I would call this “24 incredible foods you need to eat before you die” but that template is overplayed and unnecessarily depressing, in my opinion. Yes, you should eat all of these if you have the chance. No, your life isn’t less-than if you don’t.
Feel free to leave a comment if I missed one of your favorites.
1 . Torta de chorizo con huevos
Starting things off is a very simple Mexican sandwich made with paprika-flavored ground sausage, scrambled eggs, mayonnaise, and a football-shaped bread roll. It’s smooth, creamy, savory, cheap, and perfect in every way. If you’re looking for an uncomplicated sandwich that will caress you warmly and tell you everything is okay, look no further. To say more about it would be to say too much. You must try it for yourself.
2 . Chicken tikka masala (AKA butter chicken), ordered hot
Indian food, like pop culture, separates humanity into groups: the group that’s totally unaware of it, and the group that knows it inside and out (leaving aside the few who openly avoid it). Some people don’t know the difference between a tandoor and a frying pan; others can recite an Indian takeout menu from memory. I was one of the former until a day several years ago when a good friend (in Idaho, no less) suggested we get Indian food for dinner. Skeptical but always down for something new, I went along with it. That day I discovered a palette of flavors and textures that was so foreign to me, yet so delicious, that I became an enthusiast almost immediately.
If you’ve never eaten Indian takeout before, I envy you that first bite—and there’s one standout dish you should definitely start with. Chicken tikka masala (also called butter chicken) is the ultimate introduction to modern Indian cuisine. The chicken is marinated, baked in a clay oven, and simmered in a curry sauce bursting with the flavor of toasted spice. Served with jasmine rice and naan (a buttery flatbread), it’s impossible not to love. You’ll order it on a scale from mild to very hot, but for the best flavor you should order it as hot as you can stand. Be wary, though–the Indian spiciness scale begins where the American scale ends.
Note that Indian curry is completely unlike Thai curry in flavor. I dislike Thai curry; I find it cloying. But I love the savoriness and complexity of Indian curry.
These days I generally order rogan josh (a lamb curry) instead of chicken tikka masala, but I still think the latter is the best starting point for the uninitiated.
3 . Arepa sandwich
Don’t get me started on Venezuelan food. Too late. I don’t know what it is about Venezuela, but the folks there have got food figured out. Perhaps the most popular item of Venezuelan cuisine, the arepa sandwich (generally listed as just “arepa” on a restaurant menu, with a list of different filling options such as cheese and meat), is notable because of its quiet transcendence: it is a sandwich, yes, and recognizable as such—but it’s also something different and much greater than a sandwich.
The word “arepa” refers to a corn flour dough shaped into a patty and baked, grilled, or deep-fried. When cut on the parallel, like an English muffin, it becomes the ultimate sandwich vessel. It’s crisp on the outside, airy and moist on the inside, tasty enough to eat on its own yet complementary to any flavors within. I order it with shredded chicken and all the toppings: lettuce, tomatoes, cheese, and sauce. The result is a gloriously messy combination of every flavor, every texture you could ask for in a meal. And unlike other sandwiches, it never leaves me feeling heavy or overstuffed.
4 . Tequeño
I’m not quite ready to move on from the Venezuelan menu. A vital accompaniment to the arepa is the tequeño: a stick of hearty cheese wrapped in dough and deep-fried. As recipes go it sounds rather pedestrian, like something the local fast food joint might come up with. Trust me when I say that Venezuelan chefs have refined this simplest of snacks to an art form, and Arby’s could never. To take it up a notch, most places serve their tequeños with guasacaca, a creamy avocado salsa that will uplift your entire perspective on what a sauce can be. Tequeños usually only cost a dollar each, so make sure to order a few.
5 . A tier 10 burger
Hamburgers need no introduction. What needs introduction is the idea that a hamburger should be more than a dry and chewy beef pancake dressed up with eight other ingredients to make it taste good. A truly great burger, one that is ground from fresh beef minutes before it enters your mouth, one so full of its own grease that it simply can’t be eaten cleanly, one that’s melt-in-your-mouth rare on the inside and charred on the outside—that’s the burger I’m talking about here. Tier 10 burgers are hard to find, but with a little persistence you can find a Tier 9 in any major city, and the difference is certainly nothing to complain about.
A high-tier burger is a completely different item of food than the limp, reheated triplicate you get at the drive-through, and you should look at it that way. Partially because it will cost five or ten times as much, and partially because it’s a transformative dining experience, as fine as any artfully-plated delicacy served by a Michelin-starred chef.
