Yep, about this time each year I pull out my golden fork and spoon awards for my “Best of” post. Not the best restaurants, but the best food I ate. The most memorable. I sit down with coffee and a notepad, and brainstorm the 13 best foods I ate in the Charlottesville area in 2013. From off the top of my head. Because in this brain with its vastly diminishing capacity (thanks middle age and Lyme Disease) if I can remember it right away, it was probably pretty outstanding. And worthy of an award, however small. I’m just one broad, but I’ve got a good palate and know when something has skipped past the boundaries of delicious into the stratosphere of, “Hey remember when we ate that?”
Here are my picks in alphabetical order by establishment. Go eat them. A few are seasonal, but I bet if you wait until the appropriate season and ask real nice, they’ll make it for you. Especially when you tell them it won a major award! Congratulations to all, and good eats in 2014!*
Smoked Turkey. At BBQ Exchange.
This is the second year in a row Chef Hartman’s smoked turkey has won a golden fork and for good reason. It’s incredible. Melt-in-your-mouth-smoke-meets-sweet-meets-meat incredible. Only available at Thanksgiving. Sad face. This was the third time The Hubby and I ordered our turkey from The Exchange and if I can help it, I will never cook turkey again. Because it won’t be as good. The first year we got the dinner with sides, but I like leftovers. LOTS of leftovers, so the next year we got an entire bird. Repeated this year. And between the two of us, managed to finish off a 15-20 pounder. Boom!
Fried Green Tomato, Smoked Salmon, and Mozzarella Salad with Basil Crema. At Bizou Restaurant.
A fancy take on a BLT. The crunchy fat and acid of the tomato pairs well with the soft cheese and the creamy greenness of the crema, which was like the best Green Goddess dressing I’ve ever had. I couldn’t eaten five of these salads without saying Boo!
Bacon Fat Popcorn. At Brookville Restaurant.
Congrats to Brookville for making my “Best of” list 2 years running! The Hubby and I love Chef Keevil’s place and eat there often for brunch or any time we need the greatest hamburger on the face of God’s green earth. But in 2014 his bacon fat popcorn sent me into the stratosphere. Imagine huge fluffy kernels with just a touch of salt. Then imagine crunching down and tasting bacon. But not a big grease-filled overpowering smoky business. A touch, a kiss. Like popcorn and bacon didn’t get married but are just making out. HEAVEN!
Chocolate Macaroon. At Cappellino’s Crazy Cakes.
Who cares if it’s gluten-free? This cookie is simply the most deeply, darkly, chocolaty, ooey, gooey confection I’ve ever eaten. Right away you can taste the high-quality chocolate. The way it just glides over your tongue into a gooey delicious chewy chocolaty mess is a gorgeous thing indeed. No way you can eat just one. It has officially replaced their Apple Harvest as my favorite cookie.
Carne Asada Tacos. At El Tako Nako.
Monday night is taco night because of this food truck on Hydraulic Road across from Stonefield. I love all the tacos on offer: Pastor, Chorizo, Lengua, but it’s the Carne Asada that gets my motor running. Charred meat with a little cilantro, onion, and lime in double-wrapped corn tortillas. Completely authentic Mexican tacos for $2 each. You can’t beat that with a stick.
Pupusa Queso Con Frijoles. At El Tepeyac.
El Tepeyac has incredible tacos, but I will always mark 2013 as the year I fell in love with pupusas. This Salvadorian style tortilla tastes like the best Hot Pocket you’ve ever eaten. Scratch that. Imagine if Hot Pockets were actually any good! That’s an El Tepeyac Pupusa. They’ve got several different styles (including an incredible one make with loroco flowers) but my favorite is the pupusa with black beans and cheese. Like you took corn pudding, stuffed cheese and black bean dip inside it then stuffed it in a panini press. I can eat pupusas until the cows come home.
Poached Duck Egg Frisee Salad With Warm Bacon Dressing, Chive Flowers, and Crispy Ramps. At GlassHaus Kitchen.
I’m very sad I won’t be able to enjoy this classic anymore while sitting on the patio with The Hubby and watching the freight trains roll by. Chef Ian Boden’s version is lovely and perfect. The creamy egg mixes with the warm fat of the bacon and the tang of the chive and the sweet of the ramps to create something awfully special. Perhaps we can persuade him to recreate this perfection at his new venture, The Shack? Hope so.
