When I started reviewing meals in 2017, a significant portion of my acquaintances’ Instagram feeds featured photos of the food they consumed, posted with a hyperbolic caption about the meal being “the best,” which irritated me to no end. Not so much because those kinds of food posts are obnoxious, but because not every meal can be “the best.” That’s when I decided to start ranking my own meals.
That’s what I do — rank food, rather than review it. At the end of every month, I publish how my meals that month ranked against each other. I keep a running list on a Tumblr account that only a few close friends and my mother follow. (My wife Liz checks it occasionally so she can get mad at me if I go somewhere good without her.) My “reviews” are merely notes to myself so that I can remember what I ate and thus rank it accordingly. I don’t take into account anything but taste, even though it’s hard sometimes to ignore plate presentation and restaurant ambiance, and even harder to ignore terrible (or extraordinary) service.
Photographing my plate and ranking my food is a habit that sometimes annoys my wife and coworkers, but after four years, I know I can’t kick the habit. And I don’t want to because I’m learning some things about myself through this process. For instance, when it comes right down to it, I don’t enjoy the occasional fast-food guilty-pleasure burger as much as I think I will. I’ve learned that I should stop defending Kroger sushi. I’ve learned that if a meal doesn’t meet a certain portion threshold, it doesn’t matter to me how good those two or three little baby bites are. I’ve learned that when it comes to salads, I care as much about texture as I do taste. I’ve learned that it’s good to mix things up — some of my favorite meals come when I order something out of character. I’ve learned that eating the best meal over and over and over will eventually turn it into a mediocre meal.
I look forward to ranking my meals every month, but the real satisfaction comes at the end of the year when I select the best of the best meals to create my annual top 10 list. My list lacks your favorite restaurant in New York City or Chicago or San Francisco because while I do travel for work, I mostly stay in the South.
I ate 217 dishes at restaurants in probably half a dozen states the first year I ranked meals. But my favorite meal came from the sushi place down the street from where I now live. Liz and I went to Kemuri for her birthday and ordered three sushi rolls. The server brought us two rolls and we began eating them. When three more rolls showed up, everyone realized we’d been eating someone else’s food, but there was nothing to be done about it, so Liz and I gorged ourselves. We still talk about that meal as one of the high points of our relationship — right up there with the birth of our son.
In 2018, my favorite meal of the 282 I ate came in Tampa, Fla., when I flew down for a conference. I made some friends and we decided to grab a late dinner together. We ended up at Ichicoro Ramen and we shared the Smoked Shredded Beef Steamed Bun appetizer and I ordered the Spicy Abura Soba for an entree.
I’ve found that people generally like every meal they eat, especially if they’re dining with someone else. People want to have great experiences together and going out to eat has the potential for being a great experience. They want to make a memory they can always look back on and reference as a way to prove to themselves that they have lived an enjoyable life and shared “the best” meals with other people — “Do you remember when we had those awesome tacos? Those were the best.”
I have no scientific data to support this theory, but pay attention next time you’re eating with a group of people. Someone will say, “That was good,” as the server delivers the check, and everyone else will nod their heads nearly as a matter of reflex.
Not me, though. The other night I was at a work dinner at The Pressroom in Bentonville. I sat next to a man who is part owner in the company I work for. He and I ordered the same dish — Crab Pot Pie. When the check came, he said, “That was good” to our table of four. The other two men nodded their heads.
I had to bite my tongue because societal norms would suggest that I was somehow attacking the executive if I disagreed with him in my judgement of our entrée and told him it was actually just one spot better than the Chipotle take-out I had had a week earlier. It’s a weird thing to fear your own honesty regarding not liking a meal in front of people who have no real investment in the cuisine, but who you also know without a doubt would defend the idea that it should be collectively labeled “good.”
As an experiment, I challenge you: Next time someone who eats the same dish as you says, “That was good,” think about how much the mood of the table would change if you replied, “Eh…not really.”
The other side of that coin is that when you’re a little drunk with a group of relative strangers in Tampa and you have some of the best soba noodles of your life, you aren’t content for everyone to nod in collective agreement when you say, “That was good.” So, you turn into a real freak and you hit everyone with, “No really, I rank every meal I eat and this is one of the best meals I’ve ever eaten and I need you guys to really stop and take in how good of a meal we had here tonight.”
Being a food ranker can be awkward sometimes.
Last year, I set a personal record and averaged eating out more than once a day. Of my 411 meals at restaurants, my favorite came in Mobile, Ala. Liz and I went down with my tennis team for a tournament and on our way out of town we stopped into a little Italian restaurant called Via Emilia in an old house for brunch. I ordered the BBQ Shrimp & Grits and since we were only one of two tables, we could hear the staff banging pots and pans, bringing our meal to a sizzle on the burner. When they finished, the chef walked our order out to the table, introduced it using a Cajun accent, and served it in the skillet in which he’d prepared it. My palate is not sophisticated enough to tell you much about what I ate, but I can confidently say the meal changed my perspective on rosemary as an herb, and probably Alabama as a state.
This year, despite the pandemic and quarantining in my home with my family for three months, I still ended up traveling a fair amount for work, which means I patronized lots of restaurants. We still have another week or so to go before the end of the year, but it looks like I’m going to finish 2020 with about 230 meals out. I’m proud that my favorite once again came from my home city.
