It's food month here at CondeNastTraveler.com, because, let's be honest: Travel is just an excuse to eat. To celebrate, we've invited some of our favorite foodies to guest blog about their most memorable culinary adventures and observations.
If there's ever been a better time to be a diner in the U.S., I certainly wasn't alive for it. Pick any city around the country, and chances are high that it's in the midst of a food and drink renaissance—you can find game-changing chef's tables in Nashville (Catbird Seat); cocktails on tap in Scarsdale, NY (Racanelli’s New York Italian); and crazy-creative ramen in Cleveland (Noodlecat). The more I travel these days, the more I feel like I can find the best of both worlds in any city I visit: beloved regional classics tucked away within roadside stands and weathered dining rooms, but also ambitious new kitchens and bars benefiting from the fluid spread of culinary ideas from coast-to-coast (thanks, Internet).
When I arrive in a new place, my first point of interest is always those regional specialties: Do they have a weird local hamburger variant? Is there style of pizza that you can't find anywhere else? Can I get hot dogs slathered with cream cheese and topped with grilled cabbage (holler, Seattle)? But idiosyncratic junk food tends to be best explored during the day. By nightfall, I want to hit the town and find out what's new and exciting—zeitgeist dining that lets you connect the dots across the country and see how chefs and bartenders are putting their own localized spin on trends that extend beyond their own area code.
So what's worth looking out for right now? Here are the five food and drink trends I'm most excited about at the moment.
It might be said that nothing is sacred in this country, which is certainly true for chefs who have no problem co-opting the cuisine of other countries and running with it. Watered-down versions of ethnic dishes are always a bummer, but when a chef succeeds at putting a truly unique spin on something, the result is melting-pot dining at its best. Perhaps the most exciting example of the latter right now is ramen, which is the latest canvas for creative mashups. Pastaria in St. Louis serves an Italian-inspired version with spaghettini and Parmesan broth; Cleveland's Noodlecat features "Irish Ramen" with roast beef fit for a Sunday roast; and Top Chef winner Paul Qui turns out funky riffs like a Tex-Mex-style chicken tortilla soup ramen at his cultish East Side King food truck in Austin.
Beyond the Margarita
Alongside the spread of boundary-pushing Mexican cooking at places like Bar Amá in L.A. and Empellón Cocina in New York, there's a new fascination with agave-based spirits—tequila and mezcal, but also the lesser-know bacanora and sotol—that's fun to explore. Mezcals tend to come from small-batch, rustic producers, and they get their smoky character from the process of roasting the piñas (i.e., the heart of the agave plant); at both of the restaurants mentioned above, they're deployed in funky margarita riffs that taste nothing like the Patrón standards you're used to. Other interesting agave-forward cocktails are popping up all over the place as well, like the Sonoran Old-Fashioned (tequila, housemade chili-honey, and grapefruit bitters) at Salvation Taco in NYC, and the Snap Dragon at Portland's Raven & Rose, which blends sotol—a spirit distilled from a wild prickly plant similar to agave—with Lillet Rouge and Jack Ruby tonic syrup.
The Rise of Bastard Cuisines
As an unabashed nacho obsessive (yes, I have a blog about it, thanks for asking), I've always been a bit put off by people looking down their noses at Tex-Mex cuisine. The same could be said for Italian-American cuisine and Westernized Chinese—yes, none of these are authentic in the pedantic, origin-story-obsessed sense of the word, but they are authentically American, growing out of real traditions that took hold as immigrants adapted their fare to the domestic palate. Right now, many of these bastard cuisines are getting a major PR boost in New York, thanks to talented chefs taking up the cause. At the blockbuster Carbone, Mario Carbone and Rich Torrisi tackle the red-sauce canon, bringing refined technique to classics such as veal parm, baked clams, and lobster fra diavolo, all in an immaculately staged dining room fit for modern-day mobsters (hedge-fund managers?). And at Red Farm, chef Joe Ng has fun with dim sum and Chinese takeout standards, packing egg rolls with Katz's pastrami and creating other hybrids like shrimp-stuffed jalapeño poppers. In other parts of the country, there's been a similar impulse to elevate food that was always more loved than respected. In Memphis, Hog & Hominy fuses Southern fare with Italian flavors, resulting in regional Italian-American mashups like black-eyed pea tortellini with collard greens and ham hock brodo.
Craft Beer Gets Funky
American brewers have been taking cues from their Belgian predecessors for years, deploying funky wild yeasts and bacteria in their beers to draw out offbeat—and often transcendent—flavors. But the resulting "wild ales," as they're known, are more acquired taste than overnight sensation, so it's not surprising that the trend is only now finding solid footing. At the recent Savor festival, one of the country's premiere beer-and-food events, it was impossible to ignore the overwhelming number of mouth-puckering brews. Some of the most exciting examples are coming out of Denver's Crooked Stave, where Chad Yakobson specializes in beers made with Brettanomyces, a relative of domesticated yeast that can produce flavors ranging from earthy to musty to tart; look out for the Wild Wild Brett Series, which nods to the colors of the rainbow with different colored ingredients (red is made with hibiscus and rose hips, while yellow is spiced with turmeric and mangos). In NYC, you might track down the Peekskill Simple Sour, a wonderfully balanced take on a German Berliner Weiss that's made about an hour up the Hudson at Peekskill Brewery—the brewpub makes for a great day trip. And if you're down in Texas, seek out the wonderful farmhouse-inspired ales coming out of Jester King, including the oak-aged and dry-hopped Das Wunderkind! Saison.
Whole-Fish Butchery Takes Off
First, American chefs dusted off the butcher's manuals and got familiar with unsung piggy parts and cow anatomy you never knew existed, lacing menus with crispy sweetbreads, chewy aorta, and fatty hunks of large intestine. Now, they're applying that whole-animal philosophy to the marine kingdom, serving whole, head-on fish (just as Chinese restaurants always have) and creating dishes out of every part of the animal. At the new-school sushi joint Chez Sardine in NYC, diners can be found digging voraciously through every nook and cranny of the popular broiled salmon head, glazed with maple syrup and miso. But if you really want to get intimate with the offal of the sea, you need to visit Incanto in San Francisco, where chef Chris Cosentino (pictured) shaves cured tuna hearts over pasta, cooks up monkfish liver, and even serves salty cod sperm.