6 . Al pastor street taco
That’s quite enough of white tablecloths and food you eat with a fork. We’re back in the two-dollar food zone. Any city that’s big enough to spit in has a taco stand or two, and any taco stand worth visiting has al pastor on the menu.
Let’s pause for a minute and draw a couple boundaries. A stand that sells tacos in brittle, U-shaped shells is not a taco stand. A stand that puts lettuce and sour cream on all its tacos is not a taco stand. A stand that has ground beef and jack cheese on the menu, or anywhere near it, is not a taco stand. It is a bargain-bin Taco Bell knockoff. Go your way and eat what makes you happy, but go knowing the difference between a taco and an imposter.
A real taco consists of the following: one or (usually) two flat corn tortillas no larger than six inches in diameter; a portion of chunked or shredded meat; and that’s it. There may be diced onions and cilantro on top, but most places serve them on the side in case your palate is sensitive to either. When your tacos come out, you should top them with those diced onions and cilantro, salsa, the squeezings of a lime wedge, and a couple of radish slices if that’s your thing. Then pick one up, fold it gently in half, and eat.
The street taco meat most people are familiar with is carne asada (grilled strip steak). That’s a shame, because carne asada isn’t the best or even the fifth best meat that comes out of a taco stand. Almost every other option is tastier. Of these, the best place to start is al pastor (chopped grilled pork). Its tender texture and well-seasoned flavor make it utterly craveable.
Once you’re ready to branch out, I recommend carnitas (marinated shredded pork), chorizo (sausage), lengua (beef tongue), and cabeza (beef head). You may have some inhibitions about the last two, but if you can overcome them the reward is well worth it.
7 . Pupusa
The pupusa is a Salvadorian dish that, while not nearly as popular as the street taco, is equally humble and equally delicious. A pupusa is a corn pancake stuffed with any of several fillings and grilled. It’s served with a heaping portion of curtido—quick-pickled shredded cabbage, carrots, and onions—and a thin tomato sauce. Altogether it’s deeply palatable, with tart, earthy, crispy, and soft notes.
The standard pupusa flavor is revuelta, a mixture of pork, refried beans, and cheese. I’m also partial to loroco, the flower of a vine native to El Salvador, which has a mild alium flavor that pairs perfectly with cheese.
8 . Savory kolach (klobasnek)
A traditional Czech kolach is a pastry topped with fruit jam, and it’s very tasty in its own right. But its cousin, the klobasnek (invented by Czech Texans and commonly called a savory kolach or kolache) is a revelation. In its most indulgent form, it’s a combination of scrambled eggs, jalapenos, bacon or sausage, and cheese, completely enclosed in a pillowy roll. It’s the ultimate breakfast on the go. It improves in every way on the standard breakfast burrito or McMuffin. And it’s possibly the least messy item on this list.
Originally the klobasnek was filled with a lone sausage, but this is a case where you should absolutely break from tradition. Once you try the egg-breakfast version, you’ll never go back. My local kolach joint also does specialty flavors like sausage and gravy, chicken and salsa, and barbecued brisket. All are delicious.
9 . High-class ramen
Times are changing and ramen’s reputation in America is improving by leaps and bounds. For decades, ramen referred to a flavorless brick of flash-fried noodles and an MSG packet in a plastic package (pro tip: for a crunchy treat, don’t cook the noodles—just break them up, sprinkle the seasoning and some hot sauce on top, and eat with a fork). But Americans can never resist the allure of good Asian food, and ramen at its best is more than good. It’s an incantation of profound umami flavor and warmth, a comfort so deep you can feel your very mitochondria saying “ahhhh.” Hence the spate of ramen restaurants that has opened in recent years.
If you’ve never ordered ramen from an honest-to-goodness ramen joint before, you’re in for a treat. The most common types of ramen in the States are shoyu, a salty soy-based broth; miso, a funkier broth flavored with bean paste; and tonkotsu, a creamier bone broth. You can’t go wrong with any of them.
10 . Sriracha mayonnaise on a hot dog
There’s nothing wrong with ketchup or mustard—in fact, I think they’re both delightful. But on a hot dog, they’re the “phoning it in” of condiments. Sure, you can liven things up with some sauerkraut and relish, maybe even sub in some barbecue sauce. But you’re still left with a palette of flavors that, while coexisting perfectly well, don’t interact in any way. The ketchup flavor, the mustard flavor, and the hot dog flavor are so distinct in the final product that you might as well eat them separately. And that’s against the Food Rule: a dish should be more than the sum of its ingredients. I’m the Food Rule Enforcing Person, and I’m here to teach you a better way.
