….plus six more magical food moments Brett Martin discovered while foraging for GQ’s Best New American Restaurants of 2017.
Meat Trend of the Year
Lalito, New York City
When Lalito opened in Manhattan’s Chinatown, in the space that had forever housed the dearly departed karaoke bar Winnie’s, it was called Lalo. At some point, chef Gerardo Gonzalez decided to smallify the name, and I like to think it bore some relation to same shrinking ray he applies to the expectations around ordering steak.
Beef has always been a maximalist game, a macho pissing contest measured by ounces. But what if it’s late at night, or you’ve already ordered one of Lalito’s shockingly good vegan Caesar salads, and what you want isn’t a big, hulking slab but rather a baby steak: three and a half just right ounces of dry-aged strip? Well, then Gonzalez, has you covered. It’s the perfect script-flipping approach for a chef who made his name serving veggie-centric food at the Lower East Side’s El Rey. And frankly it’s closer to how we should all probably think about eating meat—as an accent and an add-on, rather than the main event. If baby steaks aren’t sweeping the nation, I pray they will soon.
Restaurant Letter of the Year
Kemuri, Kismet, Kali, Kuneho, Kato, Kitsune, King, Kyōten Sushiko, and Killen’s STQ. This was the year my restaurants-to-visit list had more K’s than a Noah Syndergaard scorecard.
Appetizer of the Year
“Mr. and Mrs. Smith”
Pepper Twins, Houston
I found myself at Pepper Twins on Inauguration Day, after watching Donald Trump take office from my Houston hotel room, spending a sobering hour in the Rothko Chapel, and then doing all I could to dispel that sobriety with a series of micheladas at a Mexican bistro named Cuchara. It’s fair to say that food wasn’t my topmost preoccupation at that moment.
That began to change as I gingerly—and then increasingly less gingerly—began to eat an appetizer called Mr. & Mrs. Smith, a more palatably named take on the classic Sichuan fuqi feipian, “lung of the husband and wife”: cold slices of beef tendon and tongue, tossed with sesame paste, Sichuan peppercorns, scallions, and chiles. I had not realized how much I was sleepwalking until flavor hit me in the face. The dish is a numbing, burning, textural masterpiece, and the kind of thing a budding empire is built on. Indeed, Chongqing native Yunan Yang (who is also involved, with her sister, in the restaurant Cooking Girl) already has two Pepper Twins locations and two more in her sights.
I planned to skip dessert, but the manager, also from Chongqing, was evangelical about a favorite dessert of his, one that made him feel like he was home—creamy sweet corn flecked with red chili and enriched by preserved egg. He insisted on buying me a portion, promising that if I didn’t like it he would happily eat what was left, a trip down memory lane that I’m sorry to report I denied him. I left smiling for the first time all day.
Fast-Food Expansion of the Year
The Halal Guys
I’ve always wanted a bumper sticker reading “I’d Rather Be Eating Shawarma.” The explosive growth of this chain with roots in a famous N.Y.C. food cart guarantees I can do so nearly anywhere.
Sandwich of the Year
Lalibela, Los Angeles
Dining, if you’re open to it, is always filled with strange echoes and correspondences. It took me several bites of the kitfo sandwich at Lalibela, the great new Ethiopian restaurant in Los Angeles, to figure out why it seemed so familiar and compelling. The answer was many years, miles, and cultures away: When I first moved to New Orleans, the chef Frank Brigtsen owned a restaurant in the nearby town o
Harahan called Charlie’s Seafood (though I only ever heard it called “Charlie’s”). It was a decades-old boil- and fry-house that Brigtsen took over in 2009. Among its specialties was something called the Dirty Boy: a French pistolette, slathered in butter and the “dirty” part of dirty rice: ground beef, liver and Creole spices. (Charlie’s sold t-shirts with a slogan coined by my friend Ashley Graham: “Even Good Girls Like Dirty Boys”.)
Brigtsen lost the lease on Charlie’s in 2013, somebody else took over, and the Dirty Boy lamentably disappeared. But now, sitting on the stretch of Fairfax known as Little Ethiopia, I had found its African cousin. Lalibela was opened by Tenagne Belachew, who worked her way up through the kitchens of several other restaurants on the strip; it is likely that while there you’ll be served by one of her six daughters or lone son. Kitfo is Ethiopia’s beef tartare, though the meat is ever-so-lightly cooked. (You can order it more well done at Lalibela, but I think that’s a bad idea.) The sandwich comes on French bread, simply dressed with musky spice and drawn butter. It elicits both warm contentment and active bloodlust. And, for me, sweet nostalgia.
Restaurant Design of the Year
Gwen, Los Angeles
You’ll find few rooms more dramatic than the one Australian brothers Luke and Curtis Stone built for their Hollywood steakhouse. Clad in copper and pink marble, illuminated by Art Deco chandeliers, lined by see-through meat lockers, it’s a stage set designed to showcase the main event: Curtis himself behind a wall of glass in the gleaming kitchen, laboring over a roaring open fire like some samurai swordsmith.
Dessert Ceremony of the Year
Le Coq Rico, New York City
Antoine Westermann’s “bistro of beautiful birds” is all about the poultry, but at meal’s end your server carves a crackling rectangle of custard-cream mille-feuille tableside with all the pomp due a prized chicken.
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