Chicken Liver Mousse. At JM Stock Provisions & Supply.
I’m a sucker for a good chicken liver mousse. Put some of that on a cracker or good piece of baguette and pour me a glass of wine and that’s dinner. The mousse at JM Stock is luscious, creamy, rich, and decadent. Priced right and presented in a small Mason jar. Yep, an entire Mason jar full of chicken liver mousse. If that’s not decadent I don’t know what is.
Tonkotsu Ramen. At Now & Zen.
Ever since I tucked into my first bowl of in Vancouver a few years back I have searched and longed for this dish. There isn’t a day goes by where I don’t long for ramen. Not the 5-for-a-dollar version in the market, but good, authentic, steaming, yummy ramen. Preferably with fatty broth, seasoned egg, and extra wakame. No matter where we travel, my first question is always, “Is there ramen here?” Now when fellow seekers ask me, I can point them to Now & Zen. Unfortunately Chef Sato only has ramen nights every so often (next one scheduled for January 19 and 20). Go early with an empty stomach (bowls are huge), and order the broth as fatty as you can.
Fried Okra With Comeback Sauce. At Pasture Charlottesville.
Oh my lord! Simply the best fried okra I’ve ever had in my life. Chef Jason Alley fries the okra whole, and the batter is so light, so crispy, I dare you not to finish off their ginormous bowl. Every time I’ve eaten this I swear I won’t possibly finish the whole thing, and every time I fail. It’s that good. The comeback sauce tastes like mayonnaise and Sriracha? Not sure, but it has kept me coming back for this appetizer again and again.
Spicy Creamed Rice Grits, Smoked Tomato Broth, Black-Eyed Peas.
At Pasture Charlottesville.
This is one of those dishes I want to magically appear on my counter every time I have a crappy day. Or the weather is crappy. Or I’m just feeling crappy. Comfort in a bowl. They serve this as a small plate, but trust me, after inhaling this unctuous blend of smoky, creamy goodness you’ll want more. A whole lot more. Tastes like a big ol’ nap! Which is a compliment of the highest order.
Charcuterie Plate. Pippin Hill Vineyard.
We had a miserable spring and summer full of rain and gray skies. So when we finally hit a warm patch The Hubby and I had a lovely “All Summer in a Day” moment at Pippin Hill. Cured meats, olives, arugula pesto and grape must mustard paired with a nice Cabernet Franc can cure every form of seasonal disorder. I’m convinced of it. And I’m counting the days when I can lounge on their sumptuous deck once again.
Anson Mills Sea Island Peas with House Bacon and Appalachian Star Farm Spring Onions. At The Whiskey Jar.
This dish was prepared as a side for the Southern Foodways Alliance Summer Symposium opening dinner. The beans tasted like tiny black-eyed peas, but with better texture and flavor: sweet, meaty, and hearty. The bacon added a fatty, smoky flavor while the spring onions provided sweetness. This dish was by far the hit of the night; everyone raved. I even bought my own bag for New Year’s Hoppin’ John. To say I can’t wait to dig in would be an understatement. Here’s hoping Sea Island Peas are rediscovered and relished in 2014. They need to be.
Peach Trifle. At The Whiskey Jar.
Congratulations to Rachel Pennington on creating a dessert I devoured without a second thought. Let me explain. Usually I’m so enamored of appetizers by the time the dessert comes, I can’t take more than a bite. Not here. This trifle with its layers of fresh peach, feather-light cake, fresh cream, and vanilla custard is simply one of the best desserts I’ve ever tasted. Decadent, yet light as a Spring cloud in May. It should be a staple on their summer menu. And they should give Chef Pennington a raise. Yum!
(Top Left) Fried Green Tomato, Smoked Salmon, and Mozzarella Salad with Basil Crema at Bizou Restaurant.
Poached Duck Egg Frisee Salad With Warm Bacon Dressing, Chive Flowers, and Crispy Ramps at GlassHaus Kitchen.
(Left) Fried Okra With Comeback Sauce at Pasture Charlottesville.
Bacon Fat Popcorn at Brookville Restaurant.
Tonkotsu Ramen at Now and Zen.
Charcuterie Plate at Pippin Hill Farm.
*You’ll notice I actually included my “Best 14 for 2013”. Whatever. I love it when my town makes it hard to stay within parameters ;)