The NCAA’s March Madness is about to kick into overdrive, with the Final Four competing for the 2015 championship. The Kentucky Wildcats, Michigan State Spartans, Wisconsin Badgers, and Duke Blue Devils are facing off in a race to the finish, and, as is often the case with March Madness, it’s anyone’s game. But when it comes to the best burgers, college bars, and local specialties, is there a winner? We rounded up the best of each of the competing states, and will let you decide for yourself.
Best Burger: The Tolly-Ho, Tolly-Ho Restaurant; Lexington, Ky.
Since 1971, this burger joint has been racking up accolades for their delicious burgers. The original Tolly-Ho burger is simple and perfect: a four-ounce patty on a sesame seed bun, topped with special Ho sauce, ketchup, mustard, lettuce, and onions. And best of all, it only costs $2.89!
Best Bar: Winchell’s Restaurant and Bar, Lexington, Ky.
One of the finest sports bars you’ll ever encounter, this classic University of Kentucky bar is loaded with televisions, craft beer served by the pitcher (including local beers like West Sixth and Country Boy), and really good pub grub. Don’t miss the wings, barbecue pork, Kentucky beer cheese, and spicy beef nachos.
Best Local Food: Kentucky Hot Brown
Originally created at the Brown Hotel in Louisville in 1926, the Hot Brown has since become one of Kentucky’s unofficial state dishes. It’s an open-face sandwich; turkey and bacon (and occasionally ham, tomatoes, or pimentos), doused in Mornay sauce (a creamy cheese sauce), and left under the broiler until it’s brown and bubbly. It’s rich, gut-busting, and insanely delicious.
Best Burger: The Original Redcoat Special Hamburger, Redcoat Tavern; Royal Oak, Mich.
When a burger hasn’t changed in more than 40 years, you know it must be exceptional. At the Redcoat Tavern, that burger is a half-pound beauty, served on a traditional sesame seed-adorned bun and topped with shredded lettuce, tomato, and your choice of add-ons, including cheese and “burnt” onions. The tavern is packed daily, and just about all the regulars will tell you that the no-frills burger is the best they’ve ever had — but don’t miss the onion rings and clam chowder.
Best Bar: Crunchy’s, Lansing, Mich.
This 32-year-old old-school bar in East Lansing is renowned for its karaoke nights, wide selection of craft beer (especially local specialties like Dark Horse Sapient Drip, Griffin Claw Flying Buffalo, and Bell’s Wildberry Rye), and vast and tasty food menu. Whenever a whole menu section is devoted to “Buckets of Food” (including sliders, fried, tots, and pizza “nugs”), you know you’re in for a good time. Don’t miss the pizza, either!
Best Local Food: Coney-style hot dog
Coney dogs, which have nothing to do with Coney Island, are a major regional specialty in Michigan. Natural casing beef or beef and pork German-style wieners are topped with a slightly soupy, flavorful beef heart-based chile sauce, yellow mustard, and raw white onions. They can be found all around the Detroit area, but are popular across the state.
Best Burger: Original Solly Burger, Solly's Grille; Milwaukee, Wis.
Family-owned and -operated since 1936, Solly’s claim to fame is the butter burger, one of the last and finest examples in the nation. Fresh-ground sirloin is delivered daily from a local butcher, and the buugers, complete with a healthy dose of real Wisconsin butter, are prepared in full view of diners — as are the shakes and fries. About 15 toppings and burger varieties are available, but the trademark Original Solly Burger is the way to go. Each 3-ounce patty gets cooked on a large flattop griddle, topped with impossibly flavorful stewed onions and a pat of butter, and placed into a soft white bun. The butter melts into the meat and onto the plate — it’s unlike any other burger you’ll experience.
Best Bar: Kollege Klub, Madison, Wis.
You can’t attend the University of Wisconsin, or even visit Madison, without becoming a part of beer culture. Kollege Klub presents the ultimate Wisconsin college bar experience, with a location right on campus. Badgers fans spend their weekends angling for the Klub’s sought-after beer pong tables and celebrating “beer-n-shot night” (a free shot comes with your beer). Plus, every Sunday is “Kountry Night,” during which you can bring your own mug and receive drink discounts.
Best Local Food: Fried Cheese Curds
Wisconsin is renowned for its cheese, so why not deep-fry it? Instead of melting, cheese curds (which are used as the base during cheesemaking) soften when fried, and when they’re tossed in a light batter beforehand the exterior becomes crisp and crunchy. Fried cheese curds can be found at local fairs and just about every bar in the state that serves food.
Best Burger: The Dirty South Burger, Chuck's Burgers & Frites; Raleigh, N.C.
The most outrageous offering at this down-home burger joint starts with a house-ground 100 percent chuck patty that’s seared on a flat-top. You have your choice of a 5-ounce or 8-ounce patty, but we recommend going with the 5-ouncer, because what comes next is delicious insanity: smoked pork shoulder, Anson Mills red pea chili, crispy tobacco onions, roasted tomato malt vinegar slaw, Cheddar, and yellow mustard. All the components work perfectly together, thanks to the deft hand of a great chef: Ashley Christensen, who recently won the James Beard Award for Best Chef Southeast.
Best Bar: The Federal, Durham, N.C.
This unassuming 10-year-old bar is a friendly neighborhood spot that just feels great from the second you walk in. The beer list is ample, with 16 brews on tap, including plenty of local microbrews like Mother Earth Kolsch and Foothills Torch Pilsner. The food menu is also spectacular; don’t miss the garlic fries, beer-braised pork sandwich, or au poivre burger.
Best Local Food: North Carolina Barbecue
In North Carolina, barbecue is nothing short of a religion, and it revolves around the pig: the “whole hog” in the east and the shoulder in the west. The pork at authentic North Carolina barbecue joints is chopped up and usually mixed with a vinegar-based sauce that’s heavy on the spices and only contains a small amount of tomato sauce, if any.