Are you the type of traveler who spends vacations in search of the best casual restaurants, local culinary specialties and regional comfort foods? We’ve made your next vacation a little bit easier because we’ve tracked down not only the one dish you absolutely must try in every state and Washington, D.C., but also the best restaurants at which to try them.
There are certain dishes across the country that are undeniably iconic, but for this list, we’re showcasing regional specialties that are somehow just not as good outside of their home state — if you’re even able to find them elsewhere.
In order to single out the one specific food that every visitor to each state should try, we started by researching what those who live there have to say on the matter by diving into local and regional publications. We then narrowed down the contenders by considering the food’s availability (or lack thereof) outside of the state, how beloved it is to locals and, of course, how downright tasty it is.
Alabama’s lane cake, also called a prize cake or Alabama lane cake, is made from layers of white sponge cake held together by layers of bourbon-soaked raisins and coconut and a white meringue frosting. The dessert was made famous after being mentioned in Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird,” and was named Alabama’s official state dessert in 2016. It’s a complex cake that’s difficult to make, so you may need to do a little legwork to seek it out, but it’s light, delicious and one of the regional desserts you need to try.
King crab is truly king in Alaska, where the deadly catch is pulled from frigid Bering or Barents Sea waters. You can find huge and meaty king crab legs (with a tub of melted butter on the side) all throughout the state, but Tracy’s in Juneau, Glacier Brewhouse and Simon & Seafort’s (one of the best steakhouses in America) in Anchorage and Turtle Club in Fairbanks are especially known for them.
If you find yourself in Arizona (particularly in Phoenix or Tucson) and in the mood for some of the best Mexican food in America, make sure you get a cheese crisp as an appetizer. After you order it, you might think that a pizza is being brought to your table. Actually, it’s a massive flour tortilla topped with shredded cheese and broiled until the cheese melts and the edges crisp up, sliced into wedges and possibly kicked up with some strips of green chile. Most restaurants will let you top it with jalapenos, steak, chicken and the like, but it’s really best enjoyed as-is. In Phoenix, locals swear by the one at Rosita’s Place.
Biscuits and sausage gravy is one of those Southern foods the rest of the world needs to try, but in the Ozarks and Appalachia, you’ll find a curious regional anomaly: biscuits with chocolate gravy. The standard recipe starts like most biscuit-bound gravies, with roux and milk. But the recipe takes a sharp left turn after that, adding cocoa powder, sugar and vanilla extract. It’s sweet and actually makes a lot of sense atop biscuits when you think about it. This gravy is usually whipped up at home, but plenty of restaurants serve it as well, including Ozark Café in Jasper, Bob’s Grill in Conway and Rolling Pin Cafe in Fayetteville.
A true Mission-style burrito (a big and filling burrito like the ones found at Chipotle, as opposed to one filled with only, say, beans and cheese) is one of the most delicious things to eat in all of California. Plenty of other taquerias in San Francisco’s Mission District are worthy of praise, including El Castillito, El Farolito, Taqueria Cancun and Taqueria San Francisco. However, no trip to San Francisco should be complete without a stop at La Taquería, which serves one of the best burritos in America.
First things first: Rocky Mountain oysters are not oysters. They’re actually testicles of bulls, bison, pigs or sheep that have been cleaned, peeled, thin-sliced, breaded and deep-fried. They can trace their roots to the Old West and today, they’re served as a bar snack at lots of restaurants. Those who’ve tried them say that they have the texture of calamari with a slightly gamey, venison-like flavor. If you want to sample them, you can track them down at plenty of local bars and restaurants, but the most well-known place to try them is Denver’s Buckhorn Exchange, one of the oldest restaurants in America.
New Haven-style pizza is a regional style best identified by its slightly oblong shape, coal-fired smokiness and crisp, chewy and slightly charred crust. Sally’s, Frank Pepe Pizzeria Napoletana and Modern are beloved New Haven institutions. Don’t miss the clam pie, a local specialty. The version at Frank Pepe’s, which is topped with chopped clams, garlic, olive oil, oregano and grated Parmigiano-Reggiano, is so good that we’ve consistently named it No. 1 on our list of the best pizzas in America.
