These past few months, I've been wildly fortunate to travel across the U.S. while I interviewed at medical schools. Serendipitously, it was around the same time that I started writing for Spoon. This article is a culmination of those two facts that defined much of my life this past fall.
Here are some of the foods I ate on the interview trail, and some places to check out if you ever find yourself in Rochester, MN, Charlottesville, Washington D.C., Nashville, Houston, Phoenix, Boston, NYC, Gainesville, FL, St. Louis, or Atlanta.
1. The Loop – Rochester, MN
Not to be confused with the Loop Pizza Grill chain of restaurants in the south, The Loop is a classy, social restaurant with three locations in Minnesota. To celebrate getting through my first interview, I had the Salmon and Crab entree with potatoes, spinach, asparagus over a cajun cream sauce base. I'm not sure you could've fit more of my favorite foods on the same plate.
To follow that, I had possibly the best dessert item I've ever seen on a menu: 10 chocolate chip cookies with vanilla ice cream. I had to loosen my belt two notches in order to finish them all, but sometimes you have to make sacrifices to accomplish your goals.
2. Roots Natural Kitchen – Charlottesville, VA
Well-esteemed by UVA students and locals alike, I was pestered to try Roots by multiple friends during my visit there. I custom ordered a bowl with some of my favorite ingredients: Chicken, avocado, sweet potato, black beans, and Roots rice. This is one of those rare places that satisfied my stomach, my taste buds, and my dignity after I finished my meal.
3. DoubleTree – Charlottesville, VA
How to eat cookies and milk like an adult: 1. Stay at a DoubleTree hotel. 2. Receive a complimentary, warm, soft, heartwarming chocolate chip walnut cookie. 3. Order a glass of milk through room service (it's only $2!). 4. Hold the glass of milk like a wine glass. 5. Stuff the cookie down your throat, chug the milk and yell "I'M AN ADULT!!!!" into your empty hotel room. 6. Definitely be careful not to get chocolate on your suit the night before an interview. That would feel really pathetic, not that I would know.
4. Fava Pot – Washington, D.C.
Full disclosure, the only reason I went to this food truck while at Truckeroo in Navy Yard was because the line for The Halal Guys was way too long. Once I tried Fava Pot, though, I was completely blown away by their food. I had to order a second chicken kabob platter because the first was so unbelievably flavorful. Fava Pot definitely deserves consideration as one of the top Mediterranean food trucks in the DMV area.
5. Ice Cream Jubilee – Washington, D.C
Like our former Vice President and meme machine Joe Biden, I too am an "ice cream guy." Though I spent a summer in D.C., I never got the chance to try Ice Cream Jubilee. I had been dying to try it primarily for two reasons: they have a "Cookies & Cookie Dough" flavor which merges my two favorite ice cream flavors (Cookies & Cream and Cookie Dough of course), and they were ranked as the best ice cream in DC by various different sources I had read, including winning people's choice at the DC Scoop competition at Union Market.
When I finally got the chance to go, I went all out and got a cookie sundae – two scoops of Cookies & Cookie Dough ice cream on top of a warm, giant, chocolate chip cookie, all topped with a chocolate drizzle. I don't think I have to explain how incredible it was.
6. Cava Grill – Washington, D.C.
Ever since Chipotle opened, I'd wondered how it would be a dream come true if there were a Chipotle-style Mediterranean restaurant. Then I went to DC and my dream came true. Cava makes mouthwatering Mediterranean rice bowls, salads, and pitas in a fast casual atmosphere using high quality, local ingredients. They have seasonal juices and rotating ingredients along with their basics.
From sourcing to service to the food, it seems like they execute everything perfectly. Their dips — the roasted red pepper hummus, tzatziki, and crazy feta being my favorites — can also be purchased in local supermarkets. I make it my mission to visit Cava at least once every time I'm in the area.
7. Captain Cookie & The Milkman Food Truck – Washington, D.C./Durham, NC
Between spending four years in Durham for college and spending a summer in D.C., I've developed an absurd amount of love for this place. They coincidentally have food trucks in only two locations: Durham, NC and Washington, D.C., including a brick and mortar store by George Washington University. They're open late, cheap, and source their milk from local farms. I always go for the two cookies + milk for $4 deal, but they have $2 ice cream scoops with rotating flavors. This is another place I'd make absolutely certain to visit if you're in DC.
8. Rasika – Washington, D.C.
Bless Restaurant Week for giving me the opportunity to eat at this award-winning and otherwise unaffordable Indian restaurant, Rasika. Besides encountering the best Indian food to ever enter my mouth, I was gleaming with joy to see that one of the dessert options was vanilla ice cream with gulab jamun — a sweet dessert made from milk solids covered in flour, deep fried, and then smothered in syrup. Because when is covering something in flour, deep frying it, and smothering it in syrup ever not a good idea?
