2018 is a blur. We traveled within three continents, 19 countries and even more cities. Check out our favorite food travel experiences that were our best of 2018.
Our job as professional food travelers sounds glamorous – traveling and eating in one country after another.
We’ve eaten pho in Vietnam, bratwurst in Germany, pastéis de nata in Portugal, ramen in Japan, chalabi in India, shiao long bao in China, haggis in Scotland and barbecue in the United States. We also conquered our fear of coconut when we discovered the joys of sambol in Sri Lanka.
And that’s just this year.
But seriously, our final stretch of travel hurtled us across eight countries with three ocean crossings in a little over two months. This pace is exciting but also excruciating.
We not only suffer from intense, unmitigated jet lag but a kind of information overload that’s often paralyzing. It’s incredible how much the human mind can process and right now we feel like overheated computers in need of a cooling off period.
People, including our friends and family, commonly ask us about our favorite countries in a need to generate conversation. ‘What’s our favorite place in the world that we’ve been to,” we’re asked.
However, one friend, with an elevated level of intelligence, asked us a far better question: What’s the best place you most recently traveled to?
Now that’s a question that we can answer.
Best of 2018
So without further ado (and in the era of the listicle), we present our top food travel experiences in 2018. We tried to narrow the list to 10 and settled on 11. This list could have easily featured 111 food travel experiences but we understand that there’s only so much that you, our loyal audience, can read in one sitting.
Though our travels may be a bit of a blur, we vividly recall the flavors and foods that surprised us. The burnout and the exhaustion are real, but these are the food experiences and tastes that opened our eyes and left us yearning for more.
Meal of the Year – La Maison 1888 in Da Nang, Vietnam
After dining at four Michelin starred restaurants this year (two in Athens and two in Fife), we’re pleasantly surprised to award our ‘Meal of the Year’ designation to a restaurant in, of all places, Vietnam.
Hey, we love street food just as much as the next foodtripper, but there’s something special about bathing in the kind of luxurious food and surroundings that La Maison 1888 has to offer.
Think Vietnam and visions of nestling onto little plastic stools while slurping on grandma’s noodles usually come to mind. However, in the new enterprising Vietnam, ultra-luxe properties like the Intercontinental Sun Da Nang have come to the forefront. And oh what a property it is!
Developed on prime (yet controversial) Monkey Mountain real estate, the resort’s grand retro colonial, vista-strewn buildings are more reminiscent of Vietnam’s colonial era than the country’s communist one. A private funicular transports guests to the hotel’s majestic yet intimate restaurant space commanded by internationally acclaimed French Chef Pierre Gagnaire.
Once inside, we enjoyed a fine lunch featuring ultra velvety tomato bisque combined with ingredients like Jambon cru sourced throughout the world. Other meal highlights included the kind of firm mackerel that one can only find on Vietnamese shores as well as a trio of desserts that would have knocked our socks off if we were both wearing socks.
If you travel to Vietnam, eating a cheap bowl of noodles off the street is a must do. However, if you can afford it, splurging on a meal at Maison 1888 is your ticket to one of the finest luxury experiences in the world.
Possibly canceling each other out of the running, our Fife dinners at The Peat Inn, The Cellar, The Newport and Ostlers Close were spectacular contenders in this category.
Best Food Experience – Cooking with Cesarine in Florence, Italy
It’s been said by a chef or two that Italian cuisine is the food of Grandma. Despite the plethora of great restaurants serving wonderful food in Italy, we find that there’s nothing better than eating an Italian meal cooked at home.
Top notch programs like Cesarine not only offer famous homemade flavors of the boot but also provide an immersive opportunity to experience great Italian dishes. We’re talking about food like Florentine spinach and ricotta gnudi and Bolognese tagliatelle al ragu prepared in homespun, romantic settings that can’t be found in any restaurant.
Imagine our joy while enjoying a personal cooking class just steps away from a hillside view in Florence. Between warm hospitality from the vivacious Cecilia Bendinelli and an inspired menu filled with local specialties, we created food travel memories that will last a lifetime.
Best Noodle Anthropology Lesson – Eating Ramen in Fukuoka and Lamian in Shanghai
As expected, we experienced a huge assortment of food at a variety of destinations on our two-week East Asia cruise with Holland America. But as an added bonus, our leg through Southern Japan followed by a final stop in Shanghai provided a fun food anthropology lesson in reverse.
