Obviously a counterpoint to ‘What’s the Worst Thing You Ever Ate at a Restaurant?’. That thread was taking some detours into posters describing things they’ve particularly enjoyed at restaurants, and I was thinking of some of those times myself, so I thought I’d start a thread on it.
I’ve had some elaborate meals at fancy restaurants over the years that were plenty enjoyable, but I’m most interested in the surprise finds, where the meal highly exceeded expectations. Like some hole-in-the-wall diner where you enjoyed the best (X) you ever tasted.
One of those times I can think of is years ago, camping with a friend in northern Michigan. We had had a busy day mountain biking the many two-track trails up there, and I was very tired and ravenously hungry. We went into town on an errand, and stopped at a small diner for dinner. I had their soup of the day to start out, ordinary navy bean soup. And it was freakin’ delicious. Clearly made from scratch, with big chunks of ham, celery and carrots. I think I ended up just having two or three bowls of the soup.
I have similar stories, but that should get things started.
I had an epiphany a few years back, that I really don’t like “fancy” food very much. Every time I’ve been traveling an found some local food I really liked, it was this sort of hole-in-the-wall, “Nothing special” kind of food that blew me away.
I spent two weeks in Japan about a decade ago, traveling with a group of friends. We ate at some really nice places, but the best thing I had the whole trip was these small dumplings on a skewer from a small bar in a farming village. Just exploded with flavor, and were like 100 yen/skewer. Dirt cheap, but just fantastic.
Same thing in Singapore, in 2019. I know a guy who runs a bar there, and he gave me a plate of ngoh hiang as an appetizer one night. Best thing I ate that whole trip, even considering the meals on the two week cruise I was taking just after that.
I don’t actually know. I was a poor person when the parents of a college friend came to town so the dad could give a talk at the university. They invited me to join them and a group of his colleagues for dinner at fancy restaurant. Food I wasn’t involved in ordering appeared before us and I recognized none of it, but I determined to eat it to be polite. The best dish was some sort of tiny marine animal, perhaps periwinkles? I have no idea, but it was the best thing I’ve ever eaten.
ETA: I’ve had some wonderful pho in Vietnam that cost under a dollar.
The three most memorable were while traveling abroad. The first was pigeon in Cork, Ireland. I’ve tried to repeat the experience by ordering duck or quail in other restaurants, but they pale in comparison. The second was an anchovy appetizer in Rabat, Morocco. Served raw in olive oil with the bones meticulously removed. No sushi can compare. Lastly, a simple potato pancake (Kartoffelpuffer) topped with a slice of camembert in Heidelberg, Germany. Again, I’ve ordered the dish elsewhere (and made it at home) since then but it’s never the same.
I had a lobster roll at Legal Seafood on the harborfront in Boston this summer that was perfect. Everybody loves to trash Legal, but it was a half pound of perfectly cooked claw meat on a beautiful day sitting outside on the water.
Best meal I had, was, weirdly, a dingy small restaurant in rural northern China in 2005. The cook was amazing. I don’t know what she did, but she made plain boring chicken and spinach taste fabulous. We kept wanting more and more.
Don’t mention it! It seemed like your thread was going off into tangents with people rapsodizing over the joys of saag paneer or discussing the many Jason-style comebacks from the dead that the McRib has made
Yeah, part of it is mood and situation and atmosphere. My most memorable burger experience was a random night out with the family at a Red Robin when I ordered a mushroom swiss burger. Every bite was delicious magic. I had had mushroom swiss burgers before, and I had them since (I actually went on a bit of a kick after that ordering mushroom swiss burgers at different places, and even back to Red Robin, trying to recapture the magic, but it wasn’t the same). Was that one Red Robin burger that night really all that perfect, or was I just in a good mood that day, having a nice time with my family, and it just hit me a certain way?
It’s hard to remember specifically, but, for me, it would have to probably be the first meal I had at a Yucatecan Restaurant just outside Chicago in Cicero, Illinois. This would have been about 15 years ago. I had just flown in from somewhere or another and my cousin picked me up at Midway, and this had been a little family place on my radar for awhile that I just hadn’t had a chance to try. Turns out my cousin was eyeing it, as well, so off we went for dinner. We started with some vaporcitos (Mayan tamales wrapped in a banana leaf), gorditas de villa, and the table tortilla chips with xni-pec salsa (which was basically a pico de gallo with habaneros as the chile and sour/bitter orange as the citrus.) Every single one of those dishes was an endorphin rush. Sometimes I have food that essentially is like a drug to me. It brings so much joy and happiness. Like literal ecstasy. These foods hit that button one after another. And those chips with that xni-pec was the best chips & salsa I’ve ever had.
For the main dish, I had cochinita pibil, a type of achiote-and-other-spices-rubbed pulled pork dish that is cooked wrapped in a banana leaf. It was served with yet another type of roasted habanero salsa – this one was simple: salt, sour/bitter orange, fire-roasted habaneros into a fairly thin sauce. The combination of the cochinita pibil on a corn tortilla with pickled red onions and the fiery salsa. Good god. Everything, just absolutely everything was perfect about that dinner. (Even the price: was less than $20 per person for all we had.)
Later on, I’ve repeated the experience with their version of chiles en nogales, a festive red-white-and-green dish with stuffed poblanos, pomegranate arils, and a creamy walnut sauce.
