“All great change in America begins at the dinner table.” – Ronald Reagan
At first glance, American cuisine may seem fairly similar across all 50 states, but there are certain items that taste best when tried in specific cities or regions. Here’s our round-up of must-try foods from locations across the country.
BOURBON WHISKEY IN KENTUCKY
It’s said that the name “bourbon whiskey” may have actually originated from Kentucky — where you’ll find a county called “Bourbon” — as the term has been used in the state since the 1800s. In 1964, when most distilleries were still situated in Kentucky, the U.S. Congress recognized bourbon as a product distinctive to the United States. Today, you’ll find a so-called “Bourbon Trail” that spans distilleries across the state (with nine primary and over 10 craft distilleries). Grab a promotional Bourbon Trail “passport” and see how many distilleries you can visit while you’re there.
WINE IN NAPA VALLEY
If California was a country, it would be the fourth-largest producer of wine in the world. Napa Valley is a top enotourism destination, with over 400 wineries on at least 43,000 acres of vineyard. Whether your preference is red, white, or even pink, plan for a tasting in Napa.
PASTRAMI ON RYE IN NEW YORK CITY
First served by Sussman Volk, a Lithuanian immigrant, at his deli on Delancey Street in 1888, the sandwich has since become a symbol of delis around the city. It’s typically topped with spicy brown mustard and served with a pickle on the side. If this sounds like your kind of meal, you can find the classic sandwich at Jewish delis around the Big Apple.
LOBSTER ROLLS IN MAINE
Though the dish may have originated in Connecticut, head to the northern state of Maine to grab the New England staple. Typically consisting of lobster meat on a hot-dog style bun, variations of the lobster roll are served throughout New England. Maine usually serves the meat cold with mayonnaise on a bun split at the top (instead of on the side). Standard lobster-roll side dishes include potato chips or French fries, and maybe even a dill pickle.
BARBECUE IN MEMPHIS
One of the four styles of barbecue found throughout the United States, Memphis barbecue originated during post-WWII, when small restaurant “joints” popped up around the city. This style is usually made with pork (though occasionally chicken or beef) and requires slow-cooking in a pit. When ordering this dish, you can either choose “wet” or “dry”— “dry” ribs are covered with a dry rub before they’re cooked, and are typically eaten without any kind of sauce, while “wet” ribs are brushed in sauce before, during, and after the cooking process.
CHILI IN CINCINNATI
Cincinnati-style chili, though not really chili at all, is known across the Midwest and beyond. The dish consists of a meat-sauce on spaghetti or hot-dogs (coneys) with mounds of shredded cheese to top it off. Developed by Macedonian immigrants in the 1920s, the regional dish has expanded to be served in “chili parlors” around Ohio, Indiana, Kentucky, and even as far south as Florida. The most popular franchise chili restaurants are Skyline Chili and Gold Star Chili.
DEEP-DISH PIZZA IN CHICAGO
Although the inventor of Chicago-style pizza remains a mystery, there’s no question as to where it was created — Pizzeria Uno in Chicago. Unlike other types of pizza, Chicago-style features a deep crust formed by the dish it is made in. This results in a thick pizza, covered in many layers of toppings (which causes baking times to be slightly longer than those of normal pizzas). Be sure to try a slice — or a whole pie — while you’re in the Windy City.
BURGERS IN LOS ANGELES
Pasadena lays claim to the origin of the cheeseburger, but the greater Los Angeles area is known for burgers of other varieties. From California’s staple In-N-Out Burger to the gourmet stylings of Umami Burger and the high-end cafés of Beverly Hills — LA’s burger offerings span everything from classic to specialty.
CHEESESTEAKS IN PHILADELPHIA
Developed in the early 20th century, this Pennsylvanian staple has since become popular around the country, though it’s best to try it in its origin city, Philly. Known in other places as a simple “steak and cheese” sandwich, the original dish consists of thin pieces of beefsteak and melted cheese on a long roll of bread (also known as a hoagie). The original inventors were of Italian descent and owned a hot dog stand in Philadelphia. When a taxi driver requested one of the custom sandwiches, he promptly told the Olivieri brothers that they needed to stop selling hot dogs and start serving cheesesteaks. Thus, the eponymous sandwich was born. Today, you can visit Pat Olivieri’s restaurant, Pat’s King of Steaks, which is still owned by his descendants.
BEIGNETS IN NEW ORLEANS
Though these pastries are of French origin, they have since become associated with Creole cuisine of New Orleans, Louisiana. There, beignets are a breakfast item, typically eaten right after they’re prepared (i.e. while they’re fresh and hot) with a bit of powdered sugar on top. Today, beignets are actually the state’s official doughnut.
KEY LIME PIE IN THE FLORIDA KEYS
This classic American dessert originated in the southernmost isles of Florida. Named after the small key limes found in the region, the pie has somewhat of a disputed origin story — though it was likely an adaptation of the recipe used by sponge fisherman in the early 1900s. Attend the Keys’ annual Key Lime Festival over Fourth of July weekend to taste some of the state’s best.
Header image by Davina Tan