The top eats of 2016 that you can’t miss in 2017

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Captain Chen's Gourmet China

I ate well in 2016, and if you took my advice, you did too. I tried food from all over the world, sampling cuisines I’d never experienced before, none of it more than a couple dozen miles from home.

I did sneak in a review of my quick tour of Austin, Texas this summer, when our crew went to an annual newspaper convention there. (Humblebrag: Eater Austin and Texas Monthly’s BBQ blog both linked to the article, actually.) And a few meals were cooked in my own kitchen, as I wrote about the power of memory and a pasta dish from my former Belgian neighbor and signed up for Blue Apron to force myself to cook more.

I did a couple eccentric pieces, investigating how the Greensboro City Council spent our tax dollars on food, exploring what inmates eat at a local jail and reviewing City of Gold, a film about renowned LA restaurant critic Jonathan Gold that screened at A/perture in Winston-Salem.

But mostly, I got out there and took a gamble. Over and over again, that exploration served me well. Here are the highlights.

Most popular food news: The announcement that Crafted would open a second taco joint location in Winston-Salem (the third restaurant overall for the brand), generated a tidal wave of excitement, which isn’t surprising considering Kris Fuller’s success in Greensboro. Runner up: People flipped for the news that Jerusalem Market would be opening a second shop, this time in downtown Greensboro. The good news is, the restaurant lives up to the hype.

Most popular restaurant review: Winston-Salem dominated this year, not only taking the top category for food news (the biggest overall), but also pulling in both of the Top Two restaurant reviews in 2016. First up, the Cham sandwich with fried chicken and ham at the classic TJ’s Deli. The review is the only one to nudge out the high online readership posted by Camel City Coffee and Tart Sweets, which drew in thousands of sets of eyeballs in the first few weeks of the year, thanks in part to an unbelievably good stuffed cookie.

Best upscale cuisine: The category this year belongs to 1703, another Camel City standout. To be fair, I didn’t pay much attention to restaurants in this price range, because journalism isn’t exactly a high-dollar game. But 1703 deserves all sorts of credit for its creative and delicious cuisine.

Best new restaurant: I’d be lying if I said this was an easy decision. I find myself craving the saimin (similar to ramen) with chicken katsu and manapua (similar to bao) at ZC Hawaiian BBQ in Greensboro pretty frequently. And people can’t shut up about Slappy’s Chicken in Winston-Salem; my friend Pablo and I went to three hot chicken places in the city in one day so that I could definitively state that Slappy’s is superior. Yet the lunch buffet at Taaza Indian Bistro, not to mention the dosas, make this west Greensboro restaurant the winner. People rave about Taaza, which many knew from its original Burlington spot.

Best deal: How could you beat a crave-worthy, $3 Salvadoran enchilada? Don’t picture the enchiladas you’re used to getting at Mexican spots — this sizable appetizer from Mambo Café in south Winston-Salem looks more like a tostada. It tastes fantastic, too.

Best event: This one is easy — Knife Fight at Mission Pizza Napoletana in Winston-Salem. It helped if you were a judge, as I was. Otherwise you didn’t get to try the dishes served up by battling chefs. Recurring pop-up events like Knife Fight should be the trend in 2017, if we know what’s good for us.

Best overlooked restaurant: You need to go to Captain Chen’s Gourmet China, a small Sichuan-style restaurant filled with spicy and flavorful fare that couldn’t have left me more satisfied. It isn’t new, but this northwest Greensboro restaurant is easy to overlook thanks to poor signage and a storefront that isn’t street facing. That’s no excuse not to go.

The people’s chef: This year I profiled George Lopez, the unflappable cook behind Taste of Cuba in Greensboro. He’s running an unconventional restaurant — more of a catering business that has a storefront — and he makes all sorts of Cuban-inspired, healthy food on demand. Call ahead, and leave some time to chat with this talented hard knock. Runner up: I also featured Michael Touby for his work with Belizean hot pepper sauce company Marie Sharp’s. Get your hands on a bottle.

Best of High Point: I admit, I’m not very good at showing love to High Point. But I loved the torta at Taco Toro, and would totally be a regular if I lived nearby. More High Point in 2017 — I promise. I have my eyes on a seafood joint.

The adventurer’s must-try list: In addition to the abovementioned restaurants, I visited several others this year that offer something distinct. Make a plan to visit all of them in 2017, if your budget will allow. In Greensboro, don’t miss the adobo and other Filipino food at the new Mequeni restaurant, try the thiebou djenn (or “cheb”) fish dish at Marie’s African Cuisine, and check out the mole and chilaquiles at Mariachi Mexican restaurant. I’ve already mentioned the top spots in Winston-Salem this year, but I also hit three Caribbean joints in 2016, including two Jamaican restaurants — go to Irie Rhythms — and Miami Restaurant & Bar, where you should order the ropa vieja Cuban beef entrée.

What’s still missing: Despite all of the marvelous things I ate and types of food I learned about, we’re still missing some key things in the Triad. Considering the size of different African communities here, it’s a shame we don’t have more to choose from on that front. My excursion to Austin underscored the need for a dedicated ramen restaurant, though I did learn that Sushi Republic serves some and you can often find me ordering the dish as takeout from Don Japanese.

The Triad needs a bona fide Jewish deli, something I realized after visiting family in Boston for Thanksgiving and ordering from Mamaleh’s Delicatessen. Someone recently asked me if I could recommend a local Lithuanian spot, underscoring the lack of eastern European options and reminding me that I’ve never eaten national dishes from some of the countries where I can trace my heritage.

I could go on, but let’s focus on the positive. Plus, you never know what could open up in 2017.

  • Art KAINZ

    Thank you, thank you! For steering us to TAAZA. It is wonderful as you’ve said.

  • We went to Captain Chen’s Gourmet China tonight – OMG
    Absolutely for the adventurer!
    Fantastic, exotic and generous.
    Flavors never stopped.
    Cant wait to go back.

    Thanks Eric!!

  • Marlene Lawson

    I enjoyed this article very much. I was sort of surprised Southern Roots in Jamestown was not listed anywhere.
    Thanks for all the information.

  • Eric B

    We also need a real deal, local, “non-NC” BBQ place (Brisket, ribs, chicken, sausage, done over real wood) for those of us from Louisiana, Texas, etc. Also time for a “fine dining” Mexican/Central American place.