Foodie Travels: Best We Ate in 2017

Best We Ate 2017

2017 has taken us to more than half of America’s 50 states with more than 8,000 miles on the road, which means we’ve enjoyed a lengthy list of amazing #FoodieScore Travels experiences. In this second annual “Best We Ate” edition, we’ll share a few of our favorite food finds from this year. We must tell you that many of these picks were tough, and several categories were almost impossible to select! We’ve noted a few runners up where possible, and you’ll have to stick with #FoodieScore throughout the new year to learn about the rest.

BEST MEAL

Cattlemen's Steakhouse

Matthew – Cattlemen’s Steakhouse, Oklahoma City, Okla. – This 100-year-old steakhouse is commonly ranked among America’s best, and we now know why. The steaks are flavorful, juicy and come from beef in the adjacent National Stockyards. But this great meal doesn’t end with the meat. The fresh salad with a special house-made dressing, the soft and savory dinner rolls, a filling and delightfully topped baked potato, a creamy baked macaroni and cheese, and the fresh and fruity blackberry cobbler all played a role in this being the greatest meal I ate in 2017. Perhaps the greatest course of all: The check didn’t break the bank after dinner! HONORABLE MENTION: Dinner, The Dillard House, Dillard, Ga.

Tuna Tacos

Molly – Webb Custom Kitchen, Gastonia, N.C. – Every time I tried to decide on the best meal of 2017 – which was a Herculean mental effort, mind you – I couldn’t get Webb Custom Kitchen out of my head. Not least in my mind were the incredible array of options from the beginning of a meal – the Duck Cigars I picked as my favorite appetizer of the year – to the end – the multi-layer chocolate mousse cake that melted in our mouths. But first in my mind was a dish with such delicious, fresh flavor and texture that it truly made Webb Custom Kitchen rocket to the top of my list: the Raw Ahi Tuna Tacos. I’m a fish taco person anyway, but rarely eat anything that isn’t fully cooked. Yet the sound and description of these on the menu made me take a chance, and I am so glad I did. The rich tuna flavor, the firm, steak-like texture and the fresh toppings all nestled in a soft, light flour tortilla = fish taco perfection. So much so that I have wanted to get them again ever since.

BEST BURGER

Kim's Kitchen

Matthew – Kim’s Kitchen, Stanley, N.C. – I grew up eating Kim’s Kitchen cheeseburgers and even had them delivered to other cities and states in which I lived, so I was saddened in 2013 when Kim’s closed. Fast forward to April 2017. That’s when Kim’s reopened under its longtime management, and the cheeseburger I loved so much in my youth returned. You won’t find a better burger with fresher meat, meltier cheese and a softer, hearty bun than Kim’s, and I didn’t all year. HONORABLE MENTION: Smoke Stack, Montana Ale Works, Bozeman, Montana

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Molly – Breaded Burger, Snappy Lunch, Mt. Airy, N.C. – A breaded burger might sound like an odd option for best burger of the year, and we certainly did have some amazing options for this title. But something about this homemade, hometown burger just really hit the spot for me. The soft, slightly crispy breading as you take a bite of the burger is just pure Southern comfort. Kitchens across the South in America in former generations made plenty of unique burger creations during the Depression era, in order to save on and stretch the hamburger meat. The method of adding bread to it is one my great-grandmother, Banny, passed down to my mother, who passed it down to me. Banny’s method is a bit different than Snappy Lunch’s, but both result in a simply delicious burger. Maybe that’s why it made my Best Burger of 2017.

BEST SANDWICH

Snappy Lunch

Matthew – Pork Chop Sandwich, Snappy Lunch, Mt. Airy, N.C. – Being the unofficial “state sandwich” carries a lot of pressure! The famed Pork Chop Sandwich at Snappy Lunch in Mt. Airy absolutely lives up to the heralded billing. It all starts with a milky-sweet fried pork chop that’s topped with a flavor explosion of zingy chili and cool coleslaw. Just as the restaurant name says, you’ll get it snappy, and you’ll get it cheap.

