love of god, please don't toast them. —J. Kenji Lopez-Alt, Managing Culinary Director

Spaghetti and Meat Sauce

(Pizza Palace; Knoxville, TN)

I couldn't eat another bite. Or so I thought. I was at the annual Southern Food Writing Conference in Knoxville, Tennessee, where I served on a panel with Eater's Helen Rosner, discussing the art of the personal food essay. Knoxville is a hell of a town, gastronomically speaking. And while we were there, we feasted on some amazing stuff: cornmeal-crusted catfish and country ham croquettes at a spiffy downtown restaurant and bar called Knox-Mason; a six-course dinner at the culinary mecca Blackberry Farm. On our final night in town, the organizer of the conference, John Craig, took Helen and me to an old-school steakhouse (it was literally called Ye Olde Steakhouse). There, we ordered New York strips, wedge salads, and buttered mushrooms, but, while it all looked amazing, I could hardly eat any of it. After four days of nonstop pigging out, I was down for the count.

Afterward, when John suggested we check out his favorite pizza place, a Greek-owned joint called Pizza Palace, before heading back to the hotel, I practically dry heaved. But despite my protests, he insisted. Once we got there, Helen, who had been to Pizza Palace before, insisted that I try the spaghetti with homemade meat sauce. "No, really, I'll seriously throw up!" I proclaimed.

She ordered some anyway, with the guarantee that it would pretty much change my life. And when I took a bite, from the white Styrofoam cup in which it was served, my appetite suddenly returned full force. This was the spaghetti and meatballs of my youth—a tangy, sweet, and ridiculously meaty sauce, deeply infused into the pasta. Maybe it didn't change my life, but it was it the best spaghetti and meatballs I've ever tasted, and, without question, the best thing I ate all year. —Keith Pandolfi, Senior Features Editor

The Tasting Menu

(Zahav Restaurant; Philadelphia, PA)

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[Photograph: Vicky Wasik]

Michael Solomonov's Zahav is so good that I'll forgive him for having music auto-play on the restaurant's website and, if I can cheat a little, my best bite of the year was more or less every single one from the restaurant's tasting menu. My brother and I inhaled more lamb, duck, and sable than anyone should in a single meal, but it's the simple things that stand out most in my memory: the hummus and tehina, the freshly baked laffa, the gently fried cauliflower. —Paul Cline, Developer

Destination Chicken

(Sichuan Province, China)

Armed with a only a cross-street and the patience of an incredibly nice taxi driver, my boyfriend, Dan, and I—along with a few friends—were searching for a restaurant that, according to a YouTube video we'd watched in our hotel, served some of the best firewood chicken available in China's Sichuan Province. And we'd driven 40 minutes outside of our home base, the city of Chengdu, to find it. Since we didn't have the exact name of the place, we had to circle the block half a dozen times, driving into unfamiliar alleyways and stopping to ask locals for directions until we finally found it. Dozens of tables sat on the patio, each with a recessed stone bowl—small fireplaces used for cooking the famed dish, which consists of a freshly slaughtered chicken, vegetables, Sichuan peppercorns, chilies, and other spices. It was early in the day, and we were the only customers there—their first American customers ever, they told us.

Our waitress was the daughter-in-law of the owner, and as she heated up the fire and stir-fried the aromatics in oil, she told us how the restaurant was built in the early years of the Cultural Revolution; how it was passed down within the family for 60 years. The tin cups from which we drank our smoked barley tea were distributed by Mao's government decades ago. We watched as she added the vegetables and chicken, then cooked it down to a stew. We marveled as she rolled out some balls of dough and spackled the sides of the bowl with each one, creating a crunchy unleavened bread.

Once the cooking was done, we used that bread to pick out chunks of tender chicken, bamboo, and eggplant from the center pot, washing it all down with bottles of beer. As we ate, the spicy Sichuan flavors of the dish became more concentrated, cooking down until it was almost too painful for some of us to finish. In the end though, the only thing left behind was a chicken head, which had turned a dark chocolate brown from the stew's deep simmer. We said our goodbyes and passed out in the hour-long cab ride back to the hotel. —Leang Chaing, Sales Operations Manager

The Perfect Apple Fritter

(Sidecar Doughnuts, Santa Monica)

Apple fritters at doughnut shops are usually all about size. But as smart eaters will know, bigger is not necessarily better. So I was thrilled when I eyeballed the apple fritter at the new Santa Monica location of Sidecar Doughnuts (the original location is in Costa Mesa in Orange County) and saw that it was downright dainty. Even more importantly, it had just come out of the fryer. Their other doughnuts range from damn good to ridiculously delicious, but the apple fritter is downright paradigmatic. It's crisp, greaseless, and remarkably light. Unlike so many other apple fritters, this perfect specimen actually tastes like apples and cinnamon, like a great apple pie. In fact, the Sidecar apple fritter is so good that now, I don't need (or even want) to order apple fritters in any other doughnut shop. So let's just say it's saving me countless calories. Would it be too much to call it a diet apple fritter? Probably, but a fella can try, can't he? —Ed Levine, Founder

Homegrown Baby Corn

(Brooklyn, NY)

[Photograph: Shutterstock]

