28 December 2005

Who loves end of the year lists?

Ahh...we all do.

Reflecting back on this year, I had a lovely amount of both work and leisure travel. I am grateful for that, as I do tend to get a little bit of cabin fever if I am in the office and my own condo for too long a time.

These are all places that I discovered through reading Jane and Michael Stern's book, Roadfood, and their corresponding web site. All of my selections have received a full review in either the book or the web site. When I compiled my list, I found that I had been to 30 restaurants recommended by the Sterns or one of their online editors since January 1, 2005.

The last time I compiled this Top 10, I didn't limit exclusively to restaurants referred by the Sterns. There are three restaurants that I visited this year that were on my list in 2003, so I have purposely left them out. These are, of course, in no particular order:

* Philippe the Original (Los Angeles, CA) -- This is the place where the french dip was invented. The story says that a lunching laborer came in for a roast beef sandwich. The "sandwich artisan" (as Subway would later classify such folks) accidently dropped the bread into a pan of beef drippings. As the customer was in a hurry, he asked that the sandwich be made with the "wet" bread instead of waiting for a new one to be prepared. Well, thanks for being in a hurry! A true classic is born. There are probably better places to get a french dip now -- LA is littered with shops claiming to be the best -- and they may be -- but, Philippe's is an experience. The counter, the mustard, the nine cent coffee -- and the walls plastered with newspaper and magazine articles dating back a hundred years.

* Louis Lunch (New Haven, CT) --It is debated that this is the place where the hamburger was invented. See the trend developing? I think this is the last place on my list that invented anything! The menu at Louis Lunch is spartan, to say the least. They pretty much make hamburgers. You can get your burger with or without cheese; and with or without tomato. That's about the size of it. The burgers are delivered on toasted white bread. No burger bun, you ask? Well, the folks will be quick to point out that when Louis Lunch was founded, there were no burger buns -- remember, there were no hamburgers! The inside of the restaurant is small and tables are very tough to come by at peak hours. When I went, I was able to sit down right away at the counter, with very friendly, accessible, and enthusiastic help. Ironically, as good a burger as this was -- cooked to perfect temperature, by the way -- it wasn't even the best burger that I had that week. Keep reading...

* Duff's (Amherst, NY) -- The best Buffalo wing in Buffalo, a town that takes their wing lineage quite seriously. Note that I did not go with Anchor Bar, the place that invented the Buffalo wing! If you are going to be in Buffalo for any length of time, it would be criminal not to eat that which they call their own. The wings are Duff's are large, succulent, and meaty. They are coated (not drenched) in their signature sauces. Mind the servers when they tell you that medium is like everyone else's hot...and hot are really freakin' hot! Duff's offers a very reasonable deal for 20 wings and a pitcher of beverage (they offer both beer and sodas for a different price). Two "normal" people could probably share this -- perhaps "date night" in Buffalo? But, this author could easily put away the 20 spot and most of the pitcher!

* The Crab Shack (Tybee Is, GA) -- As the picure says, it is "where the elite go to eat in their bare feet." If that doesn't get you through the front door, I don't know what will. The Crab Shack offers an absolute seafood orgy with a gorgeous view of the intercoastal. I made this stop during the summer as part of our annual baseball trip (Savannah Sand Gnats!). So, the meal was enjoyed by myself and another healthy-sized adult male. We ordered the "Seafood Feast for One" -- and couldn't finish all that was laid in front of us. This platter (which I can only describe as the size and shape of an inverted metal trash can lid) included crawfish (yuck!), boiled shrimp, STONE(!!) crab legs, oysters, and blue crab -- oh, and corn on the cob, boiled potatoes, and sausage chunks, too. You will need the roll of paper towels provided on the table, and the open-air sink in the middle of the dining area (it's weird to see). The place looks a little touristy/cheesy -- and maybe it is, but the food will allay all fears immediately. Two enthusiastic thumbs up on The Crab Shack!

