The Best Things We Ate In 2023
3:06 PM EST on December 28, 2023
These are the things the Defector staff enjoyed eating in 2023.
Anchovy Toast Bite At Couch Cafe
Like all end-of-year choices, the recency bias problem is unbelievably strong. My memory is so bad that even though I ate many excellent meals this year, I remember very few of the actual dishes. But last week, I went to one of my favorite "restaurants" in Philadelphia. I put restaurant in quotes because it is an apartment. Liz Grothe runs Couch Cafe out of her apartment, and it is where I have eaten some of my best meals this year. It's a whole ordeal to get into Couch Cafe now, because Liz is so talented and everyone wants to eat there, but that's for good reason!!
Liz made one of the best smashburgers I've ever had in January, and so it's only fitting that the best thing I ate would also be from her kitchen. At the Couch Cafe Feast of Seven Fishes last week, I ate a shrimpmas tree, lorighittas diavolo, pumpkin orzo, gnocchi sardi, and a half dozen other things I forgot the names of. But my favorite bite wasn't even on the menu. Before she brought it out, Liz told us about how one of her little cousins had owned her by complaining that dinner at her place was just a little snack, a 15-minute wait, and then another little snack. This, of course, is what fancy dining is everywhere, but how is a child to know that!
So between courses, Liz brought us a snack. The snack was homemade sourdough foccacia, doused with a homemade caesar dressing, and topped with an immaculate little anchovy. It was such a simple thing to be served, but I could have eaten 500 of them. - Kelsey McKinney
Fried Anchovy Pesto Sandwich
The acciughe fritte e pesto, or fried anchovy pesto sandwich, is from Anciùa Ligurian Street Food in a town called Porto Venere on the Ligurian coast of Italy. The sandwich can be made on a variety of breads, but I had it on sgabeo, the fried and salted local bread from Liguria. Anciùa fried the sgabeo to order and stuffed the shell with fried Monterosso anchovies, cold tomato, huge basil leaves, and a mosaicked smear of pesto. The golden, bubbly bread was crisp on the outside and chewy on the inside. The anchovies crackled under the pesto glaze. And after a bite, the tomatoes drenched it all in bright juice. Thank you Italy! - Sabrina Imbler
Trader Joe's Mini-Apple Pies
I wish I had something cooler to put in here. I wish I could tell you that the best thing I ate this year was a five-star omakase dinner at some swanky joint that only has three tables, or a remarkable tonkatsu sando that I found at a hole in the wall while visiting Tokyo. I don't WANT to put a mass-produced foodstuff in here, as it makes me look exactly as suburban as I am. But brother, when I tell you these things are legit, I mean that they are fucking LEGIT. Any grocery store baked good will have enough shortening and corn syrup to please me. But these fuckers are like tiny brown sugar bombs, and brown sugar remains the GOAT dessert ingredient. The second I ate one (after nuking it for 10 seconds, of course), I said THIS IS SO FUCKING GOOD out loud, many times. And then I realized that yes, this was the best thing I'd eaten all year. It was indisputable. When I went to Trader Joe's last week, they were out of them. These bad boys are no secret anymore. Everyone knows. - Drew Magary
Hot Honey And Pepperoni Square Pizza From House Of Pizza & Calzone
It's in Carroll Gardens, so you know off the bat it's gonna be good. It's been in the same space for 71 years, so you know it's gonna be great. The business has only changed hands once over that time, because the owner had gambling debts, so you know it's gonna be exquisite. And it is. It's the best pizza I ate this year, and as pizza is the best food yet invented, that makes it by default the best thing I ate. OK, so maybe hot honey is currently "trendy," the new sriracha or salted caramel or whatever the sexy thing is. It's still especially fantastic on this pie, the hot honey nestling in the little crispy pepperoni cups like nectar from the heartburn gods. - Barry Petchesky
A Final Meal At Judy Gibson
My wife and I ventured further back out into the world over the last 12 months than we had in years—years not so much lost as made indistinct first through grief and then by COVID—but spent a great deal of that time returning to places and things we’d missed to see if they were still there, and how they were holding up. There is a less-generous reading of this, which is that our life together has somehow lapped itself, and that we are doomed to turn groggily through the same revolutions over and over again, muttering “What a clever use of tarragon” or “You really get the brown butter” until such time as an unamused universe finally, mercifully silences us. This time, though, I will pass on that. It might well be true, but also it had been kind of a long time, and there was a lot of stuff that we missed. I’ll tell you next year whether or not we’re up for, or interested in, doing new stuff. I suspect we are, but this was mostly a year of going back.