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Molly – Half and Half, Shake Shop, Cherryville, N.C. – I hadn’t been to Shake Shop in years, though it is a famous institution in my hometown of Cherryville. When we went this year, which was Matthew’s first visit!, I got one of my classic picks: a half and half. The sandwich carries different names everywhere you go, but the description is simple: a long, hoagie-style bun with a cheeseburger on one side and a ham sandwich on the other. For me, you can’t get much more satisfaction than going back and forth between a melty, salty ham and cheese sandwich, to a hearty, cheese-covered burger, both topped with slaw and tomato, of course. And Shake Shop does both sides right.

BEST APPETIZER

Garage on Beck

Matthew – Mormon Funeral Potatoes, Garage on Beck, Salt Lake City, Utah – Outside of Utah, you won’t find many Mormon Funeral Potatoes, so you have to make such an experience count. Garage on Beck’s dish is like a crispy jalapeno hash brown hushpuppy. They’re so expansive you could make them your meal. Accent on COULD. Don’t miss everything else Garage on Beck has to offer, including the funky ambiance that’s part biker bar and part outdoor brunch.

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Molly – Duck Cigars, Webb Custom Kitchen, Gastonia, N.C. – What a delightful, egg-roll experience Webb Custom Kitchen’s Duck Cigars are. Not only are they perfectly fried in a crispy spring roll shell and perfectly filled with a surprisingly delicious duck confit, they are accompanied by three impeccable sauces, including a house-made soy sauce. Try them all, repeatedly, and you won’t regret it!

BEST SWEET TREAT

Lulu's

Matthew – Cinnamon Roll, Lulu’s Bakery & Cafe, San Antonio, Texas – This cinnamon roll is 3 pounds. Do I need to tell you more? If so, it’s made of fresh-baked bread, delicious cinnamon spices and a rich icing that remarkably stay fresh for almost a week. We know because we ate a few bites with our meal and then took the rest on the road. After enjoying bites in San Antonio, Dallas and Oklahoma City, I think we finished it all somewhere near Little Rock, Ark. It was delicious to the last ounce. HONORABLE MENTION: Pie Flight, Baked Pie Company, Asheville, North Carolina

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Molly – Reese’s Donut, Wake N Bake Donuts, Wilmington, N.C. – Luck was with us in Wilmington as we strolled down a quiet street, just happening to pass a donut shop we hadn’t previously heard of. This is highly unusual for us well-researched foodies, but Wake N Bake was a highly unusual, phenomenal find. The donuts in the window lured us in and let me just say, we were glad to be caught by this donut shop! My favorite was the Reese’s donut, with a creamy, whipped peanut butter filling, chocolate icing, and a Reese’s cup on top. (Top left in the photo above.) There was no wrong way to eat this Reese’s. HONORABLE MENTION: Key Lime Cheesecake, Mayworth Public House, Cramerton, North Carolina 

BEST BREAKFAST

HenDough

Matthew – HenDough, Hendersonville, N.C. – Get it all, and savor every bite! But certainly don’t miss the fried chicken biscuit, the biscuit with cheese and local bacon and eggs, the doughnuts, the smoked gouda macaroni and cheese, the sweet potato salad, or the locally made Dynamite Roasting coffee. HenDough also gets points for atmosphere, with its seating inside and outside of a house converted into a restaurant. HONORABLE MENTION: Breakfast Menu, Causeway Cafe, Wilmington, N.C.

BLET

Molly – BLET (Bacon, Lettuce, Egg & Tomato), Brunch, Peace-N-Hominy Q Shack, Belmont, N.C. – What a Southern combination Peace-N-Hominy has put together in this BLET! The bacon is thick and crispy; the tomato is fresh and the lettuce has that fresh crunch; the egg is fried (or cooked any way you want it) to perfection; the bread is so buttery-toasted; and the cheese is – this is where the OMG comes in – pimento cheese. This sandwich is everything you need and nothing more. HONORABLE MENTION: Bacon, Egg and Cheese Biscuit, Hamrick’s Country Store & Grill, Cleveland County, North Carolina

BEST SOUL FOOD

Shirley Mae's

Matthew – Shirley Mae’s Cafe, Louisville, Ky. – You’re family when you eat at Shirley Mae’s, even on your first visit. Isn’t that the definition of soul food? This place serves up the best pinto beans Molly has ever eaten. The fried chicken wings are meaty and crispy. The macaroni and cheese is creamy and filling. And don’t get me started on the hot-water cornbread wrapped and kept warm by a foil blanket in its own little cup. You’ll wish Shirley Mae’s was in your town, and you’re in luck, if you live in Louisville.

