Despite what much of the world thinks, not everyone in the US subsists only on pizza, hamburgers, and French fries. The secret of this country is that there are so many regional foods to be tried and you likely won’t come across them until you actually travel to that area. In fact, some Americans may not even know some of the dishes mentioned here! This is by no means an exhaustive list, more like a list of foods you are most likely to come across in a particular region and might want to try. And don’t worry, you’ll still be able to find pizza, hamburgers, and fries in these regions as well.
If you like seafood or hearty bread-based foods, then this region has something for everyone. There are differing opinions of what states make up the Northeast, but for our purposes, we are going with all of the states from Maine down to Washington D.C. The upper part known as New England – made up of Maine, Vermont, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island – is known for its seafood and fish dishes. Those states further south like Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania serve up meaty, starchy specialties. Here are some dishes you might want to try.
- Lobster roll (New England, especially Maine): Chunks of lobster tossed in either mayo or butter-based sauce and nestled in a buttered and toasted top-split bun on top of a leaf of lettuce.
- Clam chowder (New England): A cream-based soup with chunks of clam and potatoes. There is also a Manhattan-style clam chowder that is tomato based, but the New England version is far more common.
- Crab cakes (Maryland): Pay a bit more for the real deal that has fresh chunks of crab meat and not too much filler. You want to actually be able to taste the crab!
- Boston cream pie/doughnut (Boston, Massachusetts): Finally, a dessert! The name is misleading as this is actually a yellow butter cake with vanilla cream or custard in the middle with a chocolate glaze. The doughnut is a yeast variety with cream in the middle and chocolate glaze. You can’t go wrong with either one.
- Buffalo wings (Buffalo, NY): Yes, you can get buffalo wings at most bars and many restaurants in the US. But why not go to where the fried chicken wings tossed in a spicy Tabasco-based sauce originated?
- Pizza (New York City and New Haven, Connecticut): It’s almost a crime to go to New York and not eat at least one slice of pizza. Whether you go to a slice shop or sit-down pizza restaurant, it must be done. And New Haven is worth a stop for a clam pizza. It sounds odd but is delicious.
- Bagels (NYC): Just like with pizza, it’s hard to go to New York and not eat a bagel. It’s best to go to an actual bagel shop that makes their own, and for the true experience, get it with cream cheese and lox (raw cured salmon). And be aware that some purist bagel shops have a “no toasting” policy.
- Cheesesteak (Philadelphia): Steak, melted cheese, bread: What’s not to like? There are variations on the classic, and some people like onions and peppers on their Philly cheesesteak, but the basic components are thinly-sliced steak, Cheez Whiz or some other melted cheese, and a long hoagie bun. Eat one of these and you might not have to eat for the rest of the day.
Don’t plan to lose any weight on your visit to the South, because none of the regional specialties are what you would call light. But they are all seriously delicious and worth some caloric splurging. And for this piece, we consider Texas a part of the South.
- Fried chicken: Nearly every southern state boasts places where you can find delicious fried chicken. There are even chains like Popeyes and Bojangles serving up delicious chicken. Just make sure to get it with appropriate sides like greens, biscuits, or mashed potatoes and gravy.
- Hot chicken (Nashville): This is another breed of fried chicken for those who like things spicy. The fried chicken is finished by coating it with a paste made with cayenne pepper or sprinkled liberally with a pepper mixture. Be sure to save the white bread and pickle chips to cool the burn in between bites!
- Biscuits and gravy: The British often get confused and grossed out by this dish, but it is definitely not sweet cookies covered in gravy. Instead, it’s the savory biscuits common in the American South covered in a sausage cream gravy.
- Pecan pie: This super sweet concoction is most popular in the South because that’s pecans are native to this region. At its most basic it is nuts bound with corn syrup, eggs, sugar and butter baked in a pie crust.
- Barbecue (North Carolina, Alabama, Tennessee, Texas): You can find good barbecue all over the South, but there are special styles in some states. North Carolina has pork barbecue with vinegar or mustard-based sauce, while you can go to Memphis for some ribs. And Alabama has pork barbecue with a mayo-based sauce. Texas has four different styles of barbecue, depending on what part of the state you’re in. Perhaps the most popular is the “meat market” style where you will find beef brisket and sausages.
- Chicken fried steak (Texas): A thinly pounded steak is breaded and fried, and normally accompanied by a cream gravy generously poured on top.
- Key lime pie (Key West, Florida): This is a simple dessert and is best eaten while in a warm, sunny place. The mixture of key lime juice, egg, and condensed milk is chilled in a graham cracker crust, perhaps with some whipped cream on top. It’s tart, it’s sweet, it’s sunshine on your plate.
- Cajun & Creole cuisine (Louisiana): The entire state of Louisiana is a food wonderland, and you can find a good sampling of dishes in New Orleans. Jambalaya, etouffee, crawfish, Gulf shrimp, gumbo, po’ boy sandwiches, beignets, and muffuletta sandwiches are just a small number of the dishes you will find.
If you like meat and potatoes, you will find plenty of dishes embracing these ingredients in the Midwest. This is where much of the nation’s beef, pork, corn, and other grains come from. You will also find the influence of German, Scandinavian, Polish, and other European immigrants in the food still served today. What it may lack in spice it makes up for in heartiness to get people through the long, cold winters.
