First of all, can I say that I don’t get why people start publishing their Best Of lists in November? Year’s not over yet, dum-dums. How can you know??

Second, when making a master compendium like this, as you think about the mountains of food you’ve demolished over the year, you figure it’ll be mostly the big-ticket fine-dining spots that’ll populate this list. All the grand event dinners. Not so! Turns out, it was about half trucks, food courts, and popups where I ate the greatest in 2023. Happy to see it, since it’s been very annoying that non-brick-and-mortars usually get passed over for Best in Seattle awards—essentially making this sort of list a pay-to-play situation, as the price of rent continues to skyrocket. Now there’s a list for the little guys!

Although 2023 turned me into a big popup-and-food-truck booster, I didn’t let that influence my picks here. My scientific process was just going through my phone photos and writing down the foods that made me say, “Oh, god, that was so fuckin’ good,” out loud when I looked at them.

Please don’t consider this to be a comprehensive best-in-the whole-city list! It’s just limited to the things that happened to fall into my own mouth in the calendar year. It’s also in no particular order. Feel free to add your own best things you ate last year in the comments as well! I gotta eat all the best things again in 2024, and I need your help.

Vietnamese Curry Chicken Pot Pies at the Ba + Mẹ Popup at Donna’s

Chef Lisa Bi has only been in Seattle for the hottest minute, having moved here from Atlanta in the summer, and she’s hit the ground running, god damn. An EMT by day, she’s popping up at Donna’s as Ba + Mẹ (“Dad + Mom”), serving Vietnamese comfort food, and I was an instant stan of her cá kho tộ (caramelized trout with bird’s-eye chili on jasmine rice) and khao tom (panko-ed shrimp fritters that are formed around juicy sugarcane skewers), along with everything else I’ve tried from her mini-menu. However, it’s the bánh cà ri gà—buttery, savory pot pies, about the size of Hostess Ding Dongs, filled with rich yellow chicken curry—that blew my mind for months on end. I could put away a dozen of these, no prob. I want to keep a bunch in my pocket and walk around town, popping them into my mouth like ripe golden fruits. This is flawless bar food, possibly the most craveworthy of the items on this list, and certainly the most portable! Chef Bi, you’re killing it right out of the gate.

Vegan Red Plantains at BlackStar Kebab Food Truck

How is it so good? HOW?! MEG VAN HUYGEN

Don’t want to make it sound like the peanutty suya kebabs at BlackStar aren’t the absolute business, because they are—my favorite is the organic lamb, which owner Priestwick Sackeyfio orders from New Zealand—but the deep-fried plantains are, like, chemically addicting. These knurled, deep-fried red plantains have the exterior texture of breakfast potatoes and the jammy sweetness of those sugar-coated gummi fruit slices, except they’re dressed with a pinch of salt. I live about six blocks from Saleh’s, where Priestwick parks his Ghanaian food truck on odd Sundays. The first time I ate at BlackStar, I sneaked a little morsel of fried plantain out of the takeout clamshell to keep me company on my walk back… and had destroyed them all before I’d made it home. I was a woman out of control. How can what is essentially fried banana slices be so good?

Barbecue Bison Tacos at ʔálʔal Café

Possibly the best tacos in all of Seattle. MEG VAN HUYGEN

These magnificent tacos were enough all by themselves to place ʔálʔal Café on my Best in Seattle list in the summer—even if the restaurant weren’t an important fundraising outpost for the Chief Seattle Club, which it is, and even if it weren’t crucial for indigenous foods to play a much larger part in our city’s foodscape, which it also is. These tacos would still win the day. Maybe it’s because they’re made from bison, a protein you don’t commonly see on Seattle menus. Maybe it’s the round, robust, chile-based barbecue sauce, or the sweet grittiness of the blue corn tortilla, or the pickled onions that complement the spicy-saucy bison. Maybe it’s the faintly mentholated cedar tea with raspberries, to wash the tacos down. Still not sure of the specific alchemy that was performed here, but ʔálʔal’s tacos are a personal obsession, very possibly the best tacos in the whole city, and required eating in Seattle. 

