Take on This 4-Pound Taco
Stop me if you’ve heard this song before: restaurant comes into old building, rehabs space to be both modern and hip, but pays homage to its old use. Dishes are primarily small shared plates using seasonal ingredients. Edison lightbulbs are involved. For a cynical person like myself who eats in way too many restaurants that spend more time on the backstory than the food, this sort of thing usually spells doom. But there is a reason I said “usually.” 492 is gorgeous -- all comfortable booths and amazing touches preserving an old 19th century building on King St. An amazing courtyard.
But the food itself (although it got some early mixed reviews) now shines through. As I said, it changes with the seasons, so we can’t guarantee they’ll be on there, but if they have the piquillo pepper soup, and the jimmy red corn grits, and the shrimp with the peperonata -- get all of that. Or just go to the bar and let Megan Deschaine’s delicious cocktails take the reins. Her Disco Sour -- Pisco Porton, lemon, Velvet Falernum, blackberry, and ice cubes made from butterfly pea flower (which naturally makes things turn blue) -- is the talk of the town, but we were bigger fans of her play on a Paloma, The Maximilian Affair. -- KA
Milwaukee had a surge in international flavors this year, and, at the helm, is Amilinda, a former pop-up restaurant that finally found a permanent home. Chef Gregory Leon and his husband who works front of house have infused Wisconsin Ave with just the right amount of Catalan ambiance: a Gaudi mural takes over one wall, bright accents from the chairs to the walls pop, even from the street, somehow incongruously working with the 1891 building, and that food transferred oh so well into a full-time space. Just as natural a fit is Leon’s Spanish and Portuguese menu, a small lineup with stars like the Spicy Chickan Naufragado, a grilled Portuguese chicken served over mashed parsnips, that all manage to be even more comforting than Wisconsin staples. And if you know how I feel about cheese curds, then that means quite a bit. -- LC
It’s a bar first OK? And when you walk in and see the long bar and the high tables, you notice that. And if you just want a damn good cocktail (may we suggest the Midnight Special?), they will be more than thrilled to do that for you. But how many bars outside of Budapest feature a Hungarian-inflected menu, with things like spicy Hungarian gulyas (a beef soup), or Gyulai sausage, or chicken paprikas, or freakin’ deep-fried Hungarian flatbread? And how many of them are so delicious that you will keep coming back for the aforementioned chicken paprikas, and the Csavargo, essentially a Hungarian take on a Cuban sandwich? This is the rare time where we’ll ever tell you that you’re a damn fool if you’re going to waste your time getting the burger. -- KA
Los Angeles, CA
The opening of this nondescript grain-bowl restaurant in a strip mall next to an unopened 7-Eleven in a part of town best known for body shops barely garnered a mention in LA's food media, but then a funny thing happened: people started eating there, and realized it was not just good -- it was great. The two chef-owners -- who've done time at Daniel and Noma -- are the only employees, which means once they take your order, they head to the back to make superlative pastas topped with faux oxtail ragu and bowls of grains you've never heard of, full of fermented vegetables that taste like nothing you've ever eaten -- especially for under $20. -- Jeff Miller, LA Editor
French classics are such a given at this point that it can be easy to take them for granted, but that’d be a mistake, particularly if such an oversight caused you to steer clear of the Blanchard. Successful Chicago chef Jason Paskewitz broke out with his most celebrated destination yet on a surprisingly sleepy stretch of Lincoln Park West, serving up French-accented fare with just enough whimsy to keep things interesting and just enough elegance to make it feel like an occasion. The meticulously prepared oeuf outhier will have you plunking down $16 for a tiny bit of scrambled eggs (mind you, impossibly smooth and creamy scrambled eggs topped with osetra caviar and vodka creme fraiche neatly contained in an eggshell) and regretting nothing. Also make sure to splurge on one of the four foie gras preparations -- the black truffle-encrusted, Madeira-sauced version lists magic as an ingredient, and upon tasting it you’ll find that claim wholly reasonable. Similarly, the bone marrow and Bordelaise-accompanied steak frites include love. The Dover sole includes no cheeky ingredients. But it doesn’t need them. -- Matt Lynch, Deputy Editor