- Cincinnati chili (Cincinnati, Ohio): This divisive dish involves ground beef flavored with cinnamon, nutmeg, allspice, and other spices, served atop spaghetti or hot dogs with a blanket of shredded cheddar cheese.
- Pork tenderloin sandwich (Iowa): It’s not surprising the state with the highest pork production would have a signature dish with the meat as the star. This sandwich is basically a thin deep-fried piece of pork that outsizes its bun.
- Chicago-style hot dog (Chicago, IL): This beef dog is served on a poppy seed bun topped with mustard, raw onion, sweet pickle relish, a dill pickle spear, raw tomato, pickled peppers, and a sprinkle of celery salt. It sounds like a mess, but somehow it works!
- Jucy Lucy (Minneapolis/St. Paul, MN): You can find this local version of a cheeseburger at bars and restaurants all over the Twin Cities. It’s a beef patty with the cheese put in the middle so you get a core of melted cheese when you bite into the burger. Make sure you have plenty of napkins handy while eating this because things can get messy!
- Barbecue (Kansas City, Missouri/Kansas): The barbecue tradition came here with people who moved from the South. You can find beef, pork, and lamb barbecue here, normally prepared with a dry rub and served with sauce for you to apply yourself.
- Hot dish (Upper Midwest): Most often involving meat, a starch, vegetable, and canned soup or other sauce, a hot dish can be found at truck stops and homestyle restaurants in states like Minnesota and South Dakota. It may not be the most appetizing looking dish, but it will be filling.
- Hamburgers: Many well-known US burger chains are based in the Midwest, including the granddaddy of them all, McDonald’s. Whether you want a budget bag of mini burgers from White Castle or a butter burger from Culver’s, there is a burger for every taste and budget.
From seafood to Mexican food to fresh fruits and vegetables, there’s much to love about the food in the western US. The Pacific Northwest gives us fresh seafood and salmon, while California has a super-diverse cuisine based on its Asian and Mexican immigrant populations. And the Southwestern states like New Mexico and Arizona offer both Native American and Mexican-influenced foods. You won’t go hungry here.
- Salmon (Washington state, Idaho): You will find ultra-fresh salmon in the Northwest. It won’t be cheap, but it’s about the only place in the US where you can get freshly caught salmon that hasn’t been frozen.
- Mission–style burrito (San Francisco): This stomach bomb will keep you full for most of a day. The burrito originated in the Mission District of San Francisco and usually includes rice, beans, protein, cheese, and possibly salsa, guacamole or sour cream, all encased in a giant steamed flour tortilla.
- California–style pizza: Yes, you can find a version of this kind of pizza at the California Pizza Kitchen chain across the US, but the real deal is in California. You will find unconventional toppings like an egg, goat cheese, or avocado on top of the pizzas that highlight local ingredients.
- French dip (Los Angeles): There are two different versions of this sandwich, and two different claims to its invention. Both sandwiches involve thinly sliced beef, perhaps with Swiss cheese and onions on top, on French bread or baguette. The difference is one is served with a side of beef juice from when the meat was cooked, meant for dipping while you eat, while the other version is served “wet” with the whole sandwich dunked in the beef drippings.
- Sourdough bread (San Francisco): This bread made with fermented dough has become an iconic part of the city’s food culture. Although you may not think of the US as having great bread, there are some true artisans at work in bakeries in San Francisco and the surrounding area.
- Frito pie (southwestern states, southern California): Although this dish is said to have originated in Mexico, you can find it in many western states (and Texas). It involves opening a small bag of chips on the side – most commonly Fritos corn chips – and loading them up with chili, cheese, and chopped onion. It’s a snack with many variations, best eaten while on the go.
This tropical paradise has a food culture all its own, mixing Native Hawaiian culture with Polynesian, Asian, and American tastes. Of course, there are many fresh tropical foods and macadamia nuts, but you can also find some gut-busting specialties.
- Loco moco: Are you hungry? You won’t be after eating the traditional version of white rice topped with two hamburger patties, a fried egg, and gravy. It’s often served alongside macaroni salad.
- Laulau: The Native Hawaiian dish is pork and fish wrapped in taro leaves and steamed.
- Roasted pig cooked in the ground: Many of the large hotels on Hawaii have luaus for their guests with traditional Polynesian dancing and a pig cooked in a special type of oven in the ground called an imu. While it may be touristy, it’s almost a right of passage for any visitor to Hawaii.
- Spam musubi: This dish is a nod to the people with Japanese heritage living here, and the legacy of the US military presence in the state during World War II. A slice of the canned meat Spam is seared, then laid on a block of rice and wrapped with nori. You can find this everywhere in Hawaii, including at gas stations and convenience stores.
- Shave ice: Similar to snow cones found in the rest of the US, this dessert involves taking a block of ice and thinly shaving it, then flavoring it with syrup or tropical fruits.
- Poke: Small piece of fish or other seafood are preserved with salt and rubbed with seasoning, then mixed with other ingredients and flavored with things like soy sauce.