Hot Honey Cajun Salmon Skewers by Lakea Cooks Popup at Rose Temple

I already raved about what a complete brain genius Chef Lakea Osias is earlier in the year, but full disclosure before I get all revved up again: Rose Temple, the longtime home of her popup Lakea Cooks, is changing hands next month, and you won’t find her there anymore! As Lakea searches for a new kitchen to pop up in, let me remind y’all that you really want to follow her to wherever she lands. Her menu changes often, and there’s never a wrong move upon it, but once she’s back in biz, her hot honey-drizzled, Cajun butter-slathered salmon skewers will be the very first thing I get. It’s the quintessential slutty bar food: a beautiful salmon filet that’s split into three kebabs, slightly grilled, and just fucking drowned in sultry, spicy sauces. Plus they’re on a stick. Everything’s better on a stick. 

Brisket Biscuit at Good Morning Tacos Food Truck

Better than Christmas dinner. MEG VAN HUYGEN

Rarely is Seattle breakfast food this decadent. A truck that usually lurks around the Chuck’s Hop Shop locations, Good Morning Tacos does Austin-style Tex-Mex breakfast (Tex-Brex?), and they do the genre very well, especially anything with chorizo. On rare occasion, alongside the usual burritos and tacos, they’ll serve a brisket biscuit sandwich—a big buttery down-home country-style biscuit that’s heaped with exquisite smoked brisket from Jeff’s Texas-Style BBQ in Marysville, a runny fried egg, a slab of pimento cheese, and a sprinkle of green onions—and when I see it, I fuckin’ get it. This thing is a luscious and obscene spectacle—the yolk running down one side, the cheese squirting out sideways, the fragile brisket dissolving into little basalt columns upon the slightest touch. On Christmas Eve, on my way to see my family, I spotted the GMT truck from the bus and got off two stops early to snag a brisket bisket, and it easily outshined anything I had that night for Christmas dinner. 

Pork Shoulder Sando at Los Costeños, and Also the Garlic Scallop Sando, and Actually All of Their Sandos

At last count, Seattle now has five or six different shops selling the iconic Caribbean roast pork sandwich, inspired by the likes of Paseo and Un Bien. It’s our thing! That we do! But behold: Now there is a cheaper, better challenger. In the Uwajimaya food court, right next to the front door, Los Costeños is serving “Mexican sandwiches” on baguettes that come in 10 or so fillings, with the pork shoulder and the garlic scallop ones vying for first place. Try to tell this roast pork sandwich apart from Un Bien’s, with its tender shreds of roasted pork, faintly citrusy marinade, crispy Romaine, garlic aioli, and long ribbons of caramelized onions. You can’t. You are unable to. I actually like these more because you can add ham and Swiss to the pork sando for 50 cents, and because you’ll wait five minutes for your sandwich instead of 20. The seared scallop version is my #2, featuring the same garlic aioli, Romaine, and caramelized onion as well as a zazzy green olive tapenade.

One caveat: These sanduíches are a fabulous fucking mess, and I strongly recommend asking the nice man to slice yours in half, then unwrapping each half as you go, or the juice will run right down to your elbow. World’s most delicious elbow, though.

Whipped Garlic and Grilled Sourdough Bread at Homer

Homer is great at everything it does, and the seasonal menus are a delicious blur of luxurious Mediterranean dips and slightly charred pitas, fresh from the fire. It’s delirious fun to sit there with your pals and serially dip your bread in all of the dippy dips, with labneh and anchovies and lamb and marigold petals and za’atar and tahini and so on. But the Windsong that always stays on my mind afterward is the classic whipped garlic side. Usually called toum in the Middle East, it’s straight-up just garlic, lemon, olive oil, and salt, pureed into a cloud and served with a big dent in the middle, into which more olive oil is poured. Then you just swipe away, until your pores swell with allicin and your body cavities are too packed with bread to go on. 

I always pair Homer’s whipped garlic with a side of grilled, olive-oiled sourdough, not because Homer’s house pitas aren’t fantastic but because the sourdough is, incomprehensibly, even better. 

