If we’re being totally honest here, I pretty much measure time by when I’ll get to eat again. When I was young (read: current age) I would actually think about when I’d get to eat breakfast as soon as I finish my dinner (read: during dinner). When I was really little (really), my mom would set one spot for breakfast when she went to bed, so that I can go eat my breakfast immediately when I wake up at 5 or 6am.
This post is not an ode to breakfast in case you were confused.
It’s an ode to all the best meals we’ve had in 2018. Obviously we got to travel a fair amount. Last year we accidentally set foot in 22 countries, and while each meal is important, some meals are more important than others. These were the meals we wanted to write home about:
P.S. Italy did not even make the list.
THE BEST MEALS OF 2018:
Via some Schengen visa running and halfhearted intentions to go skiing (for cheap), we ended up in Bansko, Bulgaria one weekend in February. We arrived just in time for dinner and ready for it too, and found the nearest and best traditional restaurant to get in to the Bulgarian swing of things. Tucked in a quiet corner, this restaurant was decked out with wooden ceilings and hog heads and stone walls and quilted cloths and giant copper domes and all kind of other traditional knick knacks. No sooner had we ordered a meal, the traditional band with an accordion and everything started playing and taking actual folk song requests from what we assume must be Bulgarians.
And then the food came out, and the rest of the evening is a blur because holy heck Bulgarian food is actually incredible. Juicy roasted meats, kebabs as long as our torsos, grilled breads and homemade wines. And of course that quintessential Shopska salad.
WHERE: The Hadjidragana Tavern, Sofia
WHAT TO ORDER: The Chopska salad and whatever meats your heart desires.
MOSTAR, BOSNIA & HERZEGOVINA
We have definitively rated Bosnia & Herzegovina as the single most underrated place we have ever been to, and Bosnian food must have been one of the biggest surprises of 2018, because it is actually incredible. It may have helped that we were very almost hangry by the time we sat down for our first Bosnian meal, but when I sunk my teeth into that lamb chop grilled over the open coals I felt home. This is what grilled lamb is supposed to taste like. I know, because I am South African.
Meat that tastes like a South African braai + everything else that tastes like Turkish food = am I dead and is this heaven?
WHERE: Restaurant Hindin Han
WHAT TO ORDER: LAMB CHOPS!
Always listen to your parents!
We spent a night in cutest Cambria during the greatest little central Californian road trip of 2018. Everything went right: our Airbnb was everything that we love about Airbnb, Hearst Castle appealed to our wildest and fanciest eccentricities, and the coastal drives were pristinely Californian. Most of all, however, the rightest of right, was The Sea Chest, which came highly recommended by our California parents. A quintessential Cambria eatery inside a historic beach home, where locals cook and eat at the open kitchen bar. The scallops, the oysters, the crisp Californian wine. It wasn’t cheap, but hot damn it was good.
WHERE: The Sea Chest
WHAT TO GET: Oysters!
I know Chris knows all the good places, but still I was skeptical when we pulled into a bunch of warehouses in Buellton for lunch. A line of people spilling outside an otherwise empty industrial parkin area gently reassured me of this place’s reputation. And let me just say, if I were you I would get in line.
We ordered entirely too much from the vague menu, which lists only the main ingredients for the dishes that aren’t sandwiches or pizza. This part of the menu is literally titled ‘not pizza,’ and when we ordered ‘porchetta, potato, pasilla, egg’ we thought we might get some small tapa kind of thing instead of a giant mound of porchetta with a sunny side egg on top.
“The best food memories almost never includes moderation. ” – me, I said that.
WHERE: Industrial Eats
WHAT TO GET: The Wilby sandwich, ANY pizza, and the cauliflower.
Who cares about waiting for a table if you can have Bloody Marys at a dark wooden bar reminiscent of a 19th century pharmacy in Moscow?
This was one of our favourite dining experiences of the year. We had no idea really what to expect, but our jaws hit the floor once we stepped inside Café Pushkin, which feels more like a library meets pharmacy meets palace. Servers move about with impressive speed and precision, ducking around FIFA-clad tourists and their backpacks without being dicks about it.
At this point we have long since been sold on Café Pushkin, even when our bar for Russian cuisine was rather low. It would be our first traditional meal after eating pizza and whatever at whichever place was showing the World Cup games. But we were quickly won over when the watermelon salad was set, deeply agreeing as the steaming dumplings came out, and long past needing to be convinced as we sipped our post-lunch vodkas.
