In my 49 years, I’ve managed to visit 49 states. Most of these were within the last 10 years. While I really hoped to get to Oklahoma before June and hit all 50 before 50, I don’t think that is going to happen right now, so I’m reflecting on my previous travels instead. One of my favorite parts of traveling is discovering local foods.
I make a point of talking to locals about the “must try” specialties in their region — and the best places to sample them. Through all of my travels I’ve come to discover (and love) many foods that I had never even heard of growing up.
I wanted to share the tastiest bites I’ve had across the country. So here are my picks for the best USA foods, where I’ve had them, and some funny stories about their discovery.
I know there are plenty of lists out there about the best foods in the United States, but instead of picking one food per state, I wanted to highlight all the foods and regional specialties that really stood out to me as a “must try” when visiting a certain area. Enjoy!
Best USA Foods & Regional Specialties
The first time I had lobster I was in my 20s and working at a convention in Las Vegas. My coworkers and I hit one of those late night buffets, famous for steak and lobster for under $10. I have to admit I wasn’t a fan, but it took me a while to connect that I should have had low expectations for such a cheap meal.
Fast forward a few years and my husband and I had just moved to New England. We decided to take a road trip up to Bar Harbor, where we first encountered the lobster pound, which is typically a dockside restaurant where you pick your own lobster from the tank and they steam it for you. Eaten fresh like that, perfectly steamed with a just a little butter, I suddenly got why people love lobster.
Of course breaking apart a lobster is a lot of work so I still often prefer a lobster roll. In New England, you have two styles of lobster rolls. Both are usually served on a buttered and grilled split-top hot dog bun. The Connecticut-style is just lobster with a little butter. Others styles tend to add mayo and celery, making it more like a lobster salad. Since I despise mayo and celery, and have a history of dipping my finger in the butter dish, it is no secret which I prefer.
Luckily the styles don’t follow state borders. My favorite lobster rolls are at Bob’s Clam Hut in Kittery, Maine and George’s of Galilee in Rhode Island.
I grew up in a very meat-and-potatoes, or more likely casseroles, type of family. Fish beyond fish sticks was unheard of and oysters — those were just gross. I didn’t try an oyster until I was in my 30s and a friend twisted my arm to sample an oyster shooter.
Then I was traveling with my daughter in Maryland and got a wild craving to try oysters. I ordered them at a restaurant and learned that I actually like them. Hannah wanted to try them too — she was probably 8 or 9 at the time — and I have a video of her psyching herself up for it and finally giving it a try. The oyster lasted about 3 seconds in her mouth before she spit it back into the shell, looking pretty much the same. We always joke that we hope the kitchen staff didn’t decide to finish off any leftover oysters 🙂
Now I love oysters — raw, broiled, fried, you name it. I’m particularly fond of those that are small, sweet, and briny. Like oysters from the Maine Coast, Wellfleet, MA, Matunuck, RI, and Gulf Shores, AL. The Louisiana oysters are larger, so I prefer those broiled and I’ve found the Pacific Northwest Oysters to be just a little too meaty for me. But you don’t know what you like until you try a few.
Vermont Cheddar Cheese
Growing up, we spent every family vacation visiting relatives in Vermont. Vermont cheddar cheese and real maple syrup were staples in our household. My grandmother would ship us a gallon of syrup for a Christmas present, and likewise, an uncle who worked at a dairy would supply us with cheese. The thought of having Aunt Jemima was unheard of — and I find the fact that some restaurants charge extra for “real” maple syrup downright offensive.
But it wasn’t until I traveled more broadly that I came to appreciate how delicious Vermont cheddar cheese is compared to others. I like a nice sharp cheddar and while I just love my Wisconsin cheesehead friends, their cheddar is too mild. Vermont cheddar all the way.
Rhode Island Calamari
Calamari was another food I regarding as gross until I moved to Rhode Island. After living in New Jersey and New York, I was accustomed to a chewy, heavily breaded fried calamari dipped in marinara sauce. No thank you.
But Rhode Island-style calamari is a whole other ball game. It is very lightly breaded and sautéed with garlic, banana peppers, and oil. This leaves those rings perfectly crispy, tender, and with a ton of flavor. See my other must try Rhode Island foods.
Apple Cider Donuts
Across the northeast’s apple growing regions, you will find one of my favorite sweet treats in the fall. While everyone else is going crazy over pumpkin spice, I’m all about the apple cider donuts. The trick is buying them fresh from a farm stand.
