Foodie Travels: Best We Ate in 2016

2016 has been a year of travel across the South for us. And from east Texas to coastal Georgia to the West Virginia mountains, we have enjoyed the ongoing gifts of incredible local food at every stop.

Many of our experiences have found their way here to #FoodieScore, but there have been too many great eats to have time to share them all. However, as the year comes to a close, we’d like to recap and award favorite designations to some of the best food we ate at restaurants in 2016.

Without further delay, here are the first-ever Year’s Best #FoodieScore winners, our short list of favorite experiences, somewhat categorized in the style of Food Network’s “The Best Thing I Ever Ate.”

BEST BURGER

Matthew – Lankford Grocery & Market, Houston, Texas – In a year full of delicious burgers on our foodie travels, this local dining institution gave me the second best burger experience I’ve ever had (after the now-closed Kim’s Kitchen in Stanley, N.C.). The fresh meat, soft yet hearty bun, creamy cheese and fresh veggie toppings on my traditional burger was the perfect bun-meat-condiment ratio. Even Sheldon Cooper would be proud. And the friendly southern-style atmosphere of this place, set right in a neighborhood near the downtown of the nation’s fourth-largest city, was memorable. Lankford edges out a long list in this category, which also includes Al’s Burger Shack (Chapel Hill, N.C.), Betty Bombers (Savannah, Ga.), Burger Bar (Bristol, Va.), Pawley’s Front Porch (Columbia, S.C.) and Secret Sandwich Society (Fayetteville, W.Va.).

Molly – Al’s Burger Shack, Chapel Hill, N.C. – Out of all the delicious burgers we tried this year, Al’s eclipsed them all in multiple respects. Al’s burgers come with a delightful, soft bun that is freshly cut almost all the way through. The bun is still held together on one side, which means the ingredients – the meat of the meal – don’t move around or fall out like with most burgers. I eat a lot of messy burgers, but this bun held it all together for me. That’s one reason Al’s burgers are my new favorite. The second big deal for me is, of course, taste. I got a Swiss and mushroom burger with a garlic aioli sauce. The garlic flavor along with a slew of mushrooms atop a very juicy, perfectly-cooked burger made this sandwich my best burger of the year. Honorable mentions include a mushroom Swiss burger from The Copper Penny (Forest City, N.C.) and the Hey Good Looking burger from Burger Bar (Bristol, Va.).

BEST BREAKFAST

Matthew – Red House Inn in Brevard, N.C. – A bed-and-breakfast often gives you pancakes, French toast, eggs and other mainstays on a B&B menu. This homey B&B in western North Carolina does all that, but they also offer a traditional English breakfast. You get an English muffin, multiple meats, a cooked tomato, beans and mushrooms, along with other breakfast favorites. Everything is hot, fresh, and thanks to the B&B setting, you don’t have to drive to get there. It was a nice walk from our cottage next door to the main house. This was a wonderful place to celebrate the joys of marriage on a Valentine’s Day weekend.

Molly – The Collin’s Quarter in Savannah, Ga. – You can’t go wrong with the perpetually busy, Australian-inspired, unique cafe that is The Collin’s Quarter. (Unless you don’t like Matcha lattes.) (Inside joke.) We decided on brunch and my Avocado Smash was one of the freshest, most hearty, delicious brunches I’ve ever had. Here’s a description from the website: “[Smashed avocado] served on artisan toast bread with feta, heirloom tomatoes, micro herbs, and shaved radishes topped with a poached egg and sesame seeds.” It doesn’t get much better than that, and I didn’t even know I liked radishes! I also had a Madagascar Vanilla Latte. This place even inspired us to try our own poached eggs and smashed avocado toast at home. That makes it a winner in my book.

BEST SWEET TREAT

Matthew – Cupcrazed in Fort Mill, S.C. – A simple follow of this spot on Instagram shows you just how much this place knows cupcakes. Success in Food Network competition proves it, too. Seriously, I can’t explain it any better than this: Follow Cupcrazed on Instagram. You’ll get a daily digital dose of cupcakes. They offer the basic favorites, but they get crazy, too. My s’mores cupcake was righteous. It was so good that we took a box of cupcakes to our family.

Molly – Sweet Paris in Houston, Texas – It was so difficult to choose a best sweet treat spot, because we went to so many! But perhaps the most out-of-the-box was Sweet Paris Creperie, suggested to us by a dear friend for whose wedding we were in town. Their website says, “Welcome to our beautiful world of crepes” and I couldn’t agree more. I decided on a s’mores crepe. It was soft and delightful, filled with marshmallow creme, and covered with a chocolate drizzle, powdered sugar, and flame-torched marshmallows. I don’t think I’ve ever had anything more delicately sweet in my life.

BEST DESSERT

Matthew – Profiteroles at Superior Seafood in New Orleans, La. – A hearty dessert for $2 while traveling 1,000 miles across the southern U.S.? Yes, please! Our meal was great at Superior Seafood, but the $2 desserts topped it off so well. In a city known for its food and for its beignets, I discovered the profiterole, a soft and light pastry with ice cream and various sweet toppings. Other restaurants came close on taste this year, but none offered the corresponding value of Superior’s $2 dessert.

