How’s your fourth Clif Bar of the day tasting right about now? Craving a little meat that isn’t vacuum-sealed or mechanically separated for your convenience? How about some dairy products that haven’t been swimming in your melted cooler ice for the last 300 miles? Don’t settle for the Clown, King, Ginger, or a hot beef sandwich at the Conoco gas station in Malta, Montana (I implore you to trust me on that last one). Open your wallet, mind, and gullet to the local flavors along your route.
Regional Cuisine: Shove in Your Face what the Locals Shove in Their Faces
When it comes to gasoline and hotels, name brands are your friends. Exxon, Chevron, Conoco, Mobil, and Shell are all safe, consistent, and reliable filling stations. You can be reasonably sure that you’re getting the same quality of gas, the pumps will generally work properly, and most of these major brands maintain safe establishments. Similarly, the more recognizable the hotel brand, the more consistent quality of stay you’re liable to receive there. Marriott, Hilton, Hyatt, and even Motel 6 properties tend to operate similarly nationwide. Price, service, and cleanliness are the pillars of consistency upon which you can hang your hat at these chains, knowing that shelling out for a Courtyard Marriott will be a bit more plush than the spartan digs you’ll find in a Motel 6. When dining in a new city, however, never go with the household name. Opt for Oscar’s House of Steak over Outback Steakhouse, choose Charo’s Chimichanga Cart compared to Chili’s, and ditch Denny’s in deference to Daisy’s Daylight Diner.
I want to preface this next section by noting that most of this discussion will revolve around meat and animal-derived products, making it difficult for vegetarians and impossible for vegans to appreciate the scope of what I am attempting to relay. For a vegan-friendly cuisine discussion, please patiently await the release of the ‘Oreo Dissertation’ section of this publication in the coming weeks…
For those of you who do enjoy consuming bits of tasty critters, take a moment to grab a napkin or bib to catch that drool. My publisher tells me these pages aren’t waterproof (something about unrealistic profit margins). It’s cool; I’ll wait for you to get back…
Every state seems to have their own gastronomical specialty, and many have dishes specific to one city within them (think Philly Cheesesteak, Chicago Deep-Dish, etc.). Unfortunately, not all regional specialties are as well known. Some east coasters could very well be living their lives in blissful ignorance of New Mexico Green Chiles, Hawaiian Moco Loco, or Southern California’s Carne Asada Fries. Conversely, those out west are missing out on such delicacies as Maryland Crab Cakes, Southern Buttermilk Biscuits, or New Jersey Pork Roll. Perhaps the most regional, and divisive, cuisine in the United States is BBQ. Depending on where you grew up, these three simple letters can mean anything from simple hamburgers on a backyard grill to an enormous slab of uniquely seasoned meat slow-cooked for an entire day.
The following list is by no means comprehensive, and only involves regional cuisine items that my taste buds have specifically experienced, both on this particular road trip and in my prior travels across the United States.
BBQ: King of the Grill
Eastern North Carolina: Slow-cooked pulled pork, adorned with a tangy, vinegar and pepper-based sauce marks this regional variation, and serves as my personal favorite style of BBQ in any state. Most fine BBQ establishments in this part of North Carolina will serve this thinly-pulled meat with a white coleslaw and hushpuppies. Don’t let the underwhelming sight of this beige-brown goop thrown onto your cafeteria tray fool you – pour on a little sauce, take a big bite with a bit of coleslaw, and dip in a hushpuppie if you’re feeling crazy. You’ll be in hog heaven.
Western North Carolina: Forgive my outrageously unabashed bias in this section, but Western North Carolina BBQ is for barbarians. All of the nuance and refinement of the whole-hog, vinegar-based Eastern style is thrown out the window in favor of an exclusive shoulder-cut and a ketchup-based sauce. Somewhere, an Eastern NC pit master is crying that such a delicious and versatile animal is being ruined by such a preparation. If you want to eat pork with ketchup like a 9-year-old, get a hot dog at your local 7-Eleven and leave the BBQ to the experts out East. As if it couldn’t get any worse, it’s even served with a BBQ-sauce based coleslaw. Savages…
South Carolina: While Western South Carolina’s style is similar to the less civilized side of its northern neighbor, the state does have a more ubiquitous and well-known style that features a mustard and vinegar-based sauce with a characteristic yellow color. I understand that South Carolina can also become fiercely regional about their preferred styles, but the ‘Yellow Gold’ sauce on pulled pork seems to be the recognized standard. As someone who generally detests traditional mustard, its combination with vinegar and brown sugar in this type of sauce is quite palatable.