When we were lucky in these instances, we found that the places were much as we’d left them, if also (and this was probably something on their end, I can’t think of another explanation) a little bit louder and further away than we remembered. There was a faint sense of not quite guilt about all this, certainly not in the moment but more in the post-prandial breaking down of the game tape, or explaining these decisions to friends who were nice enough to ask. Last winter, we went to Los Angeles for the first time in four years, to see friends we hadn’t seen in entirely too long, and for the most part we not only went back to restaurants that we went to when we were there before, but ordered many of the same things. There were new dishes on the menus, and we got some of those, too. But these were the things we’d missed, and there was no reason to overthink it.
The peel-and-eat shrimp and clam-and-uni pasta at Son Of A Gun were even better than we’d remembered, but also the first time we ate those dishes was probably 10 years ago. While my wife was at a work conference I went to The Apple Pan and had a burger I hadn’t eaten since I was in college. The point of The Apple Pan is in part that the burger never changes, and it hadn’t. The last time I had it, I parked the Ford Festiva I’d gotten as a long-term rental from Rent-A-Wreck around the corner; it had a cassette deck. This time, I got there in a Tesla driven by a Lyft driver who told me about his disenchantment with life as a Twitch streamer. All of this stuff was eminently worth eating, and I recommend it wholeheartedly, but it feels not just sentimental but kind of valedictory. I keep learning the same thing that I have underlined in all of my Best Things entries, which is that I am older than I think, and that this situation grows worse by the day. But I think in this case it maybe makes more sense. None of this was the last time I’ll eat any of this stuff, or at least that isn’t my plan. But also this is a tough business.
We do this everywhere we go, and our attempts to fight that instinct regularly comes into conflict with our memories of how happy we’ve been at the places we’ve been before. We don’t eat in fancy or expensive places very often, and so we tend to be very intentional—which is not to say overserious, or obsessive, or ridiculous, or self-parodic, of course—about when and how we do it, everywhere we do it. In Maine, where we eat many or most of the best things we eat each year, we have slowly lengthened the bench of Our Places over the years, but it has taken some doing; a new spot has to seem pretty good to be more appealing than just going back for more olive at a place we already know we love. So it’s with some pride and some surprise that I can write that we weren’t really all that late in coming to Judy Gibson, a restaurant in South Portland, Maine that closed in late November.
We weren’t really that early, either. It had been written up positively in the local paper, both as a place worth eating and as a success story in its own right—it opened on March 4, 2020, more or less just as COVID made operating a restaurant impossible, and it pivoted and pivoted effectively, selling fried chicken and pickles and granola and various fermented/preserved kitchen stuff until such time as it was able to open for real. The space was small and welcoming and located on the outer strip of a biggish outdoor mall facing a little bus stop; when my wife was growing up in the area, the restaurant was a diner called Uncle Andy’s where she’d go in her very responsibly rowdy teenage years. In the new setup, a seat at the bar afforded a front-row vantage point on the preparation of pretty much everything.
I am a sucker for this type of floor show, but there was something especially compelling about this because the food that we watched coming together in front of us revealed itself, when we finally got into it, as the kind of magic trick that you encounter at your better restaurants. Whatever was in that squeeze bottle, whatever had been done to those tomatoes before they went onto the plate, whatever process led to the piece of unfancy local fish going into a hot pan and coming out a few minutes later so unlike any other version of it I’d ever cooked or eaten—whatever that was, you could both see it and not see it. You could watch it happen, and chef Chris Wilcox was even happy to talk about it once the service was ending and he was drinking a Busch and cleaning up. I got some tips from him that I use at home, but of course I couldn’t get all the way there. The difference, the in-between stuff, is what you pay for; not just the expertise on the other side of the counter, but that simple thrill of being tricked.
