Whenever I travel, one of the first questions I ask is, “Where will I eat?”

Where will I eat? What will I eat? Is there a can’t-miss meal-of-a-lifetime nearby?

These are important questions, and everywhere I go I try to find some food experience that exemplifies the place. Sometimes it’s a simple meal, sometimes it’s something decadent, but whatever is on the plate or in the glass always embodies the spirit of where I am.

So on that note, here are a few of the best spots I’ve been lately; places the food and drink are so good that, when I close my eyes and think about that meal, I’m transported and transformed.

Southern Smoke bbq plate

Southern Smoke Barbecue dishes up some twists on traditional North Carolina ‘cue. Photo © Jason Frye.

New Orleans, LA

Willie Mae’s Scotch House

Fried chicken is a Southern staple and every cook worth their salt has a twist on a family recipe they claim is the tastiest you’ll ever try. But Willie Mae’s Scotch House in the Treme neighborhood of New Orleans may just have them all beat. The breading is seasoned and perfectly crispy; the meat—white or dark—so juicy you want to cry; and the sides…oh, you’ll never have a better bite of fried okra or forkful of red beans and rice.

The restaurant sits out and away from the bustle of Bourbon Street and the tourist traffic of the French Quarter. The fare is simple—fried chicken and sides—but you’ll want to add this to your list of New Orleans must-eats (which should also include Toup’s Meatery, Compère Lapin and, of course, Café DuMonde).

Willie Maes

Willie Mae’s sits in the Treme neighborhood of New Orleans. Photo © Jason Frye.

Hansen’s Sno-Bliz

While I’m talking about New Orleans I may as well go ahead and point out the obvious: it’s hot. Now, you can cool off with a daiquiri; Lord knows there are plenty of those to go around in the Big Easy, but if you really want some refreshment, make your way to Hansen’s Sno-Bliz.

Hansen’s serves shaved ice doused with homemade syrups and creams and it’ll give you a break from the heat like nothing else on earth. This family (it’s now owned and operated by the granddaughter of the Sno-Bliz OGs) has been serving Sno-Bliz since 1936, so they’ve got it down to an art.

Head into this nondescript little shop and see if you can spot their James Beard Award while you choose between the four-dozen flavors and toppings. If you get lucky, like I did, you may just run into Top Chef favorite and New Orleans chef Nina Compton getting a treat of her own in line in front of you.

Mills River, NC, and Nellysford, VA

Bold Rock Cider

Hard cider is making a comeback, and in Henderson County, North Carolina, cideries are popping up at an incredible pace. Bold Rock Cider is the biggest, but others—like Flat Rock Ciderworks and Appalachian Ridge Artisan Ciders—are making the most of the apple bounty from the orchards around here. (On a side note, Henderson County produces the 7th most apples in the United States, so they have a lot to choose from.) They have an interesting approach at Bold Rock: they make two distinct ciders using only apples from around their cidery. That means at the North Carolina location you get apples from Henderson County, and in Virginia, you get a totally different cider using all Virginian apples, even though they’re from the same recipe.

Bold Rock Cider

Bold Rock Cider. Photo © Jason Frye.

North Carolina

M Sushi

Can food take you someplace you’ve never been? I think so. Because when I’m in Durham, NC, and I sit at M Sushi’s bar, listening to the sushi-wizards talk and tasting the rolls they produce as if by magic, it’s like I’m in Japan for the first and hundredth time. Super fresh fish, precise knifework, and an artist’s eye for detail make these rolls the best I’ve eaten. Don’t miss the uni. Or the o-toro. Or the ebi. Or any of it. Just go already and order the whole menu. You won’t regret it!

uni and M Sushi in NC

Do not miss the uni at M Sushi! Photo © Jason Frye.

Barbecue

I’ll go ahead and get this out of the way: I’m not sorry for what I’m about to say, but North Carolina has the best barbecue around. (Next time I’m in Texas or Memphis or South Carolina or wherever you are, offended and passionate barbecue fan, I’m happy to share a plate with you and discuss.) From one side of the state to the other, you find distinct styles and philosophies for this, the greatest and simplest of foods.

In Eastern North Carolina, Skylight Inn and Sam Jones BBQ approach barbecue in the true Eastern North Carolina style: whole hog, chopped and seasoned with a peppery vinegar that unique to the region. One bite of a barbecue plate or sandwich and you’ll think twice about other sauces.

Southern Smoke dinner table

Dinner at Southern Smoke Barbecue. Photo © Jason Frye.

Moving a few miles west, Southern Smoke Barbecue dishes up some twists on traditional North Carolina ‘cue on Thursday and Friday (get there early and get in line; when they sell out, they close), but throughout the year Pitmaster Matthew Register’s South Supper Series draws inspiration from cuisines and barbecue styles across the southern U.S. to present the most elegant barbecue dinner you’ll find.

Lexington, NC, sits in the middle of the state, and is home to Lexington Barbecue (also called Lexington #1 and Honey Monk’s), serving some of the finest barbecue you’ll ever eat. Order a plate of “the brown”—that’s the bark, that outside portion of the shoulder where the smoke and seasoning meet—and be prepared for a whole new barbecue paradigm.

In the mountain town of Asheville, Elliott Moss has brought whole-hog barbecue to Western North Carolina, a land of shoulders and sweet sauce. His ‘cue is outstanding, but the sides are absolutely out of this world. And I hear he makes a mean chicken sandwich, one that’ll make you want to nominate him to be a Kentucky Colonel. Make your way to Buxton Hall to try it out.

Las Vegas, NV

Steaks

In a city as decadent as Las Vegas, there’s nothing for it but to eat the most decadent things you can find. Am I right?

Carne Vino steak

CarneVino may just change the way you think about steak. Photo © Jason Frye.

Head to CarneVino one night and CUT the next for two steak experiences that may make you cry. CarneVino, from Mario Batali and Joe Bastianich, serves two dishes that are out of this world: Carne Cruda Alla Piemontese and a dry-aged bone-in ribeye they carve tableside. I don’t know which was better, the cruda—tartare—or that ribeye, but they changed the way I think about steak.

At CUT, Wolfgang Puck and crew take steak to the next level with a Wagyu steak tasting menu. With an array of American and Japanese Wagyu to choose from, you’ll find this steak is unlike anything you’ll ever eat. Prepared simply—a proprietary seasoning and a quick sear—or made like one perfect bite I had—Indian-spiced Japanese Wagyu short rib—it’s fork tender and luscious; absolute steak perfection.