We began the Japanese leg in Fukuoka, the birthplace of Tonkatsu, one of the most popular styles of ramen in the world. That being said, the ramen, a blend of thin, fresh, al dente ramen noodles served in a rich milky pork broth did not disappoint our lofty expectations. There’s nothing like eating ramen in Japan and Fukuoka serves some of the best noodles in the country.
As it turns out, the origins of ramen can be traced just across the East China Sea to Shanghai. The similarities between Chinese Lamian and Japanese ramen cannot be understated.
We received our Shanghai noodle matriculation while on a walk through the streets of the megacity’s French Conconcession. After stumbling into a neighborhood noodle joint, we discovered remarkably similar round noodles served Chinese style in rich brown sauce with sliced pork.
During our excellent Untour food tour, we even learned that the name Ramen is rooted in the Chinese word Lamian. Whatever the etymology, tasty noodles are a classic element of Asian food culture that are best experienced in countries like Japan and China.
Best BBQ – Payne’s in Memphis, USA
We won the Saveur Magazine Editor’s Choice award for Best Travel Blog in Memphis so it’s no surprise that the home of the blues holds a special place in our hearts. But the city also holds a special spot in our bellies because it’s where we enjoyed some of the best BBQ of our lives.
We can’t say that all BBQ in Memphis is great. Tourist haunts like Central BBQ proved disappointing with ribs that were anything but moist, and local favorite Cozy Corner served us BBQ spaghetti that did not live up to its popular reputation. For good BBQ spaghetti, we recommend taking an Uber to The Bar-B-Q Shop.
However, BBQ at Payne’s Bar-B-Que, located about a 13-minute car ride from the center of town, was about the best we’ve ever tasted. As we approached the building, converted from an old gas station, and entered the nondescript dining room filled with gingham-covered tables, we knew we were entering the right place in the right city at the right time.
Unlike Carolina BBQ, Memphis’ pork du jour is chopped not pulled. Payne’s serves a heaping helping of this melt in your mouth concoction covered in an intensely sweet sauce that beautifully and uncloyingly harmonizes with smokey, fatty chunks. Payne’s cooks these chunks to a slight char which only adds to the potent levels of BBQ flavor.
We ate this meat with wonderful sides of smokey, porky beans and a bright yellow ‘slaw’ intensely flavored with yellow mustard. It all worked and it’s all in the family. In fact, it was one of our favorite eating experiences of the year.
Most Shocking BBQ – Eazy Pickins in Da Nang, Vietnam
Admit it. You would be skeptical too if you heard about great southern BBQ just blocks from My An Beach in Central Vietnam’s Da Nang. But Eazy Pickins, owned by North Carolina native Jonni Olivares, is the real deal.
Olivares’ pulled pork is a fine example of great Carolina ‘cue, and EZ Pickins’ range of sauces provide a nice compliment to the porky goodness. Eazy Pickins also serves big meaty, fatty pork ribs imported directly from the USA that live up to a special trip around the world and a final excursion on Olivares’ smoker.
Da Nang is almost 9,000 miles from Memphis where we ate the ultimate BBQ of the year. Despite the distance, EZ Pickins became a weekly go-to spot during our five months in the Vietnamese city, allowing us to enjoy tasty food and cheap beer with strangers who became friends.
Best Dessert – Baklava in Athens, Greece
Sometimes we find some of our favorite foods without a search, plan or recommendation. Such is the case with our ‘Bakery of the Year’, Athinaika Galaktompoureko Triantafillou, located in Athens’ Pagrati neighborhood.
The bakery, known more for its semolina creamed galaktompoureko, produces baklava that blew us away with sweet honey coated filo layers filled with nuts. Better than your typical baklava, this dense Greek dessert was big enough to share.
We loved it so much that we shared a piece of the Greek confection almost every night during our month in Athens.
Best Throwback Dessert – Pasteis de Belem in Lisbon, Portugal
Has it really been over 11 years since our honeymoon in Portugal?! While that dream trip seems like a distant memory, the flavors of Lisbon’s favorite pastry, the pastel de nata, have not faded.
A return to Lisbon’s most famous bakery, Pastéis de Belém, was on top of our docket when we returned to Portugal’s capital. Served warm with a heavily caramelized top and creamy custard filling, these centuries-old egg tarts lived up their world famous billing as well as our romantic memories.
We’re excited to head back to Lisbon in 2019 for many reasons and look forward to eating more Lisbon food favorites. Will we enjoy pasteis de natas every day for breakfast? It could happen.