San Diego, CA
Chef Javier Plascencia is a legend. It’s been 10 years since he first opened Romesco, but he has hardly been resting en sus laureles. He’s opened three spots in Mexico in the meantime, and now he’s back as a master of his craft, and Bracero shows it all off. Chef takes the Mexican template everyone is comfortable with and tweaks it in ways you’ve never seen, leaving you with dishes like shrimp and bone marrow sopes with fried parsley and chile de arbol, or peanut smoked lamb shanks with plantains. But if fanciness makes you nervous, don’t fret: he’s also got a separate menu of street tacos (get the beef tongue confit with chile morita verde). -- KA
We will keep this short, as we have extolled the virtues of Rick Easton’s baking prowess many times before both on a local level and in our celebration of the best pizza in the country. And it does feel weird to say that one of the best restaurants in the country is actually just a bakery that occasionally serves pizza. But if that pizza has the transcendent chewy crust and Roman stylings of Easton’s, it deserves a spot at the table. His rectangular pizza al taglio is worth planning a trip around -- and yes, I did just say you should plan to fly to the Steel City to go eat pizza. The world is changing, friends. -- KA
San Francisco, CA
For years, Del Popolo’s food truck would cause massive lines at SF food truck gang meet-up Off The Grid, to the point where I would do that passive aggressive thing of actively NOT choosing to eat there, and commenting on the people waiting in line. “Why would you spend an hour waiting in line for pizza from a truck,” I’d say, bitterly biting into a gyro that I definitely didn’t want. But then Del Popolo went onto the grid, opening a brick and mortar in Nob Hill, and I was excited to finally get a chance to eat its pizza under less queue-aggressive circumstances. And then I ate there, and it immediately became less another great pizza place to add to my list, and more of one of the best restaurants in the city.
This may seem like a crazy thing to say about a place that only has a short list of antipasti and six or seven pizzas, but therein lies the beauty: everything on the menu is fantastic. The antipasti -- from the broccoli roasted in the wood oven with pickled ramps, ricotta salata di bufala, chili oil & breadcrumbs to the wild mushroom ragu with prosciutto, creme fraiche & toast, to the hush puppies with house-made hot sauce and honey butter -- are extraordinary. I would posit to say you could create a restaurant that only had the antipasti from Del Popolo as its tasting menu, and it would be a rousing success. And yet, after that, you get perfectly charred wood-fired pizzas (the house-made sausage is an instant, simple classic). Simply put, Del Popolo proves that your ambition to create an otherworldly eating experience does not have to include bells and whistles and new tricks. Sometimes it can just be about doing something simple extraordinarily right. -- KA
Anywhere else, the blue and white glass facade, which was painstakingly planned to match the original exterior of the 1930s Greyhound bus station, could be kitschy, or the cuisine label of “Port City Southern” would feel contrived, but The Grey pulls the entire thing off with the ideal balance of a Southern lady juggling Georgia heat in Sunday clothes (translation for Northerners: that is a very difficult, very impressive attitude to pull off).
The revamp of the space made good use of the old station, leaving an actual dining room and turning the ticket counter into a kitchen and the original cafe into a bar dining area (called the Diner Bar, of course). And while the new space is infinitely more comfortable than a Greyhound, Chef Mashama Bailey has constructed a menu that had its own transportive effects. Rather than strict Southern, dishes plays with the very real influences Savannah has born as a port city and inflects them carefully into simple dishes, like the African-inspired fish tagine with chickpeas and preserved lemon. While you shouldn’t arrive by bus, The Grey is very worth the trip. -- LC
I’m from Boston, and my trips home usually involve eating at old standbys (oh hello, Eastern Standard). But once I’d heard Tim and Nancy Cushman -- the couple behind the phenomenal sushi legend O Ya -- had opened a Japanese tavern of sorts, exceptions were made. The casual vibe is almost disconcerting -- you feel like you’re somehow in a Japanese-inflected New England sports bar -- but once you get the food, you realize this is truly a Cushman joint.