9. Modern Market – Bethesda, MD
I was lucky enough to eat here when the Bethesda location first opened and they were giving out tickets for free meals. Like Leslie Knope, I really love breakfast, but unlike Leslie Knope, I have at least a basic knowledge of proper nutrition. Mix breakfast (or lunch) and nutrition with organic, well-sourced ingredients and you get Modern Market. They have 28 locations, mostly in Colorado and Texas with a couple in Arizona, and a brand new location in D.C. proper.
10. &pizza – Washington, D.C.
&pizza is a build-your-own pizza chain throughout DC and Maryland, and it's the best one that exists. I've eaten here more than I care to admit, often on late nights, but I will say that I've tried almost a dozen different combinations of bases and toppings and none of them have been anything short of unbelievable. It's amazing pizza, built how you want it, not made to share. I'm not sure you can find three consecutive phrases that are as satisfying as that.
11. Chick-fil-A: ATL Airport – Atlanta, GA
12. Pancake Pantry – Nashville, TN
I'd eaten here while touring schools for undergrad, and it was the first place I went to directly from the airport when I landed in Nashville. The banana bread pancakes here are the best pancakes I've ever encountered in my decorative pancake-eating career.
13. Jeni’s Ice Cream – Nashville, TN
People around the country rave about Jeni's ice cream, so I knew I had to go when I had the chance in Nashville. I went immediately after eating the giant meal at Pancake Pantry pictured above, so I was already pretty full. Regardless, I could tell this ice cream was special from the first taste. I only had the chance to try Vanilla and Salty Caramel, but I'll make sure to be more adventurous on my next trip.
14. Hattie B’s Hot Chicken – Nashville, TN
15. Torchy’s Tacos – Houston, TX
I never realized that breakfast tacos were such a big thing in Texas, but being both a breakfast lover and a taco lover, I embraced it wholeheartedly on my trip to Houston. Luckily, I stayed with a local who made sure to take me to Torchy's. In lieu of the diarrhea-inducing, horse meat, counterfeit Tex-Mex of a place like Taco Bell, these tacos felt authentic and wholesome while being flavorful and reasonably priced. This might be the one thing that we all want to spread from Texas into our hometowns.
16. Paradise Valley Burger Company — Scottsdale, AZ
Once featured on Guy Fieri's "Diners, Drive-ins, and Dives," Paradise Valley Burger Co. is known for their creative, delectable burgers that are truly one of a kind. Since everything in Arizona is so far apart, I ended up having to run 2 miles here and back, so I had major nausea after, but I knew the A-list celebrity status I would undoubtedly attain from my prolific writing in my Spoon article memoir would make it pay off. I paired my burger with french toast fries, which are an absolute must try if you ever make it here.
17. Original Breakfast House — Scottsdale, AZ
If you haven't gotten the memo yet, I love breakfast. I particularly love breakfast cafés, and I measure the quality of the cafe through a complicated three-part weighted algorithm: the friendliness of the staff, the fluffiness of the omelet, and the seasoning and crispiness of the home fries. Original Breakfast House scored 10/10 on all three measures. While I ran about 3 miles here, I took an Uber to get back (like a normal person) because it started raining.
18. Creamistry — Scottsdale, AZ
Made-to-order restaurants are becoming more popular. From burgers to Chipotle-style restaurants, people love the freedom of building their meal from scratch. I dreamt about the possibilities of make-your-own ice cream, but I thought the limitations of the ice cream making process were too large to overcome. Thanks to liquid nitrogen, however, my dreams came true again. When I found out that Creamistry makes liquid nitrogen ice cream to order with your favorite mix-ins, I had to go.
Again, I ordered the cookies & cream with cookie dough and brownie bites mixed in. The first few bites were fire, but I do have to admit that the downside to this freshly made ice cream is that it melts pretty quickly. Regardless, I loved the made-to-order model and novelty of this shop, and would definitely recommend visiting at least once.
19. Mike’s Pastry – Boston, MA
I walked into the packed Mike's Pastry shop in the North End of Boston on a Friday night, into what was kind of a free-for-all to get to the front counter and place your order. In no particular rush, I took my time and ultimately ordered a Nutella cannolo (singular of cannoli).
To weigh in on the feud between Mike's Pastry and Modern Pastry, I'd say I'm #TeamMikes from the overwhelming amount of people who told me to go here. However, I realized two bites in that I don't like cannoli (SAD!), so while I'm glad I tried it, I'm not sure I have anything else productive to add.