Spread some mayonnaise on that hot dog bun (don’t hold back). Lay down a line of Huy Fong Sriracha sauce (that’s the squeeze bottle with a rooster on it). Nestle your hot dog inside and see if it doesn’t turn your world upside down. The creaminess of the mayonnaise, the bite of the sriracha, and the juiciness of the hot dog become three parts of a culinary Triforce, something far more powerful than any of the three could achieve alone. And I think that’s beautiful.
11 . Agua de tamarindo
Tamarind hasn’t really made its way into American cuisine, and frankly that bewilders me. By all rights, it should be its own flavor in every line of Coca-Cola products. The tamarind fruit is common in African, Indian, middle Eastern, and Mexican cuisine. It’s sweet and tangy, reminiscent of a baked apple. And it’s submissive enough to fill a role in savory dishes, yet assertive enough to be a beverage unto itself.
That beverage is agua de tamarindo, and you can find it at many Mexican restaurants. It’s brown, tart, and slightly pulpy. If you can’t find it on any local menus, supermarkets carry it under the brand name Jumex (and there’s an equally good carbonated version made by Jarritos).
If you like agua de tamarindo, you may like some other Mexican aguas frescas as well. Horchata is a universally beloved rice and cinnamon drink; agua de jamaica is a hibiscus tea with a powerful floral flavor.
12 . Old-school Boston pizza
I know New York pizza is widely considered the gold standard, but in my opinion, the true pizza capital of America is Boston. Some Boston pizzerias have brick ovens that have been in use for over a century, and all those decades of breadmaking come through spectacularly in the crust. It’s dusted with char and full of crisp, crusty texture, with a depth of flavor I’ve yet to see replicated anywhere else.
With a little research you should be able to find a pizza tour led by a local, which is a great way to skip the touristy spots and go straight to the pizzerias beloved by native Bostonians. Don’t forget to tip your tour guide!
13 . Authentic hummus and pita
Brand-name hummus is the very definition of underwhelming. It’s doughy and tastes like stainless steel. There’s a reason it gets categorized as health food; it isn’t tasty enough to be anything more than a “diet-friendly” snack. If your experience with hummus is entirely based on supermarket tubs of the stuff, you’d be forgiven for thinking you don’t like it.
Real hummus is not underwhelming; it’s understated. It’s smooth and creamy, topped with a barely-there dash of spice and a thick layer of good olive oil, and has a subtle nuttiness that makes each bite tastier than the last. Paired with a good made-in-house pita, which is a fluffy wonder all its own, it earns a place as one of life’s simple pleasures.
Where do you find good hummus? Ask a middle Eastern person. Failing that, you can search for restaurants and shops that cater to Pakistanis, Iranians, Lebanese, Saudis…you get the picture. I used to frequent a shop whose owner was a Nazarene, and for five bucks I could get a nondescript plastic container of hummus and two loaves of pita. It needed no additional courses; it was a superb and satisfying working lunch, aside from the fact that it left my fingers oily—but I wouldn’t have had it any other way.
14 . McConnell’s Sea Salt Cream and Cookies ice cream
This list isn’t in any kind of order but if it were, this one would be king of the hill. McConnell’s Sea Salt Cream and Cookies ice cream is possibly the greatest thing I’ve ever put in my mouth. The name is a bit of a misnomer; it’s a cookie dough flavor, not a cookies and cream flavor. And in a stunning reversal of tradition, the cookie dough is not the best part. The ice cream itself strikes a transcendent balance of sweet, creamy, salty, and smooth, lending it an intense whole-mouth feeling of instant gratification.
The downsides of McConnell’s are that it can be hard to find (my local Harmon’s has been known to carry it, though not consistently) and it costs almost $10 a pint. But if you should find this one in stock, it’s worth splurging on. You won’t regret a single cent.
15 . Hamachi (yellowtail) sashimi
Fish is a delicate ingredient easily ruined by overcooking. If you’ve ever been served a dry, chewy slab of salmon or cod, you know exactly what I’m talking about. It’s a fibrous mess. Top it with as much lemon and tartar as you may, it will still be bland and chewy. Not to mention smelly.
