Several good restaurants closed in 2013 before they really had a chance to shine. It remains a tough time for many restaurants, so if you have your own favorite independently owned eateries, by all means patronize them as frequently as possible. Some of the restaurants that I really enjoyed but that didn’t make it until the end of the year included Bomba’s Fresh Italian in Jonesborough, Shrimp Tailers in Johnson City, L.G.’s Barbecue in Johnson City and Mason Jar Eatery in Kingsport.
Despite those losses, there are some really stellar dining destinations throughout the region. Here’s my attempt to spotlight some of the best that I visited and wrote about in 2013.
Best Asian: Red Chili, 435 E. Elk Ave., Elizabethton, 213-2104.
This long-time Elizabethton eatery is one of my favorite restaurants. It’s hard for me to stray from my favorite Yellow Curry with Chicken, but when I do, I am never disappointed. In this category, I am also awarding an honorable mention to Angkor Bistro in Johnson City. My favorite at this eatery, which specializes in Cambodian and Thai fare, is the Panang Curry with Chicken.
Best Burger: Mid City Grill, 106 S. Commerce St., Johnson City, 794-2042.
The choices for burgers at this Commerce Street eatery located near the Greyhound Bus Station are quite varied and innovative. Those available at this favorite after-hours spot include The Big Daddie, BBQ Bacon Burger, The Classic Cheeseburger, Gravity Burger, The Heater, The Beckinator and The Full Nelson, which is a pound-and-a-half burger served on an 8-inch focaccia bun. Mid City also frequently offers a “Burger of the Day.” My overall favorite is the Gravity Burger, which consists of burger patties topped with hummus, roast beef, horseradish, lettuce, tomato, red onion and Mid-City’s special Get Saucy Sauce.
Best Barbecue: Uncle Abe’s Dixie Outpost, 3172 Highway 126, Blountville, 574-7447.
From great dogs like The Preacher — a deep-fried dog on a bun that is smothered with a deliciously tart special spicy sour kraut — and outstanding barbecue, including beef brisket and finger-licking good ribs — this eatery ranked as one of my most interesting discoveries of the year. A big plus in my book is getting the chance to enjoy this delicious fare aboard an old school bus renovated as a dining room on wheels.
Best Mexican: Poblano’s, 2697 Boones Creek Road, Johnson City, 928-0178.
In addition to the restaurant’s innovative Mexican dishes, Poblano’s also offers some fantastic soups. The delicately seasoned Pozole Verde Soup became an instant favorite. The flavorful soup features shredded chicken, pozole and tortilla chips in a cilantro-infused broth. The Puchero Soup is also a hearty one and features shredded chicken, vegetables, potatoes and rice in a rich, thick broth, all topped with an abundance of colorful tortilla chips. Upgrade these soups from a cup to a bowl, and you could make a satisfying meal. There’s so much else to choose from as well, such as the Chicken Chimichangas, California Burrito, Carnitas Verde, Grilled Mahi Mahi and the Shrimp and Vegetable Amigo Bowl. Poblano’s really stood out among the Mexican restaurants I visited this past year.
Best Middle Eastern: Mediterranean Garden, 2203 McKinley Road, Suite 100, Johnson City, 328-7685.
A few years ago, Johnson City offered no restaurants with a focus on Middle Eastern cuisine. Now, two restaurants have carved out niches for themselves in Johnson City. The newest is Mediterranean Garden, which is a welcome gem for those interested in sampling international cuisines. The menu’s focus is primarily on Turkish/Greek specialties with many of the dishes prepared from lamb, chicken and beef, as well as lentils, eggplant, chickpeas and other vegetables. This eatery is one of my new favorites from 2013.
Best Chain: FATZ, 980 Over Mountain Drive, Elizabethton, 547-0001.
This regional chain’s origins date back to 1988 when the first FATZ restaurant opened in a renovated peach shed in Spartanburg, S.C. Today, the chain operates 48 restaurants in the Carolinas, Georgia and Virginia as well as Tennessee. The Elizabethton restaurant was only the third location of this chain eatery in the Volunteer State when it opened for business in 2006. You can’t go wrong with the World Famous Calabash Chicken, but the restaurant also offers some tasty Low Country favorites, including Edisto Shrimp and Grits and FATZ Famous Fish.
Best Pizza: Scratch, 100 E. Unaka Ave., Johnson City, 262-8021.
Put aside any trust issues you may have in order to ensure the maximum enjoyment from a visit to Scratch, a family-owned pizzeria with its own wood-fired brick oven pizzeria. The most important choice is whether to build-you-own or show complete trust or “limited” trust in the expert pie-makers. With limited trust, customers can designate some undesired ingredients as “off limits.” Don’t like mushrooms — just let them know and none will show up on your pie. Showing full trust, however, gives them carte blanche to decide on everything from crust and sauce to the cheeses and toppings. That’s the route I went on my visit, and I was definitely not disappointed.
