My pick for this year’s best restaurant in town is, alas, not in town.

    Lula’s Louisiana Cook House is a 40-minute drive away in downtown Owosso.

    Don’t let that stop you. Strap on your road trip shoes, burn a little non-renewable fossil fuel and make haste for Lula’s. As I said in my April review, this place has the tastes and aromas of Cajun and Creole cuisine down to an art. Gumbo, red beans, rice, andouille sausage and fishermen’s stew. All of it is excellent. Don’t ignore the charcuterie either, a generous sampler dish with house smoked meats from pork belly to duck rillettes.

    By all means, save room for dessert. The bread pudding with whiskey infused sauce and cinnamon spiced apples is by itself worth the trip.

    Two unlikely looking places in this town serve some remarkable smoked meats: Gump’s BBQ and Capital City BBQ.

    Gump’s resides on a dead-end street behind a car wash on Lansing’s near south side. The smoked ribs and other smoked meats display the pit master’s cherished “smoke ring” huddled beneath the crisp exterior, a true sign of slow smoked authenticity. Its Carolina style sauce with strong hints of vinegar nicely complement the smoked meats.

    Capital City BBQ apparently was spawned by a cell phone store, or so I am told. The phone store is still there, joined at the hip with this little restaurant that creates memorable smoked meats and some belly-busting Vietnamese fare.

    I recommend any of the smoked beef brisket dishes or the baby back ribs. They sometimes have smoked meat loaf, which I am dying to try. And don’t ignore the Vietnamese sandwich, Banh Mi. I chose a Banh Mi with pulled pork and Cole slaw tucked between two ample baguette slices. Terrific.

    And since we’re talking Asian inspired food, I suggest another road trip, this one in Williamston. Thai Nation has a massive menu with 70 different sushi rolls from which to choose. It’s the tempura dishes that stole the show. Shrimp tempura udon is a hot noodle dish in rich broth. The tempura-fried shrimp arrive as a side dish. Pile the shrimp into the noodle-broth combo, and you have an amazing, satisfying meal in one bowl.

    Appetizers worth ordering include a shrimp tempura and cucumber topped by tuna and avocado; and an outstanding soft shell crab, also served tempura-style.

    For vegetarians, the age dashi (ah-gay-dah-she) tofu is a must-try appetizer.

    Some honorable mentions of 2017:

    — The Original Steakhouse Philly at Steakhouse Philly Bar and Grill. This sandwich has it all: Shaved sirloin with grilled onions and slightly melted provolone cheese all piled between slices of chewy baguette.

    — Bob’s Way Mac & Cheese at Beggar’s Banquet. Three cheeses are melted and mixed with the pasta, then juicy blackened chicken and bacon are tossed on top.

    —Tuna Nicoise salad at Dusty’s Cellar. Generous hunks of seared tuna (but still rare inside) are festooned with capers, olives, diced potato and roasted red peppers.

    SHE ATE

    By GABRIELLE JOHNSON LAWRENCE

    While I don’t always love heavily sauced food, sometimes a well executed condiment can make or break a dish. For my 2017 retrospective, I want to tell you about five of my favorite condiments in the area, those little things that add a new dimension to a favorite dish.

    Zaytoon is one of our absolute favorite places to grab a healthy dinner and I like to load my chicken shawarma with tons of toum, better known as garlic sauce. This white paste is ubiquitous among our many Middle Eastern restaurants, but Zaytoon’s is especially potent, which I like. My clients and colleagues might disagree with that, but I’m just over here trying to fight off vampires.

    I love the chorizo and cheese quesadillas at El Oasis taco truck, corn tortillas make my heart sing, and I never eat them without dipping each bite into a little tub of salsa verde. It isn’t too spicy and won’t leave you sweating, but it cuts through the richness of the meat and cheese and brightens the flavor of the quesadilla while also brightening my entire outlook on life.

    I know that I’ve beaten you over the head with my love for Tavern 109’s pear pizza, but the unsung hero of my favorite Williamston restaurant is the champagne vinaigrette salad dressing. It’s tangy, without making your eyes water and doesn’t it sound fancy? On top of the spinach salad, it gives a perfect balance to the bacon, apples, pecans, and red onion.

    To me, homemade ketchup screams attention to detail. The spicy version at The Dolson drove that point home. So many places profess to be a “scratch” kitchen, but their ketchup is Hunt’s and their potatoes are formerly frozen. None of this at The Dolson. Paired with their well seasoned, crispy fries, the ketchup is a winner.

    Saddleback BBQ red sauce. I would bathe in this, if that wasn’t totally unacceptable and disgusting. I’ve loved this sauce since the first time I had it, during a housewarming party at our old house. I’ve loved it on burnt end tacos, smoked chicken, and brisket sandwiches. I’ve loved it on wings, fries (don’t knock it) and to add depth of flavor to macaroni and cheese. It’s a slightly sweet BBQ sauce, but has a kick from the addition of black pepper.

    2018 promises to be just as delicious, with new restaurants to try: Batter Up Bistro, Bowdie’s Chophouse, places to anticipate: Punk Taco and Mr. Taco to name a few, and a sweet little addition to my family, anticipated any day now. Here’s hoping that our local favorites continue to innovate and delight even the pickiest of palates.