Perhaps the best solution is to not cook it at all. This demands a fresher and higher-quality grade of fish so as to be safe for human consumption, but it’s well worth it. The three incarnations of raw fish that are most easily obtainable in the U.S. (all Japanese dishes) are sushi, nigiri, and sashimi. Sushi, as you probably know, is fish wrapped in seaweed and rice; nigiri is fish atop a small pillow of rice; and sashimi is just fish, raw and completely alone. It’s in this latter form that hamachi, also known as Japanese amberjack or yellowtail, shines brightest. It’s a mild fish with an incomparably tender, buttery texture. It practically melts in your mouth. Properly prepared, it also avoids any trace of “fishy” smell or flavor. It’s a delight, and if it’s on the menu at your local Japanese-owned sushi joint, I recommend making a beeline for it.
16 . Cong you bing
Cong you bing (look up the pronunciation if you don’t know Pinyin, you’ll embarrass yourself) is a pancake-shaped Chinese frybread flavored with scallions. At its best, it’s flaky and crispy with a mild allium flavor brought out by plenty of coarse salt. It’s commonly sold as street food, so if you live near a big city you may be able to find it at a Chinese food cart. You may also be able to find it in the frozen aisle at your local Asian grocer.
Be warned that not all cong you bing is created equal. If the first bite gives the sensation of “mildly herbed bread,” you’re at the wrong food cart. Cong you bing should be a greasy, salty, crispy, layered indulgence. And if you’ve got some peanut oil and a few pantry staples on hand, it’s pretty easy to make on your own, since it’s a simple unleavened dough that can be shallow-fried in a skillet. I use my in-laws’ recipe, which is similar to this one.
17 . Las Palmas green enchilada sauce
It comes in a can. You can find it on the middle shelf of the Mexican aisle at your local supermarket. The brand is Las Palmas; accept no substitutes. And above all, do not buy the red sauce, labelled “Enchilada Sauce.” What you want is the “Green Chile Enchilada Sauce,” a thin, semi-translucent sauce made of green chiles (of course), jalapenos, and sunshine.
You can’t go wrong with this stuff. Mix it with sour cream (optional) and dip your quesadilla in it. Simmer beef or chicken in it. Pour it into a shot glass and down it when nobody’s looking. It’s got an intensely smooth texture and enough complexity of flavor to be a meal-maker all on its own.
If you pick up a pack of tortillas, some shredded cheese, a rotisserie chicken and some Las Palmas Green on your next grocery trip, you can have enchiladas on the dinner table in half an hour. Spread some sauce in a casserole pan. Fill each tortilla with chicken and cheese (throw in some diced onion if you’re feeling fancy). Roll ‘em up, put them in the sauce, top with more sauce and cheese. Bake at 350 or whatever. When the cheese is melted or browned to your liking, they’re done.
Too hard? Try this one on for size: heat up some Las Palmas Green with a few ounces of cream cheese, stirring until smooth. Dip a corn tortilla in the sauce, then flop it into a hot, oily saucepan. Add a bit of shredded cheese and fold in half. Cook for a minute or two, flipping once. That’s it. A whole enchilada. You didn’t even have to preheat the oven.
18 . Tiramisu from a classy bakery
Tiramisu is always tasty. But some tiramisu is otherworldly: an impossibly delicate, airy cake, so light you literally cannot feel it in your mouth. It’s a sweet, cream-and-coffee-tinged mist locked in solid form by a sorcerer. Such a texture is only possible when it was baked the same day by someone with far more skill than your average bakery chain employee. Your best bet for finding it is to visit the classiest local bakery you can find.
19 . Tapatío Doritos
Have you ever been eating a bag of Nacho Cheese Doritos and said to yourself, “hey, these are good, but I wish they were spicy and had three times as much seasoning on them?” If so, you need to know about Tapatío Doritos. Not all grocers carry this flavor, but the local Mexican supermarket is a sure bet. Tapatío is one of the most popular brands of Mexican hot sauce, beating out Cholula and Valentina in the vast majority of homes I’ve been in, and the Doritos flavor builds on its signature dark, red pepper flavor by (predictably) adding cheese powder, MSG, and buttermilk. It’s the spiciest and by far the most heavily seasoned Doritos flavor, which in my opinion makes it the best.
20 . Reuben sandwich
There are a hundred different variations on the Reuben sandwich and most of them are good. But in my opinion there’s only one formulation that can be considered a true Reuben sandwich, only one that fully deserves the title. It goes like this: corned beef (not pastrami), sauerkraut (not coleslaw), swiss cheese (not mozzarella), and Russian dressing (not Thousand Island) on rye bread (not a white sub roll).