20. Blunch – Boston, MA
Another joint that appears on Guy Fieri’s Diners, Drive-ins, and Dives, I also stopped at this place on the way to the airport. Luckily, I didn’t make the same mistake this time, and had a little bit of cushion before my flight. I ordered The Bird (chicken breast, mozzarella, roasted tomatoes, artichoke aioli, greens). Hearty, filling, and pressed to perfection, in stark contrast with Guy Fieri’s hair.
21. Red Compass — New York, NY
I came upon this fine piece of art on Instagram, and was surprised to find that this was in fact not a piece on display at the MoMA, but rather a dish served at the Red Compass in the Lower East Side. I ventured in on a Saturday afternoon after staying over my friend’s apartment. I was as excited as humanly possible when I sat down and ordered, but the whole ordeal ended up being an exercise in patience.
I waited over forty-five minutes after ordering to receive my Georgian bread boat filled with cheese and topped with an egg. The food itself was as amazing as I’d imagined, but the service was so slow it seemed like there was only one person working the entire restaurant. Find another Georgian joint for your cheesy-egg bread boat.
22. The Ainsworth — New York, NY
23. Levain Bakery — New York, NY
#SpoonTip: Go to the Harlem location to avoid absurdly long lines while only adding 15 minutes of travel time if coming from lower Manhattan.
24. NY Pizza Suprema — New York, NY
You would think that the pizza in New York was hand tossed by Jesus himself, baked in a flaming coal-fired oven in hell, and then carried on the backs of angels in cardboard boxes into NYC from hearing the way that annoying New Yorkers talk about it. To investigate, I went to NY Pizza Suprema, featured on national TV numerous times and once ranked best slice of pizza in Manhattan. Having eaten at a couple of other nationally ranked pizza joints (Bill’s Pizza in Palm Springs, CA, and Pizza Time in St. Augustine, FL) I was eager to see how this divine creation matched up.
I got a cheese slice and a buffalo chicken slice—my favorite topping—but the cheese was actually way superior. The buffalo chicken had a tomato sauce base, which is just not the best way to serve it. The cheese slice was absolutely fantastic—perfectly crispy and melty, but not noticeably better than two previous pizzas I mentioned. I was also disappointed to find that Jesus has no role in the pizza making process. The magic touch lies in the trade secrets of an Italian immigrant from the 60s passing it down the family line.
Definitely come here if you’re looking for an outstanding pizza slice in Midtown, but keep it simple by getting cheese and don’t expect to shipments of dough sent down from heaven.
25. Best Bagel & Coffee — New York, NY
On a similar note, those same annoying New Yorkers claim there’s “something” about the water in the five boroughs that makes bagels in New York better. I never quite believed that (and it’s since been debunked). Again, the bagel from Best Bagel & Coffee near Midtown was incredible in its own right, but not superlatively outstanding or life-changing. A bonus though was that it was right next to the bus stop that brought me to NYC, and I did enjoy it enough to go back whenever I need a quick breakfast before boarding a bus south.
26. Los Tacos No. 1 — New York, NY
Los Tacos No.1 is a vendor inside Chelsea Market, and another place that I found out about through a viral video. They have a “secret menu” item in which you can order a tortilla shell made out of cheese instead of corn or flour. Pair it with steak, and what you end up with is enough to make me tear up as I write this description: a salty, crispy shell bursting with the flavor of the cheese mix that exquisitely complements the savory, juicy, meatiness of the steak. It is slightly more expensive than a regular taco to get a cheese shell, but you are missing out on the taste bud thrill ride of your lifetime if you don’t try it. Go try it right now.
27. Oatmeals — New York, NY
Looking for a hearty breakfast in Greenwich Village, I recalled seeing a trendy oatmeal stand on the Food Network Snapchat story a while back. Surely enough, it was Oatmeals. They have curated menu items as well as a build-your-own option that I chose. On the left is a sweet version (blueberries, strawberries, almond butter, brown sugar, skim milk) and on the right is a savory alternative (poached egg, bacon, Gruyére cheese, olive oil, sea salt).
28. Peach Valley Cafe — Gainesville, FL
Peach Valley has the best home fries of any breakfast café I’ve ever been to, and I’ve really tried hard to find some that are better. They’re so good that I always order an extra side of their home fries with my breakfast, and one time I even went as far as to order three. The apple fritters are another gem and a must-order as an appetizer if you’re craving something sweet.
29. Brasserie by Niche – St. Louis, MO
It was pretty intimidating that there were two words in the name of this restaurant that I wasn’t sure how to pronounce correctly, but even after I overcame that, I realized that I wasn’t sure how to pronounce what I wanted to order either—the croque madame. I almost succumbed to my fear and ordered the eggs benedict, but decided to dig up my courage upon the recommendations of a fellow Spoon writer and the renowned food critics on Yelp.
