By Anthony St. Clair on October 27, 2020 in Travel
Whether across the state or across the country, a road trip is a great way to explore America’s diverse local food options. Want to plan a foodie road trip? We’ll get you started with some general tips and mouth-watering, must-try regional cuisines.
How to find the best local cuisine in any destination
Wherever you’re going, you can get insights on that area’s most delicious dishes before you even hit the road. Here’s how.
- Search the destination on popular food authorities
Take a look at Eater, Bon Appetit, Saveur, Roads & Kingdoms, and Curiosity Magazine.
- Download a local eats app
Many food destinations have apps dedicated to street food, fine dining, locavore, and more for their area, which is especially useful if you’re trying to avoid tourist traps. Start with Localfu and LocalEats. From there, seek out area-specific apps.
- Search Instagram and Pinterest
Food hashtags and destination-focused Pinboards help you load up on food ideas before you even get in the car.
- Consider online reviews, but talk with locals on the ground before you decide
Reviews on Yelp and Travel Advisor can be useful but are often written by tourists — not locals. Sometimes it’s better to get to know someone at your destination who you can trust for dining advice.
- Visit a farmer’s market and ask for recommendations
It doesn’t get more local than a farmer’s market! Not only do farms sell at public markets, they supply area eateries and can give great grub advice.
- Invite yourself to dinner
Connect with home cooks, chefs, cooking classes, and more all over the world, thanks to apps and services such as ChefsFeed, EatWith, and Traveling Spoon.
- Book a food tour
Trust a local’s expertise and let someone else take care of the details. Whether walking, biking, or busing, a food tour lets you get a taste of where you travel without the sometimes arduous planning.
America has 49 road-trippable continental states, nearly 20,000 cities, villages, and towns, and countless hidden-away spots and holes in the wall. There’s more culinary diversity, local treats, and special delicacies than any person could experience in a lifetime. Still, it helps to have a jumping-off point for your dining adventures. Here are our top suggestions for must-try foods in the country’s main continental regions.
Pacific Northwest: Salmon
Alaska, Oregon, Washington, Idaho, and Montana
Called a First Food by many Pacific Northwest Native American tribes — meaning it’s honored at tribal ceremonies — salmon has been long revered for its nutrition, flavor, and versatility.
Delicate yet meaty and more assertively flavored than other fish, the beauty of salmon is that there are just as many ways to enjoy it as there are different cultures, climates, and cuisines throughout the Northwest. Salmon’s unique flavor, color, and texture give it a versatility unmatched by possibly all other fish in the sea.
Here are just a few ways you can treat yourself to salmon throughout your Northwest journeys.
- Roasted or grilled (especially when cooked and served on a plank of aromatic wood such as alder or cedar)
- Mixed with pasta and a butter sauce
- In a sandwich or burger
- As fish and chips
- In a chowder
- On a salad
- As sashimi or nigiri sushi
- In pastries such as piroshky
Far West: Cioppino
Served with crusty bread for mopping, cioppino can be found all over the Far West, from ready-to-eat counters at the supermarket to high-end restaurants. Just as some regions do spaghetti feeds, clambakes, fish fries, or BBQ dinners for fundraisers, don’t be surprised if throughout California and Nevada you can roll up to a cioppino feed to support local initiatives.
Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Utah
Southwest cuisine has a myriad of regional variations (such as chile-based New Mexican), but for hearty good-for-the-soul belly-filling, there is nothing like TexMex.
- Big flour tortillas
- Crunchy taco shells
- Beef, pork, or both
- Shredded cheese (and lots of it)
- Chili powder
Whether a sizzling, aromatic, onion-and-pepper-filled skillet of fajitas; a steaming cheesy bowl of queso; red-sauce-slathered enchiladas; or a smoky, cumin-rich dish of chimichangas or chili con carne, TexMex is the cuisine to turn to for rich, intense flavors with cheese. And lots of cheese, especially hearty cheeses such as cheddar and Monterrey Jack.
Colorado, Iowa, Kansas, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Dakota
When it comes to sweet-tangy barbecue, Midwestern states bring the flavor. Whether wings or burnt ends, covered in a seasoning-packed dry rub or layered in smoky sauce, the key to Midwest-style barbecue is the balance between sweet, tangy, savory, and smoky flavors and aromas.
For a true regional secret, be sure to try a St. Louis-style pork-steak. Cut from the shoulder, pork-steak comes with a slight acidic bite, balanced with sweetness and served wet. Or when in Kansas City, be sure to tuck into a rack of dry-rubbed ribs.
