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The Best Meals We Ate in 2019

By AFAR Editors 

12.20.19

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Pastas from Italy’s Emilia-Romagna region at New York’s Rezdôra can elicit embarassing noises of delight from certain diners.

Courtesy of Rezdôra

Pastas from Italy’s Emilia-Romagna region at New York’s Rezdôra can elicit embarassing noises of delight from certain diners.

We’ve selected the standout breakfasts, killer lunches, and dreamy dinners that have lingered in our memories as the best tastes of the year. Dig in.

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AFAR editors have been known to plan entire vacations around food, with trip motivations as varied as Michelin-starred restaurants, Parisian desserts, and lip-smacking barbecue, so the fact that some particular meals stand out among others eaten on the run may not be surprising. We’ve gathered the details of where to enjoy these landmark feasts—some fanciful chef’s table menus and some simple and mind-blowing—to perhaps inspire some fun food journeys of your own in the new year.

The year’s best breakfasts

El Mago de las Fritas, Miami

If Miami is known as the Magic City, then the family that’s run El Mago de las Fritas since 1984 are some of its most adept magicians (the restaurant’s name even means “the magician of fritas”). Yet though my Cuban American husband and I have been together for nearly a decade and travel regularly to Miami to see his family, I’d never had a frita until this summer, when we stepped out of the humid morning into the cool foyer of the restaurant on Calle Ocho, whose walls are lined with photos of its devotees—President Obama included. We pulled up chairs and looked at the menu: There was a frita Europa (topped with Swiss cheese and two croquetas), frita confundida (frita, ham, pulled pork, Swiss), and even chicken and vegetarian fritas. In the end, though, I ordered a plain frita, which, for $5, comes as an oozing beef patty seasoned with an in-house chorizo blend, onions, and crunchy wisps of potato, all inside a pillowy, toasted Cuban bun. Paired with a frosty glass of fresh-squeezed watermelon juice, it was exactly as advertised: magic. —Katherine LaGrave, digital features editor

Even the pottery is locally sourced at the remarkable Harbour House Inn on the Mendocino coast.

Restaurant at Harbor House Inn, Elk, CA

The spread: This morning’s eggs shirred in a simple ceramic dish (local potter) with vegetables (from the garden outside), scattered with the punchiest basil leaves ever (also garden), served with chewy nut-studded bread (baked in Point Arena, right down Highway 1), apple butter (garden again), house-made butter, and a chunk of Velvet Sister cheese from Pennyroyal Farm (across the mountain in Anderson Valley). This divine feast was enjoyed while watching a spectacular, churning Pacific cove, in hopes of seeing some of the migrating whales we’d heard tell of. The meal’s simplicity and variety has inspired us to expand our home breakfasts since so not only was it delicious, it has had a lasting impact. And don’t get me started on the life-altering 11-course dinner we had the night before at this dreamy Michelin-starred retreat on the Mendocino coast . . .—Ann Shields, managing editor, guides 

Kala Ghoda Café, Mumbai

I ate a lot of incredible and memorable meals in Mumbai, including a multicourse extravaganza of Indian classics in contemporary style at the Bombay Canteen. But the one that I can’t stop thinking about was a waffle with granola and honey at the hip Kala Ghoda Café. It was one of the first meals my friend and I had there, still jet lagged from our 17-hour flight. The café is named for its neighborhood, an enclave of historical buildings and designer boutiques, ateliers, and street art. The move here is to snag a spot near one of the big windows in the tiny front room. We filled our table with chai, fresh-pressed juices, a loaded salad of cabbage, carrot, and sesame, and a beautiful gluten-free waffle made with amaranth and millet flour. (This place is popular with vegans and those of us who are gluten-free too.) It was so delicious and peaceful, that we ended up bookending our trip with another visit and that same waffle, right before our flight home. —Maggie Fuller, associate editor 