You’ve gotta eat some local blue crabs when you’re in Delaware, preferably at a waterside crab house. To be truly authentic, get them boiled and encrusted with Old Bay or a similar seasoning, piled onto a tray and served with butter and wooden mallets. Popular eateries include Sambo’s in Leipsic, The Blue Crab in Bethany Beach and Fenwick Crab House on Fenwick Island, all of which are up there with the best seafood shacks in America.
The Cuban sandwich is in many ways the unofficial sandwich of Miami. Just about all Miami Cuban sandwiches contain the same ingredients — ham, roast pork, Swiss cheese, pickles and mustard on Cuban bread, pressed until melty. Salami also works its way into it in Tampa as an inspired regional variation. The definitive Miami Cubano comes from Versailles, located in Miami’s Little Havana, but stellar versions can also be found at Enriqueta’s, Old’s and Sergio’s. In Tampa, don’t miss the one at The Columbia Restaurant.
Georgia and peaches go hand in hand, so it comes as no surprise that the state is known for putting those peaches to good use by turning them into a cobbler. While the fruit is in season, countless restaurants throughout the state serve this classic dessert, but the version at Mary Mac’s Tea Room, an Atlanta institution since 1945, is the one to beat. It’s simple — just fresh peaches and sugar topped with a lard-based pastry crust — and it lets the peaches shine.
If you ever travel to Hawaii, don’t leave before trying a helping or two of shave ice, one of the most iconic American desserts. It’s similar to a snow cone, but rather than crushed ice, shave ice is made with, well, shaved ice. You’ll hear it referred to by Hawaiian locals as either “ice shave” or “shave ice,” and the dessert is often served with locally inspired flavors such as passion fruit, guava, lychee and coconut. Matsumoto’s in Haleiwa is a legendary option to visit.
Finger steaks are a uniquely Idaho creation, similar to chicken fingers but made with beef instead, and they’re dunked in cocktail sauce. It may sound strange, but when done well, they’re tender, crispy and delicious, and one of the best places to order this regional specialty is at Boise’s West Side Drive-in, one of America’s old-fashioned drive-ins you can still visit.
The Italian beef is a life-changing sandwich, but sadly you won’t have much luck finding a great one outside of Chicago. To make this sandwich, beef is rubbed with a spice blend, roasted, thinly sliced and tucked into a long Italian roll. The savory perfection is then topped with as much or as little “gravy” (similar to au jus) as you like and finished with hot or sweet peppers and giardiniera, a tart and spicy chopped pickled vegetable blend. Shops serve this beloved regional specialty all throughout the Windy City, but you’ll find essential versions at Al’s #1 Italian Beef, Johnnie’s Beef, Mr. Beef and Portillo’s, which also happens to serve some of America’s best hot dogs.
Sugar cream pie goes by many names: Hoosier pie, Hoosier sugar cream pie, Indiana cream pie and Indiana farm pie, to name a few. No matter what you call it, it is considered one of the most famous pies in America. And if you couldn’t tell, it’s the pride and joy of Indiana. Residents will tell you that sugar cream pie was first invented the year the state was established in 1816. The custard filling is made with vanilla, sugar and heavy cream. Don’t miss the version at Mrs. Wick’s Pie Shop in Winchester.
The “loose meat” sandwich (also called a tavern sandwich) is an Iowa specialty and can be thought of as a sloppy Joe without the sauce. It consists of crumbled seasoned ground beef on a bun, topped with mustard, pickles and chopped onions. Even though you can find it in plenty of small local restaurants, the one to visit is Taylor’s Maid-Rite in Marshalltown. There are franchised locations all across the Midwest (just called Maid-Rite), but the original is the one to visit.
Classic country cooking is king in Kansas, and fried chicken is right up there with the state’s most beloved dishes. You’ll find it on the menu at just about every down-home restaurant, but it’s especially renowned at Gus’s in Kansas City and Chicken Mary’s and Chicken Annie’s in Pittsburg, which is home to some of the best fried chicken in America.