The Sapling Cocktail at Korochka (and Especially the Preserved Green Walnut in It)

That's not a cherry, that's a WALNUT! MEG VAN HUYGEN

I love every single goddang thing about precious Korochka, Seattle’s only Russian drinking parlor, from the splashy floral wallpaper to the birch syrup, from the steaming bowls of pelmeni dumplings to the perfect dollop of smetana upon them, from the pickled Korean carrot salad to the horseradish vodka that’ll clear out your sinuses with one sniff. But chief among these beloved things is the Sapling. It’s at once simple and exotic: made of bourbon, green walnut liqueur, and Ango bitters, its garnish looks like it might be a brandied cherry at first, but then you bite into it. It’s a walnut! In disguise! A green preserved walnut! I’d never had the privilege, and the combo of verdant freshness and fruity nuttiness, alongside the mapley tones of the cocktail, is something I suddenly crave sometimes, like a bolt out of the blue. 

Char Siu McCrib Sandwich at the Cousin Popup at Oliver’s Twist

What I love most about Chef Darwin Chaisy is that he’s clearly having a ball with these menus. Cousin started as a mashup between Chaisy and his co-chef and cousin, Johnny Dang, after they hatched up a list of bar snacks that spanned across the Southeast Asian countries—all culinary cousins, so to speak. Although Dang has since moved on from the restaurant industry, Chaisy’s still maintaining and updating the Cousin menu—and he’s added Dang’s cousin, pastry chef Teresa Hong, to the Cousin crew. 

Among others, their menus include Vietnamese, Cambodian, Japanese, and Thai influences, and hit singles include the crab butter-parmesan noodles, the tamarind cheesecake, and the (vegan!) soy-hunny buttah pub mix with peanuts, wasabi peas, and furikake. But it’s almost impossible for me to pass on the chair siu pork sandwich, affectionately known in-house as the “McCrib.” It’s a slab of pork belly roasted low and slow, then coated in Chinese-style char siu sauce and served on a toasted Hawaiian bun with sweet onion, rice-wine pickles, and a touch of bird’s-eye chili. All the accouterments are lovely, but they’re more of a pork vehicle. I would happily eat this unctuous, deep-red, five-spiced pork belly by the bare fistful, ideally in an endless char siu pork-eating contest. Especially the burnt ends. Sí quemo, cuh.

Garlic Eggplant at Little Duck 

🍆 🍆 🍆 MEG VAN HUYGEN

This is the dish that taught me I loved eggplant. Like, I was cool, if lukewarm, about the stuff before I ate this, but I’d read it was the most important dish to order at Little Duck, specializing in Dongbei cuisine from Northeastern China, so here goes nothing. It was gobbled up instantly by not just me but the entire group I was with, to the surprise of many other eager gobblers. Halved Japanese eggplants are flash-fried, along with about a pound of garlic and peppers and other veg, and then it’s all accented with fermented bean paste, ginger, onion, black vinegar, and Sichuan peppercorns, creating a silky, saucy, fragrant vegetarian stew with umami powers that bust right through the roof. Sometimes, I order a box of it with a side of steamed rice, and I eat the whole thing myself, all for me and nobody else.  🍆 🍆 🍆

Butter Mochi at Ludi’s (and Also the Long-Silog, Obviously)

In case you forgot, let me remind you: It’s nothing short of a miracle of nature that Ludi’s has returned to us. Sooooo many dozens of Seattle restaurants have met their demise lately, in the exact same way that Old Ludi’s did, except never to return. It’s still hard to believe our incredible luck.

Since we’ve had Ludi’s home safe again, I try to foil my not-an-early-riser instincts and score a luxurious Pinoy-fusion breakfast whenever possible. (Usually the long-silog, aka Filipino longganisa sausage with eggs and garlic fried rice.) Last trip, they had a butter mochi special, baked by co-owner Rita Glenister herself, and I was blessed with one of the corner pieces. Butter mochi is a Japanese–Hawaiian dessert, made from mochiko (rice flour), butter, and coconut milk and baked instead of steamed, and it has a similar bounce and stretch to traditional Japanese mochi—sometimes called the Q texture. The added richness makes the butter mochi kinda cheesecake-adjacent, and that chewy, caramelized corner piece was like a blondie made of fried coconut fat. An eye-rollingly blissful bite that I think of whenever I’m in Belltown. 