Deep South: Fried alligator
Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia
Let’s be clear: Please leave the gator catching to the pros. But the gator eating? That’s open to anyone — and the deep flavor of fresh-caught gator will be a lasting memory of your trip down the Deep South. Gator is often described as having a mild flavor similar to chicken or frog legs, but with a texture similar to veal or fish.
Just as with pigs or cows, the entire gator is edible (some restaurants even serve up whole gator at the table). But the apex of alligator enjoyment comes down to two main sections, both of which are commonly served fried.
- Alligator legs: Also dubbed “gator wings,” the dark meat legs have a denser texture and more intense, gamier flavor. Breaded and fried, gator wings pair perfectly with a spicy dipping sauce, such as picadillo or garlic-chile mayo.
- Alligator tail: Generally considered the prime rib or filet mignon of gator, tender tail meat is meaty, juicy, and tender — perfect for dicing into nuggets. Typically dipped in cornbread batter and fried, gator nuggets usually get seasoned with a mix of paprika, oregano, garlic powder, and onion powder.
Southeast: Shrimp and grits
Kentucky, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, West Virginia
Don’t be surprised if you see folks in the Southeast states starting their day with a steaming, buttery dish of shrimp and grits.
Author and food historian Michael Twitty traces shrimp and grits to Mozambique. Hailing from coastal areas throughout the Southeast and first introduced to settlers by Native Americans, shrimp and grits brings together a porridge of thick, savory, coarse-cut corn grits with plump, tender, sweet shrimp.
What it comes down to, though, is a dish that’s easy to make and eat — perfect for fueling up before a busy day of sightseeing. Instead of sea-caught crustaceans, the shrimp were traditionally creek shrimp, hand-caught in the waterways of the coastal South.
From humble, everyday kitchens to the fanciest Southern restaurants, shrimp and grits is an anytime staple that can be dressed up in as many ways as there are creeks to catch shrimp. But even if it’s only once, make sure you try a simple shrimp and grits gussied up traditional style, with nothing but salt and butter
South Central: Po-Boy Sandwich
Back in the 1920s, it’s said, some New Orleans restaurant owners came up with an affordable dish they could serve to streetcar drivers on strike. Whenever one of those workers came for a sandwich, folks in the kitchen would shout that “another poor boy” was on the way — and the now-famous sandwich found itself a name.
Originally a mix of gravied beef on French bread, the po-boy has taken on dozens of variations over the past hundred years. In addition to the classic, be sure to try modern variations, such as the shrimp po-boy with Gulf shrimp, hot sauce, tomatoes, and lettuce.
Mid Atlantic: Crab cakes
Delaware, Maryland, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Washington D.C.
The iconic Chesapeake Bay gave the Mid-Atlantic states one of life’s great pleasures: the crab cake.
Yet this sumptuous delight found its origins in making food stretch. When seafood supplies were low, you could get more bang for your bite by combining crab meat with other ingredients, such as breadcrumbs, to create a simple yet filling pan-fried dish.
Made with the sweet, tender meat of the blue crab, crab cakes often combine the tang of Old Bay seasoning, zip of mustard, heartiness of bread crumbs, and the refreshing vegetal hints of parsley and green onions.
New England: Lobster roll
Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, Vermont
When your journeys take you through the northeastern states of New England, you’ll find yourself enjoying food traditions older than America. Perhaps the most iconic is the lobster roll, prevalent throughout Maine, at the very northeastern tip of the U.S. This now-famous sandwich first came about in Connecticut in 1929 — but didn’t catch on throughout New England until the 1970s.
The rich seas around Maine have yielded succulent lobsters for centuries. Like many iconic foods, the lobster roll is simple yet hearty: Cooked and chilled lobster meat is tossed with mayo, and the soft richness of that combo is set off by serving it between a toasted hot dog bun. (Some folks gussy up their lobster rolls in various ways, such as replacing the mayo with butter, or mixing in diced celery.)
Great Lakes: Pork fries
Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio, Wisconsin
There’s hearty food. Then there’s poutine.
Born from the fierce Canadian winters of Quebec Province, poutine is a staple food throughout many northern U.S. states. In addition to cheese curds and brown gravy, Great Lakes states realized that poutine needed a little something else: barbecued pork.
Often referred to as pork fries, this Great Lakes must-try is definitely a food to enjoy when you’re ready to get off the road for a little while.
Regional road trip fare will have you raring for more
America’s culinary landscape is as diverse as its cultures and geography. With so many amazing regional foods to try anywhere you stop, you could really call your road trip a food trip.