Ah, the West, where signature foods range from pies and french fries to seafood stew and a few dogs, too, the meat-filled kind. These 13 dishes define some very different states spread across the Western U.S.
Alaska: Reindeer sausage
Watch out, Rudolph. This sausage, a staple on Alaskan menus, really does have reindeer meat in it. "It's more similar to a beef smoked sausage or kielbasa than, say, a pork breakfast sausage," says Maya Wilson, author of the Alaska From Scratch Cookbook. "They have a nice snap when you bite into them, not unlike bratwurst." (Her favorite spot for reindeer weenies is Hot Dogs a la Carte in Soldotna, Alaska, a few hours south of Anchorage.)
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Arizona: Sonoran hot dogs
An all-beef frankfurter wrapped in bacon. That's the meaty centerpiece of the Sonoran hot dog, which is swaddled in a large football-shaped bun; covered in beans, onions, jalapeños, mayo, and other sauces; and served with a grilled yellow chili pepper on the side. Your cardiologist may cringe, but Arizonans take pride in this iconic Southwestern junk food (also known as a Mexican hot dog, given its south-of-the-border origins). Good places to try one include El Güero Canelo, with three Tucson locations, and the Phoenix hot dog stand Nogales Hot Dogs.
A hearty stew of mixed seafood and tomato sauce spiked with garlic and herbs, cioppino was introduced to San Francisco by immigrant Italian fishermen from Genoa sometime around the mid to late 1800s (its name probably comes from "ciuppin," the Genoese word for "little soup"). The first restaurant known to have served cioppino is Alioto's, still in business after more than 90 years on the city's Fisherman’s Wharf. Or you can get a top-notch bowl at Phil’s Fish Market in Moss Landing, near Monterey (Phil's also serves another must-try San Francisco treat, Dungeness crab). You're not done with cioppino until you've sopped up the briny broth with a chunk of crusty bread — preferably sourdough.
Colorado: Rocky Mountain oysters
The word "gross" springs to mind when discussing these so-called oysters, which are actually bull or buffalo testicles. But, rolled in flour with salt and pepper and deep fried, they have become a dish that some Coloradans adore (with all the requisite jokes). Yes, some say the meat tastes like chicken, but other fans compare the flavor to veal and the consistency to scallops. Bruce's Bar in Severance is known for the delicacy, and baseball fans at Denver's Coors Field can order Rocky Mountain po'boys (Rocky Mountain oysters topped with garlic slaw, guacamole, green chili ranch dressing, pico de gallo and cotija cheese on a roll).
"Some dishes are replicated well all over, but it's never quite the same as having them where they originated."
Hawaii: Spam musubi
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Want to eat like a true Hawaiian? Take a break from poke and try this sweet-and-savory and (no joke) delectable staple — a block of pressed rice with a slice of Spam fried in a special soy sauce-sugar glaze, all wrapped in dried seaweed. Nearly everyone in Hawaii eats this as an easy grab-and-go snack or light meal, which is why Spam musubi (pronounced MOO-subi) is sold at virtually every convenience store, market and lunch joint in the state. Fun fact: Hawaiians, who have been Spam fans since World War II, have, hands down, the highest per capita consumption of Spam in the country — about five cans per person annually.
Idaho: Finger steaks
There is robust debate about the invention of finger steaks but the dish is fairly straightforward: Strips of steak that are battered, deep-fried and typically served with French fries. They've been a staple at Boise drive-ins since 1957, and have since spread across the entire state, according to Lou Aaron, owner of Westside Drive In in Boise, who still uses a handwritten recipe from 1963. Aaron says the kitchen prepares about 450 orders every week.
Montana: Huckleberry pie
Grizzly bears are on to something. Their favorite food is the huckleberry, and humans have wisely followed their lead, harvesting the plump, purple fruit and turning it into the state's signature summer treat: huckleberry pie. While the main ingredient grows wild, longtime resident and photographer Donnie Sexton says gathering the berries is no easy task. "They grow on bushes low to the ground, so it takes forever to pick enough. But the most succulent, delicious reward for my hard work is cutting a slice of homemade pie, while still warm, and topping it with a dollop of vanilla ice cream." You can't go wrong trying the pies at The Huckleberry Patch, near the west entrance to Glacier National Park, in Hungry Horse.