Seco de Pollo at Garzón Latinx Street Foods Popup at the Black Cat Bar

I don’t know what you’re doing with your life, but if you haven’t tried Garzón yet, I’m gonna judge you a little bit. However, now’s the perfect time to hop on this train, because it’s soup season, and Chef José Garzón’s seco de pollo is perhaps king among the city’s soupscape. Seco de pollo is a specialty in Jose’s native Ecuador: Although any meat can be used, he starts with chicken thighs, then loads the pot with potatoes, sofrito, aji (garlic) sauce, and simmers it all for many hours. Garnished with a tangle of serrano/Thai chili/cucumber relish on top, this rich golden-green stew is a soup for the ages, something out of a fairy tale, and will warm up your very bone marrow in less than a minute. He takes it off the menu when it stops being cold—go get it now, so you can miss it all summer.

Tellicherry-Cardamom Latte at Watson’s Counter

Another star from my Best in Seattle roster, Watson’s Counter is a cool conglomerate of a brunchtime diner, specialty coffee roaster, novelty ice cream shoppe, and Korean fried chicken joint—somehow harmoniously, without any need to pick an identity. Owner James Lim’s whole entire point behind opening Watson’s, though, was to wonk out on coffee, and it’s honestly a little weird how his world-class espresso program is going somewhat unsung in Seattle. The latte at Watson’s is brewed from their light, custom-roasted Good Boy blend, a reference to the eponymous pup in the restaurant’s name, with notes of caramel and dried fruit, and the syrups are all handmade too. If you’re wincing at the word syrups in conjunction with the word coffee, I would ordinarily feel ya. But the orange–rosemary syrup in the whipped cream on the Fruity Pebbles French toast converted me, leading me to my fave, the tellicherry-cardamom syrup. It’s a rad flavor midpoint between a chai and a latte, with a strong cardamom pop and a light black pepper cadence in the background from the tellicherry pepper, a woodsier, more fragrant cultivar of the black peppercorn. The world needs more black pepper-flavored things, especially sweet ones.

The Marants Fizz at the Doctor’s Office

I’m (still) on a mission to dissuade Seattleites from flinching at the mere idea of booking a restaurant reservation. If you need to book ahead, that means the bar or restaurant is really good and in demand, and you deserve a chance to enjoy it, right? You’ll schedule appointments for the doctor and the mechanic and the hairdresser? Right? For specialty care? You see where I’m going with this? 

Also, if you’re willing to make a reservation, you can have yourself an absurdly quaffable Marants Fizz at the Doctor’s Office, which is a bar and not a doctor’s office. Comprising coconut milk, bergamot-flavored Italicus liqueur, and vanilla and topped with a shot of soda water, this low-ABV highball presents a little like a Ramos gin fizz and tastes like an adult version of the vanilla egg cream of New York City lore. It’s easy to imagine a grown-up Harriet the Spy chugging them at a swanky hotel bar on the Upper East Side. But seriously, the swiftness and alacrity with which you’ll suck this drink down is, uh, really something. Cue the Unsolved Mysteries theme, because the whole thing is finna vanish. 

Vaca Frita at Mojito

Viva la vaca frita. MEG VAN HUYGEN

Said this before, but there aren’t enough words in English to explain how pissed I am that I overlooked this place for the last 20-plus years. Serving Latin cuisine—primarily Cuban, Venezuelan, and Colombian dishes—Mojito is an expert study in simplicity and hospitality, with a cheerful pastel palette, a disarmingly friendly staff, and a menu of pure comfort food. Mojito does a killer lechón asado, and the sancocho de cola—oxtail soup with chicken, yucca, and veggies, served on fall and winter Sundays only—is plain gorgeous too. But the vaca frita is what brought me back all year, usually with friends in tow. Made from flank steak that’s been simmered, pulled, marinated in lime and garlic, and fried out in a skillet with onions into crisp, crystalline bits, it’s like a beef version of carnitas. The depth of flavor and texture in the meat, the tart lime juice, the sauteed aromatics, the sweetness of the maduros… I come to Mojito knowing I’ll have no choice but to devour the whole plate of vaca frita without stopping, and I plan my day accordingly.