Everyone knows that Chicago is famous for deep-dish pizza and New England has top-notch lobster rolls, but many other places have wonderful signature dishes, even if in some cases only the locals know about them. Here are a bunch of our favorites to try in these 12 areas of the country.
If you like a warm bowl of comfort, try … Korean Soups. L.A. diners tend to go for the Korean barbecue spots, but there’s so much more to Korean cuisine. Try the pork neck-bone soup at Yangji Gamjatang, though I have yet to find a Korean soup or stew I didn’t enjoy. —A.Z.
If you like Meatless Mondays, try … Vegan Comfort Food. L.A. has a wide selection of meat-free menus, with choices ranging from the Impossible burgers at Monty’s Good Burger to the fried-poultry alternatives at Wolfie’s Hot Chicken and the cauliflower “wings” at Jackfruit Cafe. —K.O.
If you like chili, try … Birria de Chivo. Fresh takes on birria, the popular stew made with meats and spices, have proliferated at Mexican food trucks, stands and restaurants. This version, made with sweet, mild goat braised for hours, is a hot order at places such as El Parian. The late Jonathan Gold, famed Los Angeles Times food critic, once hailed it as the best Mexican dish in the city. —K.O.
If you like breakfast sausage, try … Goetta. Also called Cincinnati caviar, this sausage (say “get-uh”) is cooked in a loaf, then sliced and fried. Eckerlin Meats makes the best I’ve tried. —A.Z.
If you like cheeseburgers, try … Hanky-Panky. Small pumpernickel breads are topped with a heap of cheesy meat and then baked. Try them at KnockBack Nats or Tavern on the Bend. —K.O.
If you like potato chips, try ... Grippo’s. These tangy, smoky, heavily seasoned hot-and-sweet chips have been made locally for a century. —K.O.
If you like Indian food, try … Ethiopian Food. One of the world’s great cuisines is a must-eat when you’re in the nation’s capital, where there are plenty of authentic restaurants. Dishes to try: doro wat (a kind of chicken curry), kitfo (minced raw or rare beef), beef tibs and the superb injera (spongy flatbread). Tip: Don’t under-order! —A.Z.
If you like brats, try … a Half-Smoke. D.C.’s signature dish is like a hot dog but spicier, sometimes slit down the middle and usually smoked before being grilled. These sausages are tucked into a steamed white bun and often topped with onions, cheese and chili sauce. Ben’s Chili Bowl serves them up at locations around the city. —K.O.
If you like barbecue sauce, try … Mambo Sauce. This tomato-based sweet-and-spicy red sauce is thought to have originated in the 1960s at Wings-n-Things. Use it with fried chicken or Chinese takeout, over half-smokes or as a dip for fries. Experience the goodness at Wings N’ More Wings or Henry’s Soul Café (where it’s called Mumbo sauce). —K.O.
If you like pizza — who doesn’t? — try … St. Louis–Style Pizza. Wafer-thin prefab pizza crusts are schmeared with sweet tomato sauce and topped with Provel, a quick-melting processed cheese that fans insist is made of Swiss, provolone and cheddar. Although I can’t detect any trace of those flavors in the stuff, I will say that the gloppy, gooey mess is addictive. Go to a neighborhood tavern, grab a table and an icy lager, and order up one of these pies. —A.Z.
If you like rich desserts, try … Gooey Butter Cake. Bakeries all over the city whip up their own take on this staple. Legend has it that this cake was invented by accident about a century ago when a chef added too much butter to a batter. A shortbread cookie–like crust is topped with a rich, super-sweet custard layer — made from little more than butter, sugar and eggs — then dusted with powdered sugar for a delectable treat that pairs perfectly with coffee. —K.O.
If you like a big breakfast, try … Loco Moco. This is Hawaii’s top comfort food, and I love having it for breakfast (and then skipping lunch). Loco moco starts with white rice, adds a hamburger patty (or two) and a fried egg, then finishes the whole thing off with brown gravy. —A.Z.
If you like sushi, try … Poke. Not to be confused with the fast-casual dish you find on the mainland, Hawaiian poke incorporates only a few locally sourced ingredients: raw ahi (tuna), limu (seaweed), inamona (kukui nut paste) and pa’akai (Hawaiian sea salt). —K.O.
If you like doughnuts, try … Malasadas. These sweet, fried yeast pastries can be sprinkled with sugar and filled with creamy custard or made with poi, a paste created from purple taro root. —K.O.
If you like grilled cheese, try … a Hot Brown. An open-faced turkey-and-bacon sandwich, topped with Mornay sauce and sliced tomato, it was supposedly created to satisfy late-night party hounds at Louisville’s Brown Hotel. —A.Z.
If you like finger foods, try … Benedictine. This cucumber-based cream cheese is attributed to Jennie Carter Benedict, a trailblazing female chef. Find it delicately slathered onto finger sandwiches. —K.O.
The Wild West
If you like having sweet and savory together, try … Chili and Cinnamon Rolls. People from around here start ’em young on this comforting combo, a regular menu item in school lunchrooms. There’s something about a bowl of spicy, hearty chili that pairs deliciously with a rich roll smothered in cream cheese frosting (try ripping off a piece and dipping for ultimate satisfaction). —K.O.
If you like meat and more meat, try … Pitchfork Fondue. Grab some steaks, sausages, chicken and pork, and heat up some vats of oil. Get a few dozen pitchforks, load the meats on the tines, and start cooking. Families hold their own pitchfork fondue gatherings, or you can visit restaurants that have picked up the practice, including Pitchfork Fondue in Pinedale, Wyoming, and Pitchfork Steak Fondue in Medora, North Dakota. —A.Z.
