Whether you're a visitor to America looking for local flavor or just want to up your culinary-culture IQ, The Daily Meal has put together a list of classic must-try foods that define the American palate.
The saying “It’s as American as apple pie” exists for a reason. This is the quintessential American dessert. Apple pie can be eaten any time of year, but is best when apples are in season in the fall. As for where to eat it, you can find it in virtually every bakery in the country, but it’s by far the best when it’s cooked by someone’s grandmother. Try and get invited to someone’s Thanksgiving Day feast, and try it out there for the most authentic experience. Do not, for any reason, buy your first slice of apple pie from a gas station — or from McDonald's.
Bagels were invented in the Old World, but they were perfected here in the United States. Or, more specifically, they were perfected in New York. The reason that New York bagels are said to be the best in the world mostly has to do with craftsmanship, but they also get an edge thanks to the water composition in the area: New York water’s balance of calcium and magnesium makes for a crispy-on-the-outside, soft-on-the-inside bagel that can’t be matched anywhere else.
Americans are serious about their barbecue. They build pits and smokers and they smoke their meat for hours on end. Secret recipes and procedures for the cooking of the meat and for the creation of the accompanying rubs and barbecue sauce are jealously guarded. You can find pretty solid barbecue almost anywhere in the country, but the best places by far are in the center of the country: Texas, Oklahoma, Missouri, and Kansas barbecue are the reigning national champs. Kansas City, Missouri, gets points for encompassing many regional styles, so try out the legendary Arthur Bryant’s next time you’re there.
The war between lovers of the New York slice and lovers of Chicago’s deep dish pizza is ongoing, eternal, and pointless: isn’t our world better with both types of pizza in it? When you’re visiting Chicago, give deep dish a try. It’s a classic American food: one that originated in another country, and that was turned into an edible heart attack here. Try Lou Malnati’s or Pizzeria Uno for a solid deep dish.
You might not have naturally thought that peanut butter and jelly would have gone together at first, but at some point, someone tried the combination out, and the world was never the same again. The same goes for the unlikely pairing of chicken and waffles. A popular soul food dish, it’s pretty straightforward: you put fried chicken on top of waffles, drizzle it all in maple syrup, and then eat. You can find this dish at restaurants everywhere, but try eating it in the South, possibly at Nana G’s Chicken & Waffles Food Truck in Atlanta.
Americans didn’t invent hot dogs, and chili was originally a regional Texas specialty, but the magic of America cuisine is in our culinary mash-ups. There’s an infinite amount of variety in American chili dogs, so it’s hard to pick just one you should try. The classic, of course, is Nathan’s Famous Chili Cheese Dog, but if you’re in L.A., check out Pink’s. If you’re visiting the nation's capital, you will almost undoubtedly end up at Ben’s Chili Bowl — try the Chili Half-Smoke — and if you happen to be going through Cincinnati, get a Cincinnati-style cheese coney at Blue Ash Chili or Skyline.
Ah, Twinkies. The famous Hostess sponge cake snack went off the shelves when Hostess went out of business, but popular demand brought the snacks back to the shelves, albeit under different management. The best way to eat America’s most iconic barely-food snack is, of course, deep-fried. The Deep-Fried Twinkie was made famous in America’s most deep-fried state, Texas, but you can get it in state and county fairs across the countries, as well as on a good number of boardwalks.
The quest for America’s best burger is a quixotic one. On the West Coast, the reigning king is the In-N-Out Burger, and you can only get it in five western states, so if you’re out that way, eat at In-N-Out. Another classic is Shake Shack, a New York institution that started in the city’s Madison Square Park and in 2000 gradually spread to a couple of East Coast states. But the best-made burger that can be found virtually anywhere in the U.S. is Five Guys. The burgers are juicy and well made, the fries are delicious, and you can snack on peanuts while you wait for your order to come up. And while it’s incredibly
Clam chowder became popular in New England for one big reason: they had access to a ton of clams. The best chowder is the creamy, potato-filled chowder found in New England (usually served with oyster crackers), not the tomato-based Manhattan clam chowder. For a solid bowl, try out Jasper White’s Summer Shack in Boston.
The famous Philly cheesesteak can be found in a lot of places in the U.S., but the best is still undoubtedly in Philadelphia. The city is host to a long-running rivalry between Pat’s King of Steaks (which gets the credit for inventing the cheesesteak) and their across-the-street neighbors, Geno’s Steaks. If you’re going to get an authentic cheesesteak, don’t get it with provolone or some other cheese: get it with Cheez Whiz (though no one will give you a death stare if you opt for real cheese). Don’t forget to ask for onions as well.
Possibly America’s greatest campfire invention, s’mores, are best eaten while sitting around a campfire. The recipe is incredibly simple: first, you roast a marshmallow. Second, you place a piece of chocolate on a graham cracker. Third, you put the marshmallow on top of that, sandwiching it with another graham cracker. Give the chocolate some time to melt, and voilà: you have the most delicious sweet snack ever made.