The Hot Brown is Kentucky’s most legendary culinary contribution, invented in the 1920s by Fred Schmidt, chef at Louisville’s Brown Hotel. The hotel is still going strong, and the best place to enjoy this renowned open-faced sandwich is at its point of origin. (It’s served at the hotel’s three restaurants and in-room.) To make the definitive version of this classic dish, toast is topped with sliced turkey and doused in a creamy pecorino-based Mornay sauce before being browned in the broiler. Crispy bacon and sliced tomatoes round it out. Other great Louisville Hot Browns can be found at Captain’s Quarters and Wild Eggs.
No visitor to New Orleans should leave without sampling the city’s signature doughnut, the beignet. These pillowy indulgences are made by slicing dough into squares, deep-frying them and topping them with a mound of powdered sugar, and they’re best enjoyed piping hot with a cup of chicory coffee at the legendary Cafe du Monde, which has been serving them since 1862 and is among the tourist trap restaurants that are actually really good. You can also find an excellent version at Cafe Beignet, also located in the French Quarter.
Have you really visited Maine if you haven’t eaten any lobster? Plucked from local waters and steamed whole or stuffed into some of America’s best lobster rolls, it’s best enjoyed at any of the state’s countless lobster shacks, which usually close down during the winter months. We’re partial to The Lobster Shack at Two Lights in Cape Elizabeth, McLoons in South Thomason and The Clam Shack in Kennebunkport.
Like lobster is in Maine, blue crabs are a religion in Maryland. They’re usually served boiled with plenty of Old Bay or a similar seasoning, dumped onto a table and eaten with the help of nothing but a wooden mallet. Faidley’s in Baltimore’s Lexington Market, which is renowned for its stellar crab cake, is so good that it’s on the list of the one restaurant you need to visit in every state.
If Massachusetts has a signature dish, it’s clam chowder, one of those dishes that you’ll only really find good versions of in the Northeast. You can find countless great versions all across the state, but the version served at Boston’s Union Oyster House is essentially perfect. It starts (as all great clam chowders do) with diced salt pork, which is rendered down and combined with butter, flour, onion and celery to form a roux. It’s combined with house-made clam juice, half-and-half, chopped fresh clams, a couple dashes of Tabasco and diced potatoes.
The best hot dog in your state doesn’t hold a candle to the coney dog. This regional specialty is a hot dog topped with a Greek-spiced chili, yellow mustard and diced raw onions. It’s the classic Michigan snack. In Detroit, there’s an epic rivalry going back decades between two neighboring hot dog stands, American Coney Island and Lafayette Coney Island. Which one’s better? You just need to visit both and see for yourself.
If you’re going to a church supper, potluck or family reunion in Minnesota, you’re most likely bringing a hotdish, one of the dishes that will have you cooking like a true Midwesterner. This infinitely versatile casserole is usually made by mixing meat, vegetables and a binder (usually something along the lines of ground beef, canned green beans and canned cream of mushroom soup), topping it with tater tots and baking it until golden brown and bubbly. While there are countless variations, you always know a hotdish when you see one.
The Gulf of Mexico and other Mississippi waters yield a bounty of shrimp, oysters and crawfish, as well as fish including black drum, cobia, flounder, catfish mackerel and red snapper. Don’t miss out on an opportunity to sample some of the local catch, particularly at Mary Mahoney’s or McElroy’s in Biloxi.
Gooey butter cakes are gooey and, yes, loaded with butter. They were supposedly invented by accident when a baker in St. Louis mixed up the amounts of butter and flour that were called for in a cake recipe. If you know how to make it right, the consistency should be similar to that of a brownie. This cake is so delicious, you can eat it any time of day. That’s why it’s one of the dishes you just might find on a Midwestern breakfast table. At Park Avenue Coffee in St. Louis, it’s available in a whopping 70 flavors.
The fried pork chop sandwich has established itself as one of the signature foods of Montana, especially in Butte. To make this sandwich, a pork cutlet is pounded, dredged in a cornmeal-based batter, fried, put on a bun and topped with mustard, pickles and onions. To try yours, head to Pork Chop John’s, which has two Butte locations. It’s been open since 1924, and pork chop sandwiches are the specialty.
