For many people, a 90-day, 48-state road trip with no job might mean dozens of cans of soup, peanut butter and jelly, and assorted bomb shelter-type sustenance.
I left New York on May 29 in hopes of finding some of the best local cuisine America had to offer -- and I found it.
To be clear, I wasn’t on the road Googling “Springfield Illinois fine caviar” or “Santa Monica filet mignon,” although I did wind up at a couple of high-brow establishments. The places I targeted were local diamonds in the rough -- affordable, yet spectacular. (Think one or two dollar signs on Yelp or Foursquare.)
After reviewing scores of food videos today for the above compilation, I thought it’d be fun to piece together a list of the Top 10 eateries I found across America.
Turns out, I thought wrong. This process was agonizing! With so many great places to choose from, this list unfortunately leaves out quite a few 5-star spots. These 10 places provide a nice starter kit for any aspiring nationwide foodies -- and, take my word for it: my Top 3 NEED to be on your bucket list.
The Honorable Honorable Mentions: You wouldn't believe these spots didn't make the list; they deserve at least a little photo love.
If you're eating at Tony's Pizza in San Francisco; Titletown Brewing Company in Green Bay; Anong's Thai Cuisine in Rawlins, Wyo.; or Denver Biscuit Company; you're going to have a great time. Don't let their omission from my list be an indictment on the quality of their food, service or experience.
HONORABLE MENTION: I would very highly recommend each of these places, which just barely missed the Top-10 cut:
Spirits Food & Friends - Alexandria, La. (Day 70) - Sneaks in under the cut line for the Applewood smoked bacon mac & cheese.
Chuy's - Houston (Day 68) - Out-of-this-world good Mexican food, but more memorable for the mixed drinks. I’d never before had a spicy martini; now, I’m afraid to try one elsewhere for fear it won't live up to Chuy’s. Major props to Stacey (@Hey_Stacey_Kay) for bringing me.
Food & Fire BBQ & Taphouse - Johnson City, N.Y. (Day 64) - Wings, wings, wings -- the best in the Binghamton area. Sometimes, the entrees here can be hit or miss, but F&F makes the Honorable Mention cut for the signature dry-rub wings. Don't even mess with the otherwise delicious variety of sauces offered; the wings are perfect dry, with one of the bar’s 40 beers on tap.
Illegal Pete’s - Denver (Day 35) - On the recommendation of former Bearcat star and current Cincinnati TV personality Jacki Kane, Pete’s in downtown Denver was like Moe’s on steroids. Spectacularly terrific tacos in a super-hipster environment; might’ve been better had I sprung for a margarita, but it was lunchtime.
The Delachaise - New Orleans (Day 71) - Three words: goose fat fries. My best friends Emily & Danilo brought me to this wine bar in 2013 for my birthday, and we went back this year. Hard to rank a wine bar on a top-10 ranking of eateries, but go try those fries, or the signature frog legs, and tell me it wouldn’t make your list.
Ruth’s Diner - Salt Lake City (Day 40) - Outrageously good pudding followed a perfectly prepared Panini. The expansive menu makes you wish you could bring Ruth along for your road trip. Had a wonderful experience here with my Aunt & cousin.
Alright, enough of the runner-up business. Here, without further ado, is my Top 10:
10) European Republic - Huntington, N.Y. (Day 89) - Okay, a little home cooking here, literally and figuratively. Euro has been my favorite food for decades and, upon returning to Long Island at the trip's end, I beelined right for the No. 15 - Crispy Chicken Wrap combo. The wrap is good but the European-cut fries, with your choice of mayo-based dip, are -- well, I suppose, WERE -- my go-to for most of my adult life. If you're on the Island, Euro is an absolute must-try.
(CHEAP PLUG: To see photos from all of these places, and everywhere that didn't make the cut, Follow me on Instagram.)
9) Matt’s Bar - Minneapolis (Day 27) - The Minneapolis episode of Man vs. Food, which featured the famed Jucy Lucy at Matt’s, played a big role in making the #TeamStrub journey come true. In reality, the Jucy Lucy at Matt’s is outstanding, good enough to put it on this list (and good enough for President Obama to show up a few days later) -- but not as overwhelming as I dreamt of. Additionally, the French fries here are below average, if that -- and don't forget to bring cash. Matt’s is a must-stop for any Man vs. Food fanatic, but not even close to the best cheeseburger I found this summer. Read on, my friends …
8) The Rustic - Dallas (Day 62) - Peanut. Butter. Pie. After dinner and a couple Dallas beers with my new friend Hannah, I took one bite of the peanut butter pie and literally fell off of the bar stool. That’s how unbelievably decadent this pie was. And granted, I actually did not eat much dessert this summer -- half-marathons be damned -- but that had to be the best dessert I’ve ever had. Their 17,000+ Facebook fans can't be wrong; the dinner itself was terrific, and I can always say I’ve now tried calf fries -- “if you have to ask,” reads the menu (they’re fried cow balls, which I learned afterwards) -- but that pie was bucket list-worthy.
