One of the best things about this job is all the new foods I get to sample when writing about new restaurants.
This year was especially fun, learning about new dishes and cuisines like the 15 kinds of meat at Brazilian restaurant Texas de Brazil, Chinese soup dumplings that take all day to make at Little Fat Dumpling, and the Japanese style of cooking over 1,000-degree charcoal called robatayaki at Tamari Robatayaki & Whisky Bar.
Each year I like to look back at the delicious things I’ve tried and pick out my favorites. Often I’m surprised to find its not a main dish a restaurant is known for that I fall in love with, but something a little more obscure that makes an impression (like the scratchmade herbal tea at El Basha, mmm).
That’s why this year’s list is an eclectic mix (as in, there’s Brussels sprouts on it). It also it reflects my healthy tendencies and love of cocktails. (If you follow me on Instagram you know I love my cocktails. If you don’t follow me, feel free to at @bethanyclough.)
Please remember that this is not a definitive list of the best foods in Fresno, but the best of what I tasted in the last year. It skews toward new restaurants because that’s what makes news on my beat. There is so much good food in this town, especially by restaurants that have been operating here for years.
Here’s what I loved in 2018, in no particular order.
Butter paneer pizza – The Curry Pizza Company. This is a pizza place that sells both Indian and traditional American pizza. You can get butter chicken or butter paneer on your pizza but the paneer (a firm cheese used in Indian cuisine) was the tastiest of the two. There’s usually cilantro on the pizza too, which is good because once you try it, you realize cilantro belongs on a pizza.
The original Curry Pizza restaurant is at 3173 W. Shaw Ave. in Fresno. A second location is in the works at the northwest corner of Willow and Nees avenues near the Wassabi on Fire restaurant.
The bramble is the cocktail that introduced me to my favorite gin (The Botanist). It’s a savory yet floral gin that pairs perfectly with fresh blackberries and thyme in The Library’s drink.
If you want to try it, you’ll need to make a reservation at the speakeasy’s website. It’s at 750 E. Olive Ave.
Xiao Long Bao dumplings – Little Fat Dumpling. Soup dumplings, little packets of dough that burst open in your mouth with flavorful soup, are a big thing in the Bay Area and Southern California. They are finally hitting Fresno.
The Xiao Long Bao dumplings are so delicious that you just have to stop your conversation, close your eyes and savor them. They take a whole day to make and they taste like it.
The soup is made with pork skin, green onion, ginger and more that’s simmered for six hours. It’s then refrigerated until gelatinous, allowing it to be sealed inside a dumpling with 20 tiny pleats made by hand. It’s then steamed, turning the inside back into soup.
Little Fat Dumpling is at 8482 N. Friant Road, next to Butterfish in the Park Crossing Shopping Center.
Spicy chicken wings – Tamari Robatayaki & Whisky Bar. Restaurants in this town do chicken wings well and the spicy chicken wings at Tamari are among the best I’ve ever tried, if not the best. They’re deep fried – which makes everything taste better, right? – and then immediately basted in one of three sauces. Customers get to pick from teriyaki, spicy teriyaki or spicy garlic teriyaki. Even though they’re called spicy chicken wings, the teriyaki sauce option makes them palatable for people who don’t want spicy food.
Brussels sprouts – Eureka! Restaurant. The husband and I like to go out for “sprouts and tails,” as we call it, trying and rating Brussels sprouts at various restaurants, along with cocktails.
For those of you thinking “ew” right about now, remember the Brussels sprouts of today are not the same ones my father used to stink up the kitchen with when I was a kid. They’ve been selectively bred to remove the bitterness and that funk. Chefs have figured out that making them crispy is key and otherwise unleashed their culinary creativity on them so that that they’re showing up on menus of popular restaurants all over town.
By far, the crispy glazed Brussels sprouts at Eureka! are the best we’ve had (though the crispy fried ones at a South Gate Brewing Company in Oakhurst are a close second). Eureka’s are made with an orange chile glaze and a blend of a herbs.
