XtremeFoodies Founder: The 21 Best Things I Ate in 2018

By jeffrey_merrihue on January 7th, 2019

I believe this list to be as interesting as previous years but it felt harder to pick really differentiated highlights. This year was highlighted by two trips to Japan with three items featuring in my top 5. But it occurred to me that in the future it may become more challenging to find these kinds of unique gems in places like Italy, which I have visited so many times. Might 2019 require visits to Mongolia, Pakistan and the Congo?

Here are the best things I ate in 2018:

21. Charred Cabbage @ Senia - Honolulu

Courtesy of Jeffrey Merrihue

Per Se alumni are weaving magic in a lovely room in Honolulu. I wish more of the dishes were made with local ingredients like this stunning cabbage with Shio Kombu, Green Goddess and Buttermilk.

20. Strawberry Jelly with Creme Anglaise @ Takiya - Tokyo

Courtesy of Jeffrey Merrihue

I could easily have voted this entire meal into my best restaurant list, as it is one of the finest meals I have ever had. I’d like to shine a light on this extraordinary dessert, as dessert is a common weak link in Asian meals. The strawberries from Fukuoka were as flavourful as the famed wild strawberries of France, and the dish overall has a real wow factor.

19. Crunchy “American” Style Tacos @ Mitla Cafe - San Bernardino, California

Courtesy of Jeffrey Merrihue

50 years ago, Glen Bell was making hot dogs in San Bernardino when he noticed the line across the street for crunchy tacos was just getting longer. After visiting the owner on several occasions, he figured out the recipe and launched Taco Bell. In his autobiography, he never mentioned Mitla. Thankfully, the nearby Taco Bell closed and Mitla has flourished with the original ground beef American style tacos with crunchy lettuce, shredded cheddar cheese and mild salsa.

Shout out to Mark Wiens, who trekked out of LA to film this treasured spot.

18. Beetroot @ Daniel Berlin - Skane Tranas, Sweden

Courtesy of Jeffrey Merrihue

Daniel Berlin is a lovely, homey place to enjoy dinner with some very accomplished cooking. But one dish was truly memorable. A beetroot inside another beetroot grilled over birch coal was served with cream of oxtail fat and blackcurrant juice. This is surely one of the most original dishes on this entire list. I am not a big fan of beets, but this was something special.

Shout out to Adley Zayan for replacing our dinner conversation with a wine discourse worthy of a master sommelier.

17. Beef on Weck @ Schwabl's - Buffalo, New York

Courtesy of Jeffrey Merrihue

While shooting “Iron Chef Canada” with Mijune Pak, we drove to Buffalo to visit Anchor Bar where Buffalo wings were invented. We tried a half-dozen of the most famous wing spots nearby and were underwhelmed, so we decided to try the other famous Buffalo dish: Beef on Weck, featuring hand-carved beef on a toasted kummelweck roll. The most famous place is Bar Bill, which was just OK, so we went to the oldest and it was a stunner. This is among the top 10 sandwiches in America.

Shout out to Donnie Burtless for providing live telephone recommendations at every turn of our tour.

16. Laksa @ Sungei Road Laksa - Singapore

Courtesy of Jeffrey Merrihue

Sungei is one of the earliest pioneers of Singaporean laksa, serving tiny bowls of coconut flavored laksa with baby cockles. Three women labor over one of the country’s last coal-fired soup woks. This deceiving little bowl is my favorite laksa in the world.

Shout out to Cityfoodsters for a memorable Singapore food ramble

15. Ciro @ Pepe in Grani - Caiazza, Italy

Courtesy of Jeffrey Merrihue

By combining superior baking skills with the sourcing of higher quality local ingredients, Pepe in Grani burst on the scene several years ago as one of the best pizzerias in the world. Rather than sit still, Franco Pepe has evolved his menu with multiple innovations like the Ciro -- a thin pizza dough cone filled with 12-month aged grana padano cheese “cream”, arugula pesto and local capezzana olive oil. Surely Pepe will be awarded a Michelin star next year. 

Shout out to Franco Pepe, whose pizza photo adorns the back of my new pizza book.

14. Singapore Slaw @ Lee - Toronto

Courtesy of Jeffrey Merrihue

One of Canada’s first and most beloved celebrity chefs, Susur Lee rose to fame with a stunning salad. This 19-ingredient wonder is a mound of vegetables, micro-greens, pickled onions, fried taro root and fried vermicelli, drizzled with a purple plum dressing and topped with flowers. It could have turned into a chaotic chopped salad mess, but it is now my favorite salad in the world. 

Shout out to Lee, who triumphed on our first episode of “Iron Chef Canada,” then made me this salad the next night in his restaurant.