Best Bagel – Tie between Edinburgh, UK and Shanghai, China
Bagels may have originated in Poland, but their appearance has become a worldwide phenomenon. In 2018, we ate the donut-shaped bread in cities as varied as Philadelphia, Lisbon, London, New York and Riga, but we ate our favorites in Edinburgh and Shanghai.
We ended the bulk of our year’s travels in Edinburgh where Bross Bagels produces crunchy, chewy Montreal style bagels that taste better than their namesake. We liked the shop’s creative sandwiches so much that we ate at Bross twice in four days.
But we can’t forget Sumerian in Shanghai, an unexpected treasure serving bagels from sister company Boom Boom Bagels and specialty coffee in a city more famous for soup dumplings and tea. Sumerian almost demanded a second visit from these two bagel lovers, a worthy break from our multi-day noodle and dumpling fest.
Best Street Food – Salt Fish in Bangkok, Thailand
We ate this whole tilapia known as Pla Tabtim as a novelty at a floating market on the edge of Bangkok and then ate it two more times at a food stall near our apartment. This fish won’t win any beauty awards, but who cares about appearance when something so ugly tastes so obscenely good.
While we were in the bustling city, there was nothing better than peeling away ‘saltalicious’ crust to reveal moist flaky flavorful flesh gently kissed with flavors of lemongrass and other fresh herbs. Oh. Did we mention the chili dipping sauce? Yes. This fish was a definite fave.
Bangkok is truly one of the world’s most gastronomic cities with Thai food available in every nook and cranny, often on a 24/7 basis. Pad Thai may be Bangkok’s most famous street food, but this salty fish is a local favorite and the food gem that we loved best.
Best Coffee Scene – Hamburg, Germany
We drank a lot of great coffee in 2018 in cities like Hong Kong, Athens, Bucharest, Edinburgh, Hong Kong, Hanoi, Philadelphia and even Shanghai. However, it was the coffee scene in Hamburg that impressed us most.
With 100 or so roasters, Hamburg has a prolific and obsessive coffee culture that we found all over the city. This culture is nothing new to Germany’s second largest city – its first coffee house dates back to the 17th century. Plus, Hamburg has been a major player in the coffee trade for almost as long.
In Hamburg, the coffee never stops. We must have visited 10 excellent specialty coffee shops during our brief time in the North German city and we probably could have visited 20 more.
From the consistently excellent grounds produced at Elbgold to the ambitious, uncompromising barista work at Törnqvist, this city has it all for java aficionados like us.
Best Neapolitan Pizza Not in Italy – Pizza 4Ps in Hanoi, Vietnam
What happens when you cross Italian cuisine with Japanese chefs and Vietnamese ingredients? At least as far as pizza is concerned, the answer is some of the best Neapolitan pizza that we’ve eaten outside of Naples.
The pizza-loving team at Pizza 4P’s makes a dough that rivals most pizzaiolos and tops it with local ingredients. But it’s the house-made burrata that elevates their Vietnamese-Japanese-Italian pies to otherworldly levels.
The Neapolitan pizza at Milkflower in Astoria, New York (i.e. Queens) stood out as superior after a summer week of eating pizza in all five boroughs. Like we said above, it’s a tough job but somebody has to do it.
We thank our friends, family and colleagues who supported and inspired us in 2018. It was a pivotal year for our business as we turned the corner toward profitability and won industry acclaim, but, as always, relationships mean the most.
Special shoutouts go to our partners: Accor Hotels, Amazing Thailand, Bologna Welcome, A Chef’s Tour, Cheddar Gorge Cheese Company, Cinnamon Hotels, Come to Hamburg, Cookly, Emilia Romagna Turismo, GreekingMe, Holland America Line, Incredible India, Cesarine, Lonely Planet, Magnetic Lativa, Maharajas Express, Mediavine, Memphis Tourism, Nordic Bloggers’ Experience, Passion for Hospitality, Saveur Magazine, Savored Journeys, SriLankan Airlines, TakeMeTour, TBC Asia, Tho Loves Food, Travel Bloggers Greece, Travel Passionate, Travel with D, Traverse, Untour Food Tours, Vagrants of the World, Visit Helsinki, Visit Lisbon, Visit Philly, Visit Scotland, Visit Turku and Welcome to Fife.
About the Authors
Daryl & Mindi Hirsch
Saveur Magazine’s BEST TRAVEL BLOG award winners Daryl and Mindi Hirsch share their culinary travel experiences and recipes on the 2foodtrippers website and YouTube. The married Food and Travel content creators live in Lisbon, Portugal.