And yes, there’s an S on the end of Brussels because the vegetable is named after the city in Belgium. Eureka! is at 7775 N Palm Ave., in the same center as GB3.
Mango cake - Passage to India Bakery. This bakery selling Indian and American treats (attached to an Indian and American pizza place) is a fun place to explore with an open mind. There are chocolate tea cups filled with cream and cinnamon crisp cookies as big as your head.
When I first visited, I bought a couple of decadent chocolate treats. When the owner tucked a little slice of mango cake into the box, I figured I’d give it a try, but I was really focused on the chocolate. Boy, were my priorities mixed up. The bright orange cake with layers of creamy frosting was the best thing I tasted there.
Passage to India is at 5562 E. Kings Canyon Road at the southwest corner of Clovis Avenue.
Citrus acai bowl – Farm Fresh Bowls. Acai (pronounced ah-sye-ee and named after the berry) bowls are big right now. Usually with a base of acai sorbet, they’re then topped with fruit at places like Rio Acai Bowls and Ohana Pantry, both in downtown Fresno.
But it’s the citrus acai bowl from Farm Fresh Bowls at Campus Pointe next to Fresno State that earns a spot on the top 10 list. It’s topped with whatever fruit is in season, often oranges, strawberries, blueberries, bananas, I even think I’ve seen some Asian pears in there. It is cool and creamy and the perfect antidote to a sweaty day running around Fresno.
Farm Fresh’s bowls score extra points for being a little healthier. Sometimes acai bowls can be high in sugar, but the one created by owner Kristen Vaz – who has a nutrition degree and went to culinary school – blends acai juice with Greek yogurt and local frozen fruit to make the base of the bowl. It can be made vegan and gluten free too.
Farm Fresh Bowls is at 3042 E. Campus Pointe Drive in Fresno, and has a drive-thru location at 5427 W. Cypress Ave. in Visalia.
Cucumber margarita – Hacienda Tequila. This Clovis Avenue Mexican restaurant might have a ton of other spectacular margaritas, but once I tried the cucumber one, I saw no need to try any other kind. It’s that good.
It’s made with little squares of cucumber, peel and all, that float in your drink. It’s an ideal complement to spicy food and salty chips.
Hacienda Tequila is at 1320 Clovis Ave., between Shaw and Barstow avenues.
The avocado toast at this Fig Garden Village restaurant is so much more than bread smeared with avocados. It’s grilled country French bread topped with avocado slices, Bari olive oil (which is made in the Valley), lemon zest and Maldon sea salt. It’s topped with two poached eggs, perfect for popping with a knife and watching the yolk soak into the bread while you film it and post it on Instagram.
It has the mortgage-friendly price tag of $12.99, or $14.99 if you want tomato, basil and feta added. This meal is plenty to fill you up, but not so much that you waddle uncomfortably back to your car after breakfast.
Togarashi edamame – Lazy Dog. Edamame, those little soybeans cooked in their own pods, are tasty with just a little salt. But Lazy Dog has done something unprecedented with them. They’ve amped up the flavor Japanese style, with chili flakes, sea salt, orange peel, garlic, ginger and black pepper so that it has just the right amount of kick.
Since you squeeze the beans out of the pods with your fingers and into your mouth (or like me, occasionally send one flying across the restaurant) it gets a little messy, but the sauce is tasty so you won’t mind.
Lazy Dog is in the former Elephant Bar at 7965 N. Blackstone Ave.
I’d also like to mention a few runners up: Bella Pasta’s tiramisu, Lazy Dog’s huckleberry mule, Eureka’s Fresno fig burger, Parma’s gnocchi, Oakhurst Spirits gin, Papa’s Place’s Juju’s jolly coffee cocktail, Valparaiso’s dirty chai latte (a shot of espresso makes it “dirty”), Fleming’s chocolate lava cake, El Basha’s herbal tea, and Five’s creme brulee.