The marriage of the Japanese izakaya with some American angles almost made many of the dishes feel Hawaiian -- the tuna poke for instance, with roasted macadamia dressing, and its play on “Spam,” which actually includes foie gras -- but there were winners from all sides of the menu. The spicy tuna roll was basically smokey, the spicy ramen with the soy egg made you feel like you should probably slurp the entire bowl, and the Hojoko cheeseburger (with American cheese, huzzah!) is essentially what would happen if Burger King sold its soul to a genie to make one fantastic flame-broiled burger. And this is all before we’ve even gotten to the drinks, like the exquisite Hato made with shochu, mezcal, grapefruit, cinnamon, and soda. Needless to say, it looks like I’ve got a new standby. -- KA
New York, NY
Lupulo is a gorgeous restaurant -- blue tile-lined walls, hardwood floors, and a huge U-shaped bar in the center of the dining room, where you'll catch people drinking beer until close. Chef George Mendes' new rustic Portuguese spot is inspired by Lisbon's cervejarias (breweries), and the beer list is obviously excellent, but the food is something else. Mendes is, of course, the chef behind Aldea, so he knows modern Portuguese cooking, but Lupulo is different. It feels more casual, younger, more fun -- and that's reflected in the menu as much as the atmosphere. It’s seafood-heavy, featuring understated but seriously impressive dishes like chicken with piri-piri sauce, Manila clams in vinho verde with garlic and cilantro, and salt cod casserole with potato, olive, and egg (for two). And, of course, it all pairs perfectly with a Portuguese beer. -- Lucy Meilus, New York Editor
Hazel Park, MI
If you’re from the Midwest and up on your local lore, you might just know the story of Mabel Gray, or Alice Mabel Gray, as the ghost who maybe haunts the dunes along Lake Michigan, is known. But if, like us, you missed that ghost story growing up, know that Chef James Rigato has still crafted a more haunting menu -- in the most enjoyable way possible.
It’s an oddly now-classic story: big name chef rehabs old building in a neighborhood that's seen recent commercial development and peppers in the "farm-to-table" concept. But James Rigato’s revamp is a natural fit in Hazel Park and the very strict focus on seasonal, local ingredients moves from the past-pretentiousness of that movement to a strong championing of a city that, frankly, continues to need more champions. Our only complaint: the very straightforward menu changes constantly so your chances of picking a favorite dish are, essentially, impossible. Which is why the tasting menu is the way to go. Get a seat at the bar to watch the kitchen work, throw in the beverage pairing, and watch Chef Rigato work his way into the modern lore of the Midwest. -- LC
Trying to be all things to all people can be perilous, but damn if Maketto doesn’t manage to pull it off. Coffee shop and neighborhood hub for the laptop set, hip local boutique and destination bakery, possessor of sick vending machines -- there’s a lot happening. But the one happening you absolutely cannot miss is the Taiwanese fried chicken when you rightly head there for a taste bud-stunning Southeast Asian dinner (these are the folks who brought you DC ramen kingpin Toki Underground). Also not to be missed are fried oyster topped-rolled omelette, whole fried fish, wok-fried noodles... and if you’re afraid you’re going too deep on the fried items, maybe throw in a Wagyu bao platter for a curveball. Oh, and because it's already proven it can do, well, just about everything, it rolled out weekend dim sum this fall -- maybe a hotel next so you can just live there all week? -- ML
I have a giant, framed portrait of Hemingway, dressed in an overlarge fisherman sweater, hanging next to my desk right now, so I feel extremely qualified to say this: Papa would feel very happy with this Seattle spot using as namesake the apprentice from The Old Man and the Sea. And it’s not just that tropical, seaside vibe that is unavoidable when you throw ceviche, plantains, and Pisco into rotation on your menus in a blue-tiled, airy space. It’s also the very thoughtful and meticulous, yet natural way simple ingredients build into incredible dishes, like the rockfish ceviche, piled on a bed of avocado and topped with mounding strings of sweet potato and spiked with darts of lime and chili. I’m fairly certain these Renee Erickson (The Walrus and the Carpenter, The Whale Wins, etc.) alums would’ve inspired predictably succinctly praiseworthy words from Papa. But ours will have to do for now. -- LC
Indy gets lost in the boozy, deep-fried food & drink shuffle, overshadowed by Chicago and Louisville and even Cleveland, all of which get the national attention on a far more regular basis. But Chef Jonathan Brooks' Milktooth mastered something that residents in those larger, more glorified cities have been clamoring after for years: weeklong brunch that is actually worth an hour-and-a-half wait.