Molly – Shirley Mae’s Cafe, Louisville, Ky. – The best soul food places serve Kool-Aid. Shirley Mae’s is one of the best, and I got grape. How good and how pleasant it is for food to be accompanied by Kool-Aid! Not only that, Shirley Mae’s gave me one of my favorite food items period on our 6,000+ mile road trip this summer: the pinto beans. Flavored with real pork, these pintos were the star of my meal, which also included delicious fried tilapia. Don’t miss this place if you ever go through Louisville!

BEST MEXICAN FOOD

Chico's Tacos

Matthew – Chico’s Tacos, El Paso, Texas – We enjoy an array of Mexican food each year. It’s one of our favorite cuisines, so you’d think this would be a difficult choice. It’s not. Chico’s was by far the most authentic Mexican food experience I’ve ever had, not because of the type of food but because of the delivery and the clientele. Sitting just a couple of miles from the Mexico border, Chico’s serves up a boat of rolled-corn, beef-filled, taquito-style tacos that you won’t find at any other taco shop. They’re cheap, so eat up! HONORABLE MENTION: Lunch Buffet, El Pinto, Albuquerque, New Mexico

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Molly – Puffy Tacos, Ray’s Drive Inn, San Antonio, Texas – Ray’s Drive Inn’s Puffy Tacos are the stuff of legend – literally, they are credited with inventing the “Puffy Taco.” What is it? A soft, puffy (because the word just fits), fluffy, thick taco filled with the absolute freshest ingredients – lettuce, tomato, and any meat you want, including fish, beef, carne guisada, or chicken, just to name a few. To give you a good idea of what they’re like, here’s an analogy: these Puffy Tacos are to Taco Bell chalupas as a rack of Memphis’ restaurant Charlie Rendezvous’ Ribs are to a McDonald’s McRib. It’s the original, high-end, mouthwatering version that you’ve got to have, even if you can’t have it all the time. (Although, if we lived in San Antonio, I would!)

BEST ITALIAN FOOD

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Matthew – Cristina Pizza, Moon Pie Pizza, Pasta & Bakery, Dillard, Ga. – We don’t eat pizza out very often, so when we do it’s a testament to how promising a pizzeria’s menu looks. Similarly, there are few pizza shops we reference in our household as memorable, because we hold a great pizza in high regard more than just something to be scarfed down like a Ninja Turtle would. (To be inclusive and to show you we’re not crazy here, we hold great pasta and stromboli in high regard as well, so Italian isn’t just pizza to us, but it’s a big part of the Southern food experience when it comes to Italian cuisine. Molly actually worked as a server at an Italian restaurant in Cherryville, N.C., for a while, and pizza wasn’t close to her favorite menu item there.) So it means something big to us when we enjoy a pizza enough to include it in this list. Moon Pie’s pizza dough was soft yet crackly from the oven, the cheese was ooey gooey perfect, and the prosciutto, spinach, mushrooms and truffle oil on top were both fresh and completely complementary. Delizioso!

we have the meats

Molly – Meat Lover Pizza, Portofino, Gastonia, N.C. – Portofino’s has been a favorite Italian spot of mine for years, less due to its proximity in nearby Gastonia, and more due to the satisfaction its rich, authentic dishes bring during every meal there. I have never been disappointed at Portofino’s and their pizza is truly to die for, hearty and full-flavored. This year, we got, for the first time, the Meat Lover Pizza. Matthew doesn’t typically love all-meat pizzas, but with the inclusion of Italian meatballs, he was all for it. If you’re near Gastonia and in need of a pizza, skip all the national chain spots and go straight here. I know you won’t be disappointed either!

