15 best things I ate in 2023

December 29, 2023
Cup of shave ice topped with li hing mui powder
Sunset Beach, Ululani's Hawaiian Shave Ice

My sixth annual "best things I ate" post is my widest-ranging one yet, thanks to a Mediterranean cruise and trip to Hawaii with Mike, a getaway to Portland, Oregon with Josh, and a press trip to Baltimore.  Closer to home, I was fortunate to check out new-to-me spots and revisit old favorites through my work as a food journalist and on my own time.  2023 was a delicious year—let's dig in. 

Full disclosure: some of these meals were comped as part of a media preview or press trip.  I've noted where that's the case. 

Bowl of deep-fried kimchi drizzled with a mayo
Fried kimchi, Tori 44

0. Fried kimchi, Tori 44 (Minneapolis)

I actually dined at Tori 44 on the final day of 2022, but since last year's roundup had already been published I'm including the fried kimchi here as an honorable mention.  Texturally, fried kimchi seems like a tricky thing to execute, but this was perfect: each piece was very crisp, with a delicate, fractal-like batter on the outside and chewy kimchi within.  The tanginess of the fermented vegetables cut the richness of the deep-fried batter, and it was served with a very tasty mayo-based sauce.  I've been thinking about this dish all year and am planning to eat it again on New Year's Eve of 2023.

Two pieces of wagyu nigiri on a paper plate
Wagyu nigiri, Kado no Mise

1. Wagyu nigiri, Kado no Mise (Minneapolis)

One of the most unique work events I attended this year was a multi-course Japanese wagyu and sake tasting at Kado no Mise sponsored by the Japan External Trade Organization.  The wagyu nigiri served as the first course was simple—a mound of rice topped with a piece of beef—but the attention to detail and quality of ingredients made it exquisite.  The yumepirka rice was imported from Japan and seasoned with a house-aged soy sauce and traditional sugar-free sushi vinegar, and the thin strip of grade A5-9 wagyu tenderloin was briefly seared with a blowtorch.  Due to the beef's fat content and marbling the meat literally melted in my mouth, and it tasted less like an appetizer and more like a meaty dessert.  Grade A5 is the best possible wagyu that exists, so this was probably the most expensive bite of food I have ever eaten.

(If you're curious about what Japanese wagyu beef is, this article has a good explanation.)

Small glass bowl filled with a chocolate mousse topped with whipped cream and two shortbread cookies on the side
Chocolate budino, Spoon & Stable

2. Chocolate budino, Spoon and Stable (Minneapolis)

Budino is an extra-rich Italian pudding, and the chocolate version at Spoon and Stable is truly special occasion-worthy.  The creamy chocolate budino was layered with crunchy butterscotch bits and fluffy, whipped crème fraîche that reminded me of the foam on top of a cappuccino, with sourdough shortbread cookies on the side.  The chocolate budino would have been enjoyable on its own, but the extra components made it memorable—in addition to the rich chocolate flavor there was an interesting texture from the butterscotch and crème fraîche.  It was a beautiful ending to my fourth anniversary dinner with Josh.

Several plated portions of a dessert topped with shredded pastry dough
Kunafa, Menoush Bakery

3. Kunafa, Menoush Bakery (Minneapolis)

Each year Farmers Markets of Minneapolis hosts a First Taste preview so journalists can meet farmers market vendors and sample their offerings.  Menoush Bakery is a mother-daughter team specializing in Middle Eastern desserts, and they gave me my first taste of kunafa, which is made with shredded pieces of pastry dough and a custard filling.  When it comes to food I'm a a big texture person, so that's what drew me to this—it was like nothing I've eaten before.  The crunchy, crispy bits of pastry sort of reminded me of the shreds of wheat left in the bottom of a bag of Mini Wheats, but they were more fragile and richer-tasting, and a fascinating contrast with the thick, creamy vanilla custard filling.  It was the most interesting dessert I ate this year, in the best possible way.

Top down view of a margherita pizza
Margherita pizza, Pizzeria Trianon

4. Margherita pizza, Pizzeria Trianon (Naples, Italy)

As I mentioned in my post about our cruise port stop in Naples, I really wanted to eat Neapolitan pizza in its city of origin.  We ended up at Pizzeria Trianon, which has been churning out pizzas since 1923, and it's easy to understand why: my margherita pizza was amazing, with a perfect chewy crust and expertly applied, high-quality cheese and tomato sauce.

Top down view of a round plate filled with slices of cheese and charcuterie
Charcuterie and cheese board, S'Escalinata

5. Charcuterie and cheese board, S'Escalinata (Ibiza, Spain)

I had pretty low expectations for our port stop in Ibiza, Spain, but enjoying wine and tapas at S'Escalinata was one of the highlights of our entire Mediterranean cruise.  The paper-thin slices of serrano ham and pieces of fuet, a traditional Catalan pork sausage, are probably the best-quality charcuterie I've eaten, and I loved the sheep's milk cheese and tangy olives too.  Usually I opt for vegetarian fare in my personal life (I'll eat anything and everything for work), but I'm so glad that I made an exception for Spanish charcuterie.

Top down view of a plate of miniature sandwiches and small bowls filled with chips, olives, and nuts
Aperitivo snacks, Il Magnifico Cafe

6. Aperitivo snacks, Il Magnifico Cafe (Florence, Italy)

During our port stop in Florence, we had enough time to cross another Italian food experience off my bucket list: enjoying an aperitivo at a sidewalk cafe. Since Italians eat dinner quite late (typically between 8:00pm to 10:00pm), there is a custom of enjoying a pre-dinner aperitivo, or a low-proof bitter cocktail served with complimentary snacks.  Snacks can range from small bowls of potato chips to an elaborate buffet, and at Il Magnifico Cafe  we were treated to a spread of chips, olives, crackers, nuts, and miniature gourmet sandwiches, including tiny tuna tacos and bao buns.  There's often a disconnect between the travel moment you dream of and reality, but in this case my aperitivo experience was everything I hoped it would be.

