Regional Dishes You’ve Never Heard Of
January 16, 2019
Want some burgoo? Or perhaps some hopple popple?
Nowadays, it seems like you can track down just about any type of food you want, especially if you live in a big city. But there are still plenty of regional specialties out there that we bet you didn’t even know existed.
When you think about it, all food started out as a regional specialty. Even pizza lingered in relative obscurity in New York City for years before taking over the country. Some foods catch on in popularity and become household names, while others remain beloved to a handful of lucky locals (and iconic in their native region) while the rest of the country is barely aware of its existence.
When we talk about regional foods you won’t find anywhere else, we’re not talking about the many regional variations of pizza, all the regional hot dog styles, or Mission-style burritos, for example. While it might be tough to find a New Haven-style pizzeria in Boise, you can still find pizza. But you’re not going to be finding, say, pit beef in Boise, or even New York City for that matter, or even in many places outside of Baltimore (and don't even get us started on all the regional fast food chains we wish were national).
So, while it may seem like it’s possible to get any food you can think of delivered to your door, there are still plenty of foods out there that most Americans don’t even know exist. It’s a big country out there, and there’s still plenty of food that’s known and beloved only by the lucky locals.
Also called a slightly more appealing “tavern sandwich,” this Iowa specialty is what you might think of as a cross between a burger and a sloppy joe, and it's a dish you'll only find in the Midwest. Instead of being formed into a patty, ground beef is cooked loose into small crumbles, simply seasoned (and occasionally mixed with onions), and scooped onto a bun. Taylor’s Made-Rite in Marshalltown, Iowa, is the restaurant that’s best known for this messy and delicious creation.
If you’re going to a church supper, potluck, or family reunion in Minnesota and other parts of the Upper Midwest, you’re most likely bringing a hotdish. 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.
In the Mid-Atlantic states including Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Delaware, a traditional food of the Pennsylvania Dutch is easy to track down: scrapple. It’s made by combining pork scraps and trimmings with cornmeal and seasonings, blending it into a mush, forming it into a loaf, letting it congeal, then slicing and pan-frying before serving. Don’t knock it until you try it: The first recipes date back to the 1600s, and it’s been perfected over the years, so it’s pretty tasty. It’s also nothing short of beloved: There’s even an annual scrapple festival.
There are more than 50 locations of the beloved chain Runza in and around Lincoln, Nebraska, as well as others in Colorado, Iowa, and Kansas. Outside of that you’re simply not going to find their signature item, also known as the runza. Sort of like a Hot Pocket on steroids, the Runza is a hot stuffed sandwich with Russian and Germanic origins, with the dough completely enveloping the filling. The classic, original runza is filled with a mixture of ground beef, onions, and cabbage, but the chain also sells them in cheese, Swiss mushroom, cheeseburger, and barbecue bacon varieties.
Yelp/ Stephanie O.
Pronounced “get-a,” this Ohio specialty was invented by German immigrants in Cincinnati in the 1800s. It’s essentially a thick raw sausage made with ground pork (or pork and beef); pin-head oats; and spices including rosemary, bay leaves, and thyme. It’s traditionally sliced and fried in butter, and can be eaten by itself or served with ketchup, mustard, apple butter, syrup, honey, or grape jelly. Glier’s, the largest commercial producer, makes more than 1 million pounds annually.
Kolaches are a type of filled dough with Czech roots that have become very popular in many parts of Texas, as well as parts of Iowa, Wisconsin, and Minnesota. The majority of the ones you’ll find envelop a dollup of fruit with soft, semisweet dough and are eaten for dessert or as a breakfast pastry, but some also include meat, bacon and eggs, and basically anything else the baker wants to include.
Taylor Ham, Egg, and Cheese
Yelp/ Gee L.
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 gutbuster of a sandwich known as the Jersey Breakfast. It's one of a handful of foods that only people from New Jersey know about.
Dan B. via Yelp
Visit any Mexican restaurant in the Phoenix area, and you’ll find an intriguing-sounding appetizer on the menu: cheese crisp. Order it, and at first glance you might think that a pizza is being brought to your table. Actually, it’s a massive four tortilla topped with shredded cheese and broiled until the cheese melts and the edges crisp up, sliced into wedges. Most restaurants will let you top it with jalapeños, steak, chicken, etc., but this Arizona specialty is really best enjoyed as-is.
This Hawaiian invention is one of the heaviest dishes you’ll find anywhere, and makes for a great late breakfast after a morning or surfing. It starts with a foundation of white rice, which is then usually topped with a hamburger patty or two, fried eggs, and brown gravy. It’s open to interpretation, however, and the burger patties can be replaced with anything from bacon and Spam to chili, kalua pork, and shrimp.
