"What is American food? Hot dogs and hamburgers?" Yankee food-lovers traveling abroad used to (and probably sometimes still do) get stuff like that all the time from cuisine-snobbish Europeans and Asians. At least some of us would stand up for our native grub. "Not at all," we'd proudly respond. "Haven't you ever heard of Alice Waters? Thomas Keller? David Chang? Haven't you ever tasted Asian-spiced and blackened Gulf of Mexico tuna with pickled mirliton, duck prosciutto, sweet-and-spicy kumquat–soy reduction, and sesame dust?" (Well, we could have said that if we'd thought of it at the time.)
The truth is, though — let's be honest here — that American food is hot dogs and hamburgers. Never mind that they're named after Teutonic cities (a Hamburger is somebody from Hamburg; a Wiener, to give the hot dog its older name, hails from Wien, otherwise known as Vienna). These two ubiquitous, unpretentious, frequently delicious meat items — the burger above all, these days — are the default food for millions of us. The food we're surrounded by, the food we crave, the food that helps define us.
We've got other emblematic specialties as a culture, of course. Tacos are every bit as American as pizza. (Yeah, yeah, I know, but they're ours now, no matter where they came from, and we're not going to give them back.) Fried chicken? Who does it better than us — especially in the South, where it has long formed both the backbone and the wings of what is perhaps our greatest regional culinary tradition? Ice cream? Okay, so maybe the Italians invented it, but a gentleman named Thomas Jefferson helped popularize it on these shores more than two centuries ago — and it ain't Mario & Luigi's that's sold in 34 countries today, it's Ben & Jerry's. As for donuts, well, America doesn't run on croissants.
So: Hot dogs, hamburgers, tacos, pizza, fried chicken, ice cream, and donuts. America's favorite foods. Obviously, people enjoy all seven of these in all 50 states. But who likes what the most? We decided to find out.
We identified the 50 largest metropolitan areas in the country, then trolled Superpages and Yelp! to compute the number of establishments devoted wholly or primarily to each of these delights. We counted everything from mom-and-pop stands to multinational fast-food chains (yes, McDonald's and KFC were included). We ended up with total numbers, not per capita calculations, on the theory that once we tell you what towns are the capitals of pizza, donuts, and the like, you'll rush there immediately to indulge your passion and that would throw the per capita numbers off anyway.
Are we saying that the cities we identify are the best in their respective categories? Yes, simply because we believe that the more places there are serving a certain foodstuff, the more good places there are likely to be. At the same time, we know that more isn't always better, so in each category we also list the three runner-up municipalities. Then we recommend three of the best sources for each item in our top city, based on user ratings from Yelp! and Google Places.
Were there surprises in our results? Sure. First of all, while it's not entirely unreasonable that Los Angeles, home of the legendary In-N-Out, would be the nation's number-one burger burg, and it has long held a place of honor in the donut-lovers' pantheon, who knew that it would also lead the pack in ice cream? Who would have suspected that fried chicken primacy would go not to a city in the Deep South but to Dallas? Or that Chicago's taquerias would outnumber LA's? But then, maybe that's what the great Melting Pot is all about.