13. Original Chili Half-Smoke @ Ben’s Chili Bowl - Washington, D.C. 

Courtesy of Jeffrey Merrihue

Made famous first by Bill Cosby (jailed) and then by President Obama, this delicious dog is deceptively delightful. The “half-smoke” is a 1/2 beef and 1/2 pork sausage made exclusively for Ben’s, served crunchy on the outside and split open juicy on the inside with a toasted bun. The split is lightly dabbed with mustard and onion and covered with just the right amount of spicy house-made chili to still be able to pick up the messy wonder with grace. The specially made dogs have snap while the chili has just the right balance of flavors. The squishy bun is just perfect.

Shout out to Barack Obama for supporting places like this.

12. Pea and Asparagus Risotto @ Dal Pescatore - Canneto sull'Oglio, Italy

Courtesy of Jeffrey Merrihue

Three generations of a family were in the kitchen in April and the essence of innovation rooted in tradition was profound. Everything about this meal was seamless, from the ingredients to the preparations for the service. I have had so much bad risotto over the years that I thought I did not like the dish. I had forgotten what great risotto could be like, and here it was precise and perfect. Vibrant peas, luscious asparagus and al dente riso will remain in my memory forever.

Shout out to John Bruno Scherrer, whose birthday it was.

11. Marijuana Tempura @ Shibumi - Los Angeles

Courtesy of Jeffrey Merrihue

Ok, I mostly liked this dish because it is funny. But it also is really tasty. If I could go to the movies and get a bag of these instead of popcorn, that would be epic.

I cannot remember who to shout out to, as I was too stoned at this birthday dinner!

10. Soba @ Honke Owariya - Kyoto, Asia

Courtesy of Jeffrey Merrihue

Honke Owariya, the oldest restaurant in Japan, has served monks, shoguns and emperors its famous soba noodles since 1465. The buckwheat noodles can be eaten hot or cold, depending on the season. The restaurant uses Kyoto spring well water to make its delicious soup broth. Its signature soba comes in a five-level tray that allows you to try them cold first, then with hot soup in the second tray and varying levels of seasonings and toppings as you move down toward the fifth tray. Toppings include shiitake mushrooms, shrimp tempura, Japanese leeks, seaweed, sesame seeds and grated daikon. It’s a favourite dish of the Imperial family, which often dines here upon their return from Tokyo. But don’t let that intimidate your visit. Locals love the small house set on a quiet street just south of the Imperial Palace. Its beautifully aged wooden exterior houses traditional tatami-matted dining areas and beautiful gardens typical of the area. The sweets have been revered for centuries as well. A cartoon instruction sheet is included for bewildered foreigners. The quality of the experience and delicious soba is truly magical.

Shout out to Ramaniac for steering me around Japanese noodle bars.

9. Pan Con Minuta @ La Camaronera Seafood Joint and Fish Market - Miami 

Courtesy of Jeffrey Merrihue

This fish’wich is an example of simplicity over all else. Lightly fried yellowtail snapper is served with its tail hilariously still on and sticking out of a semolina bun dressed with cocktail sauce and diced onion.

Shout out to my friend JJ from Kiosicle, who almost went 20 times.

8. Trout Roe Sea Star @ Noma - Copenhagen, Europe

Courtesy of Jeffrey Merrihue

Noma remains essential to foodies worldwide. Some grumble about this or that, but then return to taste everything Danish chef Rene Redzepi cooks, following him from Tokyo to Tulum and back to Copenhagen. I cannot wait to return. Noma 2.0 features the shimmering beauty of a painted starfish that emanates from trout roe on a bed of cured egg yolks, kelp and smoked trout dashi. This dish represents everything great about Noma: taste, creativity and humor.

Shout out to Rene Redzepi for attending to the beloved, yet unruly Eatinerary mob of 54 for 4 consecutive lunches

7. Uni and Clam Tostada @ La Guerrerense - Ensenada, Mexico

Courtesy of Jeffrey Merrihue

I was determined to feature Fenix, which is the world’s oldest purveyor of fish tacos. It is a simple crunchy wonder on a drab corner of Ensenada but was then overwhelmed by the queen of Ensenada making a gastronomic wonder Anthony Bourdain called the best tostada in the world. At La Guerrerense, chef Sabina Bandera has created a true masterpiece with her signature sea urchin, pismo clam, avocado, chile sauce and peanut tostada.

Shout out to Eat See Go for recruiting me onto the culinary cruise with Princess Cruises.