BEST BARBECUE

Arthur Bryant's

Matthew – Burnt Ends, Arthur Bryant’s BBQ, Kansas City, Mo. – I’ve eaten a lot of barbecue throughout the Southern United States (and I ate more great barbecue in 2017 than any year ever before), but I’ve never had barbecue like this, quite literally. Kansas City is known for its burnt ends the way Texas is known for its brisket and the Carolinas are known for pulled pork. Arthur Bryant’s offered a delicious first experience with burnt ends, which were almost like a combination rib-brisket bite, covered in a barbecue sauce that was more tomatoey than I’ve ever had. And my plate of burnt ends came with pieces of plain white sandwich bread (just the way I like getting my barbecue) and a load of hand-cut fries. It was a true #FoodieScore! HONORABLE MENTION: Pulled Pork Plate, Rodney Scott’s Whole Hog BBQ, Charleston, South Carolina

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Molly – BBQ Chicken with White Sauce, Saw’s BBQ, Birmingham, Ala. – Oh, white barbecue sauce, how I love you! Could any barbecue sauce be more perfect than one with a mayonnaise base? My answer to that is now a definitive no. There are many sauces in the world, but Saw’s BBQ’s white sauce is the quintessential, unique sauce for me, and it goes perfectly on a roast chicken sandwich with a pickle, which is how I first tried it at Saw’s in Alabama. If you’ve never heard of it, or simply haven’t tried it, maybe this year is your time to be adventurous! If you can’t make it to Alabama, you can order white sauce in a bottle, as I did this year for Matthew, so we could include it on our own dishes at home. I can’t wait!

Flavor-Packed, Restaurant-Quality Texas Burgers

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Texans are known in the culinary world for their ability to create powerful flavors in meats. That’s a good explanation for why this Weber recipe for Texas Burgers is one of the all-time favorites in our house. This has become one of our favorite ways to season our burgers, no matter how we cook and top them. We’ve used this blend of seasonings for burgers cooked on the grill and in the oven, and we’ve now topped these delicious sandwiches with more varieties of toppings than makes sense to list here.

What makes this combination so good? It all starts with just a little bit of kick. You don’t want to give your burgers a funny taste that strays too far from what beef tastes like. But you don’t want a bland burger with no flavor. This blend is just the right amount of taste without going too far.

So far, my favorite way to top these burgers is the assortment you see in the picture above. A few pieces or a small bed of shredded lettuce, a hunk of fresh-sliced cheddar cheese and the desired amount of your favorite barbecue sauce. Per my experiences as a Texas barbecue consumer, I’d suggest a sauce that’s a bit more smoky than sweet, but not one that’s heavy on vinegar. Honestly, one of my favorites for this recipe is Heinz’s Kansas City BBQ Sauce, right out of the bottle. Top off your burgers with a couple of pickle chips for an extra little crunch if you like.

Most importantly though, be sure you can enjoy the flavor of your beef. Here’s how you can do that. The yield for this recipe is 4 burgers.

Ingredients

1.6 pounds of fresh ground beef (I like at least 80-20, and 90-10 is even better)

1 tablespoon chili powder

½ teaspoon garlic salt

4 hearty buns (I like Brioche)

12 pickle chips

BBQ sauce (of your choice)

4 pieces of freshly sliced cheddar cheese

lettuce (small pieces or leaves to shred)

Process

1 – The most important step is to blend your own burger meat and hand-patty the burgers yourself. The best burgers I’ve ever had – at home or in a restaurant – were clearly hand-pattied. So get your hands dirty and mix your beef, chili powder and garlic salt together. Start by tearing the ground beef into small pieces in a bowl, then top with the seasonings, and finally incorporate by hand.

2 – Once everything is nice and mixed, divide the meat into four equal amounts (if you want all of your burgers to be the same size) and roll each one into a ball. Then, if you don’t have a burger press, use your hands to press the burgers into patties less than an inch thick (any thicker and cooking will take longer and be more difficult to gauge).

3 – Cook your burgers with your desired method and to desired doneness, either on a grill, stovetop or in the oven. I prefer using the oven method – cooking them in an aluminum foil packet – and seeing all of the grease that drains off. You end up with a well-cooked burger that maintains its juiciness without all of the fat. The oven process can also be ideal to save time and hassle with the grill, and if you cook the meat in a packet to catch the juices, you won’t have a dirty pan or grill grate to clean up later.

