Six great meals outside NYC
Austin, Portland, Cambridge, Chicago, Greenland, and Virginia Beach
Pasta|Bar Austin (Austin, TX)
After several days as a plus-one at a crypto conference in Austin, I was in desperate need of a respite: from the partying, the networking, the Proof-of-Steak luncheons with great brisket and bad salad, the blend of despair and likely securities fraud and oops-we-put-down-an-enormous-deposit-on-our-venue-before-Terra-collapsed-and-the-bear-market-became-apparent-so-why-not-throw-a-bussin’-fr-fr-party-on-the-deck-of-the-Titanic that permeated the 105°F mid-June air.
Pasta|Bar Austin was that respite. Nine strangers, zero crypto people, and I all sat at a U-shaped counter around the kitchen. I chatted with my neighbors, who shared some of their wine. The chefs, all of whom had impressive facial hair and one of whom could’ve passed for a younger Sam Elliott, came around to chat about each dish.
I think I am a sucker for these kinds of quasi-communal restaurants, where you’re sharing an experience with strangers and chefs. The vibes! The performance! The people-watching opportunities! Pasta|Bar Austin was no exception.
Now that it’s September, I don’t remember all the dishes so vividly anymore. There was ravioli with chicken and crawfish, sourdough from a 57-year-old starter, a tom yum soup, and like eight other tasty things. What I still remember was that it was one of the most fun meals I’d had in months.
Takibi (Portland, OR)
It’s not just that everything at Takibi is tasty. Everything at Takibi is simple—a handful of ingredients, handled well.
The mackerel? Charred on the outside and only lightly cooked inside, it was seasoned with salt and not much else. Asparagus? A little sesame. Fried mushrooms? Some pickled vegetables on top. Wara (straw) ice cream? No adornment was necessary, although the next table’s steak looked so good that we got one to go along with our dessert.
Takibi is on the ground floor of the US headquarters of Snow Peak, a Japanese glamping gear manufacturer/lifestyle brand. The restaurant makes heavy use of the outdoor gear: collapsible chopsticks, cocktails served in camping mugs, a titanium spork for eating dessert. While Takibi is an effective ambassador for the brand, that’s mostly because the minimalist aesthetics match so well, not merely because of the product placement.
If you’re in Portland, don’t miss it.
Viale (Cambridge, MA)
Viale has $1 oysters every day from 5 PM to 7 PM. My party ordered, uh, seven dozen.
Also: if you ever see a special that looks completely out of place—say, a fried chicken bucket at an Italian restaurant—get it! Maybe it’s the chef’s passion project.
BienMeSabe (Chicago, IL)
Pack your Tums and Lactaid, because this Venezuelan restaurant’s appetizer platter had four different combinations of frying and cheese:
Clockwise from the left: sweet fried doughnuts with cheese on top (mandocas), fried cheese sticks (tequeños), fried crunchy-sweet plantain slices covered in cheese and drizzled with sweet Heinz ketchup (tostones), and empanadas (one of which was cheese).
BienMeSabe is a casual neighborhood place I wish I could be a regular at. Bring your non-vegan friends.
H8 (Oqaatsut, Greenland)
I’ve already written about H8, but I’ve since learned where the restaurant’s name came from and why it’s painted in enormous, high-contrast lettering on the roof. See my updated post for deets!
Dam Neck Galley at the Dunes (Virginia Beach, VA)
Just kidding. This restaurant is not so great.
The Department of Defense puts a lot of engineering work into combat rations. MREs are shelf-stable for three years; you reheat their entree by adding water to start a chemical reaction in a pouch. For pilots who fly U-2 spy plane missions while wearing pressure suits, the Combat Feeding Directorate makes tubes of food—caffeinated apple pie, truffle mac and cheese—to squeeze via a straw through a hole in the suit’s helmet.
The DoD’s finest work is not at Dam Neck Galley at the Dunes. A cafeteria on a Virginia Beach naval base best known for being the home of SEAL Team Six, the galley serves pretty mediocre food.
Let’s start with what counts as the good: The baked chicken (not pictured) was somewhat moist. The mashed potatoes were only the second-worst I’ve had all year.The steamed vegetables were no more bland than any other unseasoned steamed vegetables I’ve had in a cafeteria. And the “high performance food” / “low performance food” signs, connecting your nutrition to Your Performance As A Warfighter, were kinda cute.
Now for the bad: The macaroni salad was drenched in a mayonnaise so pungent that I couldn’t bear to eat it. The banana was overripe; strangely, it came with the stem cut off. In combat, our soldiers may be armed with the right tools for the job, but the knife I was equipped with in this galley was no match for the gristle in the beef.
I’ve never served in the military, and I don’t know what it’s like. Does it matter to the sailors and marines on base that the food isn’t very good? Would they even agree with me? I dunno.
Next door to the galley was a lounge. It had an extensive video game operation (a PS5 and all the other consoles, Elden Ring, weekly Smash tournaments), eager and helpful staff, and shuttles to nearby malls (lower-ranked service members don’t generally have their own cars on base). The vibe was “Thanks for enlisting! Let’s at least make sure you have a good time while you’re here.” The galley could have had that same energy, and I was sad that it didn’t.
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We got up mid-meal to go to the Snow Peak store and bought several sets of camping chopsticks as gifts.