Five of the finest things I’ve eaten in the USA: From New York to San Antonio

Each year, James Beard hands me some fresh FOMO on a silver platter. The USA’s most prestigious culinary institution works similar to Michelin but is generally broader in criteria. In the past, I’ve been much more satisfied with something that’s been James Beard-approved rather than just Michelin-approved.

Now, that’s not to say Michelin isn’t reliable, but I’ve found James Beard to be a stronger indicator of quality when I’m dining around the USA. Paying attention to the hospitality body has led me to some fantastic dining experiences. I’m not one for gatekeeping, so here are five of those dining experiences: the ones I still can’t stop talking about.

These are so good that they are worth basing an entire trip around. From the mind-blowing burger at Au Chevel in Chicago (there’s also one in New York City) to fine-dining Korean behemoth Atomix, and the most perfect lobster roll you’ll ever try up in picturesque Portland, Maine.

Eventide Oyster Co.’s Brown Butter Lobster Roll In Portland, Maine

The brown butter lobster roll from Eventide is GOATed (Photo by Chris Singh)

A James Beard-approved seafood shack in the small city of Portland, Maine wouldn’t be on every travellers radar. While it’s quite niche, the bright and airy diner has for many years been considered one of the best places to eat seafood in the states.

Portland’s proximity to both ocean and farm lock in those fresh flavours, so just about every restaurant across Maine is worth looking at. The city has such a high standard of dining that I’d put it on par with the world’s best foodie cities, including San Sebastian and Tokyo.

Think that’s an exaggeration? You have no idea just how obsessed with perfectly fresh, full-flavoured seafood these locals are. I’ve only spent a few days in this breezy part of the world. I ate classic Maine lobster rolls at Becky’s Diner at 4 AM, chewed my way through an indulgent lobster mac & cheese sandwich at The Highroller Lobster Co. and woke up with a farm-fresh lobster omelette at UNION Restaurant in The Press Hotel.

But I’ve never tried anything like the Brown Butter Lobster Roll from Eventide Oyster Co. It’s exactly as it sounds. The Portland kitchen ditches a traditional split-top hot dog bun and uses a gorgeously squishy Chinese bao stuffed with piles of fresh lobster meat topped with warm brown butter. The butter’s slightly nutty texture adds plenty of depth to the meat, grabbing some extra flavour from salt and chives. Seven years later and I still think about it often.

Note that Eventide also now has a location in Boston. There are only two locations, so Eventide isn’t a franchise like Luke’s Lobster (which is also famous for New England seafood and can be found as far as Tokyo). While I like Luke’s Lobster, I do hope the business keep it small and focused because overkilling that lobster roll’s reputation would be a damn shame.

Atomix’s Set Menu In New York City

The excellent horse mackerel at Atomix (Photo by Chris Singh)

The greatest meal I’ve ever had? It’s a tough question. I’m not someone who has dined around the world enough to answer that with authority. But I can say that the best meal I’ve had to date is the set menu at Atomix. Before that, it was the divine crumbed pork tonkatsu from Narikura in Tokyo.

The studious Korean fine-diner, split between a casual street-level bar and a quiet, focused downstairs dining room, is currently considered the best restaurant in the country. Two Michelin stars and a slew of James Beard awards locks in the reputation, but it’s the service and Chef Junghyun’s conceptual dishes that make this a sure-shot. Last year I reviewed Atomix for Boss Hunting.

Where to start? An artful build of horse mackerel and monkfish liver and nuruk cookie? A mind-bending dish of scallop and firefly squid with gochugaru and moo? The creamy fattiness of A5 wagyu enhanced by tomato ssamjang, potato and chopi? All these dishes deftly competed for show-stopping superiority. While the scallop and firefly course was my favourite, owing to a most complex and gentle rolling spice, everything was exceptional. The hushed, personable service really hit home for me, as did the fact I was surrounded by regulars.

And when you have regulars at a restaurant where the set menu is US$375, you know you’re doing the right thing.

Note that the same team behind Atomix also have a fine Korean restaurant at Rockefeller Centre (rink level) called Naro, which is just as worthy of your time. It’s the same fine-dining style with flair but slightly more casual with a brilliant sake list. You’ll even find some of those precious drops from craft sake breweries in Brooklyn.

I’m yet to try the hospitality group’s most renowned restaurant, Atoboy, but that may change in a few weeks. I’ll report back and update this piece if it’s just as good as Atomix and Naro.

Panther City BBQ’s Cheese Jalapeno Sandwich in Fort Worth

The fan-fu*king-tastic jalapano cheese sanga at Panther City BBQ (Photo by Chris Singh)

Oh, Texas BBQ. I can never get enough of the indulgent low-and-slow movement. All that moist, juicy gelatin. Burnt ends. Richer-than-rich mac & cheese. I always crave a salad whenever I’ve spent a few days in Texas. I haven’t had the pleasure of trying legends like Franklin in Austin or Stanley’s Famous Pit BBQ in Tyler, but I don’t have as much food FOMO as I used to. Especially since I’ve had the good fortune of stumbling upon Panther City BBQ in Fort Worth.