6. Galbi Jjim @ Yangji - Los Angeles, USA  

Courtesy of Jeffrey Merrihue

Galbi Jjim is a spectacular short rib with rice sticks that bubbles in a cauldron of spicy hell sauce remarkable in its intensity. I went to Yangji by mistake when looking for Sun Nong Dan next door that became rammed with fans after David Chang recommended their Galbi Jjim. I ate four times at Yangji before I met Andy Hayler there for lunch when he pointed out I was in the wrong place. After trying both places multiple times, many of us concluded the copycat place was better than the original. It has a flame grill to caramelise the sauce further; has thicker, more tender short rib; features Chinese dates that further caramelise the sauce and provides tongs and scissors to break down the tower. I went here more than any other restaurant in 2018.

Shout out to David Chang for leading me to Song Dan Nong which caused me to stumble into the even better Yangji

5. Blue Crab Drenched in Fish Entrails @ Kimura - Tokyo

Courtesy of Jeffrey Merrihue

The idea of this dish sounds revolting to Westerners, including me. But if you take a deep breath, dig in and get past the texture, you will be rewarded with a dish of stunning flavors and depth.

Shout out to Aiste Miseviciute for hosting Eatinerary.

4. Pizza @ Pizzeria I Masanielli - Naples, Italy

Courtesy of Jeffrey Merrihue

Down the road in the shadow of the great Franco Pepe is a rising star producing a startlingly good pizza. While Pepe is innovating beyond pizza with a variety of rolls, calzones and cones, Francesco Martucci is laser-focused on pizza. I Masanielli is the best pizza place in the world that you have never heard of. The dough is proofed for 36 hours, allowing the yeast to devour all the sugars, resulting in giant puffy crusts (cornicone) that are light as air and do not fill you up. Stunning!

Shout out to Barbara Pollastrini for being our Roman chef at Heroic and admitting the pizza is better around Naples.

3. Bear Paw @ Hira Sansou - Shiga Prefecture, Japan

Courtesy of Jeffrey Merrihue

The bear paw seems like a shock Instagram ploy, except that it is actually delicious. I expected the equivalent of jellied Chinese chicken feet loaded with cartilage. Instead, this paw is luxuriously tasty with nice texture and beautiful flavor. The other surprise is how good everything on the menu is. On top of that, the chef is very charming. Not only is it among the top items I ate in 2018, it also is one of the best restaurants I have ever been to. I dream of going back.

Shout out to Hisato Hamada from Wagyumafia for not eating the rest of the bear.

2. Salmon Souffle in Riesling Cream Sauce @ Auberge de L' Ill - France 

Courtesy of Jeffrey Merrihue

Pike quenelles are one of my favorite dishes. A delicacy dating back to the dawn of French cuisine in Lyon (Bontemps!), I’ve always liked the ones at La Tour D’Argent. Here I found a new benchmark. The recipe, structure and texture of a quenelle are paramount, like this salmon souffle from Auberge. Here they are somehow cloud-like and resilient at the same time. And the sauce is both creamy and luxurious. The dollop of tomato concasse adds a nice kick to this epic dish. This is classic French cooking at an extremely elevated level.

Shout out to Andy Hayler for guiding me to this ethereal experience in the northwest of France.

1. Salted Caramel Kakigori @ Tasuki - Kyoto

Courtesy of Jeffrey Merrihue

Kakigori is big in Japan, with lines of up to three hours during the summer. Foreigners will imagine the shabby snow cones and ice slushies from the USA or the sickly sweet shaved ice from Hawaii. But this dessert is another level. These ice towers are made from "gourmet" ice blocks frozen with ultra-fine water and maintained at precise temperatures. The ice masters are highly skilled as they endeavour to sculpt the “fluffy shaved ice” into these delicate creations that would crumble like Jenga towers in the hands of amateurs. This masterpiece in Kyoto is a fine example of the art of kakigori and ranks as one of the great sweet creations in any culture. It would be worth a trip to Kyoto just to try this mind-boggling work of culinary art.

Courtesy of Jeffrey Merrihue

I have had kakigori now and again over the years and have enjoyed it. But I am not really a sweets person, so when Little Meg insisted on trying one of her favorites in Kyoto, I grudgingly agreed. The flavors of the salt and caramel are softened by the cloud-like ice, and the pecans are just decadent. The structure of this dish seems architecturally impossible, but each one comes out perfectly. I had this in January and thought to myself that this will surely be No. 1 on my 2018 list and, 11 months later, so it is.

Shout out to Little Meg for her grace, charm, wit and intellect.

Meet the author

Jeffrey Merrihue is the Founder of XtremeFoodies which is the world's largest network of local food experts. He has eaten at all 125 restaurants that have been on the World's 50 Best Restaurants lists since 2005. He is currently a judge on Iron Chef and has published a book: The History and Science Behind the World's Best Pizzas. You can visit Jeffrey at his Santa Monica restaurant Heroic Deli and Wine Bar. Follow…... More