The Best Things I Ate in 2018 (Part 3 of 5)

I am right smack in the middle of counting down the best things I ate last year. We’ve already seen soups in New York City, brisket in St. Louis, and po-boys in New Orleans. (If you haven’t read the first two blog posts, start here.) What will we see in this next installment? Grab some napkins, ’cause it’s about to get messy!


15. Poutine with Pulled Pork at Poutini’s in Toronto, Canada

When we in America think about Canadian cuisine, what comes to mind? Canadian bacon? Montreal steak seasoning? Poutine?

Well, I recently learned that Canadian bacon is actually British, and Montreal steak seasoning isn’t actually a food. So, that leaves poutine. Other than that, I don’t know of any other Canadian dishes. 

I have been to countless Italian, Mexican, and American restaurants. (And many of these restaurants are even specific to a particular region, like Tuscany, Northern Mexico, or Southern or Southwestern United States.) Greek and Chinese, too. I’ve also been to Thai, Spanish, Japanese, Peruvian, Jamaican, Korean, Indian, French, German, Venezualean, Middle Eastern, Brazilian, Vietnamese, Caribbean, Arengtine, and Filipino restaurants as well. There’s an Ethiopian restaurant I have been wanting to try, and I have sampled Ukranian and Pakistani dishes.

But I have never even seen a “Canadian” restaurant, even though Canada is the closest foreign country from my home. (Just about an eight-hour drive from St. Louis to Windsor, Ontario.)

That is until this past July. When I went to Canada for the first time. 

I had been hearing about this poutine dish for a few years now. It’s description—french fries covered in gravy and cheese curds—reminded me of a dish I used to eat as a kid in Bartlesville, Oklahoma (Hot Hamburger at Murphy’s Steakhouse). Fries, gravy, and cheese—what’s not to love?

I had enjoyed poutine only once before, at a barbecue joint in Wisconsin a few months prior to our trip to Toronto. It was fantastic, but I was stoked to try it in actual Canada!

Michael's wife and three kids sitting at a picnic table near a busy street in downtown Toronto.
Waiting for our poutine at Poutini’s in Toronto, Canada!

We only spent one night in Canada, so I diligently researched where to find amazing poutine in Toronto. There were a lot of seemingly great choices, but I opted for Poutini’s on King Street, because it’s all they serve. And with the option to top it with bacon or pulled pork, I knew this was the spot.

It all starts with the fries. The fries at Poutini’s are just the right thickness to be able to handle being smothered in gravy, and the crispy exterior is perfectly seasoned so that the fries can stand on their own. (And they have a variety of tasty dipping sauces if you decide to skip the gravy.) The gravy is salty, savory, and silky, and the cheese curds provide delicious creaminess and dynamic texture.

But then, we got them topped with pulled pork.

golden french fries topped with brown gravy and white cheese curds, which is all topped with juicy, barbecue pulled pork
Pulled pork poutine at Poutini’s in Tornoto, Canada. Our entire family gobbled this up!

Now, I didn’t really know what to expect getting pulled pork in Canada. I mean, it’s about as far away from The South as you can get and still be on the same continent. But Poutini’s delivered some of the best pulled pork I’ve tasted anywhere. Smoky, sweet, and porky. (I was going to go with “swiney” to keep the alliteration going, but that just didn’t sound very appetizing.)

When in Canada, you have to get poutine. And you cannot go wrong with Poutini’s in Toronto. The location where we ate has since closed, but their Queen Street location is still open. And if Poutini’s ever decides to expand, St. Louis, Missouri would be a great option. Just sayin’.


14. Popovers at The Jordan Pond House in Acadia National Park, Maine

What in the world is a popover? I honestly didn’t know. I had heard of the pop-up, pop-flys, pop-tarts, popcorn, and the pop-in

But a popover?

Apparently, it’s what the Jordan Pond House in Acadia National Park is known for. And it is one of the most delectable pastries I have ever eaten.

golden brown popover on plate. bottom looks like the bottom of a muffin, top looks like a soufflé that spilled over. golden brown and filled with crags
Warm, fluffy, popever at the Jordan Pond House in Acadia National Park, Maine.

The popovers at Jordan Pond House are a cross between a croissant and a souffle. The eggy batter is baked in muffin tins, where the dough rises and “pops over” the top. They are each uniquely shaped and roughly the size of your face. The golden brown exterior is crispy, and the interior is flaky and airy.

The popovers are served warm, and the best technique is to slather them with the provided butter and Maine strawberry jam.