* Williams Smokehouse (Houston, TX) -- As is the case with many of the best BBQ joints, it is not located in the best neighborhood, and some would consider driving there at night to be a less than enjoyable experience. However, if you let stuff like that scare you away, you are going to miss out on some of the most incredible ribs and beef brisket in the Houston area. I went at an off time, so the place was empty and my service was impeccable. The lady working the register also delivered the food to my table -- piping hot and full of smoky flavor. The ribs come pre-sauced with a glaze that has quite a kick. The one real warning on this place is that the road in front of Williams is torn up something fierce. I almost drove right past the place, so keep your eyes open. When I asked about the construction, I was told that the road had been that way for quite some time.

* Diana's (Charleston, SC) -- While the neighborhood is a little more upscale than at Williams Smokehouse, the location of Diana's is just as odd -- it is attached (though with no affiliation) to a somewhat run-down looking Days Inn. Don't let that fool you -- this is no roadside hotel restaurant. I made it for breakfast and enjoyed one of the best I have had in a long while. The apple-stuffed french toast (pictured in the link above) may have been the best french toast I have ever had in a restaurant. My dining companion described the consistency of the french toast as being like that of a Bundt cake. Perhaps on my next visit, I will partake of the "Morning Surf and Turf," grilled shrimp and a ribeye steak covering an english muffin, two eggs, grilled onions and hash browns. Diana's gets special mention because during our visit, we had arguably one of the worst servers in recent memory (and I eat out a lot). As bad as she was, the meal was still enjoyable. Perhaps she was just having a bad day, as we saw no evidence of bad service being a continual problem.

* Jestine's Kitchen (Charleston, SC) -- To be honest, I wanted to lump Jestine's and Diana's together for one pick. But, if I was going to do that, I would have also needed to include Anchor Line, Hominy Grill and Bowens Island, too -- to rank them one through five wouldn't be fair to the place that scored fifth. All in all, Charleston has become one heck of an eating town - and Jestine's and Diana's were the top two that I caught on this trip -- but, I easily could have included any of the others. I know that others will rave about the fried chicken at the legendary Stroud's, but I will put Jestine's fantastic fried chicken up against anyone's. I added the mac and cheese for one of my sides, which was also top-notch. I also tried some of the fried okra, which measured up favorably. We, again, arrived at an off time (see another trend developing?), and still had a wait of a few minutes. My understanding is that the line can wrap around the store at the busiest times. The staff moves quickly and efficiently, passing some of the cozy pleasantries to get tables turned over a little faster. On our way out of town, we stopped by for some pecan pie to go (Diana's was out -- and they are within a healthy walking distance from one another). Even though Jestine's was busy -- decent size line outside -- we were accommodated quickly for our take-out, as the owner recognized us from our visit a few days prior.

* Harold's NY Delicatessen (Edison, NJ) -- Harold's proves that "roadfood" can be found just about anywhere. Usually located in downtown areas or rural backroads -- not here -- for Harold's is located in a pretty non-descript corporate park in the vacinity of some hotels and a convention center. It does have easy access to the highway, and is only about 20 minutes (with no serious traffic) to the Newark Airport. Probably the most popular item on the menu is schtick. Yep -- Harold's is known for their gargantuan portion sizes -- which they encourage you to share. I have had Harold's on my list to try for some time and it just wasn't convenient. As I was heading off to the airport, I realized that I was in the immediate area so I stopped by for some take-out. I didn't check my order before I left the restaurant, but when I got to the airport and settled in to wait for my flight, I opened my bag to find the LARGEST sandwich I had ever seen. As part of their take-out package, Harold's packs you some extra rye bread, and I was able to make three full sandwiches out of what they describe as their small corned beef. They also packed some pickles, but those were not as good as what one would find at Katz's. I would have liked to have tried some of their super-sized desserts, but I would have needed to pay an extra fee for an overweight bag! Perhaps next time...