- The Oyster Bar — Laura’s 40 birthday party catering. Little Rock. Jan. 4, 2020.
I liked the old version of The Oyster Bar, and didn’t know what to expect from the new owners when I made my first visit back in January. Liz and I went to my sister’s 40th birthday party in the private room, where the restaurant set the food up buffet-style on the bar. I expected the same deep-fried comfort food — hush puppies and catfish. But the improvement in food quality made itself immediately known. Gumbo made with noticeably fresh ingredients, crab legs, plump boiled shrimp, a cucumber and tomato salad. They switched to a thin-battered fried okra, and they even served a delicious hummus. Liz and I had planned to go out for drinks after dinner, but after eating my first plate, I pounced on a second even though I knew doing so would make me too miserable to enjoy any after-dinner drinks. The food was worth it.
- Brood & Barley — Bovine Balsamic, Pierogies and Crawfish appetizer (shared). North Little Rock. Oct. 7, 2020.
Even though I stuffed myself silly at the Oyster Bar in early January, I eventually got hungry again and had some other fantastic meals in Arkansas. My one visit to Brood & Barley exceeded my expectations — and I got a salad.
- Cheers in Maumelle — Chopped Salmon Salad, Cajun chicken soup, chips and queso (shared). Jan. 10, 2020.
The chopped salmon salad at Cheers is the best salmon salad I’ve ever had, and it’s consistently good, even though arugula is one of the worst lettuces. I ate it six times this year, and twice — in my most stressful weeks — I had it more than once during the same week.
- The Farmer’s Table Cafe — Ozark Cobb Salad. Fayetteville. June 10, 2020.
To say nothing of the ethical and agricultural benefits of farm-to-table restaurants, fresh local ingredients taste better. If you don’t believe me, then please identify why the Ozark Cobb Salad at Farmer’s Table Café in Fayetteville tastes better than the ones in most other places and start your own food-ranking blog.
- La Terraza Rum & Lounge — Carpaccio de Lomito, Ensalada de Mariscos (shared all). Little Rock. August 7, 2020.
In one of our first post-quarantine dinners away from our toddler, Liz and I went to Hillcrest’s La Terraza because I had a craving for octopus. They were out, so I ordered a rum flight to cope the loss. Even though I didn’t get the leggy mollusk I came after, the Venezuelan restaurant’s Ensalada de Mariscos — full of scallops, calamari, mussels, and shrimp — sent me home happy.
- Señor Tequila — Ranchero Special. Maumelle. Nov. 15, 2020.
I don’t remember Liz having pregnancy cravings during our first go-round, but this time she wants Mexican food. I too am experiencing these cravings. In fact, I began experiencing them a few months before we got pregnant. I want every meal to be served with a side of warm flour tortillas and drizzled with cheese sauce. The Ranchero Special at Senor Tequila will finish this year as my go-to meal.
- 21c Museum Hotel — Pasta with Chicken. Brownie with Ice Cream. Bentonville. Oct. 6, 2020.
In early October, I worked a lunch event at the 21c Museum Hotel in Bentonville. Because my four-person crew worked the event and didn’t attend as guests, no one accounted for our meals. When the chef found out, she whipped us up some pasta with pesto and chicken, and then sent out a warm brownie with an ice cream scoop on top. It sounds like the kind of simple culinary exercise I would throw together for my toddler, but the meal was surprisingly dynamic and indulgent.
- Raduno Brick Oven & Barroom — Italian Beef Sandwich, cup of tomato soup. Little Rock. March 10, 2020.
I spent three years as a vegetarian. I would not have lasted that long had I previously tasted the Italian Beef Sandwich at Raduno. The memory of it would’ve ruined me. If juicy meat is a thing to you, go eat this sandwich.
- North Bar — Colossal Country Salad with brussels sprouts (shared). North Little Rock. July 23, 2020.
The Colossal Country Salad with Brussels Sprouts is basically a culinary loophole. Fried chicken, two strips of bacon, a fried egg, and ranch dressing on a bed of lettuce; fried Brussels sprouts drizzled with honey. What did you have for lunch, Dear? “A salad and some Brussels sprouts.” Culinary loophole. You’re welcome.
- South Park Restaurant— Beef liver and onion lunch special. Clarksville. Feb. 9, 2020.
Finding a decent place to eat on the road between Little Rock and Northwest Arkansas presents a constant problem. Stopping in Conway doesn’t make sense because I’m not far enough down the road yet or I’m almost home. Petit Jean Meats has yet to open a retail café in Morrilton, even though that seems like a no-brainer. Russellville is a culinary wasteland. (See comments below for people screaming “BUT FELTNER’S WHATTA-BURGER!!!). There’s that India Restaurant (sic) in Mulberry, but eating Indian food in a gas station that has chosen to misspell its own name — Kountry Xpress — seems…risky.
Alas, this year I discovered the South Park Restaurant in Clarksville. Back in February I stopped in for the lunch special, which I thought was a classic meat-and-two-veggies setup. No no. It’s a meat and all the veggies setup, plus a mandatory dessert called Strawberry Surprise. Mashed potatoes, pinto beans, broccoli & cheese casserole, veggie lovers salad, a roll. Serious comfort food. And I would have never ordered dessert here, but the fact that it’s already included? Surprise indeed!