WHERE: Café Pushkin
WHAT TO ORDER: Russian dumplings and vodka
We knew we’d eat well when we took off to Asia for 2 months, but we’ve never heard people raving about Balinese food like the way people talk about Vietnamese or Thai food.
Well, surprise surprise: Balinese food is GOOD. Like, actually really good. Ginger and chilli and onions and coconut and fresh fish and satay and can you ever get enough of that sambal? It’s good.
But beyond this, WHO KNEW that our favourite meal in Bali would be the 5-courses cooked by yours truly in a traditional Balinese kitchen with 4 other strangers in a cooking class? Chicken meatball soup, chicken satay on lemongrass skewers, tofu and tempeh curry, salad, rice, and green coconut pancakes.
We are pretty good cooking Balinese food, if I do say so myself.
WHERE: Dong Ding Cooking Class
WHAT TO EAT: All the things you made yourself like a boss.
KUALA LUMPUR, MALAYSIA
We have been so spoilt.
First we spent 2 years in one of the restaurant districts in one of the top food capitals in the world (London). Then we went to Berlin where the Asian food scene is actually off the charts. So when my cousin boasted of the food scene of his second home, Kuala Lumpur, I rolled my eyes. Ok, sure, buddy.
Well I am rolling my eyes at my past eye-rolling self.
In reality, our visit to Kuala Lumpur, a South East Asian melting pot, was just a string of eating one mouthwatering meal after another. There are too many good meals to mention after only just a week, but there is one which we cannot gloss over:
The famous Nasi Lemak at Village Park.
Fat puffy coconut rice marries the crispiest fried chicken you could ever imagine.
One boiled egg, fresh cucumber, spicy as sambal, and, weird, but just let it slide, sneaky dried anchovies. We went here twice and my cousin had to hold us back or we wouldn’t have tried anything else after going to this place.
WHERE: Village Park Restaurant
WHAT TO GET: GET THE NASI FREAKIN LEMAK. If you are feeling extra, the Milo Dinosaur is a chocolate milk drink so extravagant it shouldn’t be legal.
I am going to be honest here. Overall, Philippines does not come through food-wise. In a region with incredible food, it’s dropping the ball a bit.
But then there’s Pilya!
It’s just a little kiosk in an alleyway on an island, but it is big on flavour. Really very big. And on an island full of below-average sandwich, burger and pizza places – or, if you’re like us, eating pringles for breakfast before a day of diving – it’s the perfect opportunity to see how good traditional Filipino food can be. Ok, not exactly ‘traditional,’ but something close to it.
WHERE: Pilya! Basta Cuisine
WHAT TO GET: Bistec, a traditional pork dish.
Every taxi driver, every hotel clerk, every Singaporean resident that we spoke to in Singapore very proudly insisted that we try the local favourite: Chilli Crab. Everyone had differing opinions of where the best chilli crab is served and how much it should cost, but everyone agreed that it is where it’s at. We were at first entirely overwhelmed with the wealth of incredible street food, and how affordable it all is, that we gave the chilli crab a skip. It seemed far too expensive, having just landed from Berlin.
However, we rendezvoused back in Singapore after a month or so of backpacking in Bali and staying with my family in Malaysia. We had convinced my cousin to join us, and after eating for cheap for that long, we were ready to splurge a bit. Chilli Crab is on the menu.
Plus our Singaporean friend Sarah took all the guess work out of where to get it and what varieties to get. Fast forward a few hours waiting for the table and then the crab, two giant pans were brought to our table, filled each with two steaming crabs: one pan classic chilli, the other salted egg. It was so decadent and rich, and so singular; we felt extra extravagant.
After each country I would ask Joel what our favourite meal was. Of course Chilli Crab waster favourite meal in Singapore. But it also beat out all the other Asian favourites. So that must mean that Chilli Crab in Singapore with Sarah and Hendrik was our favourite meal of our whole two months in SE Asia.
WHERE: Jumbo Seafood Restaurant
WHAT: Classic chilli crab
You can bet that if we’ve been to Turkey that we would’ve had some of our best meals there, because Turkish food is actually what dreams are made of. And the crowning glory of all Turkish meals is the most important meal of the day. The Turkish ‘Kavahlti’ is quite honestly the reason to get out of bed in mornings. The last few years we have tried to spend all our free time in Turkey so we are pseudo-experts, and then when we weren’t in Turkey we were living in Berlin’s Kreuzberg, nicknamed ‘Little Istanbul’, which is the next best thing to actually living in Istanbul. So we thought we knew all the best spots for breakfast.