A runza is essentially a long roll that’s been stuffed with meat, onions, sauerkraut or other fillings before being baked, and this Volga German-inspired sandwich is insanely popular in Nebraska. In fact, it’s one of the official state foods. The Cornhusker State is the home base of a chain of the same name that was founded in 1949. Runza has about 80 locations throughout the region that all serve legitimately good runzas. The original ground beef, onions and cabbage variety is a traditional standby, but ordering yours with cheese added doesn’t hurt.
There’s no specific food that Nevada is especially known for, but there is one dish that seems to exemplify all the glitz and glamor of Las Vegas: prime rib. A decadent slab of medium-rare beef will never go out of style, and there’s no shortage of fine examples throughout town. There’s a location of Lawry’s The Prime Rib, of course, but other great prime ribs can be found at Binions, Golden Steer, Gallagher’s and The Prime Rib Loft, which are among the best steakhouses in America.
Chowder is a New England staple, but if you’re in New Hampshire, don’t miss out on trying a unique spin on it: corn chowder made with local lobster. It’s hearty and creamy, usually kicked up with potato, salt pork or bacon and milk. Plenty of restaurants, including Town Docks in Meredith and The Common Man (which has several locations), serve exemplary versions.
The pork roll (also known as Taylor ham) is a thing of pride for New Jerseyans, who know that in the canon of breakfast meats, it’s right up there with bacon. It’s a slightly smoky sausage that resembles bologna, and it’s typically sliced and pan-fried or grilled before being partnered with egg and cheese on a roll in a crazy-good gut-buster of a sandwich known as the Jersey Breakfast. It’s lowbrow but satisfying and certainly one of the best breakfast dishes in America.
Green chiles work their way into just about every dish in New Mexico, but there’s no better way to sample them than in a simple stew. Going strong since 1960, The Shed is one of Santa Fe’s most renowned restaurants, and quite possibly the best place in the state to get your fix of dishes prepared with New Mexico’s famed Hatch chiles. The green chile stew here is made with roasted chiles, potatoes and chunks of lean pork. It’s everything that’s great about New Mexican cuisine in one iconic bowl of stew.
There are countless iconic New York foods, from some of America's best chicken wings up in Buffalo to garbage plates (which are essentially just a huge pile of food) in Rochester to bagels with lox and pastrami on rye in New York City. If you’re in NYC, you absolutely, positively owe it to yourself to get a few slices of pizza. Skip the dollar-slice joints and instead opt for one of the classics, like Joe’s in Greenwich Village or NY Pizza Suprema in Midtown. We also highly suggest you check out one of the newer slice joints, like Scarr’s, Mama’s Too, Paulie Gee’s Slice Shop and F&F Pizzeria.
Stamey's Barbecue/ Yelp
North Carolina actually has two main regional barbecue styles, but they both revolve around the pig. In the east, it’s all about whole hog, smoked low and slow, chopped and doused in a spicy vinegar-based sauce (B’s in Greenville and The Skylight Inn in Ayden are both must-visits). And in the west, it’s pork shoulders that are smoked, sliced or chopped and tossed with a vinegar-ketchup “dip.” This is called Lexington-style barbecue and it’s best exemplified at Lexington Barbecue in Lexington and Stamey’s in Greensboro.
If the word “knoephla” doesn’t ring any bells, then you probably haven’t been to North Dakota. This regional specialty is a thick and creamy chicken and potato soup with dumplings that can trace its roots to Germany. In North Dakota, you can find a great version at Kroll’s, which has several locations throughout the state; the knoephla at Kroll’s is actually one of the very best bowls of soup in America.
Kevin B. Photography/Shutterstock
Also known as the Buckeye State, Ohio is home to buckeyes, one of the foods you can only find in the Midwest. The treats were named for their resemblance to the nuts that grow on a buckeye tree, which used to cover Ohio’s landscape. The candy is made by mixing together peanut butter with butter and powdered sugar, rolling it into balls and dipping the mixture in sweet milk chocolate. You can find it at nearly any chocolate shop or grocery store in the state, but we recommend traveling to Dayton’s Esther Price, one of the best chocolate shops in America.