Housed in an incredibly bright, light-filled former garage, the spot (and its 16-strong cocktail list) managed to make me not hate being around people in the morning, which is a feat in and of itself and proves many high school coaches right: when you dedicate yourself to something, you can really master it. It’s no coincidence Thrillist Indianapolis launched this year: there’s only so long you can justify buying plane tickets just to eat more roasted shiitake-peppered Dutch baby pancakes or sipping mezcal in the AM. -- LC
San Francisco, CA
Melissa Perello is my favorite chef in San Francisco. Frances, her tiny, perfect Castro restaurant, is my birthday restaurant, and has been since she opened it. So when she opened another, bigger restaurant in a Pacific Heights location that used to be the original Quince, then Baker and Banker, I was excited, but also nervous. It’s one of those weird issues you face when your favorite author writes a new book -- what if it’s not as good? Will I like the original less too?
Well, luckily for my weird anxiety, this was not an issue. Octavia is the perfect sister restaurant to Frances -- a little bigger, a little more daring -- but keeping with the simple, perfect soul of Frances. You could order anything off this menu and be happy, though you have no choice but to get the “Deviled Egg” with Fresno chile relish and Marash pepper & spices. I will not spoil it, but it is one of the grandest things I’ve eaten all year. -- KA
San Francisco, CA
How do you follow up what many consider to be the one of the best restaurants in all of the land? How do you possibly do anything? How are you not frozen by fear and doubt at all turns?!?! Luckily, these are not questions I posed to Stuart Brioza and Nicole Krasinski, when they opened their sequel to the eternally beloved and booked State Bird Provisions.
The Progress’ theme is simple: for $58, you get to choose a family-style dinner with multiple courses. If you have two people, they will bring out enough for two. If you have eight, they will bring out enough for eight, etc. So, in essence, you are not ordering more dishes for more people, the portions just change accordingly. And lord, does it work. My meals, each time I went, were perfect. From the “few things for the table” snacks they bring out (which somehow include the best beef jerky I’ve ever had) to the perigord truffle roti, lamb merguez, octopus and crispy squid, and the most simple, delicious ricotta I’ve ever had in my life, The Progress not only is a fantastic follow up to State Bird, it might actually be even better. -- KA
New Orleans, LA
Alon Shaya has been partner and executive chef at Domenica (the Italian restaurant whose crisp pizza and fluffy garlic knots and whole roasted cauliflower I love to obsess over) since its opening, but the John Besh shadow is a hard one to escape in New Orleans -- even for a chef whose presence is as commanding as Shaya’s. But 2015 has been a big year.
