here's a list everyone has, whether they know it or not. and when i say ALL-TIME FAVORITES i do mean all-time as this list dates back to my elementary-school days. some of these pictures are not my own.
MY ALL-TIME FAVORITE RESTAURANTS
(in order of adoration)
a friend first took me to cafe natasha in the 90's. he was a vegetarian and liked some meat-free option they had but told me that everyone raves about their kabobs. always ready to listen to a food suggestion by the masses that preceded me i ordered it up. the result: the family that owns this business has since watched my children grow up. i honestly don't know how many years now i have been eating my birthday dinner there but long enough that my children all celebrate my birthday more heartily knowing they have a cafe natasha kabob in their near future (versus celebrating another year of health with/for me—I don't fault them for this and if you tasted one of these vibrant cudgels of meat which simultaneously melts AND explodes in your mouth, you wouldn't either).
Cafe Natasha (St. Louis, Missouri)
fact is, i will be eating my birthday dinner there tomorrow night which is fortunate because writing about my favorite meal has sparked the salivary flames.
a work dinner first brought me to jakes. i was not much of a seafood guy at the time and a touch nervous about finding something i'd like. before i had time to figure it out my boss's boss ordered for me. i had no time to act and given the pecking order seated at the table, had no proper out. when the plate arrived i studied it more closely and asked what it was called again. i was told, "it's their stuffed salmon and it's very good." over the next two years i worked in portland for multiple weeks. every night i spent in the city i ate at jakes and the only dish i ever ordered was their stuffed salmon because, yes, as i was told at the start, it was very good.
Jake's Seafood (Portland, Oregon)
another boon and perk of jake's seafood is it is within walking distance of powell's used book store. my all-time favorite bookstore. this evening combination made my work days in portland agonizing because all i could think about all day was that stuffed salmon, followed by hours of slow meandering through the seemingly endless stacks of used books at powells. i think i may need to find a reason for my new employer to send me to portland just so i can re-experience one of best work-travel destinations this country has to offer (to an introverted, non-drinking, ritual-loving curiousity like myself at least).
it is possible my adoration for this meal was caused by a hunger-fugue state but given the crowds we competed with to order and find seating, i don't think that was entirely the case. i've always preferred mexican food from the west. the mid-western versions, right down to their grease-laden sopapillas are simply embarrassing. this meal, one of my early yelp-wins, took both my breath and hunger away.
Frontier Restaurant (Albequerque, New Mexico)
it is worth adding that what took me to the frontier restaurant was a memorable friend boondoggle. bookguy called me and said he had to drive from north carolina to new mexico and wondered if he could pick me up in st. louis and have me join him for the rest of the drive west. once there he would fly me back. this is not the first time bookguy and i have shared in such an adventure. for as protective and militant as i am about my time, i will say each of those trips stood as some of my least-productive but most memorable and enjoyed days. life includes lots of funny and unpredictable math.
i grew up eating pan's pizzas. their slices were magical then and have somehow only gotten better in time. this privately owned place's ability to grow and compete with the times is almost as impressive as their lovingly and expertly prepared pies.
Panhandler's Pizza (Fort Collins, Colorado)
you sometimes wonder how much of a food-want like this is truly taste and how much is sentiment as i grew up eating at pan's on friday nights and for high school lunches as we had an open school-campus. i was affirmed on a recent trip back to fort collins by a friend's experience. before going there he confessed to disliking pizza, all pizza, but would eat there because others wanted to. at the end of the meal, he said that may have been the first good piece of pizza he had ever had. so good food plus boyhood sentiment. all good all the time.
when i first moved into the community i now live in, there was this hole-in-the-wall chinese place. they shared a galley-area of seating with about four other little eateries. they had a sign taped to their menu board that read, "spicy beef noodle soup - friday and saturday only". and if you ever happened through this area on the weekends, half the tables were occupied by people, mostly of asian descent, hunkered over the large bowls with piping steam escaping their hovering faces. in time you have no choice but to try it. that was more than twenty years ago and i could in no way tell you how many times my head has been one of the many hovering over one of wong's bowls.
Wong's Wok (St. Louis, Missouri)
a few years ago through some scandalous and smarmy business dealings, wong's wok and all of their neighboring merchants were ejected from the space. i was devastated to lose my favorite eatery. but in one of the most fortuitous results, wong's wok found a new storefront and not only is it closer to my home than it used to be, it is the closest food-place to my home. this is one of the rare times in my life where the universe seemed to contort, fully, to my wishes.