If you like Mexican food, try … Nicaraguan Food. This cuisine doesn’t get enough credit. Hit up Fritanga Montelimar for some carne asada, perfect maduros fritos (fried sweet plantains), gallo pintos (rice and beans) and a crazy-good nacatamal (similar to a Mexican tamale). —A.Z.
If you like turnovers, try … Pastelitos. Dozens of Cuban bakeries serve up these popular flaky pastries brimming with savory or sweet fillings, from beef to guava and cream cheese (guayaba y queso). —K.O.
If you like chicken nuggets, try … Alligator. It’s mild, white, juicy, and a great platform for spices and breading. —K.O.
If you like a bacon sandwich, try … a sub with Taylor Ham/Pork Roll. This deli meat, which predates the Civil War, is made of ground cured pork, both salty and hammy, and can be sliced and eaten cold but is almost always griddled and crisped. Piled onto a breakfast sandwich, swapped in for bacon in a BLT, loaded into a crusty torpedo loaf with cheese and onions, or simply crisped and eaten as a breakfast or lunch meat, it is a true only-in-Jersey food that shouldn’t be missed. —A.Z.
If you like your pizza simple, try … Tomato Pie. The main distinction between this and New York pizza is the order of the toppings: cheese on the bottom and the sauce — made from the state’s high-quality tomatoes — on top. —K.O.
If you like fried shrimp, try … Blowfish Tails. In the spring, just about every seafood shack fries these up by the bushel; they’re usually a few ounces each and have a clean whitefish flavor. —A.Z.
If you like Spam, try … Livermush. It tastes better than its name suggests. Made of seasoned ground pork and liver mashed with cornmeal mush, it is molded into blocks, then sliced and panfried. —K.O.
If you like pie, try … Sonker. Dating to Scottish immigrants in the early 1700s, this hot, fruity dessert topped with a sugary crust is usually made with blueberries, though sometimes other juicy fruits or even sweet potatoes are used. Surry County has its own Sonker Trail, with eight spots (including a few bakeries, restaurants and a general store) where you can dig in with a spoon. —K.O.
Rochester, New York
If you like a big plate of everything, try … a Garbage Plate. You can argue all you want about where to find the best version of this monster of a dish, or what belongs on it, but suffice it to say, this pile of home fries, chicken tenders, burger patties, red hots or white hots (types of hot dogs), meat sauce, macaroni salad, onions, eggs and whatever else the restaurant or tavern cares to throw on there might sound like a disaster. Yet if you sit down with some friends over a pitcher of beer and tuck into this meal, you’ll see the genius of putting everything on one plate. The Garbage Plate was born at Nick Tahou Hots, a Rochester restaurant that opened in 1918. You can find it at other local eateries, but Nick Tahou trademarked it. —A.Z.
If you like hot dogs, try … White Hots. If a Garbage Plate is too much, you can easily find one of its frequent components, the white hot, on its own. This pale, unsmoked German hot dog, popularized by family-owned Zweigle’s in 1880, is made of uncured pork and unsmoked beef and veal. Order it at one of the spots along “hot dog row,” a 20-minute drive hugging Lake Ontario, that includes Don’s Original (where these iconic wieners are listed on the menu simply as “hots”). —K.O.
If you like chicken piccata, try … Chicken French. Sometimes referred to as Chicken Francese outside of Rochester, this elegant dish of thinly pounded chicken cutlets, coated in egg batter and simmered in a white wine or sherry lemon-butter sauce, is said to have originated at the now-closed local restaurant Nate’s Brown Derby. It still graces the menu of just about every Italian bistro in the city, including Phillips European and Mr. Dominic’s at the Lake. —K.O.
If you like sausage, try … Boudin. This combination of pig parts, rice, veggies and plenty of seasoning stuffed into a casing has the entire Southwest Louisiana Boudin Trail dedicated to it. If the idea freaks you out, try a boudin ball; it’s casing-free and deep-fried, which makes anything more approachable to some. B&O Kitchen & Grocery in Sulphur does it well. —K.O.
If you like spicy sausage, try … Chaudin. Also known as hog ponce (stuffed pig’s stomach), this dish — one of my favorites in America — is, luckily, still the pride of Cajun country. Poche’s Market, Restaurant & Smokehouse, an almost 60-year-old institution in Breaux Bridge, stuffs the linings of hog stomachs with a homemade spicy sausage, smokes this, then roasts/braises it for hours. Sliced and served, or sliced and panfried, this is a delicacy of the Southern meat arts. —A.Z.
If you like seafood, try … Frogs’ Legs. The city of Rayne (population: around 7,200), west of Lafayette, is nicknamed the Frog Capital of the World, even hosting an annual Frog Festival for the past half century. Restaurants such as Chef Roy’s Frog City Cafe and Gabe’s Cajun Food honor the amphibian, too, serving up platters of frogs’ legs (which are longer than you’d expect) that are seasoned, battered and fried to perfection. —K.O.
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Andrew Zimmern is a celebrity chef who hosts Family Dinner on the Magnolia Network and previously hosted Bizarre Foods on the Travel Channel.
Kelsey Ogletree regularly writes on food for AARP The Magazine and has also written for Better Homes & Gardens, Southern Living and Travel + Leisure.