Best Thing We Ate

The Best Things We Ate in 2013 Across America

By Zagat Staff  |  December 30, 2013
Credit: Gabi Porter

From a lychee and pork sausage salad with 25 ingredients, to a gilding-the-lily crispy duck skin wrapped in bacon, we tasted a lot of incredible dishes in 2013. Today we are rounding up the best things we ate in 14 U.S. cities as recounted by our local writers - check them out below and share your favorite dishes in the comments. 2013, it's been real.

  • Chicago: Chaufa Aeropuerto at Tanta

    There are three distinct components to the chaufa aeropuerto, or Peruvian pork fried rice at Gaston Acurio's new Chitown outpost, Tanta. First is the pork fried rice, which is sautéed in a wok before being transferred to a heavy stone bowl set over a flame. Yes, it’s all very dramatic, but the theatrics have just begun. Next, a shrimp tortilla (Spanish omelet) is fired and slid on top of the rice in the now smoldering hot bowl. Finally, a spicy garlic chile sauce is poured over the top.

    The sauce is the shining star of the dish, a combination of heat and sweet that pools in the dimples of the soft egg layer and then seeps into the rice as soon as the protective covering is broken. Once the massive dish is at your table, the egg is mixed into the rice, which includes crusty bits of rice that almost caramelize along the edges of the bowl, much like paella. It is all of these components - the perfectly orchestrated texture and flavor notes - that work together to create something altogether indescribable.

  • Credit: Elizabeth Parker

    Washington DC: Pork sausage, habanero and lychee salad at Rose's Luxury

    While our entire meal at Rose’s Luxury was outstanding, the pork sausage/habanero/lychee salad was the dish to end all dishes. The juicy, cooling lychee is the perfect counterpoint to the nearly 20 other ingredients in the dish - including spicy chiles, toasted garlic chips, peanuts and coconut. When a dish is this complicated, it takes a skillful hand to keep them from tasting overwrought, and chef-owner Aaron Silverman pulls it off flawlessly. We cannot say this emphatically enough: Eat. This. Dish.

  • San Francisco: Pork Belly at State Bird Provisions

    In a meal of enlightening small bites, the one that made us feel lightest on our feet during one of many visits to the Bird was this small plate featuring thick squares of pork belly with plum segments, jalapeño, cilantro and mint. Chef Stuart Brioza revealed that "a lot happens before it gets to the plate," including a four-day brine, aromatic braising, overnight compressing and a dredging in corn starch, lime, sugar and fish sauce. He said the dish was born out of cravings after a trip to Vietnam earlier this year.

  • Credit: Gabi Porter

    NYC: Beef tartare at Estela

    Our first thought when presented with Estela's beef tartare was: um, where's the crostini? Annoyed that the restaurant had seemingly forgotten the requisite carbohydrate vessels needed to get it from the bowl to our mouths, we reluctantly dove in with our forks. To our surprise, we found that the crispiness usually provided by some kind of potato chip or crostini was mixed right into the incredibly flavorful, buttery meat and sunchoke mixture. Little twists like this are what make the Nolita hotspot one of our favorite places to eat in 2013, although when choosing between this and their mussels escabeche for "best thing we ate," we admit it was a tough call.

  • Credit: Christopher Cina

    Denver: The Greggers Sandwich at Olive & Finch Eatery

    It’s barely a week old (read our coverage here), yet Mary Nguyen’s Uptown bakery-cafe has rolled out hot beef-tongue sandwich that's already among the most talked-about dishes of the year. And no wonder: it’s a thing of beauty. The meat is braised for six hours, shaved to tender ribbons, and placed atop a crusty baguette with caramelized onions, roasted peppers and arugula; roasted-garlic puree and tarragon aïoli enhance the hearty flavors while softening their edges. Try it and soon enough your own tongue will be wagging about it too

  • Austin: Calabrese pizza at Bufalina

    It's hard to go wrong with any of pizza master Steven Dilley's pies - which feature Neapolitan crusts and hand-pulled mozzarella - but the Calabrese is something special. The bright red sauce gets even warmer with salami, roasted peppers and mozzarella, and Dilley told us the colder weather is turning out even better crusts than usual. That means now is the perfect time to go try one.

  • San Diego: Barley Mash’s Crispy Duck Skin at The San Diego Bay Food + Wine Festival

    Eating at the annual San Diego Bay Food & Wine Festival is always good and plentiful. Attendees are presented with an onslaught of food and drink as soon as they enter. One standout was the crispy duck skin wrapped with applewood bacon served by Barley Mash. It sums up all that’s bad for you in one glorious, savory bite: fat wrapped in more fat. The rich appetizer is tasty as-is but the Jameson smoked paprika emulsion on top punches it up.  It’s a shame this item isn’t found on the restaurant menu.