(in the order of their closing)
this was the original loaded potato place. and the spud wasn't just an accoutrement, it was the full meal. they would put seemingly everything and anything on a potato. and their potatoes seemed to be grown under nuclear conditions because they were absolutely gigantic. my favorite was called the wisconsin and came out laden, and i DO mean laden, with melted colby-jack cheese, sour cream and spring onions.
Spudworks (Fort Collins, Colorado)
spudworks was also the first place i worked. i got the job after our waitress checked in on us after my family had eaten asking if there was anything else she could get us. my dad said, only half-jokingly, "yes, a job for my boy". my mother and i both looked up somewhat surprised. the pert girl said "let me check" and disappeared into the kitchen area. she returned a few minutes later to say they did need a dishwasher. i started a few weeks later, the summer before my 16th birthday.
finding your favorite burger place is a complicated and individual process. it's almost as hard as finding another married couple you and your spouse/partner enjoy equally. first you have the need for the four adults to get along, in all directions (sometimes the married couple themselves possess the disconnect). then if there are children involved you just left basic algebra and entered trig2. burger joints are similar. first you have to find a burger that works for you and if you haven't yet studied the great variety of possible burger styles you might want to block some time for the conversation as it will get a little deeper than you are probably expecting (e.g. fat vs thin, single vs stacked, rare vs cooked, meat to bun ratio, few condiments vs the works, and on). then, of almost equal importance, are the fries that come with it (e.g. fat vs skinny, vegtable or peanut oil, fresh-cut vs pre-fabbed, waffle vs string, and on). i used to work with a guy who would make multiple stops for his family's burger nights. first he'd go to burger king to get the burgers and then go to mcdonalds to get the fries (even the order of the stops was calculated based on which could last longer before being eaten). talk about being committed to getting it right. part of me wants to judge him but another part of me knows he is right and if i could snap my fingers and have that meal presented to me i would, which leaves me kinda respecting the effort he is willing to give for a non-compromised experience (that said, i could never burn the extra minutes to make it happen).
Big V's Burger (St. Louis, Missouri)
when big V's came to my community i wasn't really eating burgers or fast food at the time. i went there only so i could report on what they were like as lots of people ask me about the eateries that are near my home (as we have a lot of them). so i stopped by one day and ordered a basic combo. i ate lunch there for five consecutive days. it was, for me, the best burger-fry combo i'd ever experienced.
then a sad, nearly impossible, series of events took place that forced the very popular restaurant to shut down waaaayyyy before its time. i'm still in mourning over the loss of my big v burger that was within walking distance of my home.
this was definitely my first culinary love. my mom and i ate here frequently starting in my elementary days. sometimes she would bring food from here home after work and sometimes she would send me up on my bike to get us a hoagie. the owner, frank, from back east, was by my recollection the first adult who spoke to me like i was his peer, and not just a little kid (this is how marty conducts herself with young people too). after i moved away from fort collins anytime i would return, the yellow sub was always one of my stops. i remember how stunned i was when i walked in after having been away for more than five years and frank came out from behind his windowed view of the space to greet me, even sitting down at my table and talking with me at length about what had been happening in my life. these social visits on frank's part were mixed blessings because while i would love nothing more than talk to him for hours and days on end, the whole production line would halt whenever he left his station (and you could see/feel the glares of the other patrons waiting for their food—although i knew part of it was envy that frank wasn't talking to them—true celebrity treatment that).
The Yellow Sub (Fort Collins, Colorado)
but frank was certainly the lifeblood of the place and when he finally retired after many decades of service, the community came together to try to save the establishment (one of the new partners was my former art teacher). but even though frank personally trained them how to make all of his perfected specialties, in time the new owners learned that people went to the yellow sub for two reasons: (1) frank's wonderfully simple and consistent food creations and (2) frank himself, the maker of that great food, who after you ordered might, through his windowed perch, give you a blank stare, a friendly nod, or even surprise you with a warm, insightful, or cutting comment about the look of the day or state of the world. but in the end it wasn't the tasty food or macrame-decorated walls people came for, it was the man behind the counter and without him walking the subs and burgers out to the tables, the place was just never the same. i'm thankful i had such a unique and textured boyhood haunt as part of my youth.
so if you have places you think i should try, anywhere in the country (or world), please feel free to pass them along. nothing like a bonus reason to visit a new place. as with many folks, i'm always looking for that next memorable meal.