Alabama: Though Eastern North Carolina BBQ holds a special place in my heart (specifically my arteries), the single best BBQ restaurant I’ve ever visited was at an otherworldly establishment appropriately named Dreamland BBQ in Tuscaloosa, AL. Traditionally, Alabama BBQ is known for a white, mayonnaise-and-vinegar-based sauce served with smoked chicken. Dreamland eschews this style for a tradition all its own, smoking fall-off-the-bone ribs and smothering them in a spicy sauce with elements of vinegar, tomato, and mustard as part of a streamlined, six-item menu. One recommendation I would make to improve their menu includes selling their unparalleled sauce in IV bags… If you’re wondering if Dreamland has compensated me for this glowing review, the answer is a dejected, “No,” but I am open to pork rib-based bribes…
St. Louis: Bring your wet naps and roll up your sleeves for this style, as St. Louis-style pork ribs are grilled to perfection and absolutely drenched in a thick, sweet tomato-based sauce. In preparing these ribs, the tips are removed for a more uniform looking rack, meaning ‘St. Louis-style’ refers as much to the flavor as it does the presentation. Traditional sides include baked beans and potato salad, though a thick cup of beans paired with the thick sauce of the ribs could be a bit much for some palates.
East Texas: As the largest state in the lower-48, one would expect Texas to have a variety of styles of BBQ, and the Lone Star State does not disappoint in this regard. East Texans have a… slower lifestyle, speech pattern, and of course, BBQ cooking method. Typically consisting of chopped brisket (and sometimes pork), this style makes excellent sandwich meat, and pairs nicely with hotter sauces.
Central Texas: Meat is the star of this show. In fact, it’s almost a one-act play, as you’ll likely have so little room for sides or dessert that meat will be all you get the opportunity to enjoy at a Central Texas BBQ joint. Focusing on sliced (not chopped) beef brisket and sausage (the latter being influenced by German and Czech immigrants to this part of the state), little in the way of sauce or other accoutrements are necessary here. If you must diversify your meal’s portfolio, white bread, pickles, and often jalapenos are available to cut your cow-binge. Wash it all down with a flagon of sweet tea and slip into a well-deserved coma.
Chicago: Hot links are your best bet in the Windy City, particularly as the region is already famous for its sausage products. Tube-shaped meat will probably kill you, but if you’re going to eat it (and of course you are), get it here. The best sausages I’ve ever had the pleasure of suggestively cramming into my mouth were right in the heart of Chicago. South Side establishments are known for these delicious extruded cylinders consisting of pork, spices, fennel, and more nitrates than you need in a calendar year.
Baked Goods: Scourge of the Celiac
Southeast Biscuits: These hot, dense golden-brown gems are pervasive in the American South, and not restricted to a single state. Drive through any small town in the Southeast or Deep South and you’ll find a restaurant specializing in buttermilk biscuits. Chicken and biscuits, biscuits and white gravy (typically infused with a generous amount of pork sausage), and buttered biscuits with honey or fruit jam are the most common ways to consume the Dixieland delights. Any restaurant advertising fresh-baked buttermilk biscuits is worth a detour, no matter how recently you’ve eaten. You want them, they sell them, and you and your biscuit will be very, very happy together.
Hawaiian Malasadas: All that weight you lost in preparation for your Hawaiian beach vacation? Forget it. Bring a bathing suit one size bigger than you think you need, because malasadas are on the menu. Essentially a deep-fried donut, coated in sugar and filled with sweet custard, chocolate, or an island fruit-based pudding or jam, these mouthwatering calorie bombs are the favorite treat of natives and visitors alike. Leonard’s Bakery in Honolulu is famous for its malasada-focused menu and nostalgic décor. Thickly-bearded patrons will need to snag a few dozen extra napkins, however, as the sugar and filling tends to get… everywhere.
Texas Fried Pies: You’re a busy road-tripper on the go, craving a delicious slice of pie to carb-and-sugar-load yourself during a grueling stretch of Texas highway. With no time to sit down and wait for your 70-year-old waitress Rhonda to bring you a bite of peach cobbler or chocolate pie, the perfect driving snack has been invented for your convenience: Fried Pies. Shaped like a dumpling, stuffed with just the right amount of diabetic filling, deep fried, and sold at room temperature, fried pies will satiate your dessert craving from behind the wheel and leave you with just barely enough self-respect to keep on truckin’.
New York Bagel: There’s a reason that bagels taste better in New York City than anywhere else in the country. Pull one of these apertured dough discs out of a bakery bin in Kansas City, Kelowna, or Key West, and you’re bound to be disappointed. Colloquially, the softness of New York’s water was thought to contribute to the superb chewiness and texture of their bagels, but it turns out the specific boiling process of the dough preparation makes the Big Apple’s bagels rise above the rest. Ignore any diet you might be on when visiting NYC and indulge in two (and don’t sleep on the lox).