7) The Slanted Door - San Francisco (Day 54) - Located in the famed Ferry Building in downtown San Fran, The Slanted Door doesn’t quite fit the aforementioned “affordable diamond in the rough” descriptor. This is a five-star restaurant with five-star prices, and you most certainly get what you pay for. My friends Evan and Jane let me fifth-wheel for their double date reservation, and I’m very glad I did. Our quintet split a whole bunch of sensational 'Modern Vietnamese' dishes, but the one that truly stood out was the pork belly. Great wine, a great view and great friends landed Slanted Door at No. 7 -- although I’m still wondering whether or not this place actually has an uneven entryway.
6) Kaleidoscope Pizzeria & Pub - Medford, Ore. (Day 46) - Here’s a name you wouldn’t expect to see. Located in tiny Medford, just south of my hotel in Central Point, making the short drive to Kaleidoscope (instead of walking to Burger King) was one of the best decisions of the whole trip. Broadly praised on Foursquare, Kaleidoscope absolutely lives up to the hype: I can still taste the first bite of the Asparagus Bacon pizza. The Chicken Rockefeller was just as good, and I’m willing to bet seafood aficionados would appreciate more than I the fresh halibut that, according to the bartender (who was awesome, btw), is flown in from Alaska every Thursday and Saturday. (Check out their online menu for other superb options, including The Mt. Ashland, The Garcia Bleu and The Peter Griffin). The expansive local beer selection was a bonus at this gem that’s absolutely worth a stop on your way south from Seattle or Portland to California.
(CHEAP PLUG: To see photos from all of these places, and everywhere that didn't make the cut, Follow me on Instagram.)
5) Cibo e Beve - Atlanta (Day 81) - Another highbrow spot a smidge above the average price range of this list, but much too delicious to leave off. Cibo e Beve felt like the class of Atlanta -- excellent service, excellent entrees and perhaps the best appetizer of the summer: honey-compressed watermelon with prosciutto. Let me repeat that, slowly, for emphasis: Honey. Compressed. Watermelon. With prosciutto. Believe me, it was ten times as delicious as it sounds. My entrée -- a Georgia flatbread, complete with local peaches -- was great (and even better the next morning left over for breakfast), but the looks of my friends’ plates left me questioning my choice. (Here's the full menu.) If you’re looking for a great dinner experience in Atlanta, you won’t be disappointed here.
4) Cozy Inn - Salina, Kan. (Day 33) - The menu: Cozys, chips and cans of soda. And don't even think about asking for cheese. The Cozy Inn has been cooking up Cozys -- slider-size burgers sautéed in diced onions -- on the same cast-iron grill, since 1922. One bite and you’ll immediately understand: if it’s not broke, don't fix it. The simple wonder of this tiny eatery, located in the middle of nowhere, Kansas, has earned it some well-deserved national recognition, and now the No. 4 spot on this list. I was blown away by the taste of these seemingly innocent little burgers, and sitting inside atop one of the original six bar stools only added to the experience. Any drive across Kansas NEEDS to include a pit stop at the Cozy Inn -- trust me.
And on to the final three. Seriously, for any non-vegetarians that love their taste buds, these three places need to find a place on your bucket list. Welcome to what fantasy football lovers might call the ‘Top Tier’ -- much like Adrian Peterson, Jamaal Charles and LeSean McCoy, these three could fall in any order and you wouldn’t get an argument from me. (And BTW, if you want to see even more from my trip -- which was much more than a food tour -- find and follow me on Instagram.)