The place moved to another suburb, then went out of business after a couple years. It’s really too bad, as when they were in Cicero, they were highly regarded and had lots of good press. It’s a tough industry. I became friends with the family and still see or go out with them from time to time. They used to come to my barbecues; I used to go to some of their family events. They catered my wedding.
Three years ago, I got a call somewhat out of blue from Antonio (the owner) with him remembering my love for chiles en nogada. His wife just made some, and he wanted to drop it off for me at my house, at no charge. This was years after the restaurant had closed, so I couldn’t believe I would be able to experience those chiles en nogada again. And they were every bit as good as I remembered them.
I could make a post just about my amazing experiences with different ethnic cuisines.
My first Ethiopian meal at the Blue Nile in Ferndale, MI. We got the Ethiopian feast, which consists of several types of all-you-can-eat veggies and a la cart meat choices if you want meat. As dedicated an omnivore as I am, Ethiopian and Indian are two cuisines I could be happy with going totally vegetarian for the rest of my life. The Ethiopian spicy red lentils are a particular favorite. The Blue Nile remains one of Mrs. solost’s and my favorite restaurants. We were concerned when they couldn’t get enough help during the pandemic and closed for several months, but they’re back in biz.
At a tiny Indonesian place called Indo I had my first spicy Beef Rendang stew. Outstanding. Mrs. solost and I have gone back several times, and I did a pretty good job of figuring out how to reverse-engineer it, and it’s in the regular meal rotation now. It literally takes 4+ hours to make properly and there are no shortcuts because you have to slowly simmer until the coconut milk-based sauce reduces to a paste consistency. Worth every minute though.
I’ve written fondly in other food threads about Fenton’s Jamaican Jerk Chicken, a little hole in the wall place that used to be in Southfield, MI. I’d had jerk before, but something about Fenton’s recipe was over and above everything I’d ever had (never actually been to Jamaica, but I’d like to make a trip just to see if the Jerk there compares to Fenton’s). I used to go there once or twice a month when I worked in an office nearby. I’ve tried many times to emulate Fenton’s Jerk chicken and peas & rice; I’ve come close but always fallen short. Alas, Fenton’s closed unexpectedly just before the pandemic lockdown, and it turned out Fenton Brown Sr. had passed away. I miss Fenton and his cooking.
At a place I worked at years ago there was a nondescript bar & grill a couple buildings down that had a fantastic Soup of the Day Manhattan-style clam chowder on Thursdays. I know many NE chowder lovers think Manhattan style is anathema, but this stuff was really tasty. I used to go Thursdays just for the soup.
In other memories of places long gone by that had excellent soup, there used to be a restaurant in Detroit called The Turtle Soup Inn. I think the food was otherwise ordinary diner fare, but their signature soup was hearty and delicious. It seemed like it had medicinal qualities too-- when I felt like I was coming down with something I’d get a quart to go and it seemed to ward off illness. Once I was eating a bowl of it at the counter inside, and the owner came up. Saw approvingly I was eating the turtle soup, and said to me “you know, turtle soup makes you horny. I have a bowl or two, go home to my wife, and make her happy!”
(I myself didn’t notice any boost in that department, but then I was in my early 20s and didn’t need one)
I once ate at a kind of odd restaurant in Lewes, Delaware; it seemed to be primarily a tchotchke shop, but they had a bakery counter and a small dining area to the side where they served dinner.
Anyways, I had some bacon-wrapped scallops there that were one of the best things I ever ate. The scallops were like dollops of butter, and the bacon was still crispy, it was fantastic. There weren’t even that many on the plate but I couldn’t even finish it, it was so rich. I brought the leftovers all the way home and had another great dinner the next day.
Mama’s Fish House on Maui. The restaurant owns its own fishing boat, and the menu changes depending on what their fishermen caught that day. The day I was there they had ono and some other fish. But I had the ono. It was relatively simply prepared, but it was without a doubt the freshest fish I’ve ever eaten.
In terms of memorable dishes, the bucatini all’amatriciana at a place called “Osteria da Mario” a few blocks north of the Pantheon in Rome still sticks with me almost twelve years later as a stupendously good meal. I also recall the gelato at a shop called “San Crispino” near the Pantheon was extremely good as well.
Skogen Kitchen in Custer, South Dakota was one of the very best meals I’ve eaten in a long time. And in a little town not too far from Mount Rushmore, no less. Even knowing that our friends who live in Rapid City are very discerning in terms of restaurants, I wasn’t expecting that level of high-end cuisine.
Some places are memorable because the planets aligned, the cooks were on their game, and the circumstances were great. I once ate Korean fried chicken at a place in the DFW area that has since closed, and for whatever reason, that one night it was ASTOUNDING to sit there with my wife and a plate of chicken, fries, beer, and some other stuff and just go to town on it. Subsequent visits weren’t nearly so awesome- the chicken was never bad, but it just never measured up to that first time.
We spent much of '79 in some old hotel in White Plains, NY, while waiting for our next home to be ready for occupancy. Around the corner from the hotel was a deli which offered what they called a “frozen éclair”. Those things were approximately the size and shape of a regulation NFL football and damned good!
Dad’s employer comped our entire stay, including food.
ETA: this reminded me of a bakery somewhere in St. Louis. Inch-wide slice of triple chocolate cake which was so rich that it took me two days to eat.