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The year’s best lunches

Cha Ca Thang Long, Hanoi

There’s an incredible Vietnamese restaurant down the street from my apartment in Greenpoint that occasionally serves cha ca la vong, a dish of catfish fried in a coating of turmeric and dill and served over rice noodles. I became obsessed with cha ca, so when I went to Vietnam last April, I knew I had to try the real thing. On our first day in Hanoi, I led my husband on what seemed like a never-ending trudge through the winding streets of the Old Quarter to Cha Ca Thang Long, where cha ca is the only dish on the menu. We were the only Americans in the dining room so it felt like we’d come to the right place. After delivering two bottles of Hanoi beer, our server set up a burner on our table and fried the catfish in front of us. Then he showed us how to assemble the dish, first by filling our bowls with rice noodles, then sprinkling in some fish sauce and topping the whole thing with catfish, peanuts, and herbs. After just one bite, I knew I’d never be able to eat cha ca in Brooklyn again. Natalie Beauregard, guides editor

Trattoria del Moro Aronne, Orvieto, Italy

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The first time I ate at Trattoria del Moro Aronne in Orvieto, Italy, I was a 20-year-old studying abroad in the small Umbrian hilltop town. Amid the whirl of new flavors I tried that semester, I remembered Trattoria del Moro as a cozy place tucked away off the main street that served solid regional dishes (think pappardelle with wild boar or ombrichelli with fresh black truffle). This spring, a dozen years after my first visit, I returned to Orvieto for a day trip and I knew exactly where I’d take my husband for lunch to show him why Umbrian food is so incredible. Although I thought I’d eaten my way through town all those years before, I had never tried the nidi, a house specialty. Named for its nest-like shape, the thin pasta is filled with layers of bechamel, pecorino, and honey, then baked to a gooey, golden perfection. Each bite was the perfect balance of cheesy and carb-y and sweet, and I will never forget it. Luckily, the recipe is posted on its website (how’s that for homey?) so I will spend the rest of my days trying to make it myself—that is, until I cave and go back for more. —Sara Button, assistant editor 

A simple souvlaki lunch takes on mythic proportions on the Greek island of Naxos.

Yasouvlaki, Naxos Town, Greece

My husband and I were on an early spring trip to Naxos, where many of the island’s restaurants were closed, awaiting the summer sun-seekers. But Chora, the main town, still had plenty of activity, especially on the main drag along the harbor. On one of our last days of the trip, we sat down at Yasouvlaki, a fast-casual spot right next to the water, with expectations that aligned with the modest menu prices. The place had already charmed us with its punny (and enthusiastic) name—“Yasou” is a familiar way to say “hello” in Greek—but when we had our first bites of the perfectly seasoned, exquisitely juicy, utterly tender grilled chicken souvlaki skewers, we fell in love. By the way, for the uninitiated, Naxos is known throughout the country for having the best potatoes, and friends, the fries accompanying our meat embodied whatever magic the Naxiots sow in those root vegetables. The views of blue skies and the Aegean Sea didn’t hurt, either. S.B.

Saba, New Orleans

After leaving his namesake restaurant and John Besh’s restaurant group behind, Alon Shaya opened Saba in Uptown New Orleans in mid-2018. Even though my friends and I dedicated roughly 90 percent of a long weekend last June to eating, our lunch at Saba stood out from the rest. Maybe it was the bottle of orange wine, the fluffy pita pulled straight from the wood-fired oven, the best hummus I’ve ever eaten—or all three combined—but I could have stayed lounging on the leather couches in the airy dining room on Magazine Street all afternoon. —Lyndsey Matthews, destination news editor 

Sam Jones BBQ Restaurant, Greenville, NC

It’s not easy sneaking in amazing meals when you’re on the road with a one-year-old baby and a three-and-a-half-year-old toddler. We had to justify this detour with a pit stop at Pirates Play Indoor Playground up the street. But oh man, was it worth it. Sam Jones is known for its wood-fired whole hog barbecue. Jones’s grandfather Pete Jones founded the legendary Skylight Inn BBQ, and Sam has been recognized as one of the state’s great pitmasters. Boy, does the legacy show. Sure, we had to order it to go and eat it like parents-of-young-children desperados in the car and finish it up later in our vacation rental, but even under those dire circumstances, not only was the barbecue some of the best and most tender I’ve ever had, all of the side dishes held up brilliantly, including my favorite, the collard greens.  —Michelle Baran, digital news editor