And then, after years of going to Istanbul and eating breakfasts at our favourite places, our friend Dilan took us to a place called Beyaz Firin (the White Oven), and now we are convinced we’ve had the best breakfast in the city, and in life, forever and ever amen.
WHERE: Beyaz Firin, Besiktas
WHAT: Any and all the breakfast items on the menu, but most specifically the breakfast pan and the traditional breakfast.
RAS AL HADD, OMAN
In a small fishing village on the easternmost point of Oman, where there is nothing besides a tea shop and a market, and there is nothing to do but fish and rescue baby turtles, is an Airbnb host who has somehow become our friend. Salem is the probably the wildest guy we know; he also makes the best bbq’d fish we’ve ever eaten.
The second time we stayed with Salem he immediately took us to the beach where the little boats pull in loaded with the day’s catch, grabbed a giant mahi-mahi (dorado or dolphin fish), proceeded to cut it up in portions (carefully removing a whole squid from the thing’s stomach) right there on the beach, and that was our dinner a few hours later. Nobody pays for mahi-mahi or snapper or tuna or any kind of fish in Ras al Hadd, at least not Salem, who barrels through the village like a berber force.
Grilled on the coals, stewed in the pot, whichever way it’s been served to us (and always with gigantic portions of rice with fresh tomatoes and dates and thick chunks of onion), it is every time better than the time before.
We have spent a lot of time getting cheap and juicy middle eastern food from various shabby institutions in London, and especially in Berlin, where the Turkish dürüm has taken on a whole new German meaning. We love these meals. We get them sober.
I suppose these kinds of take away foods are a staple in big cities but scantly available in the suburbs, which is why I was surprised to hear Joel’s family rave about some middle eastern place in a little convenience store in Ventura, which is basically a large coastal suburb dressed as a small city.
We found the market, passed the sodas and the cereals, and sure enough, all the way in the back, was a slowly churning dripping döner kebab. Our eyes lit up with sparkling stars.
We have had a lot of döner wraps. Like an ungodly amount. In all kinds of places.
This beef lamb mix wrap, with the pickles and the garlic sauce on the side, has been, for now, the best of them.
Don’t be Californian and get the greek salad or whatever else seems healthiest, get that doner kebab in toasted wrap. It’s the bomb.
WHERE: Santa Cruz Market, Ventura, California
WHAT TO GET: Tri-tip and lamb wrap
La Guarida is one of the oldest paladars in Havana (private family-run restaurants as oppose to government institutions), and used to be operated illegally. Now it is one of the most famous, and admittedly most expensive, restaurants in Havana (as in £10 – £14 for a main meal.). We splurged and celebrated our 6th anniversary at La Guarida, and we immediately recognised it as one of the best meals of 2018. Everything was perfectly prepared and beautifully served; by any accounts this was a meal that we would not be able to afford in the States or Europe.
Plus it helps that the restaurant is housed in one of the most breathtaking, photogenic, quintessentially crumbling Cuban mansions.
WHERE: Paladar La Guarida
MEXICO CITY, MEXICO
There is absolutely no shortage of mouthwatering Mexican food in California, but there is nothing like eating tacos in Mexico City. I don’t even remember any specific taco (it might be because we ate like 40 each over 2 and a half days), I just remember that we haven’t had tacos that good. From chain restaurants, from cool hip places, from less-than-kosher-looking kiosks and stands, every taco was as good as or better than the next. Granted, there are some less-than-appetising varieties (octopus tacos are rich, pork skin tacos are downright dirty – and not in a good way), so you might want to proceed with caution.
But then you can always chase it with freshly fried churros or some horchata from the other side of the street. It’s a win-win-win.
WHERE: Taco stands, Mexico City
WHAT TO GET: All of the tacos. (None of the pork skin).
From the most underrated (hello Bulgaria!) to the most obvious (tacos in Mexico, who knew?) 2018 did not help our weight loss strategies. But like I always say, when you travel you want the richest most intense experiences – you want to try the specialities and all the local favourites – and no place is ever known for an egg white omelet with spinach.
These meals are out memories.