Nevada: Shrimp cocktail
Landlocked Nevada is nowhere near salt water, but the shrimp cocktail plays a special role in Las Vegas history. Back in the Rat Pack days, long before Sin City was home to Michelin-star chefs, casinos used to lure travelers with value-priced meals like $4.99 prime rib dinners. But nothing screamed bargain more than the famed 99-cent shrimp cocktail, says Anthony Curtis, who runs the Las Vegas Advisor newsletter and website. Today, only the Lanai Express snack bar in the downtown Freemont Casino offers the appetizer for less than $1, but if you don’t mind spending an extra buck, the best version, according to Curtis, can be found at the Skyline Casino in neighboring Henderson for a mere $1.99: "There’s more shrimp. It's bigger, and served in a plastic tulip glass."
New Mexico: Carne adovada
This stewed meat has a simple-but-mouthwatering recipe: Pork marinates for hours in a red chili sauce — made with the ground chilies so treasured here — with garlic and spices like cumin and oregano. The result? A tender, moist and tangy meat with heat. It's fantastic shredded in tacos or burritos, or on its own. Mary & Tito's in Albuquerque serves it with refried beans and rice; try it with posole (pork and hominy stew) at Rancho de Chimayó, near Santa Fe.
Oregon: Marionberry pie
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Only in Oregon will you find this particular blackberry. The marionberry is so sweet and juicy many call it "the cabernet of blackberries." If you're in Portland in summer, when the berries are ripe, try a slice at Sweedeedee or Pie Spot. It's now officially Oregon’s state pie.
Utah: French fries with fry sauce
The secret ingredients of Utah's fry sauce aren't so secret at all. It's a blend of ketchup and mayonnaise, give or take a dash of herbs or spices. The sauce has been a part of Utah restaurant food scene since the 1950s; the founder of the burger and shake Arctic Circle restaurants is credited for creating the original, used for dipping french fries."I just always remember having fry sauce. I grew up with it," says Utah native Carol Mehr. Now Mehr takes her grandkids to Arctic Circle for their taste of Utah's favorite sauce.
Even its pronunciation sounds suspect: gooey duck. But as freakish as this huge — often two-plus pounds — clam may look, with its fleshy neck protruding grotesquely from its shell, it’s a beloved state food that’s in high demand here and in Asia (which is why its price has soared to $40 per pound and up). Its slightly crunchy meat is prepared different ways, though typically raw—sometimes sliced thin or chopped fine for sashimi, sushi or crudo. You can try it at many Seattle eateries, including Taylor Shellfish Farms Oyster Bar at Pioneer Square, which serves a happy hour portion of thinly sliced geoduck, both body and neck, with soy sauce and wasabi.
Wyoming: Bison Burgers
Long stretches of open range, mountains, rivers, and vast ranches. Wyoming evokes those images including the great American Bison herds of western lore that once roamed the plains. Luckily, visitors can still experience most of that in the Cowboy state. Not only is the bison the state mammal but the mighty beast is also featured on the state flag. And of course, it’s featured on the dinner plate as well.
Lean and full of flavor, bison — the mighty beast featured on the state flag — comes in a variety of forms: steak, meat loaf, roast, short ribs and a definite favorite, the bison burger. For a delicious one, head to Terry Bison Ranch in Cheyenne, where several thousand head of bison roam nearly 30,000 acres. You'll find a top-notch bison burger at the ranch's restaurant, Senator's Steakhouse.
With reporting and writing from Larry Bleiberg, Chris Hall, Ken Budd, Dana Rebmann and Gigi Ragland
More Iconic Food by Region
- Northeast: From chowdah to stuffies, the area's best signature state foods
- South: Scrumptious pies and gumbo make for good eating below the Mason-Dixon
- Midwest: You'll find European influences and lots of meat in these states' hearty dishes
- Tell us: What's your favorite regional dish?
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