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The 2011 foodie year in review

by on January 6th, 2012

It seems like late December and early January are flooded with year-end lists.  Top news stories.  Worst fashion ideas.  Best technology inventions.  I am going to add my own – the five best meals I ate in 2011.

1. Tacos al pastor in Mexico City

Pastor is not the spiritual leader who stands up in the front of your church every Sunday.  In this case, it refers to a kind of marinated, slow cooked pork that is used as the meat in one of the most delicious tacos you will ever eat.  (Trust me – try one of these and you will never eat Taco Bell again).  Tacos al pastor (TAP) are about as common on the streets of Mexico as a bag of potato chips is at a convenience store here in the United States.  But they are 10 times better.

Tacos al pastor are traditionally served on small corn tortillas and come topped with cilantro and onions.  At most taquerias (taco stands), you will usually find about four different salsas that you can add to your taco – a red salsa, a green salsa, pico de gallo and a salsa made from the very spicy habanero pepper.  TAP can also be garnished with pineapple and squeezing a little lime juice enhances their flavor (it also helps to tame the heat in the salsa).

The best TAP I had was the first full night I spent on my vacation in March to Mexico City.  I walked along the streets and found an aquaria that looked good.  So I sat down and ordered.  (I can’t remember the name of the place now but could find it again in a heartbeat).  Three TAP plus a bottle of Coca Cola made with real sugar.  All for the equivalent of about $7.

2. Pad Thai

My friend Phil introduced me to the world of pad Thai at a restaurant in Minneapolis back in February.  If you’ve never eaten it, think of pad Thai as the Thai version of spaghetti.  Lots of noodles with some peppers and spices mixed in.  You can get it as spicy as you want – usually on a scale of 1 to 4 with 4 being the spiciest.  Most Thai restaurants will give you the option of adding chicken, shrimp or pork to the dish.

I have since honed in on a restaurant in Wausau that I think serves great pad Thai.  It is called Little Pad Thai on the corner of 10th Ave. and Thomas St.  When I first started going there, I used to get pad Thai with a 3 spice.  I’ve become so used to the heat that I have tried a 4 and like it.

3. Molletes

This was another meal that I savored on my trip to Mexico.  Molletes (pronounced moy-yet-tays) are made with bolillo rolls and some of the bread on the bottom part of the roll is scooped out and replaced with beans and cheese.  You can also top it with ham, chorizo or bacon.  They are toasted until the cheese melts and often garnished with salsa.

I had molletes (with chorizo) for breakfast on the day that I took a trip to see a grade school friend of mine in Cuernavaca.  They are very filling and satisfying.  And if I recall correctly, I washed my molletes down with a glass of fresh squeezed orange and guava juice.

4. Republic Chophouse in Green Bay

I am one of those people who will go to a chophouse or steakhouse and order the fish.  I enjoy steak but I love fish even more.  And the Republic Chophouse in Green Bay serves up an excellent Atlantic salmon.

My friend Patrick and I had dinner at Republic this summer with our friend Bob.  Republic has a pretty subdued atmosphere in the dining area.  The booths are set deep and offer you privacy from other patrons.  They serve different types of bread in a basket with flavored butters to spread (including a yummy parmesan).  The fish was cooked just right – in other words, it flaked off as you cut it with a fork.  The best part of the meal, in my opinion, was the red velvet cake that we ate for dessert.  Imagine 4 layers of red velvet cake with vanilla butter cream frosting and dark chocolate drizzle.  It fills the entire plate and not even three grown men could finish it.

5. Breakfast at Key’s

No food list of mine is complete without a reference to Key’s restaurant.  There are several locations in the Twin Cities but the best one is off of University Avenue on Raymond Avenue in St. Paul.  My grandpa first introduced me to this small diner many years ago and I’ve been in love with it since.  Especially now that I live in Wausau because eating a meal at Key’s reminds me of growing up in the Cities.

Key’s is almost always jammed and you may have to wait a couple minutes for a booth or table on the weekends.  But there are so many pictures hung on the walls of people who have visited over the years or scene shots of the Twin Cities that you can quickly pass the time.  The restaurant isn’t far from the University of Minnesota campus and you’ll sometimes see parents giving their students one of the heartiest meals they’ll eat all week.

The restaurant offers a full menu but I think their breakfasts are out of this world.  Everything from omelettes to pancakes (the cakes are so big that you‘ll almost always have leftovers).

My favorite breakfast at Key’s and about the only thing I’ll ever order is two eggs with Italian sausage, homemade wheat toast (be sure to ask if they have any homemade jam to spread on it) and hash browns.  Where Key’s blows other restaurants out of the water is in the portion size.  They give you a LOT. Eat one of their breakfasts and you’ll be full through dinner.  Warning: the Italian sausage has a bit of a kick to it and will give you some very odorous burps about 20 minutes after you eat it.  The hash browns fill up about half the plate and have a subtle hint of butter to them.  I like to bathe mine in ketchup.  Wonderful combination.

I realize all of the meals I have written about were eaten in restaurants.  I have had my fair share of home cooking in the last year, too, but these are the ones my taste buds remember the most.  I’d like to know what your favorite meals of 2011 were.  And why?  Was it because of the person who shared the meal with?  Did it remind you of a meal you ate growing up?  Or was it such a sensational, sensory experience that there is no way you way you could ever forget it?

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