4 – Lightly toast your buns, then top with your burger patty and a piece of cheddar cheese. Put your burger and cheese in the microwave for 20-30 seconds to melt the cheese perfectly and re-soften the now-toasted bun (this is a trick I like to use to toast a bun and then remove any excess crunch…I don’t like a toasted bun that creates all of the pieces that fall off, meaning parts of the bun I don’t eat).

5 – Add the lettuce and top with the barbecue sauce and pickles and serve.

We’ve tried a lot of burger combinations at our house, but this simple two-seasoning, hand-pattied option has become our go-to method for a delicious homemade burger. And if you’ve read to the very end, I must leave you a golden coin of information that may be the best part of all. The recipe above costs me less than $2 per serving, without sacrificing good meat, good bread, fresh cheese and other ingredients for toppings. Good luck finding a $2 burger this good at any restaurant. (I suggest you try this recipe instead!)

Foodie Travels: Lankford Grocery & Market, Houston, TX

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Earlier this year, Molly and I took a 2,500-mile round-trip road trip to Houston, Texas, for the wedding of one of her best friends. Of course, we looked forward to the beautiful occasion and the chance to share in a most special day. I also saw the trip as a chance to try a few local restaurants in Houston and a few along the way.

Along with a chance to try Texas brisket barbecue, authentic Tex Mex, Texas-sized pecan pie and a variety of Asian, Cuban and other ethnic foods that Houston offers, I had to sample at least one spot known for its local cheeseburgers. The bride offered us a list of great food options to try during our visit, and I supplemented those choices with a little research of my own. That’s when I found Lankford Grocery & Market, a decades-old Houston institution located between the city’s Fourth Ward and Midtown districts.

On our first full day in Houston, we visited Space Center Houston south of the city’s downtown. On the way back toward town, we rolled through neighborhoods and around the corner home of Lankford Grocery & Market, which is also listed here among Texas hot spots on the roadtrip food site roadfood.com. I was concerned about parking options after seeing online that the restaurant looks like it sits on a full corner with not much on-street parking. Turns out, parking was no issue. Right past the restaurant, there’s a street with ample space for 20 or so cars to park underneath shade trees. Once we parked, we got out and took a short walk around the corner and into our lunch spot.

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The restaurant was busy because it was lunchtime on a Friday, but there’s plenty of seating inside and outside, so we had no trouble getting seats in the corner. A waitress arrived shortly with menus and our adventure began. It was a memorable experience best summed up by these words from Molly (and I paraphrase because I’ve forgotten the exact quote): When you can get a cheeseburger and I can get Mexican, we won’t find a better place to eat than this. And I completely agree. In addition to American favorites like the cheeseburger, Lankford capitalizes on the Tex Mex connection of the state to offer delicious Mexican food favorites as well.

Molly ordered and consumed as much of Lankford’s Super Taco as she could. It was a heaping of Mexican food on top of crispy tortilla shells. I ordered the original cheeseburger and a side of fries and finished the whole plate. It was the best cheeseburger I’ve had since my favorite cheeseburger joint of all time (Kim’s Kitchen in Stanley, N.C.) closed about five years ago. The meat was hand-pattied and incredibly fresh. The bun was soft and hearty to support the patty, cheese and delicious toppings.

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In addition to the food, the atmosphere personified the local joint: regulars trading conversation with the waitresses and cashier, a take-out line with as many people as were seated in the restaurant, businessmen in suits stopping in for lunch, loosening their ties and removing their sunglasses, and a kitchen churning out plate after plate of tasty treats.

Everything about this restaurant was a winner. The atmosphere, the parking, the location, the history, the spot on the Food Network and Guy Fieri’s “Diners, Drive-ins and Dives” TV show and, most important, the amazing food and memorable cheeseburger. If you’re ever in Houston, check out Lankford Grocery & Market.

Lankford Grocery & Market, 88 Dennis Street, Houston, TX, lankfordgrocery.com

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