Take it from a bunch of people who travel this country for a living—there is never enough time in a year to see all of the things that you need to see, here in America, in order to truly grasp just what is happening. (And that’s just the food.)

From coast to coast, from the far North to the sunny South, everything’s changing, there are so many cities that just won’t stop growing, so many old familiars that suddenly look different, feel different. Just when you think you’ve got a handle—finally!—on one corner of the fifty states, you realize that in the six months since your last visit, everything got blown up, it’s all new again, no notice, no apologies.

Shannon Renfroe

This is a thrilling space in which to work, because who could ever be bored when there’s so much to learn, even if this also means you’re never not slightly anxious. The work is never done, it may never be done—thank goodness, then, that it is always engaging, typically entertaining, and often downright inspiring.

At the end of the year, here we are, catching our breath, taking an ever-so-brief look back, appreciating each and every moment of the ride, just before it all starts up again. We’ve put forward a sampling of what we’ve learned, of the places we loved, as well as some thoughts on what we’re looking forward to, in 2019. Hang out with us, just for a few minutes. It’ll be fun.

Where to eat right now 

1. Los Angeles

If you don’t know, then ask somebody who does—is there another city in the United States that feels quite so switched on, just now? Sometimes, it feels as if everyone’s moving here—for goodness’ sake, even José Andrés is thinking about it. What they’ll find: Los Angeles is one of those places that you never hope to understand completely, that’s the whole point of living there, you’re never finished, and there’s no point even pretending. Bite off whatever you can chew, quite literally, and enjoy, from the proliferation of exciting Filipino cooking, to the rise of modern Korean, to the vast ocean of possibilities in the San Gabriel Valley, plus every kind of regional Mexican and Central American cooking you’ve got your eye on, and some more you never even knew to look for. Then there are the chefs everyone’s talking about, too many to mention here, from promising young things like Jonathan Yao at Kato, to Brian Dunsmoor, whose seasonal Fuss & Feathers dinners at Hatchet Hall pay tribute to the past, in a most modern way, to Casey Lane, whose Viale dei Romani is perhaps the best restaurant in town right now, and of course we can’t forget pastry queen Nicole Rucker, and her new pie shop, Fiona. What really gives Los Angeles its edge as one of the country’s greatest food cities is just how much there remains to be discovered, in the places most of us aren’t even looking—in neighborhood after neighborhood, from the unapologetically classic to the wonderfully specific, the mind-bogglingly obscure to the almost accidentally au courant, there’s so much, too much, to eat. Better get started.

2. Houston 

Here’s the thing, Los Angeles—Houston is coming for you. Maybe not today, but soon. You can see it all going down; the cooking here comes from everywhere, and in many cases has been here for the longest time—Houstonians of all kinds grow up eating each other’s food, and it feels like everything is so close to hand, unlike in too many other American cities, where you’re often too far from the food we want to eat now. In Houston, the whole world is next door, from Hugo Ortega working high-end Oaxacan magic at a Marriott, to the affordable bowls of goodness at Pho Binh, just blocks from the gloss of the Galleria. There are weekday Indian brunches at Pondicheri in trendy Montrose, business lunches of Banh Cuon and duck salad at standby Huynh, in the shadow of the downtown skyline, fast-casual joints selling artisanal banh mi (Roostar) and gorgeous bowls of char kway teow (Sing). There are so many names to know, now—talented Nick Wong at the delightful little UB Preserv, one part of Chris Shepherd’s quickly-evolving empire, where pastry chef Victoria Dearmond brings joy to table after table on a nightly basis. There’s Ryan Lachaine at Riel, and of course Justin Yu (Theodore Rex), who with local bar macher Bobby Heugel gave the city one of its best new hangs Better Luck Tomorrow. In 2019, word is they’re going to do it all over again. (We’ll be there.) Ditto for master sommelier David Keck, too, whose popular honky tonk Goodnight Charlie’s is apparently the first step toward taking over a small stretch of Westheimer Road. Then there are all those new food halls, there is hometown gal Beyonce’s favorite restaurant, and one of America’s finest classic cafeterias, now better than ever—seriously, we’d look away, but we’re afraid we’re going to miss something.

3. Oakland

If the future is female, it’s already happening here, in this sunny, invigorating jumble of a city that spent too damn long in the shadow of San Francisco, but that’s ancient history, now. While there have been restaurants to get excited for, here in Oakland, for quite some time now, there’s been this wave of entrepreneurial women, recently, making everything even more interesting, and you need to know about all of them. There’s Tanya Holland at Brown Sugar Kitchen, there’s Nite Yun at Nyum Bai, Janice and Brandi Dulce at FOB Kitchen, a Filipino pop-up that’s found a permanent home in Preeti Mistry’s old Juhu Beach Club space. Of course, there’s Reem Assil, too, one of 2018’s all-around standouts; most recently, Assil partnered with Daniel Patterson to open the sit-down Dyafa, a follow-up to her bright and beautiful bakery in Fruitvale. Speaking of men, they’re allowed—from James Woodard at Smokin’ Woods BBQ, one of California’s best, to Keba Konte, founder of the one-to-watch Red Bay Coffee, there are so many people to know now, joining now nearly old-timers like James Syhabout (Commis, Hawking Bird, CDP), and the gang at Ramen Shop, where the Japanese staple gets the Chez Panisse treatment, to beautiful effect. All in all, it’s a beautiful moment, here in Oakland, and make sure you don’t miss out—the same pressures that have made San Francisco such a challenge for restaurateurs are now being felt in the East Bay, too. Who knows what the next few years will bring.

4. San Antonio

Yes, we’re back in Texas again, because that is where so much of America’s future is unfolding, and so quickly, too—always treasured for its love of heritage, San Antonio is on a growth tear like you wouldn’t believe, and of course that means new food, new makers, new restaurants, and plenty of them. From that long list, the ones you need in your life the most urgently are the ones with the most pronounced sense of place, because that is what San Antonio is all about; at 2M Smokehouse, far on the city’s southeast fringe, native son Esaul Ramos brought what he’d learned in nearby Austin back home, creating—quite organically—one of the most forward-looking barbecue joints in a state that’s never short on the stuff. Alex Paredes worked in one of the city’s finer kitchens before opening Carnitas Lonja, a Michoacan-style carnitas spot operating out of a postage stamp space down along the way to the historic Missions, across from a Whataburger. These two talents alone could lure us back to San Antonio, any day of the week, and you should go, too—while there, make sure to stop by La Panaderia, the new-wave bakery from two entrepreneurial Mexico City expats, where we are reminded that there’s nothing quite so irresistible, baked goods-wise, as a proper concha. As Austin continues to see astounding growth, becoming an increasingly scrubbed-up version of its weird old self, San Antonio offers an excellent reminder, at least for now—you can grow, and you can grow a great deal, without wiping out what was there before. Let’s hope that holds.

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