Plate with mashed potatoes and two small pieces of steak
Shoulder steak, P.S. Steak

7. Shoulder steak, P.S. Steak (Minneapolis)

P.S. Steak offers a "date night" seasonal three-course meal for two Sunday-Thursday, and they kindly invited me in to try it out free of charge.  My vegetarian main course was a very tasty mushroom risotto, but my bite of Mike's shoulder steak was truly incredible.  He ordered it medium-rare, and the beef had such a wonderfully intense taste and succulent texture. 

Square piece of bread pudding topped with sliced almonds
Bread pudding, Cooks Bellecour

8. Bread pudding, Cooks Bellecour (Edina, Minnesota)

When Cooks Bellecour opened their Edina location they hosted a media preview complete with pastries.  I'm not usually a bread pudding person (it feels too austere to count as dessert) but their version is the crown jewel of bread pudding, made from day-old croissants and pain au chocolat and topped with caramel and almonds. 

Top down view of an oval bread filled with cheese
Adjaruli kachapuri, Kachka

9. Adjaruli kachapuri, Kachka (Portland, Oregon)

On our trip to Portland, Josh and I had a wonderful dinner at Kachka, which serves food inspired by the cuisine of the former Soviet Union.  Their kachapuri, an eye-shaped, sulguni cheese-stuffed bread, is based on the version from the Adjara region of Georgia.  It's topped with a raw egg yolk and melted butter, which our server mixed into the cheese filling tableside—the egg yolk cooks as it combines with the molten cheese and butter, and it's almost hypnotic to watch. This is what stuffed crust pizza wishes it could grow up to be: crusty, substantial bread with an extra-rich cheesy filling.

Small white bowl filled with a creamy yellow soup
Chilled sweet corn soup, Alma

10. Chilled sweet corn soup, Alma (Minneapolis)

I mentioned Alma's chilled sweet pea soup in my 2021 best foods roundup, so apparently they have a way with cold soups.  Somehow this soup had even more of a corn essence than corn on the cob, with extra little pops of flavor from the smoked roe and fresno oil garnishes.  The presentation is lovely too, with our server carefully pouring the soup over the garnishes in our bowls.  Dinner at Alma is a splurge, but it was a very special way to mark my 15th togetherversary/13th wedding anniversary with Mike (we got married on our two-year anniversary in 2010).

Plate with a crab cake, french fries, and small cups of tartar sauce and coleslaw
Crab cake, Nick's Fish House

11. Crab cake, Nick's Fish House (Baltimore)

The first meal of my Baltimore press trip was all about the local specialty: crab.  Nick's Fish House serves a generously-sized crab cake that is basically all crab, and the flavor of the crab is incredibly fresh and sweet.  I think I might be spoiled for life on crab cakes—Midwestern filler-heavy ones just aren't going to cut it anymore. 

Stemmed dessert cup filled with white whisps of cotton candy
Ashta bil asal, Ammoora

12. Ashta bil asal, Ammoora (Baltimore)

2023 was the year of interesting Middle Eastern desserts—the ashta bil asal at the Syrian-inspired Ammorra was a unexpected combination of flavors and textures, with a satiny custard topped with a mound of Arabic cotton candy and rose petals.  Since Arabic cotton candy is made with crushed nuts and sugar, it has a less sweet, slightly more substantial texture than the U.S. version I'm used to, and the dessert had a wonderful balance of rose, honey, and pistachio flavors.  Prior to my press trip, Baltimore wasn't on my radar as a food city.  It definitely is now, and dinner at Ammoora was a great way to wrap up a fun and productive trip.

Plate of crispy potatoes
Crispy smashed potatoes, Alma

13. Crispy smashed potatoes, Alma (Minneapolis)

I made a return trip to Alma with my sister for a pre-ballet dinner in their more casual cafe—while the setting is informal and the prices are more budget-friendly, the food is just as stellar as at the restaurant.  The crispy smashed potatoes featured fine dining flourishes like duck fat and black truffle hollandaise for a lavish flavor and texture.  There are the fanciest roast potatoes imaginable and honestly, they tasted even better than fries.

Stacy's hand holding a huge chocolate chunk and macadamia nut cookie with palm trees in the background
Aloha cookie, Hana Farms

14. Aloha cookie, Hana Farms (Hana, Hawaii)

The Road to Hana is an epic scenic drive worthy of Hana Farms' epic aloha cookies.  The cookies are huge—I think one is the equivalent of four or five regular cookies—and loaded with generous chunks of macadamia nut and chocolate chips.  They taste freshly made and strike the perfect balance between crisp and chewy.  Did I buy another one on the drive back?  Absolutely!

Cup of shave ice topped with li hing mui powder
Sunset Beach, Ululani's Hawaiian Shave Ice

15. Sunset Beach shave ice with snow cap and li hing mui powder, Ululani's Hawaiian Shave Ice (Paia, Hawaii)

As I mentioned in my Hawaiian shave ice guide, I love the customizable aspect of shave ice, and I may have figured out the perfect Ululani's Hawaiian Shave Ice order.  Start with the Sunset Beach, which includes passion orange, mango, and guava syrups made from cane sugar and fruit juice and puree.  Then add a snow cap (drizzle of sweetened condensed milk) for some creaminess and li hing mui powder for the salt/sweet/sour contrast.

That's a wrap!  I have some exciting travel planned for 2024, so hopefully next year's roundup will be just as memorable as this one.

Further reading: