On Jan. 1, 2019, I crawled out of bed, grabbed my laptop and started searching for somewhere to eat. I was on a tiny island in the Caribbean and already familiar with most of the restaurants and roadside BBQ or jerk chicken places, but didn’t know what I wanted or what was open. So I did what any sensible American tourist would do: turned to the internet to help me decide what would cure my first hangover of the new year. This was the way I did things. I trusted the algorithm to tell me what I wanted.
When I couldn’t land on any one thing, I got in my car and just drove around, finally landing on a small, colorful place that served two things: booze and roti. I’d seen the place, but never thought of going in, which was the way I used to discover my favorite meals — by just giving random places a shot. The web changed that to a degree. Now I can plan meals around the city I live in or plot out my breakfast, lunch and dinner destinations for entire vacations from my laptop or iPhone. Yelp reviewers and food-obsessed friends on Twitter could tell me this place is good and that place wasn’t. The entire idea of discovery was going extinct.
The jerk chicken roti I ordered changed all of that. It was so delicious and filling, but also unexpected. That moment set the tone for how I ate for the next 365 days.
I keep a running list of the best stuff I eat throughout the year. I’m not much for data, but when I looked over 2019, I noticed a trend that pointed toward me wanting to be surprised. I didn’t plan ahead this year. There were always places I wanted to check out, the newer spots that looked interesting, but I didn’t do the research as much. I just threw caution to the wind. That’s how I ended up eating the tongue sando at Sofreh in Brooklyn. I’d seen people talking about the Persian spot I passed on my way to the train every day, but I had no idea they had a tongue sandwich on the menu. So when my wife and I popped in one evening, I was shocked to find the cut of cow that pretty much every person I know who grew up with immigrant parents or grandparents has some nightmare story about, but that I love when done right. It’s currently not on the menu, but if it is and you’re in Brooklyn, it’s pretty much the best take on tongue I’ve ever had.
I live in New York, so the list is heavy with places from there. Salad pops up twice, specifically the Little Gem at Fausto in Brooklyn and the pistachio and herbs topped lettuce at Wildair. I’d been hearing about the latter for some time, but it’s not every day you think, “Gee, I want some lettuce” while hanging out on the Lower East Side. There’s the braised mackerel at Haenyo in Park Slope and maybe the best eggs I’ve ever had at Oxalis in Brooklyn (Oxalis is also my favorite new Brooklyn restaurant of 2019) — not just because they’re places that everybody is talking about, but because I didn’t read anything about either of the places before I went in. I threw caution to the wind and it blew me away.
Outside of NYC, I stopped in for dinner at Morris in San Francisco, but all I can think about is the Dirtiest Martini, a place that I’ll admit to reading about a few years ago, but forgot about until I was hungry and walking the streets looking for some dinner. The lamb short rib at Queen’s English in D.C. was supposed to be a shared plate between myself and a friend, but I ate the whole thing. And walking through the Bywater in New Orleans, I ascended to oyster po’ boy heaven at Fraddy’s.
But the thing that took my breath away the most? An egg sandwich from a 7-11 in Tokyo. Again, I’d heard of the mythical convenience-store fare in Japan, so it wasn’t a surprise, but I didn’t ask the internet for a place to go. It was just the perfect timing: jet-lagged after a delayed flight that caused us to miss a dinner reservation, I walked from my hotel looking for something, anything to eat, and I saw one of those perfectly cut little egg sandwiches just staring at me. I bought one, brought it to my hotel room and really wondered if life could get any better than that moment.
I ate enough incredible meals on that trip to make an entire list about it. But that was the sandwich that introduced me to Japan: egg salad that cost just a couple of bucks. Maybe it wasn’t the best thing I ate in 2019, but it was my favorite. It was unexpected and delicious. I want more of that out of life in 2020 and beyond.
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