  • Los Angeles: Focaccia di Recco at Chi Spacca

    You've probably heard about the massive 40-oz. bistecca or tomahawk pork chop at the Mozza sibling, two gorgeous huge hunks of meat kissed by flames on the open grill. But we can't stop thinking about the focaccia di Recco, one of the most utterly delicious things we've tasted all year. As the story goes, Nancy Silverton discovered this crackerlike bread stuffed with cheese on a trip to Italy and asked Chi Spacca's chef Chad Colby to help recreate it.

    After many attempts, the only way he could get it right was by traveling to Recco himself, where he learned how to make the dough: it's just flour, water and salt; stretch it until it's paper-thin, and fold it over balls of a cow's milk cheese, sort of like stracchino, made by Silverton's burrata supplier. And he tracked down the pan, a hand-hammered metal disk that allows the thing to crisp just so. All together, it's simplicity at its finest, which is why it was so difficult: simple isn't easy. The focaccia comes out of the oven hot and bubbly, with cheese woven into every bite. It's best piping hot - not that we'd turn down a cold slice, either. It's so good, so addictive, there's no stopping once you take a first bite.

  • Dallas: C.F.L. Slider at The Second Floor

    This appetizer epitomizes the fun-with-fusion approach to the menu that chef Daniel Tarasevich takes in the kitchen at this North Dallas restaurant with the lounge-y feel. In fact, this dish fits that setting just perfectly - a finger food with an upscale twist. A chicken-fried cut of lobster is set atop a dollop of sweet tomato preserves, a leaf of Bibb lettuce and a pillowy slider bun. We’re not sharing.

  • Seattle: Pork belly at Radiator Whiskey

    As much as we enjoy the Pig Head at Dan Bugge's smash hit - located across the hall from the always dependable Matt's in the Market, the pork belly with a souffled egg was a little easier to eat. An elegant take on breakfast for dinner, this flavorful preparation captures clever chefs Tyler Palagi and Charlie Garrison's wicked sense of humor and passion for making their food taste as good as it looks.

  • Houston: Brown-Sugar Pork Chop at Roost

    This bone-in chop is coated in brown sugar and served with braised mustard greens and a side of tangy green tomato chow-chow. It's meat candy of the tastiest kind - and a combination of textures and flavors that will have us heading back to Roost as soon as possible.

  • Philadelphia: Chicken Biscuit Situation at Percy Street Barbecue

    Who doesn’t love fried chicken? Very few people we know. But this situation is something special. It might be because chef Erin O’Shea only uses thighs, the juiciest, tastiest part of the bird. It might be her crazy-rich cheddar sauce, and the way it complements the dash of Crystal hot sauce so perfectly. It could be the biscuit that wraps everything together, or the sharp and sweet and crunchy pickled Granny Smith apple slices.

    All we know is, put everything together and you have a serious winner. The only downside is that it’s only available during the 5-6 PM weekday happy hour at the South Street BBQ spot, but this is one bite well worth an early departure from work.

  • Boston: Housemade Farmhouse Terrine at Kirkland Tap & Trotter

    Chef Tony Maws promised his new Somerville restaurant, Kirkland Tap & Trotter, would serve refined but still casual plates akin to what he "cooks for family and friends." To Maws' nearest and dearest, we say: you're a lucky bunch. Because we're mildly obsessed with his farmhouse terrine: mild and tender, with hints of fresh herbs and a luscious and light layer of silken fat, it spreads like butter on grilled crostini. To contrast the decadence, he pairs the terrine with red-onion compote and housemade country mustard.

  • Miami: Sashimi Platter Dessert at Drinking Room

    While we enjoyed the lobster rolls and Korean barbecue empanadas at last week's opening of Drinking Room, this time around we got a chance to check out the desserts, and we weren't disappointed. Chef Ryan Harrison created a play on a traditional sashimi plate that looked like the real deal, but tasted anything like it. Here's the rundown of the dish: posing as the uni inside the rambutan shell is creamy peanut butter ice cream, while the hamachi and toro are actually coconut and raspberry panna cotta.

    As for the sushi sides, sriracha-candied ginger replaces the pickled variety, the drop of green wasabi is actually pistachio butter and the soy sauce is vanilla maple served in a traditional-style sushi sauce bowl. The plate is sprinkled with what looks like tobiko, but is really candied carrot powder.