While the Jordan Pond House has a surprisingly wonderful menu (the risotto and shepherd’s pie were both sublime), the popovers are the mouthwatering star of the show.

green lawn surrounded by tall, green trees, small opening at the back shows a view of the lake with twin hills covered in trees behind the lake. clear, blue sky, not a cloud in sight.
Our view while eating lunch at the Jordan Pond House in Acadia National Park, Maine.

Acadia National Park should be on everyone’s bucket list for the incredible natural beauty…and the popovers at The Jordan Pond House!


13. Beignets at Cafe Du Monde in New Orleans, Louisiana

Beignets are usually described as French doughnuts with a square shape. I have also heard beignets compared to funnel cakes. While all three are dough that is fried in oil, beignets are completely unique. And, honestly, beignets are far superior to doughnuts and funnel cakes.

Doughnuts are usually dense—even the fluffy ones—and they are typically covered in a sugary glaze. Funnel cake batter is piped thin into the frying oil, giving it a crispy exterior. 

Beignets on the other hand are soft and pillowy. The dough puffs up in the fyer, giving it a feel and texture different from both funnel cakes and doughnuts. (Beignets actually remind me more of the Indian Fry Bread I used to enjoy growing up in Oklahoma, except a bit sweeter.) Then, for the proper New Orleans beignet, it must be served hot, with a mound of powdered sugar on top.

The beignet is the king of fried dough desserts, and Cafe Du Monde is the beignet’s majestic castle.

Cafe Du monde is an open air cafe (they do have a few tables inside) that first opened in 1862. The menu is simple: beignets (in orders of three), coffee with chicory, cafe au lait, iced coffee, white and chocolate milk, and soft drinks. It is reminiscent of cafes in Paris, and its location in the French Quarter is the perfect place to people watch.

Michael and Shelly standing in front of Cafe Du Monde
Cafe Du Monde in New Orleans, Louisiana. One of my favorite places to visit anywhere!

I have eaten other beignets in New Orleans and elsewhere, but the ones at Cafe Du Monde reign supreme. They always come out hot and covered with a mountain of powdered sugar. When you bite into one, you first get a little crisp from the fried dough, but then it’s a heavenly cloud of sweet, bready perfection. 

The powdered sugar can be a little cumbersome at first, but you quickly learn how to hold the beignets level and steady without dumping sugar all over your pants. Or, you just don’t care because all you can think about at the moment is savoring every sweet, powdery bite.

Beignets at Cafe Du Monde in New Orleans, Louisiana. So much powdered sugar…a little messy but totally worth it!

I enjoy dipping my beignets in my cafe au lait. (Cafe au lait is coffee and half hot milk.) The powdered sugar dumps into the coffee, and the coffee gives the beignet an added depth of flavor. Beignets and cafe au lait are a perfect pair.

Every year around Mardi Gras, I buy a box of Cafe Du Monde beignet mix along with a can of Cafe Du Monde coffee and chicory to make at home. While it’s really good, it can’t compare to enjoying the real thing with a view of Jackson Square.

New Orleans is an amazing city, and is way more than Mardi Gras and Bourbon Street and can be a great destination for families. (You might want to avoid Bourbon Street.) New Orleans is full of amazing music, architecture, shopping, history, art, sports, and, of course, food. The beignets at Cafe Du Monde in the French Quarter are a must for anyone visiting New Orleans.


12. Hot dogs at Papaya King and Nathan’s Famous in New York City

Hot dogs are one of the most iconic foods in New York City, with a hot dog cart on every other corner (and a halal cart on the rest). When planning our trip to New York City, there were two hot dog joints I had to visit: Papaya King and the original Nathan’s Famous on Coney Island!

So why were these two hot dog joints on my list with all of the hot dog stands, not to mention the plethora of other amazing food options in New York City? Well, first, as I have mentioned before, I’m a big Seinfeld fan, so, I had a list of locations from the show I wanted to visit. Kramer mentions Papaya King in Season 4 Episode 14, “The Movie.”

“I don’t want a movie hot dog, I want a Papaya King hot dog!” Kramer declares, before ditching the movie line and his friends to get a real hot dog.

Shelly and the kids walking into Papaya King in Manhattan, New York.

Nevermind that due to the movie theatre’s location, Kramer must have meant Gray’s Papaya. Papaya King is the originator of the hog dog-papaya juice combo. They’ve been doing it since the 1930s and have spawned countless imitators ever since. And Kramer definitely says, “Papaya King,” so that’s where I had to go!