The fried onion burger is Oklahoma’s claim to burger fame. It’s usually made by flattening a ball of ground beef into a mound of thinly sliced onions and cooking it all together until both beef and onions have fused into a deeply browned patty of crusty deliciousness. No other toppings save for an optional slice of cheese are needed. The version served at Sid’s in El Reno is one of the best burgers in America.
Oregon (and especially Portland) has plenty of dishes that make the most out of local produce. But the marionberry — a cross-breed of two blackberry varieties — is a true Oregon specialty, and was actually developed at Oregon State University in 1956. They’re great right off the vine (and they’re very plentiful), and are more sweet and complex than your standard blackberries. The best way to sample them? Baked in a pie, of course. Just about every pie shop in Oregon serves this specialty, but the version at Portland’s Pacific Pie is especially spectacular.
Maisha R. /Yelp
Sure, you should probably try a cheesesteak at some point during a trip to Pennsylvania. Locals will tell you, however, that it’s the roast pork sandwich — thin-sliced roast pork sopping with juices, placed in a roll atop thick-sliced sharp provolone and topped with chopped broccoli rabe — that’s the true essential Philly sandwich. Just about every cheesesteak shop worth its salt serves one, but if you want to try definitive versions, visit John’s Roast Pork or DiNic’s in Reading Terminal Market. It’s one of the best things to eat in America.
The New York System wiener is a Rhode Island specialty: Small franks are steamed, placed into a steamed bun and topped with a cumin-heavy meat sauce, yellow mustard, diced onions and celery salt. Olneyville, New York’s System, with two locations in Providence, claims to serve "Rhode Island’s Best Hot Wieners," and while that will always remain a point of contention, they’re certainly the most legendary (and one of the best hot dogs in America). Make sure you wash them down with a glass of ice-cold coffee milk, a local beverage whose sheer existence is the strangest fact about the state.
This classic low country dish from South Carolina (also called low country boil or Beaufort stew) is the perfect way to enjoy the region’s ample culinary offerings. Similar to your standard seafood boil, Frogmore stew is traditionally made with fresh Carolina shrimp, yellow corn, redskin potatoes, sausage and occasionally crabs, seasoned with lemon juice and Old Bay or Zatarain’s seasoning. Like most proper boils, it’s dumped out onto a newspaper-topped table and served on paper plates with plenty of cold beer. If you can’t find a house party, the Frogmore stew served at Charleston’s Fleet Landing is about as classic as it gets.
Fry bread is actually the official state bread of South Dakota. You can find this fluffy, flat, slightly chewy bread with a golden-brown crust all throughout the region, and it’s a huge part of the culinary culture in South Dakota (it’s a traditional Native American food). The two most popular variations are sweet, with cinnamon and sugar; and an “Indian taco,” topped with ground beef, refried beans, lettuce, tomatoes and sour cream. They’re sold at restaurants and food carts all throughout the state, but the versions at Cheyenne Crossing in Spearfish Canyon and Kalama’s in Warm Springs are beloved.
Nashville hot chicken — fried chicken that’s dunked in an oil-based cayenne sauce of ever-increasing spiciness — is all the rage right now. Before it was trendy, it was a popular menu item at Prince’s Hot Chicken, the place of its birth. Today, you can find amazing Nashville-style hot chicken as far afield as Los Angeles (at Howlin’ Ray’s) and Chicago (The Budlong), but there’s nothing like sampling the OG. In Nashville, Pepperfire, Hattie B’s and 400 Degrees all turn out great hot chicken dishes.
Central Texas barbecue is all about the beef brisket, usually seasoned with just salt and pepper, cooked low and slow over hardwood and served without sauce. Check out the version served by pitmaster Aaron Franklin at Franklin Barbecue if you’re in Austin and don’t mind waking up early to wait in line. This is one of the restaurants worth waiting in line for. You also can’t go wrong at places like The Salt Lick in Driftwood, Kreuz Market and Smitty’s in Lockhart and Louie Mueller in Taylor.