Molly – Banana pudding at Ronda’s Kitchen, Kings Mountain, N.C. – I got local for this one, because the best darn dessert I’ve put in my mouth this year is Ronda’s banana pudding. Let me tell you why. It’s homemade weekly, cooked slow on the stovetop, and topped with fresh bananas just before it’s served. It’s so creamy and sweet, with just the right amount of vanilla wafers swirled inside, that you forget any other banana pudding exists. It’s spoiled me on banana pudding anywhere else. Nom!

BEST SOUL FOOD

Matthew – Sweet Potatoes in Winston-Salem, N.C. – Perhaps the place I was most excited to visit this year for its southern and local flair, Sweet Potatoes did not disappoint. We enjoyed brunch while on a one-night weekend excursion. My chicken and pancakes (a take on the famed chicken and waffles) were like a slice of grandma’s old kitchen. Crispy, flavorful, boneless fried chicken tenders, atop a light and rich sweet potato pancake. And the brunch macaroni and cheese was a creamy, light appetizer to start us off. We lucked out with a window seat, so we got to take in Winston-Salem’s outdoor arts district, while also getting a view of the entire restaurant, which filled up immediately after opening on a Sunday morning.

Molly – Time-Out Grill in Chapel Hill, N.C. – Clearly Chapel Hill was a win for us foodies, and Time-Out had it all. We made a late-night stop upon our arrival into town, with no idea the caliber of soul food we were about to encounter. We sampled a chicken and cheese biscuit, broccoli casserole (the warmest, heartiest broccoli casserole you can imagine), sweet tea, country ham, and even a slice of pecan pie. A great stop for any hungry passerby at any time of day or night, Time-Out is a 24/7 soul food capital for North Carolina.

BEST MEXICAN FOOD

Matthew – El Rey in Houston, Texas – We eat Mexican food often, and most restaurants offer a similar set of familiar favorites. Not El Rey. Maybe that’s what you’d expect of a restaurant just a few hours from the Mexico border. But it struck me how surprised people were when I told them how great the food experience is in Houston. Folks seemed further surprised to discover Houston is one of the nation’s largest cities. El Rey was not just Mexican. It was Mexican and Cuban and other ethnic food goodness. We had tacos with plantains. We had fish tacos. We had fajita tacos. This place was a mix of the tastes of Mexico, San Diego, Miami and more. And the restaurant space itself gave off a very boutique cantina vibe. Best Mexican experience all year.

Molly – El Rey in Houston, Texas – Nope, that’s not a typo. When we were discussing our favorite Mexican food of the year, both of us chose El Rey. Another great suggestion from our awesome friends in Houston, my favorite fish taco of all time can be found here. Just crispy enough, just flaky enough, on a warm flour tortilla, with all the right toppings. Fish tacos, for the win.

BEST ITALIAN FOOD

Matthew – Big Mike’s in Brevard, N.C. – This is the definition of a local Italian-American joint. Red-and-white plaid tablecloths. Delicious pizza dough. Sweet tea to drink. Sports memorabilia all over the walls. Big Mike’s had great pizza, great garlic knots and a homey feel. It’s the kind of place that can turn lunch into lunch AND dinner. And that’s a good thing.

Molly – Dino’s in Bessemer City, N.C. – My mom and dad recommended Dino’s after they visited a few times and enjoyed the plethora of options this local Italian place has to offer. My stromboli was on point, Matthew’s pizza was on fleek, and the appetizer plate my mom shared with us gave us a taste of fried zucchini, fried mozzarella and more.

BEST BARBECUE

Matthew – Tie between Peace-N-Hominy Q Shack in Belmont, N.C., and Lexington Barbecue in Lexington, N.C. – Peace-N-Hominy is a chic modern Q Shack. Creative menu. Tasty meat. Decorated space. Lexington Barbecue is the legendary classic. All the favorites. Delicious meat. Non-fussy decor. Two different sides of the barbecue experience completely, both thrilled me in different ways with their range on the barbecue restaurant scale. And they offered something different than our three barbecue restaurants here where we live in Cleveland County, N.C.

BEST SEAFOOD

Matthew – Desposito’s in Thunderbolt, Ga. – If you want fresh, flavorful seafood presented simply without frills, this is your spot. Right off the water in coastal Georgia, I don’t know that Molly and I have ever visited a more hole-in-the-wall restaurant with more simple decor. And I don’t know that we’ll ever have boiled shrimp and deviled crab with more flavor. This place has served stars like Michael Douglas, and it’s been featured in publications nationwide. We understand why, and it has the distinction for me of serving the best seafood we ate all year.

Molly – Superior Seafood in New Orleans, La. – My hat’s tipped to Superior Seafood on this one, mainly due to the incredibly superior shrimp and grits I had the pleasure of eating here. Shrimp and grits are where I set my bar for the quality of a seafood or southern restaurant. I have sampled them in many places, but Superior Seafood’s were exactly…perfect. No gravy, instead a simple, flavorful, delicious “tasso cream” sauce. Perfectly-cooked grits. Perfectly-flavored, sauteed shrimp. Tiny squares of sausage. I savored every bite.

What’s the best thing you ate this year? Have you tried any of our favorites? You can find out more about most of the restaurants above in our Foodie Travels section!

Pictured Above (clockwise from top left): Lankford Grocery cheeseburger in Houston, Texas; Cupcrazed s’mores cupcake in Fort Mill, S.C.; El Rey fish taco in Houston, Texas; and Red House Inn English breakfast in Brevard, N.C.

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