I've had some amazing food experiences this year, but the most memorable ones are all personal triumphs. I got to fulfill a lifelong dream of visiting Parma, Italy and tasting prosciutto at its source. I tried my hand at making fresh pastas and homemade mozzarella, and I finally, finally got around to cooking Marcella Hazan's Bolognese sauce. But my favorite bite didn't require any travel or cooking—it came right out of my Brooklyn backyard. It seems silly to be bragging about growing a vegetable; millions of people farm produce every day without giving it a second thought. But this particular crop was inspired by a mystery that had haunted me for years: namely, what's the deal with baby corn? I found my answers and a few months later, I was plucking one of my very own. What can I say? For this born and bred New Yorker, tasting my very first fresh and raw baby corn was revelatory. Vegetal, slightly sweet, and snappy-crisp, it's nothing like the jarred or canned stuff most Americans are accustomed to. Of course, since my backyard is all concrete pavement, I could only grow a single stalk...I had a whopping yield of four cornlettes (yes, that's a real term), three of which I brought to the Serious Eats offices and sliced into tiny segments so everyone could have a try. It's a lot of space and effort for such low volume, but this is one case where it was totally worth it. —Niki Achitoff-Gray, Features Editor

The Steak Special

(Fort Defiance; Brooklyn, NY)

Moving to the remote neighborhood of Red Hook, Brooklyn two years ago meant leaving behind many of the conveniences one has access to elsewhere in New York City. But what Red Hook lacks in 24-hour bodegas and local subways, it makes up for with the wonderful restaurants found along its main drag, Van Brunt Street. One of my favorites is a place called Fort Defiance. While I can't claim to be a regular (the regular regulars would hate that), I have enormous affection for the place. And my best bite of the year was a tender steak special I enjoyed there on a casual weeknight date with my husband last summer. Maybe it was the fact that it was served over a plate of creamy white beans and tender greens, or maybe it was the limited number of bites I actually took (it was my husband's order, so I only got a few), but I haven't stopped thinking about it since. —Roxy Lane, Social and Commerce Manager

Fried Chicken

(Ma'ono Restaurant; Seattle, WA)

Like all right-thinking Americans, I love fried chicken. And like many Southerners, my love of fried chicken springs from KFC, or homestyle versions of the same. I've tried and enjoyed pricey, cheffy restaurant fried chicken, but I've appreciated it more as novel interlude, less as substantial improvement over the bird's humbler cousins. That is, until the Hawaiian-inflected variety at Ma'ano in Seattle awakened me to ecstasy. Consistent with Kenji's conclusions regarding brining, buttermilk, dredging, and twice-frying, this umami-spiced fried chicken achieves the holy trinity of crunch, juiciness, and flavor that I never even knew I was missing. Note that you have to reserve it in advance by the whole or half chicken. I advise going with a large group so you can experience the carnivorous abandon of a giant multi-bird platter arriving at table, piping hot and ready for debauch. —Chris Mohney, Chief Content Officer

Spaghetti Carbonara

(Serious Eats HQ; New York)

[Photograph: Vicky Wasik]

It's no secret that when it comes to TV, I'm a serious binge-watcher. I finished Aziz Ansari's Netflix show "Master of None" in less than three days. As many of you might know, the last episode features a mouth-watering scene in which Ansari's character makes spaghetti carbonara. After watching it, I decided I needed to follow Ansari's example immediately and make some for myself. It was a disaster. The eggs scrambled as soon as they hit the hot spaghetti, turning it into a pasta/fried rice hybrid. The next day I came into work and told our Culinary Director Daniel Gritzer about my failure and suggested he write a post about it, testing various carbonara recipes. He did just that, and the rest of my week was filled with bite after bite of creamy, rich carbonara sauce. I was in heaven. Needless to say, I love my job. —Vicky Wasick, Visual Editor

Post-Partum Pizza

(St. Luke's Hospital; San Francisco)

I spent much of 2015 pregnant, and due to a diagnosis of gestational diabetes, I couldn't use growing another human as an excuse to eat all the ice cream I wanted. While I missed having a few glasses of wine with dinner, restricting carbs proved far more difficult, and in the days leading up to delivery all I could think about was pizza. I longed for the supple pull of its crust; the sweetness of its fresh mozzarella; the tang of its tomatoes. My daughter was born by emergency C-section on the 8th of July, and by the 10th, I couldn't wait any longer. Pizza doesn't care if you're half-dressed and perched on the edge of a hospital bed. Pizza doesn't care if you're barely able to shuffle across the room. By the time my friends arrived with a towering stack of boxes from the pizza joint across the street, the pies had already cooled and the cheese was congealing a little. But I didn't mind. To me, nothing ever tasted so good. —Maggie Hoffman, Managing Editor

Coda alla Vaccinara

(Rome, Italy)

After a year of nonstop cooking and eating—including plenty of my own recipes that I'd be halfway tempted to name here if I were just a little more of a self-promoting jerk—I'd have to say that my greatest food highlights of 2015 were during a trip to Italy in the spring. Even then, though, it's hard to choose a specific dish. Do I pick the deep red, fleshy bell peppers, a prized variety native to the town in Piedmont where some of my dear friends live, that they had packed into jars with the pressed grape skins and seeds from their annual winemaking and left to cure for several months, then plucked them out, topped them with anchovy fillets and olive oil, and served as a snack? Or do I choose the tongue and salsa verde trapizzino I ate in Rome, a playful take on pizza that's reconstructed as a sandwich? It feels almost arbitrary to have to single out just one. If I was really forced to choose, though, I think I'd have to go with the coda alla vaccinara I ate at Rome's Checchino dal 1887 restaurant in the Testaccio district. It's a classic dish of oxtails braised in red wine with vegetables, part of the famed Roman quinto quarto cooking that's devoted to organ meats and other less popular cuts. This version was stupendous. Instead of little individual segments of oxtail the way we normally see them in the States, it came out as a hulking chunk of uncut tail, the fatty, gelatinous meat sliding off into the thick sweet-tart sauce with the slightest fork prod. If anyone ever doubted that oxtail is one of the most delicious cuts of beef (right alongside tongue in my book), I'd hold this dish up as incontrovertible proof. —Daniel Gritzer, Culinary Director