Life is Uncertain: Eat Dessert First
New Orleans Bananas Foster: If you’re lucky enough to find yourself in the Big Easy with some time and money on your hands, there is only one place to get your Bananas Foster fix: Brennan’s on Royal Street in the French Quarter. This New Orleans institution claims to have invented the mouthwatering combination of butter, brown sugar, cinnamon, rum, liqueur, bananas, and of course, ice cream. Tuxedo-clad waiters prepare the confection tableside, but the taste completely eclipses the show and atmosphere. Order one per person; there’s no way you’ll want to share, chéri.
Hawaiian Shave Ice: Unless you’re braving the frosty peaks of Haleakala or Mauna Loa, chances are it’s fairly balmy on your Hawaiian vacation. Beat the heat and get a taste of some local flavor with a shave ice (note the tense of ‘shave’ – if advertised as ‘shaved,’ it’s probably not authentic). Shave ice is much finer than a snow cone (literally and figuratively), with a consistency much more akin to snow than the aforementioned cone itself. Most shave ice vendors will offer a dizzying array of local topping flavors from coconut to mango to lilikoi and even the salty and tangy Chinese plum flavor called li hing mui.
Pacific Northwest Jams & Preserves: This one is admittedly a little borderline for this category, but the thick, sweet canned and preserved fruits from this region are as satisfying an after-dinner treat as any dessert in the country. Spread some marionberry jam on a biscuit, a slice of pound cake, or just help yourself to a heaping spoonful to get your sugar fix. It’s nature’s candy, reduced down and jazzed up with pectin for convenience.
Hawaiian Moco Loco (and Plate Lunch): Here we’ll cover Moco Loco as a subset of the traditional Hawaiian Plate Lunch. Plate Lunch is a staple of Hawaiian cuisine, featuring cold macaroni salad, warm white rice, and a heaping helping of protein. Moco Loco is an odd combination of a hamburger patty topped with a fried egg and covered in a thin brown gravy, all served over the white rice, but it strangely harmonizes. For many diners, a single Moco Loco plate lunch may be the only meal required for an entire day, but don’t plan any high-energy activities for at least an hour after consuming…
Canadian Poutine: Much as I adore Canada’s landscapes, people, and obsession with hockey, their cuisine is largely… underwhelming. Poutine is one exception, and desperately needs to be introduced to the American eatery beyond the handful of northern border states. Classic poutine is simply French fries topped with cheese curds and slathered in brown gravy. I dare you to find a more appetizing drunk food. Variations on the ‘classic’ include adding bacon, fried eggs, or foie gras, or replacing the gravy with a sauced pulled pork or Indian butter chicken (a nod to Canada’s sizable Indian populations in Ontario and British Columbia).
Philly Cheesesteak: Often imitated, never quite perfected outside the Tri-State area (PA/NJ/DE). A true Philly Cheesesteak is made up of thinly-sliced ribeye, generally chopped or cooked in slices, served on a white sub roll with either cheese whiz or provolone and sautéed onions. I personally shun the addition of mushrooms or peppers on a traditional cheesesteak. If visiting Philadelphia from out of town, skip the famously quarrelling Pat’s and Geno’s and head to Tony Luke’s in South Philly. Try the “whiz with (onions)” and drive any lingering concerns about cholesterol out of your dopamine-fueled brain. Side note: Any restaurant advertising jalapenos as a topping on their cheesesteak should be avoided, ridiculed, and reported to the Better Business Bureau.
Maryland Crab Cakes: The fruit of one of the most distinctive geographic features on the east coast, the brackish Chesapeake Bay, crab is as ubiquitous in Maryland as lobster in Maine or beef in Texas. Sweet, succulent, moist, lump blue crab meat is the ingredient of choice in the Old Line State, with true ‘restaurant-style’ crab cakes containing no filler and just barely enough condiment, spice, and crumb mix to hold it together. If your crab cake is heavily breaded, filled with extraneous vegetables, or consists of thin and stringy crab meat, it is absolutely not authentic. Accept no substitute for real lump crab meat.
New Jersey Pork Roll: My father worked at a pork roll stand on the Jersey Shore in the 1960s that was owned by the mob. True story. If there’s one thing Italian crime families know (other than… crime), it’s food. This humble sandwich’s origins in New Jersey date back nearly 200 years prior to my dad’s high school days, however, and has been a staple in the region since the American Revolution. The meat itself can best be described as not quite bacon and not quite ham. Cooked up on a flat top and traditionally served on a round roll with a fried egg and some combination of condiments and veggies, pork roll has been satisfying and shortening the lifespan of Americans since 1776.