The aroma of donuts frying in oil and the lingering smell of cinnamon and sugar in the air have enticed me into waiting in line for 45 minutes just to get a fresh batch. Some of my favorites are from Red Apple Farm in MA, Clyde’s in Mystic, CT, and Jaswell Farm in RI.
You can find buffalo wings on just about any pub menu, but I’m sure you have found that they are NOT created equal. I haven’t actually had a chance to try wings in Buffalo, NY, but growing up in New Jersey we had excellent wings.
My favorites are still from Chuck’s in Princeton, NJ (or any of their other outposts). Not breaded, they are fried and served crispy with plenty of sauce. And because I like to kill my stomach I would order extra sauce. Even after doing a wing crawl through Rhode Island, I still haven’t found any that I like half as much.
Everyone from Panera to Dunkin Donuts thinks they can make bagels. Those are not real bagels. You might as well just buy some frozen Lenders at the grocery store. Nothing compares to a New York bagel. They say it is in the water and that may be true.
But a New York bagel is large and chewy. Don’t just buy one off of a street card or a general bakery. Go into a real bagel shop and pick from your choice of flavors and toppings.
New York Pizza
Plenty of people have had the debate about New York versus Chicago pizza. I won’t get into that because I like both. But they are VERY different and generally when I’m crazing pizza, I mean those big, cheesy, greasy slices that you can fold over and rip into.
Growing up in New Jersey, this was also our style of pizza. Anyone with Jersey roots can appreciate a great Boardwalk slice. Moving to New England, where everything is “House of Pizza”, I’ve been so disappointed in my pizza options. Even the best of the best can’t compare to that New York-style pizza. And why do so few places elsewhere sell by the slice??
Growing up in New Jersey I never understood why we had to stock up on pork roll and bring it up to my grandmother in Vermont until my mother explained that it was something we could only get in NJ. So if you haven’t had pork roll, or Taylor Ham as they call it in Northern NJ, it is a bit hard to describe but think of it as sort of like Spam but round?
It is typically served either as a breakfast side meat or in a sandwich, preferably a pork roll and cheese on a bulkie roll. It is salty and I’m sure terrible for you, but it is tasty!
Philadelphia Cheese Steaks
Everyone knows about Philadelphia cheese steaks and some don’t quite get the hype. But when you grow up in that area, it is simply a comfort food staple. And I’ve had steak sandwiches in many places that often don’t get it right. The steak is too thick and chewy, the roll isn’t right, and they use American cheese.
A Philadelphia cheese steak, whether it is from Geno’s or Jim’s, I like mine with whiz or Provolone, no peppers, no onions, roll not toasted, and plenty of ketchup.
Ever since my first visit to Baltimore in college, I’ve been obsessed with Maryland crab. Maryland crab cakes are my favorite, as long as they don’t have too much breading. But I also love soft-shell crabs, lump crab, crab cocktail…you name it.
I’m a bit of a carb fanatic and my love for southern biscuits ultimately led to a 5-10 lb. weight gain during a week long road trip through the south a few years ago. I never quite understood why the biscuits in the south are so good until I read this article in The Atlantic. So whenever I travel to the South, I need to indulge in more than my fair share of biscuits. Some of my favorites were at Biscuit Love in Nashville.
While biscuits and sausage gravy is a southern classic for breakfast, I at least usually skip the gravy. You see, being from the north, we just don’t know sausage gravy. Many years ago, when I was fresh out of grad school, friends and I would rent a house in the Outer Banks for a week. Once a week, they would go out for breakfast. I always stayed behind. Maybe because I couldn’t afford it but likely because I wanted to sleep in. Once they came back in hysterics and our friend Al was raving about the “great soup.” Turns out he mistook sausage gravy for a creamy soup.
He isn’t alone because it is commonplace to serve the gravy in a soup pot at buffets. A few years ago when my daughter and I were making a road trip through Virginia, we went to a breakfast buffet on our first morning and she loaded up a bowl of “oatmeal.” I can still see the expression on her face when she tasted the “oatmeal,” not realizing she had helped herself to sausage gravy instead. So be warned northerners! Watch out for the stuff in the soup pot.