The menu changed frequently and radically enough that we weren’t really revisiting anything in particular when we went back to Judy Gibson, although there was always gnocchi on the menu, and it was always great, the kind of light chef-y pillowy kind of gnocchi that tends to arrive under a blizzard of shaved cheese; I’ve sometimes found myself thinking about this gnocchi in idle moments before I realize that I am past-due for lunch. I was surprised when Wilcox announced on Instagram that he’d be closing Judy Gibson, but only because the place always had people in it when we were there; the business is such that this is not necessarily enough, and also we were only ever there when we were there. His post announcing the restaurant’s closing explained that, despite good summer business, he sensed that the numbers wouldn’t add up over the slower winter months, and so he paid his staff and vendors in full and folded. This is the more generous answer to why we keep going back to the same places—this is a very difficult business, and eating at places like Judy Gibson is something that we can’t do all the time, and when you can’t go back, you can’t go back. This is the balance we keep trying to strike, so seriously and so futilely and so hopefully—to celebrate what we’ve got while we’ve got it, without crowding out the new experiences. We don’t want to miss anything, but there’s only so much anyone can do about that. Might as well go back while you can. - David Roth
Various Memorable Meals
I couldn’t narrow it down, so here is a list in chronological order.
- This multi-layered peanut butter brownie recipe I made that would have killed me if I had kept for myself even one more square.
- My belated birthday dinner with my dad at Boqueria. I picked all the tapas, because I had the experience in that area, and I did a great job.
- The croque monsieur at Cafe Paulette that's almost like a Detroit-style pizza slice. Also, Jesse Eisenberg was there.
- Pigs in a blanket, with everything-bagel seasoning, at a jazzy hotel bar after seeing a screening of The Heartbreak Kid (1972) on my best friend's last night in New York.
- Macosa Trattoria, an Italian place near me whose menu I would like to eventually consume in its entirety.
- The chicken cutlet/honey mustard sandwich from a shop in Boston that I scarfed down after being stuck on a motionless Amtrak for two hours and still making it into town in time to see Kota Ibushi wrestle live.
- Going back to get chicken from Mr. Spot's, my favorite carryout place in Ann Arbor, for the first time in forever.
- My mom's traditional Thanksgiving meal, which she has perfected, and my baroque leftover sandwich that quickly coated my fingers in mashed potatoes.
- Lauren Theisen
Okdongsik Dweji Gomtang And Kimchi Mandu
The Korean chef Ok Dongsik opened up a small counter in Manhattan last year, bringing his six-time Michelin Seoul Bib Gourmand–listed restaurant to the States. I don’t know what most of those words mean, but I gathered they meant his dweji gomtang and kimchi mandu (the only food on the menu) were gonna slap. We went on a frigid day in March, which was perfect. Dweji gomtang is a pork broth ladled over a bed of rice with thick pieces of pork on top. The meal was deceptively simple, but the excellence was in every step of its careful execution. The clear broth was delicate and complex and the pork was tender and accented perfectly by the spicy gochuji served on the side. While the gomtang was perfect, I haven’t stopped thinking about the kimchi mandu we got on the side. I compare eating this mandu to how it felt the first time I had handmade pasta. Sure, it’s technically the same food as what I get out of a box, but its ingredients, its freshness, and the care taken in preparing it conspire to create a different food entirely.