* Ranchman's Cafe (Ponder, TX) -- This fall marked my second visit to the Dave Ross' steak joint (the only one in my Top 10 that I had been to prior to 2005). Mr. Ross' place may be out in the middle of obsolute nowhere (20 miles west of Denton, TX -- and if you are a "suburb" Denton, you are in the middle of nowhere), but quality is second to none and would match that of any big city steakhouse. Come to think of it, I have never had a steak there -- I have been by for lunch twice, and had one of the tastiest hamburgers ever each time. Ranchman's serves a healthy, hand-formed, half-pound burger, cooked to perfect temperature. The grill man puts out a juicy patty as his best effort. The accompanying fries are plentiful and hand cut -- sometimes as fresh as when you place your order. I tried hard to arrive hungry, as I was told last time that the pie is a must. I assure you, it was some delicious apple pie -- the perfect blend of apples, cinnamon, and a crisp, flaky crust. During my visit, there was a high school cross-country team chowing down. With the added crowd, service was a little slow, as the grill got backed up pretty badly. Fortunately, I was in no rush, so it didn't matter, but Mr. Ross apologized numerous times, as he saw me waiting patiently. As he and I discussed, at least the meal was worth the wait. Also, if you are a history buff, Ranchman's is located next to a building that was once a bank robbed by Bonnie and Clyde. There are numerous newspaper articles hanging in decoration around the steakhouse.

* Peter Luger Steak House (Great Neck, NY) -- OK...so, this one is in order. Luger's was, by far, my Number One eating destination for 2005. Yes, I know that the original location is in Brooklyn, and there is no real comparison in the ambiance between the Brooklyn and Long Island locations, but sometimes you just have to make do. Having never been to Peter Luger before this year, I was fortunate enough to enjoy three visits this year -- once for dinner and twice for lunch. Plan on spending a small fortune on your dinner tab (especially if you hit the wine list), but it is so worth it. Luger's porterhouse is the best steak I have ever eaten - bar none. The dinner bill came to $90 pp for a table of three that included the steak for three, the tomato and onion appetizer, the bacon appetizer for three, a bottle of wine, creamed spinach, broccoli, home fries, two coffees and one dessert. Of course, one of my favorite things was something that came complimentary - a wonderful bread basket assortment. Some will say that you pay more for the atmosphere than for the quality of the food -- but, I will say that the quality lived up to my expectations.

If you want to get the Luger experience while being a little friendlier to the wallet, consider hitting the place for lunch. I had found Peter Luger's listed as one of the "20 Hamburgers You Must Eat Before You Die" from GQ magazine. Normally, I don't take my dining cues from GQ, but figured if they think that this is a pretty good burger, I would give it a try. This was undeniably one of the best burgers I have had the pleasure of consuming. For one thing, I am not big on condiments. At most places, a good burger means slathering on secret sauce and "dragging it through the garden." Not at Luger's. For $7.95, you get a half-pound burger (they describe it is "at least" a half-pound). The burger comes meat on a bun. If you want something else, you had better ask -- and be prepared to pay. You can add on cheese for $1.50, bacon for $2.50, and a side of their famous steak fries for $1.50. I added the bacon and the fries, and asked for them to add one of their thick slices of fresh tomato. I also added just a taste of Luger sauce -- enough to add a hint of sweetness to the burger, not enough to overpower. The key to this burger is definitely in the taste of the meat -- as there is nothing else to interfere. The beef was flavorful, cooked to perfect temparature -- juices dripping into the fresh, sesame-seeded, doughy bun. I thought that the fries were overrated and a little skimpy for $1.50. They are thick cut steak fries, but mine seemed a little underdone for my taste. I would probably order them again, as I can't imagine a burger without fries -- but, I might ask them to cook them well-done and see how that turns out. The bacon didn't seem as thick as what they serve for dinner, but was just as flavorful. I am pretty sure that I could go there and eat myself a meal from their breadbasket and an order of bacon.

I hope that your travels were equally enjoyable. I am eternally grateful for the culinary path laid down by the Sterns that continues to enrich my travels. I still have a trip planned to Georgia before the end of the year. I hope to hit some new places along the way, but if any of them are "Top 10 Worthy," I will be sure to add them for next year.

Still to come...a list of the 20-odd others that didn't make the cut for Top 10; my first ever disappointment from a Stern-recommended restaurant; and some other new favorites discovered on my own.

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