I always have a bit of a chuckle when I’m in a restaurant in Florida that proudly promotes that they have Maine Lobster on the menu. Since I can get that easily at home, I’m usually in search of a Caribbean spiny lobster or even better, langoustines. Sweeter and smaller than a New England lobster, it offers a slightly different flavor and is especially delicious when grilled.
Key Lime Pie
Since I grew up in the land of Greek diners, I thought Key Lime pie was the bright green pie with meringue on top that slowly turned in the glass cases by the register. It wasn’t until I spent some time in Florida, especially Key West, that I learned what true Key Lime pie was like.
Usually they range from a custard to a cheesecake-like texture, with a graham-cracker crust and a bit of whipped cream on the side. Some are more limey than others and everyone likes to put their unique spin on it. That’s why I love a good Key Lime pie quest. But my favorite is still the frozen, chocolate-dipped Key Lime pie on a stick that you find in the Florida Keys.
Candied bacon. It seems like straight from an episode of Diners, Drive Ins, and Dives but in reality it was more suited for the Best Thing I Ever Ate. I do go a little hog wild for bacon but while attending a Mardi Gras food fest in Panama City, Florida, I smelled something irresistible. I can’t remember what clever name they gave it (bacon crack maybe??) but this version of candied bacon was heaven on a stick. It appeared to be grilled, coated in cinnamon sugar, and fried. Just melt in your mouth deliciousness.
I had something similarly good at the Iowa State Fair during our midwest road trip a couple of years ago, home to over 100 foods-on-a-stick.
Long before I was a travel blogger, I fell in love with the food scene in New Orleans. My daily fix was powdered-sugar coated beignets at Cafe du Monde. I can pass on the chicory coffee, but I’m not a coffee fan of any variety.
My husband knew how much I loved these sweet treats and one year bought me a beignet mix to try at home. My first attempt was such a failure (unless you like beignet chips?) that I haven’t tried again. I just need to plan a return trip instead.
On my first trip to New Orleans in my mid-20s, my friends and I headed to the Big Easy for the annual JazzFest. Our first morning in town, we headed to Mother’s because everyone told us, that’s just where you have to go for brunch. Sipping Bloody Mary’s while waiting in line, I was anticipating my first taste of authentic jambalaya.
So picture my crawfish étouffée omelette, a side of jambalaya, and I’m sure a biscuit to go with because…biscuits…as my hearty meal. It was all delicious but the jambalaya really won me over and I’m not sure I’ve had one as good since.
Southern Fried Chicken
It took my southern civil rights road trip to teach me what a “meat plus 3” was. For those also not educated in Southern speak, it is code for a main dish/meat plus three sides. Not too complicated but so hard to choose when you have such tempting options.
Just like biscuits, they just make fried chicken better in the south. Usually I find it greasy and gross but in the south — it is crispy, tender, juicy, and you just don’t mind that little bit of grease. One of my favorites was the chicken and waffles at Loveless Cafe outside of Nashville. Another was at Paschal’s, which I discovered on an Atlanta food tour. Apparently their fried chicken was a favorite of Martin Luther King Jr. as well.
Nashville Hot Chicken
Speaking of fried chicken, I can’t leave out Nashville hot chicken. Started in Nashville by Thornton Prince, you can now find a similar style across the country. Prince’s cheating ways caused his wife to create some mega spicy chicken as a punishment. Turns out he actually liked it and together they created Prince’s Hot Chicken Shack.
Another popular spot for hot chicken is Pepper Fire Hot Chicken in East Nashville, but we found our favorite at Hattie B’s.
Chicken and Dumplings
The other southern comfort chicken dish that I’ve come to love is chicken and dumplings. I’ve even found a good and simple crock pot recipe to make this at home. Chicken and dumplings typically consists of cooked chicken and small lumps of biscuit dough cooked in a brothy mixture. If you like chicken pot pie, you will probably like chicken and dumplings too.
The best we’ve tried was at the Ajax Diner in Oxford, Mississippi. But be prepared, the portions are twice the size of your head so plan on sharing or taking home leftovers.
So many places lay claim to the best BBQ — from Memphis to Texas to Kansas City to North Carolina. I pretty much love it all but the styles that make me the happiest are the Memphis dry rub and Carolina mustard-based sauces. I’ll always take the classic Kansas City or St. Louis BBQ sauce too, but I’m not a fan of the Eastern North Carolina vinegar-based sauce or the Alabama white sauce.