Beef on Weck
Yelp/ Kieu B.
A roast beef sandwich that dreams are made of, French dip lovers will love beef on weck. A hallmark sandwich of the Buffalo, New York area, beef on weck starts with rare, thinly sliced roast beef, tucked into a roll called a kummelweck, which has been dusted with coarse salt and caraway seeds. The top bun gets a dip in beef jus, and the only condiment is a hefty spoonful of horseradish. It's an under-the-radar sandwich that should get a lot more attention that it does.
Wikimedia Commons/ davidstravel
Invented in 1973 at a St. Louis deli by a customer named Dick Gerber and now found at many Missouri restaurants, this open-faced sandwich starts with a halved loaf of Italian or French bread, smeared with garlic butter, topped with ham, cheese (usually provolone or another local specialty, Provel), and some paprika, and then toasted.
This classic Low Country, South Carolina, dish (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, it only needs to contain two ingredients to be called Frogmore stew: fresh Carolina shrimp and yellow corn, but most variations also contain redskin potatoes, sausage, and occasionally crabs, with lemon juice and Old Bay seasoning. Like most proper boils, it’s dumped out onto a newspaper-topped table and served on paper plates with plenty of cold beer.
Yelp/ Jen S.
Insanely popular in the Rochester, New York, area but little-known outside of it, the garbage plate gets its name because of the huge quantity and variety of food piled onto a plate. Widely credited with being created at a restaurant there called Nick Tahou’s Hots, it’s prepared by starting with either baked beans or macaroni salad, then piling on home fries or French fries. It’s then topped with your choice of two of the following: hamburger, cheeseburger, Italian sausage, red hot or white hot (local hot dog variations), chicken tenders, haddock, fried eggs, ham, or a grilled cheese. Then it’s topped with onions, mustard, and beef chili sauce. Hangovers be damned. It's a shame that this dish is only found in the Northeast.
Pork Tenderloin Sandwich
In Iowa, Indiana, and southwestern Ohio, the humble pork loin is turned into one of the most delicious sandwiches you’ll ever find, all thanks to some pounding and deep-frying. And this legendary sandwich was reportedly invented by Nick Freienstein nearly 110 years ago in the small Indiana town of Huntington; his restaurant is still in business, and they’re still using his recipe to turn out massive tenderloin sandwiches. A 4-ounce slice of lean center-cut pork loin is pounded down into a huge patty; marinated in buttermilk, eggs, and flour; breaded in saltine crumbs; deep-fried, and served on a 5-inch hamburger bun with onion, lettuce, and tomato. Imitators abound, but the original is still the best.
Burgoo is a regional Kentucky specialty that you’d be hard pressed to find outside of the state, but it’s absolutely iconic. So when you’re there, make sure you eat some of this thick, hearty soup usually made with multiple meats. You’ll usually find it made with beef, pork, chicken, and lamb with corn, beans, and other veggies.
The frita is a perfect representation of the American influence on Cuban culture, and vice versa. It was created in Cuba and brought over to the States after the revolution, and the one served in the Miami neighborhood of Little Havana’s El Mago de las Fritas is arguably the best. Here’s the breakdown: A fresh-ground patty of spiced beef (possibly with some chorizo mixed in) is pressed flat onto the griddle along with some diced onions and a mysterious red sauce, then tucked into a fresh Cuban roll. It’s topped with freshly fried potato sticks (not from a can here, as they are at some other places), more diced onion, and a squirt of ketchup. It’s mind-blowingly delicious and unlike any other burger you’ll ever try.
Baltimore’s best known native sandwich is without a doubt the pit beef sandwich, which is made by taking an entire bottom round and grilling it whole before slicing it to order. It’s then grilled again to the perfect temperature and placed on a roll with your choice of toppings. Pit beef sandwiches were once far more ubiquitous in Baltimore than they are today, and today Maryland institution Chaps is best known for it.
There are hundreds of chili parlors in Cincinnati, and there’s a specific way of ordering your chili in this town: Two-way is a bed of spaghetti topped with beefy, umami-rich chili (made with a bevy of spices including cocoa, allspice, cumin, and chili powder); three-way adds cheddar; four-way adds onions or beans; and five-way adds both beans and onions, while six-way adds fried jalapeño caps (this procedure also applies to hot dogs, resulting in some of the best hot dogs in America). Blue Ash and Skyline are the city’s best known chili destinations.
Yelp/ Patrick M.
In the early 1920s, Italian immigrants brought their traditional spiedini, or cubes of meat grilled on a skewer, to Upstate New York (Binghamton in particular), where it took on a life of its own (and a new name, spiedies). Today, the meat used is traditionally chicken, and it’s marinated, grilled on skewers, then loaded into soft Italian bread, drizzled with a little more marinade, and served. Simple, delicious, regional, and worthy of a festival (and balloon rally!) of its own as well.