Chicago Deep-Dish: Another entry in the ‘only meal you need for the day’ category, Chicago deep-dish will sit like a cinderblock in your gut, but tastes infinitely better. Deep-dish is all about piling up as many dense, delicious ingredients as possible into a pizza the size of a mountain bike tire. Built ‘upside-down,’ cheese is added to the thick, sometimes cornmeal crust, followed by various pizza toppings and finished with a thick tomato sauce. Gino’s East (found all across the Chicago metro area) is recommended for a truly phenomenal cornmeal crust. Don’t sweat the long wait for your pie to cook – you’ll be sweating plenty after you’ve eaten.
New Mexico Green Chiles: The beauty of green chiles are their versatility. They possess the unique ability to enhance most savory dishes, from cheeseburgers to omelets to any Mexican recipe you can imagine. These peppers are specifically grown and cultivated in New Mexico, and greatly enhance the taste of enchiladas and tamales, in my experience. Note that the spelling is the same as the South American country and not the bean and meat stew. Sink your teeth into just about any local green chile fare in the Land of Enchantment and you’ll be sure to fall under the spell of this verde veggie.
Southern California Carne Asada Fries: Listen closely. Strain your ears. Can you hear it? The sound of my salivary glands going into overdrive? That’s because I’m likely yearning for this gastronomical masterpiece at this very moment. Put simply, these are ‘Mexican French fries,’ but are in fact so very much more. A mass of fries is generously topped with shredded cheese, seasoned carne asada, salsa or pico de gallo, sour cream, guacamole, and any additional Mexican toppings your heart desires (I selected onion and jalapeno in addition to the Hispanic cornucopia of other ingredients). Squirt a little lime juice on top, get your paws on a sturdy fork, and dive into a mind-altering plate of contentment.
Nashville Hot Chicken: Kentucky may be world-famous for its fried chicken, but the best poultry on the planet might just be south of the border in Nashville, TN. My experience with Nashville hot chicken was hot in both regards, as I successfully burned my mouth and flushed out my sinuses from the spice. Buttermilk pan-fried chicken is coated in a mix of dangerous quantities of cayenne, lard, and often additional hot sauce. Did I mention lard? Served over white bread with a pile of pickles, you’re going to want a jug of a cold beverage and as many napkins as the restaurant will provide for you. I like to think this dish made me cry because of how delicious it was, but it was most likely the cayenne. I’ll call it a 70/30, cayenne/taste split on the tears…
Chicago Italian Beef: Chicago is renowned for being one of the finest culinary cities on the planet, and can cater to pretty much any craving you can imagine. We’ve covered its sausages and deep-dish pizza, but the third and oft-forgotten amigo of Chicago cuisine is the humble Italian beef. Arguably the messiest of the trio, Italian beef sandwiches are piled high with roast beef cooked in au jus on an Italian roll, dipped in the same au jus, and accompanied by hot and/or sweet peppers. Most native Chicagoans prefer them drenched in what they refer to as ‘gravy,’ making it more of a fork and knife meal.
Northeast Sub Sandwich: It shouldn’t be hard to make a sub sandwich, yet the vast majority of the country seems to find a way to screw it up. The key to a great sandwich is the bread, and a soft, airy sub roll makes all the difference. Next is the meat. Freshly sliced deli meat should be the baseline expectation for any sandwich, but far too many Americans torpedo their subs by settling for slimy, pre-sliced cold cuts. If freshly sliced meat is indeed available, go for a little variety. Italian meats are a great selection, as is adding a little salami or bacon onto a turkey sub. Lettuce should be shredded, and definitely not in full-leaf form. A few shreds of lettuce should fall out of the back and sides of your sub with every bite while still leaving plenty for your consumption. Onion should be thinly sliced, tomato evenly distributed, cheese placed in a single layer, and mayo spread from stem to stern on your submarine. Kick it up a notch with a little salad oil or maybe some banana peppers, and you’ve got yourself a slammin’ sandwich. If you happen to reside outside of the greater Northeast area, Jersey Mike’s is the national chain of choice for this long and tasty sandwich mainstay. PSA: Subway restaurants are as much sub shops as McDonald’s are Scottish restaurants. Also, Jared Fogle… Gross.
Texas Chicken Fried Steak: If the combination of every aforementioned regional specialty hasn’t already warranted a bypass surgery, prepare yourself for the chicken fried steak. A fairly simple dish at its core, this enormous slab of breaded and deep-fried cube steak drowned in a thick white gravy hits that very specific, “I’m comically hungry and don’t expect to be touched by another human for the next 8-12 hours” spot. Most self-respecting chicken fried steak eateries serve them up as big as your face, though if you eat them with any regularity, your face will quickly outgrow the dish… Pair with whatever side options provide the most dietary fiber – you’re going to need it.