Now, I don’t even like rye bread; caraway/fennel seeds ruin everything they touch, if you ask me. But for some reason, rye bread in a reuben sandwich is delicious. It’s a deal with the devil, but it works.
I occasionally find a true Reuben at a gastropub or locally-owned deli. But most often I make them myself, slow-cooking the corned beef and making the Russian dressing with home-canned chili sauce. It’s by far the most effort-intensive sandwich I make. But I make it at least once a year, because that’s how often I have a birthday.
21 . Copper Kettle Parmesan cheese
I’m pretty sure this is the best cheese. Granted, I haven’t tried every cheese in the world (yet). But I’ve sampled a small variety. Jarlsberg. Brie. Havarti. Smoked cheddar. Pecorino romano. A hundred or so others. Even Wensleydale, which is a little pasty for my palate (sorry, Wallace).
Copper Kettle Parmesan, made by Cello, takes the cake. It’s sweet, nutty, mild, easy to work with, and lends itself well to almost any recipe–but make no mistake, it’s also perfect for snacking all by itself. These days I only buy Parmiggiano Reggiano if I can’t find the Copper Kettle stuff. (Which is all too often. Come on, Costco.)
22 . The Beef & Cheddar Brisket Sandwich at Firehouse Subs
If you’ve resolved to only visit one American fast-casual chain in your life, may I suggest that you choose Firehouse Subs. I know that Chipotle cultists and Smashburger simps will run me out of town for saying so, but Firehouse beats them both–Chipotle by a pretty wide margin.
Firehouse is a sub shop that gets everything right: brand-name ingredients, quick service, and a pickle spear with every order. Their Beef & Cheddar Brisket (#10 on the menu) is an unequaled indulgence. Warm deli-sliced beef and gooey cheese are the heart of the sandwich, but what really elevates it beyond the ordinary is a mixture of mayonnaise and barbecue sauce. The whole experience is thick, creamy, and comforting.
(They’re not paying me to say any of this. I wish they were.)
23 . Fresh bread right out of the oven
It’s hard to beat the convenience of a two-dollar loaf of bread at your local Kroger. It’s cheap, it’s bland, and it’ll keep for a couple of weeks. But that convenience comes at a high cost. Many of us have begun to judge bread by how it performs at its worst: filled with dough conditioners to keep it soft (and practically crustless), baked in a distant factory, then marooned on a supermarket shelf for days until someone picks it up. It makes a good PBJ, but it’s only a shadow of what bread can be, a pale imitation of the scents and textures that the word “bread” has conjured in the human imagination for tens of thousands of years.
Bread is an experience for all the senses. There’s the tactile intimacy of kneading and shaping the dough, the buttery scent that fills the room as it bakes, the golden brown dawn of a perfectly baked crust, the crackle and warmth and chew of that first bite. The flavor is deeply pleasant, and it seems a shame to put anything more than a pat of butter on it. Every fresh-baked loaf of bread I’ve ever had has been delicious. Even loaves that go dry and crumbly in the ensuing hours, eventually becoming inedible clay-textured bricks, are superb in the moments after they leave the oven.
Practically every home has a toaster these days. The toaster is a fine invention, but let’s recognize it for what it is: an attempt to recapture the essence of fresh bread. It warms the bread and lends it a gentle crunch, but it can never quite approximate all the sensations of a just-baked loaf. There are only two ways to achieve that: visit a local bakery early in the morning, or bake from scratch in your own home oven.
24 . Banh mi
Pronounced “bun-mee,” this Vietnamese restaurant staple is a diamond in the rough when it comes to takeout food. Over the last several years as I’ve paid more attention to what I eat, I’ve realized that vegetables are surprisingly hard to find in the 10-bucks-and-under category of lunch hotspots, especially if you’re after something more substantial than iceberg lettuce and out-of-season tomatoes. Sure, there’s the side of steamed vegetables at Panda Express, and most pizza or sandwich shops can rustle up some peppers and onions. But a good banh mi goes boldly where few others do: standard ingredients in this sandwich include carrots, cucumbers, daikon radishes, and hot peppers. And it doesn’t taste like a mouthful of rabbit food, either, thanks to the harmony of meat and sauce that fill out the remainder of the sandwich. It may not be the pinnacle of health food, but it’s easily one of the most nutritious options at the strip mall.
I’m no health nut, but I do like to include a few servings of vegetables in my day. And even if I didn’t, I’d be coming back for banh mi again and again. It’s quite possibly the world’s most flavorful sandwich.