Not so many years ago, I needed only one column for the highlights of the year; the fact that I now need two says a lot about how our food choices have expanded and improved. The restaurants on the first list are, with rare exceptions, full-service establishments where almost everything is well above average, but there are so many more -- often modest, frequently ethnic and family-run -- which I enjoyed this past year. Don't expect much decor in most of them, but the reasonable prices and delicious specialties will more than make up for it.
Headingley may seem an unlikely destination for fine Indian cooking, but that's where the ROAD HOUSE EATERY turns out only a few, but masterfully spiced dishes, among them a spicy-hot South Indian chicken curry with hints of tamarind; a mild and velvety butter chicken; and an excellent naan to mop up the sauces. Also, one of the best chicken biryanis I can remember -- accented by crunchy cashews, sweet raisins and thread-thin slivers of fried onion -- and, for dessert, a delectable orange-drenched sponge cake. 5540 Portage Ave., Headingley, 204-888-2255.
There's some top-notch Vietnamese cooking at PHO KIM TUONG. Notably, full-flavoured variations of the namesake phos; the glorious green mango salad with shrimp and/or chicken; plump juicy shrimp stir-fried with asparagus or crisply deep-fried and served over shreds of crunchy veggies; superbly flavourful grilled chicken; and a special dinner for two that features three interesting treatments of beef. Also luscious fruit smoothies. 856 Ellice Ave., 204-661-8888.
Tiny EVERGREEN's 24 seats are almost always taken by fans of its succulent barbecued meats -- moist, mahogany-coloured duck, pork in thin, salty-sweet slices, or in chunks of roasted side pork with crackling. Also the slightly gingery steamed chicken, the crunchy fried chicken with a hint of five spices; the thick, chewy udon noodles with beef and the shrimp or pork-filled dumplings. 331 Pembina Hwy., 204-453-4679.
PURPLE HIBISCUS's printed menu of Caribbean specialties is short but augmented by several daily specials with wonderful, complex flavours. Moist, meaty wings in a sticky citrus glaze; shrimp in a Creole sauce of onions, tomatoes and peppers; oxtails in a rich dark gravy with caramel undertones; and some of the best doubles ever, sandwiched with lightly curried chickpeas and splashed with tamarind sauce. 171 Dumoulin St. (in the St. Boniface Hotel), 204-233-0670.
LA RICA VICKY's Peruvian specialties are a local first, among them superb empa±adas with beef (or chicken), onions, raisins, hard-boiled egg and an olive. Other musts, the marvellous basa ceviche garnished with roasted corn kernels; cool, lime-infused mashed potatoes layered with either tuna or chicken salad; sumptuous hot chocolate (made with chocolate, not powder) and the refreshing chicha morada purple corn drink, spiced with cinnamon and cloves. 570 Sargent Ave., 204-415-2870.
Most of our Ethiopian restaurants are good, but some of GOHE's dishes were particularly impressive. The incendiary tartare-like kitfo or the samosas stuffed with lentils, for example, and such main courses as yebeg chacha -- smoky lamb cubes sautéed with onions and green peppers; qeye wot beef in a dense, gingery sauce of onions and tomatoes and the wonderful doro tibs of marinated chicken in a brick-red, almost Italian-tasting sauce of tomato, peppers and onions. 533 Sargent Ave., 204-414-1529.
KALAN's Filipino food is displayed on a steam table and sold in combos of one, two or three main items, plus rice and soup. All of it was delicious, but the most memorable were the soups; tender squid in oyster sauce; oxtail in a luscious coconut and peanut sauce; meatballs in a sweet-and-sour sauce; and chunks of roasted side pork with cracklings. The biggest selection is at lunch. 1449 Arlington St., 204-586-1449.
CHARLEE'S is a spacious, pleasant place, but even if it were a dive I'd go there for the fabulous chicken potpie soup, topped by little squares of puff pastry, and the terrific sandwich of Filipino-style sweet, caramelized pork topped by a fried egg. Also for penne baked with mushrooms, chorizo and mozzarella; the savoury shepherd's pie and the Reuben made with steamed corned beef brisket. 185 Stadacona St., 204-663-6484.
PIZZA 21ST CENTURY's pizzas were the best of the year, with a variety of crusts and fresh, generous toppings. I could finish the Zagreb all on my own -- ultra-thin whole wheat crust with tomato sauce, mushrooms, ham and asiago -- and there's another fine Croatian touch in the garlicky, all-beef chevap sausages. Delivery and takeout only. 612 Academy Rd., 204-487-2999.
It was also a very good year for ultra-simple but soul-satisfying little places. There may be pool tables in the back and carpeting on some of the walls, but EDDY'S fresh-cooked turkey comes from Hutterite-raised hens, the plump perogies are made specially for them, the potato pancakes are crisp, and I loved the dense lemon loaf and tiny butter tart, 669 Selkirk Ave, 204-582-4768. And don't forget LUDA'S splendid Reuben sandwich and fries, 410 Aberdeen St., 204-589-2583; SONYA'S thick soups and silken perogies, 190 Henderson Hwy., 204-661-3643; and the juicy burger and beautifully dressed Greek salad at PETE'S PLACE. 1777 Main St., 204-339-7225.
To see the locations of these restaurants as well as others reviewed in the Winnipeg Free Press, please see the map below or click here.
Restaurants marked with a red flag were rated between 0.5 to 2.5 stars; yellow flags mark those rated between 2.5 to 4 stars; and green flags mark those rated rated 4.5 to 5 stars. Locations marked with a yellow dot were not assigned a star rating.