Best Seafood: Biggie’s Restaurant, Raw Bar and Tavern, 417 W. Stone Drive, Kingsport, 765-9633.
From Tuna Tacos and Oysters Rockefeller to Parmesan Crusted Flounder and Seafood Fra Diavolo, Biggie’s Restaurant, Raw Bar and Tavern in Kingsport has your seafood cravings covered. In addition to some really great seafood, Biggie’s offers a wonderful dining atmosphere and great service. Whether you’re in the mood for Oysters on the Half Shell, Roasted or Steamed Clams or Freshly Shucked Fried Clams, Biggie’s has you covered. As far as I’m concerned, Biggie’s was a big hit. I gave an honorable mention in this category to Riverfront Seafood Restaurant, also in Kingsport, where I enjoyed a really great Stuffed Tilapia there during my visit in 2013.
Best Fare from a Food Truck: Caribbean Grill, 824 Sunset Drive, Johnson City, 218-5184.
This delightful and innovative eatery opened for business in February of 2012. Some of the daily specials are so popular with fans that they sell out quickly. I’ve tried on several different occasions to sample the Puerto Rican Pork Platter, but it always seems to sell out before I arrive. I have sampled some other amazing dishes, including the Curry Oxtail Platter. Each time I visit, I discover a new favorite — Peruvian Steak Sandwiches, Chicken Fajitas, Caribbean Hot Dogs, Beef Empanadas — that are each just as tantalizing a treat for the taste buds. Pay them a visit soon and let David and Maria Ramos serve up something terrific for you!
Best Sandwich: Crow’s Nest Cafe, 520 E. Elk Ave., Elizabethton, 543-1830.
The most important thing to know is that much of the fare at Crow’s Nest Cafe is made fresh on the premises. The establishment smokes its own barbecue and bakes its own bread. Desserts, soups and other items are also freshly prepared on site. The menu offers a selection of sandwiches, as well as rotating daily plate lunch specials. The secret to the eatery’s sandwiches is the fantastic bread. All the sandwiches are served on fresh-tasting bread, which is buttered and grilled to provide the foundation for every sandwich. I happen to love the Chicken Salad, which is a smooth, light and refreshing blend of tender chunks of chicken, as well as sliced dark grapes, which is something different from most chicken salads I’ve encountered.
Best Fried Chicken: Lynn Garden Restaurant, 1105 Lynn Garden Drive, Kingsport, 246-3271.
This restaurant is tucked away in the Lynn Garden community, which is slightly off the beaten path for Kingsport. You can’t miss it — look for the large and distinctive outdoor sign as well as the old-fashioned red-and-white striped awnings. Hands down, this restaurant offered some of the best fried chicken I’ve ever eaten. I don’t know their secret, and they’re not telling, but the Fried Chicken at Lynn Garden Restaurant is awesome. The skin is fried to a golden-crisp yet inside the chicken remains moist and juicy, as well as exceptionally flavorful.
Best Dessert: Mid City Grill, 106 S. Commerce St., Johnson City, 794-2042.
For an eatery better known for its burgers and sandwiches, Mid City Grill offers some surprisingly delectable sweets. Passing up dessert at Mid City Grill would be a serious mistake. Dessert could be any one of a variety of cheesecakes — Chocolate Caramel Whiskey Sauce Cheesecake, White Chocolate Macadamia with Dark Chocolate Ganache, Snickerdoodle, Butter Pecan, Birthday Cake, Hazelnut Cream Swirl, Boston Cream and Bananas Foster — as well as Chocolate-covered Bacon on a Stick and a variety of Artisan Chocolates, which are displayed beneath a glass case at the front of the restaurant. Personally, I love the Chocolate Caramel Whiskey Sauce Cheesecake.
Best Overall Restaurant: Red Chili, 435 E. Elk Ave., Elizabethton, 213-2104.
I’ve been enjoying Minae Ward’s wonderful meals at this restaurant since she opened back in October of 2006. It’s surprising how time flies. She has been in business for almost eight years, becoming a regular fixture for many people looking for unique lunch spots in downtown Elizabethton. Although her heritage is Korean, the menu for her restaurant might be best described as one of Asian fusion. A couple of years ago, she began offering Friday evening dinners, which allowed her to expand her offerings to great effect. From an exquisitely prepared Duck Breast to such dishes as Blue Chicken, Be-Bim-Bob and Korean Baby Back Ribs, Minae cooks up a flavorful masterpiece with every dish. The duck, one of her Friday evening specialties, is sliced into bite-sized medallions, drizzled with an abalone sauce and served with a salad of red rice, bell peppers and roasted corn. It’s served crispy on the outside and tender and juicy inside.