You probably think of scones as a dense, sweet biscuit usually served with English tea. In Utah, they’re something completely different: a sweet, yeast-leavened dough that’s deep-fried and usually topped with honey, butter, syrup or powdered sugar. It goes without saying that these lighter variants of the traditional Indian fry bread are insanely delicious, and you’ll find them at lots of restaurants throughout the state. Sill’s Café in Layton, Carl’s Café in Salt Lake City and Granny Annie’s in Kaysville are especially renowned for theirs.
Sugar on snow is one of Vermont’s favorite foods. It’s exactly what it sounds like: a mound of crushed ice (or actual snow, depending on how fresh and clean it is) with some boiling fresh maple syrup drizzled on it so it firms up like taffy, served with a doughnut and a pickle on the side. The combination may not make sense … until you try it. The best place to experience this uniquely Vermont food is at a sugarhouse like the one at Montpelier’s Bragg Farm and Palmer’s in Shelburne.
Country ham is a very big deal in Virginia and is made all throughout the state by producers like Edwards, Calhoun’s, Kite’s and Padow’s. These hams are salt-cured, hardwood-smoked and aged for up to three years. The resulting ham is salty and intensely porky. Traditionalists will tell you that the best way to eat it is to pan-fry a slice until golden and tuck it into a small biscuit. These delectable sandwiches are usually eaten at church suppers and wedding receptions, but you’ll also find them at delis attached to the ham producers themselves as well as restaurants including Williamsburg’s Old Chickahominy House, Virginia Diner in Wakefield and The Roanoker in Roanoke.
Eat blue crabs when in Maine, eat king crabs when in Alaska, and eat sweet and mild Dungeness crabs when in Washington. There are ample spots to find fresh Dungeness crab in Washington (peak harvest season is December through April), but you’ll find top-notch crabs at Taylor Shellfish Oyster Bar and Cutter’s Crabhouse in Seattle, and at numerous waterfront seafood shacks.
The half-smoke is a half-pork, half-beef spicy smoked sausage that’s a native Washington, D.C. specialty supposedly invented by Ben Ali at the legendary Ben’s Chili Bowl, which has been open on U Street since 1958. These custom-made sausages are griddled until deeply browned, then tucked into a steamed bun and topped with onions, mustard and a spicy beef-based chili sauce. Ben’s may be the best-known, but plenty of other D.C. spots serve a very good half-smoke, including Halfsmoke, The Big Stick and Meats and Foods. No matter where you go, just know the half-smoke is one of the absolute best things to eat in America.
The pepperoni roll is the definitive snack food of West Virginia, a no-frills bread roll filled with either sticks or slices of pepperoni. When baked, some of the spicy oil from the pepperoni seeps into the surrounding bread, resulting in a hearty and delicious nosh. Some contain cheese, some are served warm instead of room temp, some contain shredded or ground pepperoni, but the end result is always addictively delicious. You can find pepperoni rolls everywhere from gas stations to bakeries to fine-dining spots, but can’t-miss versions can be found at The Donut Shop in Buckhannon, Dragon Mart in Cameron and Tomaro’s in Clarksburg.
In Wisconsin, cheese is a way of life, and it’s the top state in the country for tracking down cheese curds, chunks of super-fresh, chewy, slightly rubbery mild cheese that “squeak” when you eat them. When you coat cheese curds in a batter and deep-fry them, the end result is gooey, crispy deliciousness. They’re something that no visitor to the state should leave without sampling. You can find excellent versions all over Wisconsin, but don’t miss the cheese curds at SafeHouse and Lakefront Brewery in Milwaukee, The Horse & Plow in Kohler, The Old Fashioned in Madison, and at all locations of Culver’s, a regional chain that we really wish was nationwide.
If you’re looking for a big slab of beef in Wyoming, you won’t have to travel very far. Wyoming is a meat-eater’s state, so you’ll find steak and its countrified cousin, chicken fried steak, at countless restaurants in the state. A lean steak pounded thin, breaded, deep-fried to golden-brown perfection and doused in thick and hearty cream-based country gravy is gut-busting perfection and one of the most iconic foods in America.
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