I was on a press trip in Dallas and Fort Worth in 2019. While my fellow travellers were settling into their hotel after a long day, I decided to go for a walk and let Google Ratings guide me. I’m not usually one for mass-market aggregators, but this time it led me straight to heaven.

Like all good Texan BBQ joints, Panther City is as simple and unadorned as they come. The open-air pavilion looks like an old-school tuck shop in the middle of a picnic area. You wouldn’t guess that they’re pumping out some of the most delicious BBQ you’ll find in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. I got the cheesy Jalapeno sandwich, stacked with links and nothing else. Grab the bottle of BBQ sauce, pour it on the bun, and welcome to one of the most flavourful moments of your life.

The spot is apparently famous for brisket elote so I need to go back one day.

If you can’t get to Fort Worth from Dallas (it’s only a short drive), then check out Terry Black’s BBQ in Deep Ellum or, even better, Lockhart Smokehouse in the trendy Bishop Arts District. Both are spectacular.

The Brisket Green Curry From Curry Boys BBQ in San Antonio

There’s a bit of a trend happening in Texas when it comes to BBQ. Mostly all southern states pride themselves on their low-and-slow identity, but San Antonio – one of only two cities in the country to nab a coveted UNESCO Creative City of Gastronomy nod – is trying to switch things up.

There’s an emerging trend of hybrid Texas BBQ places, primarily pulling flavours from Asian cuisines to try and push this movement forward and give locals something new to fawn over. And it’s no surprise that locals absolutely froth at the mouth at the very mention of Curry Boys BBQ.

The pink shack, seemingly in the middle of a dead spot, has a simple concept that works outrageously well. Take Texas BBQ classics and blend them with deeply complex Thai curries. The flavours from the curries seep into all that gelatin and soak the meat with the flavours of Thailand. It’s incredible and makes me want to live in San Antonio.

I tried the oak-smoked prime brisket swimming in a classic Thai green curry with rice. There are around six signature Curry BBQ bowls and it pains me that I’ll never get to try them all, unless I start a campaign for them to pop up in Sydney in some sort of chef collaboration. Consider this article that campaign.

San Antonio has such a great food scene. You’ll also want to check out Best Quality Daughter in the historic Pearl Brewery district, and the innovative Clementine. Both have recently been given nods from the James Beard Foundation and both are incredibly well deserved. Save room for dessert at Clementine. Trust me.

That Mind-Blowing Signature Burger From Au Cheval in Chicago

Chicago. A city I think about at least twice a week. A city I could never shut up about. And, in my opinion, one of the world’s most exciting. I always tell people that I credit my love of travel to four cities: Tokyo, New York, Portland (Maine), and Chi-Town, consistently voted as the best big city in the USA.

The food is a big reason for that. Aside from the immense inspiration gleamed from the mix of architecture along the River Walk and eclectic neighbourhoods like Pilsen and Wicker Park, locals take great pride in knowing Chicago is every bit as much of a culinary powerhouse as New York City and San Francisco. Diversity counts for a lot in the Windy City, but the best food is often just uncomplicated American classics done exceptionally well.

That’s what I think of when I think of Au Cheval, which also runs a tiny burger shack (called Small Cheval) in Wicker Park. I’ve had some incredible classic American burgers in cities like Reno, Los Angeles and Denver, but this takes the carb-loading throne. In fact, I’d say it’s the best burger I’ve had anywhere. Better than Tommi’s in Copenhagen, BL Burgers in Sydney and the surprisingly strong burger scene in Tokyo.

Why? Like all great burgers, I don’t know. There’s surely a secret to the superiority because, on paper, the Au Cheval cheeseburger is very straight forward. You’ve got two slices of American cheese melted over two 4-ounce beef patties, slapped onto a brioche bun generously slathered with mayo with two thinly sliced pickled. The staff serve it open-face with a fried egg and a bit of extra flavour from housemade “burger sauce.” Even after the first bite, I was in a trance.

Au Cheval is notoriously hard to get into, and the wait times for a burger can clock a couple of hours. They have a system in place though. Rock up, put your name and number down for a table, and they’ll SMS you when you’re ready. Don’t worry, the famously dense strip of W Randolph Street offers plenty to keep you busy.

That said, I suggest heading over to Small Cheval if you want the burger without the wait. Although, while it was delicious, I’d say the original location is much better. Note that Au Cheval also has an outpost in New York City, which I’m yet to try.

Chris Singh

Chris Singh is an Editor-At-Large at the AU review, loves writing about travel and hospitality, and is partial to a perfectly textured octopus. You can reach him on Instagram: @chrisdsingh.