When you live primarily off of frozen “potstickers” from Costco and Trader Joe’s (I shudder at that word but it’s truly the most appropriate word for what this food is, as it is definitively not mandu, even if it looks and smells and generally tastes like it), it’s revelatory to remember what real mandu actually tastes like. The wrapper is impossibly thin and steamed tightly shut, so you can see the contours of the kimchi, pork, and tofu filling inside. They resemble plump, spicy little brains that are just a little too big to fit in one bite. I dream about Okdongsik’s kimchi mandu. I love her, I miss her, I hope you get a chance to meet her. - Alex Sujong Laughlin
My Friend's Banana Nut Bread
I am not much of a foodie. In fact, pretty much since the pandemic days, food has been purely for sustenance most of the time. Whatever thrill I once got out of discovering new things has been replaced with eating terrible but reliable favorites and then getting disgusted with myself over eating so terribly. I had some good pasta at a place one time, but the second time I ate there wasn’t as good, so I feel that deserves a demerit. There’s a Chinese restaurant near my apartment that fries up a good wing. But I guess if I had to nominate something for the best single thing I ate this year, I’d have to give it to my roommate’s banana bread recipe. She doesn’t make it a lot because it takes a good deal of work, but anytime she does feels like a real event at our apartment. I typically don’t eat banana-flavored things, as I can only barely tolerate bananas by themselves, but her bread is really sweet and a smorgasbord of flavor—or however food writers talk. It even has powdered sugar nuts on top of the loaf as a nice little addition. It’s the only thing I ate this year that I actually think about. - Israel Daramola
Sunday Night Lasagna At Justine's
It is OK to admit that you do not love cooking. Don't get me wrong. I like cooking. Sometimes, I even have fun cooking. But, as with writing, I enjoy the act of having cooked at times more than the act of cooking. The act of cooking means making a mess in my kitchen that I do not want to clean up. It means navigating the world of cooking without meat and eggs and milk and gluten, so Mr. Diana can eat it. It means figuring out how to get all those leftovers in my refrigerator. And I'm supposed to do this after a full day of work?
So my favorite dish this year has been something that I did not make: the Sunday night lasagna at Justine's Wine Bar here in Los Angeles. It is the perfect lasagna—meaty, cheesy, gooey, and with a red sauce that tastes like heaven (it's so good I forget that it's vegan). Every time I have eaten it, all of my problems have melted away in a garlic haze. The Los Angeles evenings and the wine also help, of course, but if you don't believe in the healing power of red sauce then, unfortunately, I am afraid you have not had any good red sauce in your life and you should work on fixing that.
The problems come back, eventually. They always do, and that's OK. But I have enjoyed getting to suspend them over a comforting plate of lasagna when I can, almost as much as I enjoy being relieved for one meal of doing the dishes. - Diana Moskovitz
Merc Brothers Pizza
I’m not sure when I first went to Merc Brothers, but it was more than half my life ago. The number on the corkboard next to the phone read 335-9577, with no area code, which means it was before 10-digit dialing was introduced here in 1999. Our local pizza joint was Pizza City, which not only had good pizza but also delivered in pick-up trucks with pizza ovens in the back. Merc Brothers was maybe a 15-minute drive away instead of down the street. It was worth it.
The pizza is similar to Tony’s, a bar and pizza joint near where my mom grew up. The pizza was my favorite when we’d visit Grandmom and Pop. Tony’s served thin-crust pies with sauce on top of cheese; this is one of the many variations of Philadelphia tomato pie. It is the best version. Tony’s closed, reopened under new owners, then closed again. “Info surrounding Tony’s closing is hard to come by,” the Inquirer’s Mike Klein wrote after the second closing. “The bar’s phone has been disconnected, and its Instagram posts now oddly refer to pro wrestling.” A correction: The Tony’s Instagram account had always posted about pro wrestling.
But Merc Brothers was always “closer Tony’s” and now it’s the only one. Two brothers, Jimmy and Michael Cordaliss, worked at Tony’s as kids and opened their own joint further up Northeast Philly in 1992. We must’ve discovered it not too long after. It is in a small strip mall on the 12-lane death trap known as Roosevelt Boulevard, two doors down from a supplement joint still advertising a decade-old appearance from Victor Martinez in the window. One brother was really fast as a kid, and when you were really fast in the 1970s and the Eagles sucked you got a nickname after Dolphins RB Mercury Morris.
