There are certain places in the world that haunt my foodie dreams. They are the pinnacle of my dining experience—that restaurant, food truck, or hole-in-the-wall that I fantasize about when I am hiking or coming home from a long day. My peak foodie experiences are peppered across the globe, and it would be selfish of me not to share them. So buckle up, dear friends, and grab your notepad. These are the most transcendent meals of my life.
1. South Korea. As soon as the topic of food comes up in a conversation, I’m immediately transported back to South Korea. Tawny and I taught English for two years in South Korea and experienced an incredible amount of things to do there. However, the best of the best will forever be Korean barbecue.
Korea is a magical land where almost every restaurant table has a grill in the middle. The server comes out and places a glowing cylinder of charcoal the size of a bowling ball in the grill and then asks you what you want to put on it. The options are as plentiful as stars in the sky. My absolute favorite is known as samgyeopsal (???—literally meaning “three layers of fat”). It is essentially a plate of thick-cut bacon that you grill yourself. The magic, however, is in the garnish. Along with your plate of tender pork, you get an arsenal of veggie options that will help you build the perfect bite. At our all-time favorite samgyeopsal spot, Bulzip (??—“beehive”), it will go a little something like this:
Grill a piece of pork to golden perfection and then place it in the middle of a fresh lettuce leaf. Next, you add a dollop of red-bean and pepper sauce, some vinegar-soaked shallots, a bit of grilled garlic, a slice of kimchi, some bean sprouts, and then the secret house sauce. Wrap it all up and devour it. Repeat as necessary.
Bulzip is a chain that you can find throughout all of Korea, and it will change your life.
2. Hong Kong. In the middle of the Hong Kong Central station is the most affordable restaurant in the world to bear a Michelin star. Tim Ho Wan is a tiny, hole-in-the-wall dim-sum stop with a line of hungry patrons extending past all the storefronts. While the 24-seat cubby may look shabby, it is some of the most incredible food I have ever tasted.
When you arrive at the counter, you are handed a menu with boxes to check. Fill it out and hand it back. When a table opens up, the hostess will call your number and seat you. Within seconds, the food will be set down in front of you, and as soon as you are finished, you’ll be gently nudged out the door.
None of this matters though. As soon as we took a bite of one of the soft and gently steaming sticky buns in front of us, time slowed down. They were stuffed with a brown-sugar and tender pulled-pork blend. I honestly almost cried. Each bun or dumpling was somehow more delicious than the last. I almost cried again when we got the bill and only had to pay about US$14 for two full meals at a Michelin-starred restaurant.
Viewfinder Tip: Make sure to call ahead for reservations at Fajn Bistro; space is very limited.
3. Banff, Canada. Tim Ho Wan was only one of many teary-eyed meals in my life. The most memorable was a transcendent moment in Banff in Alberta, Canada. Tucked away in this mountain-themed town is a quirky little lodge called The Grizzly House. It looks like a prospector’s log cabin, complete with a wide variety of mounted animals and vintage mountaineering equipment. My favorite part of the decor is the phones. Each table comes with a black phone and a map of the restaurant. You can dial a double number and call any table in the restaurant (or bathroom) and have a little chat with the other patrons.
The fun only starts there; the real ride is the food. Exotic meats are the specialty of this hot spot. The meal that changed my life arrived with a sizzling hot slab of marble. Along with the marble came a platter that contained uncooked chunks of bison, venison, elk, and beef. I was able to skewer each piece and cook it to my satisfaction. Cheese fondue was a side dish and craft cocktails propelled both my culinary adventure and the vast majority of calls I made to other tables. I have never tasted a fresher or more delicious series of meats in my whole life.
4. Croatia. It is no secret that Croatia holds my heart. A large part of this is thanks to Fajn Bistro. This precious little cove is tucked into a back alley in the Old Town portion of Zagreb. It has a candlelit old-world charm to it, but the food will elevate your life. The menu is a rotating mélange of the chef’s imagination and changes with the seasons. While Tawny and I were there, we dined on a roast-pumpkin-and-chestnut soup with braised-oxtail ravioli. We enjoyed an appetizer platter that boasted hummus, olives, and cured meats that challenged every flavor stereotype I knew. It is almost impossible to describe how the chef could tease a flavor you never expected from a food you thought you knew. The crowning achievement was the autumnal pork medallions and the rich and unapologetic wine pairings.
5. Oahu. Wine pairings can take a great meal and make it legendary. The single best example of this is, without a doubt, Chef Chai on Oahu. This is the sort of restaurant where Chef Chai himself will come out on the dining floor to hear what his patrons think of the dishes.
His approach to food is to break down the ordinary into pure and elegant flavors. His deconstructed beef Wellington is a dish that Tawny and I daydream about. His “Ahi Tartar” is served in a waffle cone, and lets you taste the sunrise. Each dish is accompanied by a wine that is the Sancho to the food’s Don Quixote.
These are the most magnificent meals of my life, but what about you? Let me know in the comments below.
What are your all-time favorite meals?