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The year’s best dinners

Rezdôra, New York City 

It’s embarrassing to groan audibly at the dinner table—especially around colleagues—but that first bite of anolini di Parma drizzled with 25-year balsamic vinegar prompted a guttural omgggg unlike any sound I’ve made. After a year of eating takeout and leftovers from my toddler’s dinner plate, luck had ferried me to Rezdôra, the hot new Italian restaurant by chef Stefano Secchi, who arrived in Manhattan after training at Massimo Bottura’s three-Michelin-star, world’s-best Osteria Francescana in Modena, Italy. The pasta tasting menu, focusing on dishes from Emilia-Romagna, has kept the casual 60-seat restaurant full since it opened in May. But if you can leave room for the 60-day dry-aged bone-in rib eye, that first bite off the bone also inspires ecstasy.  —Laura Dannen Redman, director of digital content 

Maydan, Washington, D.C.

During a work trip to D.C., a coworker and I embarked on a self-guided restaurant crawl. (I highly recommend this travel strategy; just bring Tums and wear stretchy pants.) Entering Maydan, the city’s wildly popular Middle Eastern spot, through a door at the end of an alley, guests immediately feel welcome, greeted by the warm glow of the central hearth where food is cooked. When the waiter told us that the centerpiece of the meal was bread, I knew I’d found my people. Bread is used as a utensil to mop up sauces and dips and to cushion grilled chunks of kebabs—when the staff notices you’ve finished one pita, they come around with a fresh, piping hot replacement. The entire meal was great, but the high point was dipping that bread into the creamiest, zippiest labneh I’ve ever had or slathering it in toum, a Lebanese garlic sauce that left me speechless. My only regret is not ordering every single dip and condiment on the menu to dip the pita in. —Ciera Velarde, newsletter engagement editor

A simple dinner for 300+ on the beach in Marin County made an editor’s list of 2019 bests

Outstanding in the Field, on Stinson Beach, CA

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I had long admired photos of Outstanding in the Field’s outdoor dinner tables. You know, the ones on Instagram that meander across fields in front of the Teton Mountain range, or are set in circles on California beaches. I was wholly delighted to find that the food tasted just as good as it looked in the photos when I attended my first dinner of its on Stinson Beach just north of San Francisco in November with my mom. After enjoying the views of the Pacific and making new friends while drinking champagne, we sat down for a family-style meal of local greens, a seasonal squash and grain salad, and fish caught not far from where we sat. Everything was perfectly cooked—a feat considering it was all done in a pop-up outdoor kitchen and for a crowd of 300-plus people. I’m already eyeing its Winter 2020 tour dates right now (the rest of its 2020 dates will be announced in March). L.M. 

Antico Mulino, Sambuca, Sicily

A note for vacations in the mountain towns of Sicily: If a place looks nice and close on Google Maps, getting there will likely require a very long and treacherous drive along a windy cliffside road. The family-style cuisine at farm-to-table restaurant Antico Mulino in Sambuca is worth any such journey. Diners start the meal by choosing either meat or seafood as the focus of what seemed like a never-ending eating event. Simple, fresh ingredients from the surrounding farm are showcased in various antipasto plates piled with freshly cured meats (I ate more porchetta than I care to admit) and still-warm cheeses, handmade pasta with wild boar ragù, platters of grilled meats, stuffed vegetables—it would be impossible to list everything we ate. Some of the typical Sicilian specialties included tripe (which I was not inclined to try, grazie), and panelle, chickpea fritters (si, per favore). For dessert, lemon sorbetto is dolloped atop a bowl of fruit, so the meal ends on a feel-good note. The restaurant was filled with noisy, laughing families around long tables, enjoying each marathon course. Our party of 12 fit in nicely. —Rosalie Tinelli, social media editor