When I said my order aloud, I could sense that my mispronunciation made the waiter want to parade me out the restaurant naked while all the diners chanted “SHAME!”, but he was nice about it. I was also apprehensive about foregoing my beloved home fries for regular fries during brunch, but it ended up being a risk well taken.
30. The Original Chick-fil-A Dwarf House – Hapeville, GA
Chick-fil-A and I have a long, tumultuous, romantic history. I fell in love with it hard and fast at first at the tender age of 14. However, after some pieces of information came to surface as we spent more time together, we realized we didn’t quite see eye-to-eye on some pretty major issues, which threatened the very fabric of our relationship. There was a period of separation, provoking an intense withdrawal, which was harsh (more for me than Chick-fil-A, I admit it) but necessary for both of us.
Eventually, I learned to look past some of those differences and focus on what brings us together. Ultimately, I couldn’t withstand the lust of their plump, juicy chicken breast. Relationship renewed, we made a mutual decision to take the next step. Recently, I visited the birthplace of Chick-fil-A, the very first location in Hapeville, GA just minutes from the ATL airport, originally called "The Dwarf House." At first, I was a bit taken aback by what I saw: the serving of BEEF burgers, as well as its concurrent operation as a full-service breakfast diner.
I reminded myself to stay committed to my values of embracing differences and change. I walked out with an egg white grill in hand, and stared longingly out the window on my Lyft to downtown Atlanta, deep in thought about the piece of history I just experienced.
31. Hooters on Peachtree – Atlanta, GA
Fresh off watching adorable sea lions roll around in ice buckets at the Georgia Aquarium, I knew what I needed next. I walked deeper into downtown, and straight into a Hooters. I came here not because I needed the food, and not for the “Hooters Girls” either. Well, that’s not entirely true. The one that I needed was Courtney from Hooters on Peachtree. I wondered if she could be the piece to complete me, like she was for a young Aubrey Drake Graham. I didn’t get my hopes up though, knowing about her recent engagement.
Surely enough, Courtney was nowhere to be found. Three boneless wings into my meal, however, I overhear a woman at the table next to me refer to her friend as “Courtney.” Something comes over me and I lose control of myself. I walk up and start shouting Drake lyrics like an emotional teenager, asking if she can “REMEMBER OUR TALK IN THE PARKING LOT AT THE RITZ GIRL I FELT LIKE WE HAD IT ALL PLANNED OUT” and the last thing I remember as the manager threw my 140 pound frame onto the sidewalk of Peachtree street was picturing Courtney under my eyelids, shaking my head, and thinking: “Who you settlin’ for, who better for you than the boi huh?"
Ponce City Market – Atlanta, GA
My ego (and my elbows) were still bruised from my rejection at the hands of Courtney from the previous day, but I felt rejuvenated from a successful interview day so I headed to Ponce City Market at the recommendation of a friend. Having been to Union Market in Washington D.C. and Chelsea Market in NYC, I was excited to see how Atlanta’s counterpart matched up. The market is in a quaint, converted Sears warehouse from back in the day, now filled inside with food vendors, office spaces, as well as a mini-amusement park and restaurant on the roof.
32. Hop's Chicken, Ponce City Market – Atlanta, GA
I scoured vigorously through the vendor list before choosing to go to Hop’s Chicken first. I ordered two pieces for only $5 and elected to have them served “Nashville Hot,” having almost missed a flight once for that wonderful flavor. Seeing as they drenched the chicken in this sauce to the point that it dripped everywhere, I would have elected to forego the sauce. Still, the juiciness and the quality of chicken shone through, and left me satisfied despite the saturation of the wet spice.
33. H&F Burger, Ponce City Market – Atlanta, GA
Craving fries, I went next door to H&F Burger and ordered a quick side. They were exactly what I wanted: thick, crispy, and twice-fried in peanut oil. I alternated between the ketchup they gave me and the Frim Fram sauce and Black Pepper Gravy I received from Hop’s to craft a satisfyingly comprehensive fry-dipping experience.
34. Honeysuckle Gelato, Ponce City Market – Atlanta, GA
About an hour later, I was ready for dessert and walked over to Honeysuckle Gelato to try their ice cream sandwich. Electing for a classic vanilla bean gelato between two chocolate chip cookies, I was pleasantly surprised to find a new favorite, surpassing Baked and Wired’s bakedwich in Georgetown.
Satisfied at having visited three vendors, I ventured up to the roof for an entrance fee of $5 to enjoy the sunset, skyline, carnival games, and lively atmosphere before my evening flight.
As I sat in one of the nestled couches and enjoyed the view on warm February day, I reflected on where I'd been, how I'd grown, and how much more pretentious my palate had gotten since I started my interviews in September. More importantly, I look forward to the future—to the day I sit at a two Michelin star restaurant in Tokyo, look the chef in the eye, and say in perfect Japanese, "this tastes like horseshit."