As 2014 comes to a screeching halt, social media is inundated with cliched “Best Of” lists and “Top 10” countdowns. These compilations can be trite, but they can also be a great way to reflect back on a year, on the people who you shared it with, and where you spent time. What is the best thing you ate in 2014? Who were you with, and where were you?
Here’s my list, in homage to a very good year.
1. Vigorón street vendor in El Parque Central; Granada, Nicaragua
Vigorón is a traditional Nicaraguan street food. Tender slabs of boiled yucca (AKA cassava) are covered in thick, crunchy chicharrón (fresh pork rinds) and then smothered in a very tangy cabbage, onion, and tomato slaw. It was my first meal in the country and a perfect introduction to it’s simple cuisine. What is even more memorable than the food though, is the setting. I bought lunch from a street vendor and sat at a picnic table in El Parque Central, the large public square in the center of town. The square is docked on one side by an enormous, bright yellow cathedral, and on another side by a similarly-colored Spanish Colonial hotel with beautiful balconies. Peddlers hawking knickknacks, perfect for vacation remembrances, line the perimeter. Freshly rolled tobacco wafted from a small cigar shop. Horse-drawn carriages click-clacked down the streets. An impromptu concert of lively music drew a crowd. A man kept the mid-afternoon dusty haze at bay by continuously wetting the ground with a garden hose, Women tempted us with homemade peanut candies and rich chewy caramels. When I think of eating salty and sour vigorón, I’ll always remember my first day in Nicaragua.
2. Spicy Seafood Chulpan Sik Gaek, Flushing, NY
This place is best known for live octopus, but the real star of this meal was the chulpan. An enormous pot was full of steaming seafood broth flavored with gochujang and teeming with all manners of crustaceans and mollusks. Underneath that big red lobster lay razor clams, squid, conch, shrimp, crab legs, and abalone resting in a nest of long rice noodles. We cracked shells and slurped soup to the beat of loud Korean techno music. A good time was had by all.
And about that live octopus…I ate that too, but it didn’t make this list. Those little suckers (literally) hang on to your tongue, the roof of your mouth, or the insides of your cheeks just as long as they possibly can. If that sounds fun to you, and you enjoy the deeply salty and mineral taste that is overly described as “of the ocean” give it a try next time you’re in Queens.
3. Pineapple Upside Down Cake Buttermilk Frozen Yogurt Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams, Chicago
If I could pull a “Freaky Friday” with anyone in the food industry for a few days, I’d do the ol’ switcheroo with Jeni Britton Bauer of Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams. Ice cream, in all of its frozen incarnations, is my very favorite food, and Jeni’s flavor pairings are modern and innovative. Her cookbooks are drool-inducing, and she’s running an expanding chain of the coolest retail scoop shops in the country. She’s my hero!
Pineapple Upside Down Cake Buttermilk Frozen Yogurt is a mouth full for sure, but the mellow, roasted, tangy flavor more than makes up for the tongue-cramping name. Just look at how happy I am to be eating this on a warm summer evening. Don’t think I could even be any happier.
4. Stamped Cinnamon Biscuit (Cookie), The Cinnamon Tree Bakery stall at Borough Market, London
Tell me that isn’t THE COOLEST cookie you’ve ever seen in your life. I was completely taken with its imperfections – the slight cracking at the edges and the uneven white outline of the off-centered elephant. Now imagine that it tastes just as interesting as it looks. Pure cinnamon in the form of a crisp, buttery cookie. No other “fall baking spices” muddying things up. Just cinnamon, in all of it’s spicy and warm glory, and tasting exactly the way it looks.
5. Basque Cake MFK, Chicago
There’s only one dessert on the menu at MFK, one of the city’s most-lauded new restaurants of 2014. In my mind, the Basque cake rides solo because nothing else could come close to being as good. It’s a rich, tender cake with a faint almond flavor underneath a darker, caramelized crust. As someone who eats cake nearly every day, I can say without a doubt, that this was the best cake I ate in 2014 (including my own). Congratulations to Chef Nick Lacasse and Sous Chef Joey Schwab, both of whom I have had the pleasure of working with. (Now give me the recipe for the cake, pretty please!)
6. The Eastman Eastman Egg Company Food Truck, Chicago
You know that overused phrase that simple food prepared simply is the best tasting food? That’s what is happening here. I would never have thought to pair cucumbers with scrambled eggs, but why not? I would never have thought to put sweet chili sauce on eggs either. Add a slab of ham, a bit of cheese, and sandwich it all together on a fresh ciabatta roll.
After I ate my first Eastman, I started putting cukes and sweet chili sauce on my homemade egg sammies, too. Easy like Sunday morning. Tastes like Sunday morning, too.
7. Yo Amigo Taco Salad, Native Foods, Chicago
This is the perfect salad for salad haters, like myself. It’s beautiful to look at and has a lots of different textures, from crunchy to creamy, which means it doesn’t get boring after 5 bites. And surprise! Native Taco Meat isn’t really meat at all! It’s seitan (sounds like the dark lord of the underworld, but it’s less scary), a vegetarian protein made of wheat gluten that cooks up and tastes just like the real deal. Toss in some crispy tortilla strips and add avocado for a very large, very summery meal.