The pizza rules. It is better than Tony’s. The pizza dough is a little firmer, the pies more consistent. They use slices of cheese and put sauce on top, though they also serve a cheese-on-top pie. Sauce on top of cheese makes for a better pizza. I didn’t have a car for 15 years and lived downtown, so I didn’t end up there that much. Since moving to Northwest Philly and getting wheels, I’m there a lot. I’m there so much there’s not really a “usual” for me, as sometimes I get a large pie instead of a personal one because I want to take some home. Or, possibly, eat a whole pizza there.
Merc Brothers has been the best thing I’ve eaten for most of the years this century; I can only even think of a few other food experiences that have passed or approached my average Merc’s pizza. Merc’s is the best pizza on earth. - Dan McQuade
The Coconut Anchovy
Two things I am always trying to eat: good snacks and tiny fishies. How nice to have both in one go, like they do in Basque country, where people will demolish a series of finely constructed morsels called pintxos and call that dinner. (I have tried to honor their culture in my own household, but because my materials tend to involve a scoop of vegan protein powder, several pickles of dubious provenance, and the last third of a yogurt container, I'm still waiting on my Michelin star.)
In San Sebastian, I was eager to visit a pintxos bar that pretty much only does anchovies on toast. Some of the anchovies were those cured, purply-brown, evil-looking umami bombs we buy here in tins or jars (the anchoa). Most were fresh white fillets mellowed in white vinegar, olive oil, and herbs (the boquerón). These fishy cousins were served both separately and together, under diced peppers, or a bright blueberry jam, or some lush orange roe. Given the region's almost spiritual emphasis on eating stuff that grows or swims nearby, and the apparent nonexistence of Basque coconut farms, I was surprised that the menu featured an anchovy under a trail of coconut purée. And I was skeptical up until the moment it hit my tongue.
The anchovies' acidity and funk, the bread's crunch, and the barely sweet tongue-coating fat of coconut all combined to rhyme with a distant and beloved dinner: dosas with chutney. I couldn't think of anything else I'd ever eaten that combined that tangy note with the audible crinkle of a toasty starch and the riches of a tropical palm. I felt that this one bite opened a wormhole between disparate food universes in my mind. Flickering in my mind was this instantaneous emotional handshake between a fermented rice-lentil batter and a vinegar-bathed fish; between my beloved grandmother and an enthusiastic Spaniard who insisted on pouring cider into cups from great height; between the nine-year-old me and the me still chewing. Compliments to the chef, and moreover the 'chovy. - Giri Nathan
Lobster Tortellini And A Bottle Of Dark Phantom (Graveyard Winery, Paso Robles, Calif.) In A Growler
We have no lofty language to use as elaboration, and we haven't the gifts Comrades McKinney and Thompson have for bakery typing, let alone baking. We go to a place that has the one, we bring the other on our own, and we sit down and spark silverware. And we're not touting this for you imitative louts, either. They asked for the best food we ate, not the best food you should eat. Go grill a wombat if you want to show off your skills. We work solely on the demand end. - Ray Ratto
The Spaghetti Alle Vongole I Made Last Night
Sometimes shit just comes together. I don't even know for sure what I did differently from any other time I've cooked this same pasta. But every part of it was perfect, all the textures and aromas, every layer of flavor. I had to stop myself from returning to the big serving tray or I would have died. I'd have paid 30 bucks for it at a restaurant. I'm almost mad about it. It'll never happen again. - Albert Burneko
Little Uni Toast Bite From Ernest
The best thing I ate this year was this little uni toast bite from Ernest in San Francisco, a bite assembled, starting from the bottom and ascending to the top, of: a Jenga piece-shaped brick of Japanese milk bread, fried until it takes on the texture of a sturdy waffle and the hue of a Norwich Terrier; a daub of quail egg yolk mostly there for coherent, totalizing goldness; a deceptively thick ribbon of jamon serrano, one that insists upon itself amid the richness above and below, a wink of saltiness that would perhaps be too much were the thesis of Ernest not Why is too much a bad thing?; and the main event, a generous pillows of uni, sweet and fatty and vaguely briny, a lovely stippled goldenrod so different from the prickly purple shell of an urchin that, once you are stuffed, makes you start thinking in embarrassing sentences, like "Nature really does have a sense of humor." - Patrick Redford