3) AJ Bombers - Milwaukee, Wis. (Day 25) - I wrote it on Instagram on Day 25, and I’ll stand by it: Quite simply, AJ Bombers was the best cheeseburger I have ever had. Ever. Forget the sweet potato chips in my photo that mask the utter perfection that is the Milwaukee Burger. Every ingredient that composed this cheeseburger was stunningly incredible. (Here's a link to their full menu.) The key, clearly, was the dedication to locally sourced products. The ground beef was wonderful, but the kickers were the Wisconsin Colby cheese, the Schlitz onions and the thick, juicy Nueske’s bacon. I successfully tinkered by adding avocado -- anything and everything is better with avocado -- and the result was pure bliss. The funniest part was, the (super polite and cool) staff made me think I’d actually missed the eatery’s (other) signature offering: a Barrie Burger, slathered in peanut butter. (Apparenty that's a thing outside of the Northeast ...)
This was a late lunch for me, which usually equated to less culinary satisfaction (dinner = bigger meal = more opportunity to impress), but even with a Diet Coke, I walked out knowing this was one of the best foods in America. Even at the off hour I visited, and just needing a single bar stool to sit at, I endured a 15-minute wait -- obviously more than worth it. (Impatient? They'll even text you when your table/spot is ready.) Another huge plus: the guy greeting you at the door managed their Twitter account on the fly, so if you had a compliment (or a problem), he'd be on it instantly -- and personally. Listen -- if you love your country, and you love a good cheeseburger, make a pilgrimage to AJ Bombers ASAP.
And now, the toughest decision since picking one Disney park to visit a few weeks ago …
2) Jack’s BBQ - Nashville (Day 19) - One bite at Jack’s way back in June, and I immediately realized this was the best-tasting food I’d ever eaten. (Of course, I still had 71 days, and a lot of states, to go.) Highly regarded as the cream of the crop amongst a broad variety of stellar Tennessee BBQ options in Musicville, (here's more high praise from USA Today), I was particularly blown away by the Texas BBQ sauce, which I very seriously considered bottling up and bringing around the United States with me. The pork shoulder was the right choice -- hot, moist and all-around perfect -- and the baked beans were an excellent compliment.
The only concern I had about Jack’s was the atmosphere itself. Served lunch-line style (check out their Facebook cover image, of a line down the street!), I expected a little more from the service at a place held in such high regard. Not that it was poor -- I’d just hoped for some enthusiasm or, at the very least, a hint of a smile. The food itself was unquestionably wonderful … but, admittedly, the portion size on the standard meal left me wanting a bit more. It’s for those nit-picky reasons, and those alone, that Jack’s falls half an ‘mmm’ short of the top spot on this list …
1) Bacon Bros. Public House - Greenville, S.C. (Day 83) - As close as I’ve seen to the perfect place. I fell head over heels for Bacon Bros. the moment I saw the freshly printed, fully loaded menu. Amusingly, I almost didn’t end up at Bacon Bros.; I’d searched Foursquare for the top-rated BBQ joint in Greenville … BB was No. 2. Sadly -- or, perhaps, luckily -- Henry's Smokehouse (a few miles up the road) was closed Mondays, which led me to this seven-days-a-week barbecue heaven. The friendly bar staff eased me in the direction of the pulled pork, (with sides of bacony collard greens and grilled corn on the cob), and I’m prepared to say it was the best meal of my entire trip -- and the best meal of my life. So good, in fact, that when Jason offered me a dessert menu, I declined in favor of the REAL menu -- and proceeded to order more meat. (Which was almost better than the main course.)
A walk-in refrigerator just steps from the bar (pictured) is filled with curated meats, a sight sure to appease the ravenous eyes of carnivores from any state (or planet, for that matter). That this independent diamond in the rough is both very social media-savvy (Twitter and Instagram, anyone?) and hungry to open new locations in the region made me even more excited about having stopped. And the bill, even with my spicy coppa “dessert,” was extremely reasonable for the portion sizes. My **only** minor challenge to the good folks running this place, would be to increase, from six, the number of craft beers on tap; luckily, on Day 83, I wasn’t feeling thirsty, but when I come back (you better believe I will), a broader selection would be ideal. (I do recognize their commitment to a good cocktail.) All things considered, though, congratulations to Bacon Bros. for running what, in my humble opinion, is the No. 1 eatery in America.
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So there you have it, America … the first #TeamStrub Top 10. (If you liked what you read, why not 'share' with your friends? You can also help me write more pieces like this by purchasing a #TeamStrub t-shirt.) Hopefully, I can find the time to crank out more of these lists but, for now, I’m issuing YOU a challenge: where’s the best eats in YOUR town? Whether I visited your city this summer or not, I want to know what YOU think is the best eatery in America. Send me your feedback on Twitter with the hashtag #TeamStrub and who knows … maybe the #GoPro and I will make an appearance next summer.
Until next time … stay tuned …