Gooey Butter Cake
Yelp/ Cindy W.
Head to St. Louis and you’ll find one of the most mouthwateringly-named foods around, gooey butter cake. The flat, dense cake originated in the 1930s and is found in just about every grocery store in the area but not outside of it: it’s a mixture of flour, butter, sugar, and eggs that’s baked and dusted with powdered sugar, and the result is rich, dense, and super-gooey, and you'll only find it in the Midwest.
Yelp/ Amy L.
The Utica, New York area was home to a booming Sicilian population in the early decades of the 20th century, when many traditional Italian dishes took on a regional life of their own. Nobody knows exactly who invented chicken riggies, a pasta dish made with chicken, rigatoni, and hot or sweet peppers in a spicy and creamy tomato-based sauce, but it’s undoubtedly delicious.
June S./ Yelp
This Northern California specialty is the Gold Rush’s most enduring culinary contribution. Legend has it that it was created at the Cary House Hotel in the mining town of Placerville, California (then called Hangtown), after a miner who struck it rich walked in and asked for the most expensive dish the kitchen could make. The chef whipped up an omelette of sorts, with eggs (which were delicate); bacon, which was shipped from the East Coast; and oysters, which had to be shipped on ice from San Francisco. It gained popularity at San Francisco’s Tadich Grill, California’s oldest restaurant, where it’s been a specialty for more than 160 years.
A Midwestern breakfast specialty (Midwesterners really know breakfast), hopple popple is what results when you add eggs, cheese, potatoes, onions, herbs, vegetables, and any type of breakfast meat you can think of to a pan and let it all cook together. The resulting casserole, which is actually German-inspired, is essentially the ultimate breakfast dish.
Biscuits with Chocolate Gravy
Yelp/ Jenn S.
Biscuits and gravy is a classic Southern staple, 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 chocolatey, 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.
Honolulu’s Rainbow Drive-In is absolutely legendary, and with good reason: It’s arguably the best place in the state for that uniquely Hawaiian creation, the plate lunch. The plate lunch is customizable, but it always contains a protein, two scoops of rice, and one scoop of macaroni salad or slaw. As for the protein? It’s up to you, but options here include barbecue beef or pork, fish, beef of pork cutlets, chili, burger patties, beef stew, or (on Tuesdays and Thursdays) “spaghetti with weiner.” It’s exactly as filling as it sounds, and even more delicious.
Finger steaks are a uniquely Idaho creation, similar to chicken fingers but made with beef instead. It may sound strange, but when done well, it’s tender, crispy, and delicious, and the most legendary place to order this regional specialty is at Boise’s West Side Drive-in. To make this treat, lean beef shoulder strips are dunked in a batter made with plenty of garlic, pepper, and beef bouillon (and a little yellow food coloring) and fried for just 30 seconds so as not to overcook them. The kicker? They’re dunked in cocktail sauce!
Pork Chop Sandwich
A creation similar to, but totally different from, the breaded pork tenderloin sandwich, the fried pork chop sandwich has established itself as one of Montana’s signature foods. Pork Chop John’s has two Butte locations, and as you might have suspected, pork chops are the specialty here. Pork chop sandwiches, in particular: A lean slice of boneless pork loin is pounded, dunked in a cornmeal batter, and fried, then put in a bun and topped with mustard, pickle, and onion. It’s been done the same way since John Burklund first started serving them from the back of a wagon in 1924, and it’s sandwich perfection.
Yelp/ Kalamas F.
Fry bread is actually the official state bread of South Dakota, and can trace its origins to the rations provided by the federal government to Native Americans in the mid-1800s, namely flour, lard, and sugar. The state’s large Sioux population took to frying the dough in the lard, resulting in a fluffy, flat, slightly chewy bread with a golden brown crust. Nowadays, you can find fry bread all throughout the region (and especially in Oklahoma). 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.
Yelp/ Joe D.
You probably think of scones as a dense, sweet biscuit usually served with English tea, but 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 they’re insanely delicious, and you’ll find them at lots of restaurants throughout the state.
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 fine-dining spots.
Fried Cheese Curds
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, mild cheese that “squeak” when you eat them. (They’re also a primary component of poutine.) But if something can be deep-fried, someone’s gonna deep-fry it, and when you coat cheese curds in a batter and deep-fry them, the end result is gooey, crispy deliciousness. It goes without saying that deep-fried cheese curds are one of the unofficial state foods of Wisconsin, and they’re something that no visitor to the state should leave without sampling.
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