After recently returning from a trip to Asia and being generally underwhelmed with the food that I ate there, I began thinking about how the food compared to other things I ate in 2013. Though there were a lot of disappointments in Asia, there were a two things that ranked among the best things I’ve ever eaten. One savory and one sweet. Not only were they delicious, but they were cheap too: $1 or less per order. That got me thinking about what my favorite high end savory and sweet dishes were from 2013 and how they ranked compared to the two cheap eats.
#1: Shen Jian Bao @ Yang’s Fry Dumpling, Shanghai
Shen jian bao: an enormous porky meatball swimming in slightly sweetened soup encased in a paper thin yet toothsome wrapper topped with sesame seeds and green onion. If that wasn’t enough, one side is fried to perfection with zero greasiness. Crispy, crunch, chewy, savory, sweet, pungent, solid, and liquid. I couldn’t ask for anything more.
I’m certain I’ll remember these for the rest of my life, and a small note here can’t do them justice. I plan on giving them a full write up in the future, and at just 25 cents per dumpling they’re one of the cheapest things I’ve ever eaten in addition to one of the best.
#2: Che Xoi Nuoc @ Che My, Saigon
Che xoi nuoc: glutinous rice balls filled with a coconut-spiked mung bean paste floating in an ethereal sauce of freshly pressed coconut milk and sweetened ginger water topped with toasted peanuts. The richness of the coconut milk was perfectly cut by the heat of ginger. The silky chewiness of the glutinous rice balls was graceful and perfectly countered by the crunchiness of the peanuts. A touch of salt rounded out the 47 cent bowl of che.
It’s perhaps unfair to the other amazing ches and sweet banh I had that che xoi nuoc is my favorite che of all time because there are several that could’ve easily claimed this spot. All the great desserts I had in Vietnam will just have to share the spotlight in a later post.
#3: Wood-Grilled Ribeye & Foie Gras in Mole Negro @ Topolobampo, Chicago
“Wood-grilled 28-day-aged prime ribeye & seared foie gras in classic Oaxacan black mole (chilhuacle chiles & 28 other ingredients), corn husk-steamed chipil tamal, unctuous black beans, smoky green beans.” I didn’t understand mole until I had this dish. There was so much depth of flavor in the perfectly balanced mole that adding aged ribeye and foie gras seemed like gilding the lily. I would’ve been happy with the dish even if the proteins were swapped out for stale bread.
#4: Young Coconut @ Grace, Chicago
Young coconut, lime, huckleberry, African blue basil: a great flavor combination reminiscent of Southeast Asian flavors that I love. I’ve always enjoyed Curtis Duffy’s use of herbs in his dishes as it reminds me of the herbaceous Vietnamese food I grew up with. I also like that he limits the ingredients of a dish and uses a certain ingredient in many different forms. This makes for dishes that truly capture the essence of an ingredient while being varied enough to make it interesting and not monotonous.