To date, some of the best barbecue that I’ve tried was at Central BBQ in Memphis.
Chicago Deep Dish Pizza
I’ve already admitted that New York style pizza has won my heart, but that doesn’t mean there can’t be a runner up. When I’m in the mood for that thick, gooey, tomato-heavy pie, Chicago deep dish serves it up. I’ve tried a few during different visits to the Windy City but so far, my favorite is Lou Malnati’s.
Wisconsin Cheese Curds
There aren’t many variations of fried cheese that I don’t enjoy. In fact, I usually enjoy them a little too much. Wisconsin is known for its cheese and has perfected the fried cheese curd. You will see these Sconnie staples on every menu in Milwaukee and Madison. My favorites so far have been at Graze in downtown Madison. And remember, when you are eating cheese curds, you know they are fresh if they squeak!
Indian Fry Bread
In case you haven’t noticed, I like a lot of things that are fried. If you haven’t had Indian fry bread, picture a fried but fluffy dough, typically topped with taco fillings. We had a surprisingly good version at the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington D.C. (I was so impressed with their cafeteria. We also loved a version we tried in Badlands National Park.
In New Mexico you are either on team green or team red — chili peppers that is. I am definitely team chili and even in El Paso I’ve enjoyed green chili cheeseburgers and green chili and cheese hashbrowns. In Albuquerque, take your pick of dishes at the famous El Pinto with the “best nachos in America” (go for the chili con queso, trust me!) or at the Church Street Cafe in Old Town.
Mexican Street Corn
One of the things I love about southwest cuisine is Elote, or Mexican street corner as it commonly called. This grilled corn comes with many variations of queso fresco, sour cream, lime, chili powder, or cilantro. One of the most creative styles I had was in downtown Scottsdale, Arizona, at Diego Pops, which was coated in hot Cheeto “dust.”
Likely some of the best fish tacos I’ve had were in Southern California but you can really find great options throughout the Southwest. Start with a corn tortilla, add some lightly-battered and fried white fish (Mahi Mahi or Cod) and top it off with lime, shredded cabbage, salsa, and a drizzle of a sour-cream based sauce.
I used to travel to San Francisco frequently and one of my first stops was always at Boudin Bakery for a fresh sourdough roll, or better yet, clam chowder in a bread bowl. As much as I love our creamy New England clam chowder (did you know that Rhode Island-style clam chowder is actually clear?), it tastes even better on the West Coast in a sourdough bowl.
One of my favorites was in Pike Place Market in Seattle at the Steelhead Diner. Their Alaskan Razor Clam Chowder with applewood-smoked bacon and truffle oil is magnificent.
In Hawaii, my husband fell hard for the coconut syrup served over Macademia nut pancakes. My daughter and I? We couldn’t get enough of the fresh guava juice. I’ve tried the Goya guava nectar they sell at the grocery store but it just can’t compare to the fresh, sweet juice from sun-warmed guava fruit.
Alaskan King Crab
In Alaska I loved watching bears and hiking through the woods but that hour we spent in Ketchikan tearing into Alaskan King crab legs — equally satisfying as classic Alaskan experiences. I enjoy splurging on Alaskan King Crab legs once in a while and if I thought they would be cheap in Alaska, I was mistaken. They may not be cheaper, but they are fresher and therefore more delicious.
We have really enjoyed learning about other foods as we have traveled. It is only by sampling, asking questions, and taking food tours that we have stumbled upon those local finds that made us feel like we got to know a place, at least through our stomachs.
I recall walking into an upscale French bakery in Sioux Falls, South Dakota and one of the macron flavors was Puppy Chow. I chuckled and wondered aloud what that could be. The owner was shocked I hadn’t heard of this midwestern treat, and quickly filled me in on this sweet version of Chex Mix with peanut butter, chocolate, and powdered sugar.
And traveling through the south I kept noticing jars of a mysterious relish on all the tables, next to the ubiquitous ketchup and mustard. Wondering about it, I finally asked a waitress and she told me it was Chow Chow. A pickled combo of green tomatoes, cabbage, peppers, onions, spices, and vinegar.
Here in Rhode Island, we have crazy things like stuffies, coffee cabinets, and Johnnycakes.
Every region has their foods that they hold dear. These are some of my favorites but I’m still traveling, still tasting, still learning. And Oklahoma, I’m coming for you some day.
Have a favorite regional food I should try? Leave a comment below.