Now, you might be wondering, “Hot dogs and papayas? How do those go together?” 

Amazingly, actually.

I mean, who doesn’t like delicious, tropical juices? And if you don’t like a good hot dog, are you even American?

IMG_5327 2
Frankfurter with onions (top) and frankfurter with sauerkraut and brown mustard (bottom) at Papaya King in New York City (Upper East Side of Manhattan).

Shelly and the kids ordered franks with ketchup, while I opted for a frank with kraut and brown mustard and a frank with onions. The “onions” are more like a sweet onion sauce…and they are unbelievably flavorful! This was easily one of the top ten hot dogs I’ve ever had, maybe even top five. And I have eaten a truckload of hot dogs from New York to Chicago to Los Angeles.

Papaya King franks have the classic snap, with the perfect seasoning. You can’t go wrong with the onions or the kraut, and I can’t wait to get back and try the other toppings!

Michael and his three kids eating at the counter
The kids definitely approve of the hot dogs and smoothies at Papaya King!

Now, for another top five hot dog—Nathan’s Famous on Coney Island! Nathan Handwereker opened up his first hot dog stand on Coney Island in 1916 and sold his frankfurters for a nickel. They have been cranking out some of the best dogs on the planet for over a century now from the same location.

Michael and his family at a table with hot dogs.
About to devour some hot dogs (Bennett has already started) at Nathan’s Famous (Coney Island)!

I have been intrigued with the Nathan’s Famous hot dog eating contest ever since Joey Chestnut upset Kobayashi in 2007. I’ve eaten about a million of the Nathan’s Famous dogs sold at the grocery store, but I couldn’t wait to try them at their original home!

We got to see Joey Chestnut at the Today Show in New York the day after winning another Nathan’s Famous hot dog eating contest. We were able to try Nathan’s Famous a few days later, although we couldn’t quite keep up with Joey’s record-breaking 74 hot dogs!

I went with a chili cheese dog and an original hot dog with ketchup, mustard, and relish. When you dream about the perfect chili cheese dog, this is it. (I’m not the only one who dreams about chili cheese dogs, right?) The dog is exceptionally seasoned with a great snap. The chili is meaty and savory, and the cheese sauce is indulgent.

Two Nathan’s Famous hot dogs: one with ketchup, mustard, and relish, and one with chili and cheese. Notice the beautiful char marks from the flat top!

Then there are the fries. These may just be the best crinkle-cut fries ever, especially when they are smothered in that indulgent cheese sauce. Extremely crispy on the outside, but they’re cut thicker than most, so you also get the soft interior. They’re seasoned well, and the crinkles are ideal for holding all the cheesy goodness.

golden, crinkle fries (cut wide) draped in velvety cheese sauce
The cheese fries are definitely worth mentioning…and ordering!

I have got to get to New York soon for some amazing hot dogs, fries, and tropical drinks. And you should too!


11. Pizza at Gino’s East in Chicago, Illinois

Is it pizza? Is it a casserole? However you want to classify it, Chicago deep-dish pizza is amazingly delicious. I’ve had deep dish at Giordano’s, and I’ve had deep dish at Gino’s East, including the original location on Superior Street. (And I want to try Lou Malnati’s, Uno’s, etc.) And I can’t tell you which one is better, but I can tell you they are all some of the best pizza I’ve ever had. And you know I’ve eaten more than my fair share of pizza.

Gino’s deep dish starts with a buttery, cornmeal crust that’s perfect for soaking up all the flavors from the cheese, meat, and tomato sauce covering it. On top of that golden crust is a thick layer of melted mozzarella that oozes out the sides of each slice like lucious lava from some sort of pizza volcano. 

Slice of deep dish pizza oozing with cheese, sausage, pepperoni, and sauce.
It was too dark to get a good picture of the deep dish pizza at the River North location, so here’s one I took at the original Gino’s East location (East Superior Street) back in 2013.

On top of that cheese flow is a thick layer of savory Italian sausage and fat slices of spicy pepperoni. Then, the whole thing is smothered in a pool of tangy tomato sauce. This is one hefty slice of pie. 

line down the street to enter Gino's East
Photo of the Superior Street location of Gino’s East in Chicago, also taken in 2013. We got there early and avoided this crazy, long line!

Be warned that deep dish pizza takes about 45 minutes to make, due to the thickness of the pizza. Order some mozzarella sticks or salad to enjoy before the pizza arrives, or just use that time to build up your appetite so you can actually finish the entire pizza!

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