First, Shaya opened in the middle of the craziness of Mardi Gras, an oddly fitting time for a restaurant that stands as a beautiful celebration of another sort entirely: an ode to the Israeli-born chef’s own history with each meal a lesson in perfectly organized chaos and balance of bright flavors and giant, pillowy pita. Subtle curried cauliflower infuses humble hummus with enough rich flavor that I could eat that alone for a meal at Shaya (because did I mention those pillowy pitas?), but then that’d mean forgoing that incredible, giant lamb whose bold flavors are balanced by the bite of walnuts and salty whipped feta, or the foie gras, which has that very obvious melt-in-your-mouth quality of that dish, yet isn’t overpowering as it lends to each bite of challah with its rich butteriness, or this pastry-wrapped bite of brisket that I had on my last visit and could eat for at least my next seven meals.
Oh, and Shaya (the man, not the restaurant) managed to finally take home a James Beard for Best Chef South while so seamlessly converting New Orleans and the country to his modern Isreali cuisine. -- LC
Swap Cleveland for MSP and a penchant for the spotlight for a healthy dose of Midwestern nice, and you have a strong case for naming Gavin Kaysen the LeBron James of chefs. The chef spent nearly 10 years away, training under Daniel Boulud, earning a James Beard, and taking a run at The Next Iron Chef before returning home to open his first solo operation at the end of last year.
Spoon & Stable, the result of that homecoming, leaves no part of dinner untouched by Kaysen and his team’s very meticulous consideration. It starts with the scallop crudo (get it -- the tart apple and spice of chilies has made the dish a mainstay on the menu) and rolls down to Pastry Chef Diane Yang’s rich, sweet honey and cream cake, while the White Lady cocktail (aquavit, curaçao, egg white, clove) might just be the best liquid power to get through a Twin Cities winter. Despite being open only a few months when noms rolled out this year, Spoon & Stable earned two James Beard nominations and, though it didn’t win, Lebron should be hoping his team aged equally as well over the past few months as Kaysen’s. -- LC
Am I including Townsman on the list because Chef Matt Jennings and I hail from the same town outside of Boston? Or because I kind of think he named the restaurant after our town newspaper? Or because, once, I was named Athlete of the Week in that small town newspaper and got to do an interview and see my picture up at the Linden Store?!?!
Unfortunately, no, because I didn’t realize any of this stuff until after the fact. For several years, Chef Jennings (and his Pastry Chef wife, Kate) ran a very cool, nationally recognized restaurant in Providence called Farmstead. But eventually, he came to realize that the Rhode Island accent is somehow much more jarring than the Boston one, and decided to come home and open Townsman, a New England brasserie, which celebrates the beauty of our coastal cuisine without getting into the depressing snow and cold stuff. Definitely start with the fried dumplings, that amazing clam chowder, and the New England charcuterie board. And then maybe get the prawns and the mussels in the Narragansett lager, which provides just enough acidity to balance out the garlic and brown butter. After that, you’re a fool not to get the lamb or the pork shank, and you’re even more stupid if you don’t wash it all down with one of the cocktails from their gloriously gin-heavy menu. -- KA
New York, NY
I don’t usually get to review the New York restaurants, because our entire office lives there, and eyes me suspiciously whenever I start talking about foods I like in New York. But I did have the pleasure of eating at Wildair, the younger, more casual sibling to Contra from Chefs Jeremiah Stone and Fabian von Hauske. And, as per the theme we’ve seen this year, the more relaxed of the two restaurants might also be the best. The day I ate there, basically everyone in the restaurant was from the food/drink media. I didn’t know this, of course, because I live in San Francisco and refuse to make eye contact in public, but my dinner companion is part of that circle and spent half the meal walking off to make small talk as I sat, ignoring everyone, and eating everything.
My favorite part, after eating Chef von Hauske’s mind-meltingly delicious bread, was the beef tartare. The smoked cheddar (does anyone else do this?) and eye-watering fresh horseradish combined to make it utterly addicting, and a great balance for the little gem salad. But I nearly forgot all of this because during this entire fantastic meal, the wine director kept offering up strange and fantastical wines from random parts of the world, and I may have had six to 11 glasses, each somehow (or perhaps obviously) better than the next. -- KA