Sami’s Kabab House, Astoria, Queens

On the way home from a quick weekend getaway from New York City, my friends and I stopped at Sami’s Kabab House, a traditional Afghan restaurant in Queens, the NYC borough that’s famously home to one of the most ethnically diverse populations in the world. Inside the unassuming Astoria restaurant—which is decorated with hanging carpets and embossed ceiling tiles—we ordered a four-person Afghan feast. Two orders of fresh naan bread and hummus were followed by a diced salad of tomatoes, cucumbers, and red onions tossed in fresh lemon juice and seasoned with salt, mint, and sumac. Then tender lamb kebabs, served with qabuli, a pilaf of basmati rice with raisins and carrots, were all-but-inhaled upon arrival. The easy favorite of the table, however, were the mantu (steamed dumplings), stuffed with ground beef, onions, and cilantro and topped with a homemade garlic mint yogurt sauce with a lamb gravy garnish. This meal, my first taste of Afghan cuisine, left a bigger impression on me than anything else I ate this year. —Sarah Buder, digital assistant editor

Deen Maju, Penang, Malaysia

Thanks to this story by Francis Lam, I was prepared to fall in love with Malaysian food on a recent trip to Georgetown, Penang. But I had no idea how deeply I’d fall, nor did I realize that eating is practically a sport on the island. We savored laksa at Pasar Air Itam Laksa, the stall frequented by Anthony Bourdain in 2012. We devoured samosas that had been fried right in front of us and juicy chicken cutlets served with a citrusy slaw. We slurped up char kuey teow (flat noodles with prawns) and slurped down ice kacang, the Malaysian shave ice. But I hold a special place in my heart for the robust, spicy nasi kandar at Deen Maju. The line was long, the ordering experience chaotic and impenetrable (there was lots of pointing, smiling, and nodding involved). But after my first bite of rice, tender meats, and veggies, all smothered in at least four different curry gravies, I knew I’d never be the same. —Aislyn Greene, senior editor

Wolf in the Fog, Tofino, B.C.

Kale has officially won me back, thanks to Wolf in the Fog. Or rather, thanks to the kale salad with pumpkin seeds, pickled onion, carrot, and a kicky vinaigrette called a “madras dressing.” But kale aside, the whole dining experience at the restaurant was outstanding. Its wood interiors and eclectic dinnerware felt more like San Francisco or Los Angeles than a tiny surf town on the coast of Vancouver Island, but the food could not have come from anywhere but here. Chef Nicholas Nutting’s menu is highly influenced by what’s in season and can be foraged. Once you’ve started with the kale salad, it’s hard to go wrong with any of the seafood dishes here—my friends enjoyed charred octopus and crab—and don’t overlook my choice, the “Green Soul,” a daily vegetarian special, which was a coconut curry with rice and a papadum that night. Now if only they’d send me the recipe for that madras dressing to tide me over until my next visit. —M.F.

The Year’s Best Snack

Even a sophisticated palate cannot resist the Pinkbox Doughcro.

Pinkbox Doughnuts, Las Vegas

If I had a dollar for every pastry I ate in 2019, I’d be able to open my own bakery. But the one pastry I still fantasize about—eight months later—was a maple-glazed DoughCro from Pinkbox Doughnuts in Las Vegas. (Yes, a cronut knockoff. I’m shocked too.) I’d picked it up the morning before my flight home but then proceeded to eat a big lunch and decided to save it. Twelve hours later, I finally got around to eating it as I waited for the bus home from SFO. I wasn’t expecting much, but after my first bite, I swear time stopped: For a brief moment, it was just me, the sound of the rain, and that perfect ring of pastry. The DoughCro was both flaky and chewy (in a good way) and topped with just the right amount of maple glaze and a hit of salt. It was so soul satisfying, in fact, that I thought about marching back into the airport and booking a return flight to Vegas just to eat another one. Lucky for me, it looks like I won’t have to. —A.G.

>>Next: 10 Biggest Travel Stories of the Past 10 Years

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