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Sietsema’s 10 Worst Dishes of 2016

Eater's senior critic rounds up the most awful things he ate in the line of duty this year

I’m not by nature a mean or malicious person, and would prefer to praise the good food on a menu than slam the bad stuff. But that time of year has arrived when we need to seek closure for the culinary suffering we’ve endured over the past months. Here are my 10 worst dishes of the year. Many come from restaurants that are not themselves bad — in fact some are even great, making these spectacular lapses all the more difficult to explain. But, like slipping on ice, it takes just one creative hiccup, or lack of attention to ingredient compatibility, or misapprehension of what the public wants to eat, to land on this list. Soon it will be my happier task to recite my 15 favorites of the year, but until then, hold your nose and dive in.


Chicken Ramen at Wagamama — The menu promises a "rich chicken broth," but what arrives is gray and thin, like water lying in a ditch. Furthermore, the grilled chicken is without savor and the noodles so far from al dente that they’re better swallowed whole without chewing. This is a bowl of purest null.

Beef Tacos at Trump Cafe — First off, we must ponder why this dish was called "beef tacos" — there was only one, and it was so obviously a "taco bowl," something that’s well-known among fast food establishments. It still might have been good, except the ground beef was entirely without spicing, and all it had to help it out was lettuce and processed yellow cheese. So go ahead, Mr. President-Elect, sue me!

Chicken Tamales at Whole Foods — For a food chain so seemingly obsessed with organic and sustainable sourcing, it seems paradoxical that the company’s cafeteria treats its ingredients with such contempt. These tamales tasted like chalk, in addition to being very low in actual chicken. And the black beans could have used some seasoning, too. As in the case of the Trump Tower restaurant, one wonders why lively Mexican cuisine is being rendered in such dull fashion.

Hire Katsu Roll at Mi-Ne Totoya — I guess you can make a maki roll out of almost anything, including shoe leather. That’s just what this roll — stuffed with a scalding-hot pork cutlet — reminded me of when Japanese discount sushi chain Mi-Ne Totoya rolled into town this year. Ignore the invented maki rolls; you’ll find the other sushi and sashimi exemplary.

Egg Sandwich at El Rey — When El Rey opened three years ago, it was an instant hit with folks who liked light food of scintillating freshness prepared to order and featuring plenty of avocados. Then the spot, wildly popular with the culinary cognoscenti, underwent a sea change, and suddenly at lunch everything was grab and go from the refrigerator case, including this clammy and disheveled egg sandwich.

Classic Burger at By Chloe — Several notable restaurants have proven that an excellent veggie burger can be made, one that’s juicy and flavorful and has the proper squish-to-crumble ratio. Not so at By Chloe, where the tempeh, walnut, chia formula of its flagship product has the texture of a handball, rubbery and unsatisfying, with a toppings roster that’s mainly lettuce. The desserts, however, are often great.

Chili Con Queso at Rio Grande — Any Texas college student in the dorm knows how to put a chili con queso together: one can of Rotel chiles with tomato, plus one block of Velveeta or similar processed cheese. Voila! Yet in striving for culinary creativity, every Tex-Mex in town screws it up. Witness this example, which uses cheddar and mixes in some excess greenery (scallions, maybe?), which interferes with the dip’s pure trashy flavors.

XL XLB at Drunken Dumpling — The name stands for "extra large xiao long bao," referring to a soup dumpling of extraordinary proportions. The problem is that the wrapper is tediously thick and doughy, and the soup weak and filled with random ingredients. By contrast, the trademark of great soup dumplings is a thin skin and thick, silky soup. Eating this giant thing is an expensive slog, though the other, regular size dumplings here are fine.

Glazed Beef Ribs at Hao Noodle — This branch of a Beijing-based chain got many things right, rendering the cuisine from a national perspective with many surprising dishes, some of which, one suspects, were developed expressly for the American market. This sticky version of braised beef ribs — a bistro favorite here for more than a decade — was too sweet by a mile, with the disturbing visual effect of sucking up light. The beef got lost.

Grilled Iberian Octopus at Hail Mary — This new-wave Greenpoint diner strives for uniqueness, and many of its offerings are worth trying. Not this one, alas. Octopus is better served in simple presentations, but this complicated recipe featured pistachio tahini, fried yuca, red onion slaw, and other distractions. It has now been rotated off the menu, but memory of it lingers.

And Here’s a bad dessert:

Salted Caramel Gelato at Dominique Ansel Kitchen — First off, I’m not a Cronut fan, but I do like many of the strange things concocted at this bakery. (Though last year the smoked brownie also landed on my 10 worst list.) This summer, the gelato window drew lots of attention despite narrowly restricted hours, but I found the heavy and fussy cone, little chunks of strewn brownie, and lattice-shaped wafer incapable of hiding the fact that the gelato was bitter and too salty and not the kind of light refreshment that one seeks in the warmer months.

Top photo: The dining room at Hao Noodle & Tea by Madam Zhu's Kithen, by Nick Solares. All others by Robert Sietsema.

Previously: Sietsema's Worst Dishes of 2015 [ENY]

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