America is one of the most diverse countries in the world. We have diverse climates, landscapes, cultures, people, and, of course, food. Just as we have iconic parks, cities, monuments, and buildings, we have iconic foods, too. Foods that conjure up a specific place.
One of the best things about travel is tasting the food of a different place, which you can't do when you're eating at Applebee's.
A cheesesteak is sauteed ribeye beef sliced thin and topped with melted Cheez Whiz and served in a crusty, long roll. There are variations, onions, other kinds of cheese, but if you're a purist, this is a cheesesteak.
For decades the debate as to who had the best cheesesteak in Philly came down to Pat's or Geno's, but there are some additional contenders in the City of Brotherly Love, including Tony Luke's (my pick), Jim's, Campo's, and Dalessandro's.
Pizza: New York or Chicago?
In my opinion, there is simply no contest. That stuff they try to pass off as pizza in Chicago isn't pizza, it's a casserole, a typical Midwestern dish. If it was pizza, you wouldn't need a plate, knife, and fork to eat it. Sorry, second city.
Real pizza has a thin crust, is sold by the slice, and can be folded for convenient, on the go eating. New York pizza checks all those boxes. For a classic New York slice, head to the original Patsy's in Harlem, an institution since it opened in 1933.
This isn't to say that Chicago pizza isn't tasty, it's just not pizza. My favorite is Gino's East. Gino's serves a cornmeal crust, less greasy than the buttery crusts of some of the other deep dish places.
Nashville Hot Chicken
It's pretty hard to improve upon fried chicken, but Nashville has managed it. Hot chicken is spicy fried chicken, the heat comes from a dry rub. Bolton's Spicy Chicken and Fish really turns up the heat. There's even a sign posted near the cash register warning patrons not to touch their eyes or babies before washing their hands.
The heat of the chicken is tempered by the classic hot chicken accompaniments of fluffy white bread and crispy pickles.
BBQ: Not Your Dad's Cookout
Of all the foods on this list, barbecue may be the most contentious. Pig or cow? Vinegar or tomato? North Carolina, Texas, Memphis, or Kansas City? But the one thing all good (read: real) barbecue has in common is how it's cooked; low and slow. Making real barbecue is a labor of love. It's not your dad slapping some burgers and hot dogs on a grill.
For my money, Eastern Carolina style barbecue rules. I'll take pork and a vinegar based sauce any day. You can find that at Skylight Inn in Ayden, North Carolina. This is barbecue in its purest form, whole hogs cooked overnight in brick firepits. The sauce is cider vinegar and hot sauce. The only thing you need to make it more perfect is the coleslaw and cornbread that come with your order.
Southern Biscuits and Gravy
This is what my grandmother used to call "stick to your ribs" food. If you eat biscuits and gravy for breakfast, you might not need to eat again for the rest of the day.
Like many dishes, biscuits and gravy are only as good as the ingredients. From scratch buttermilk biscuits, none of those whack it against the counter tubes of nasty dough, no 99% fat-free sausage, and no skim milk. Full fat only.
The dish is simple: a buttermilk biscuit with a ladle full of sausage gravy over top. Atlanta does biscuits and gravy (and several other classic southern dishes) right, and Holler & Dash really gets it right. The biscuits are fluffy, and the gravy has a nice bite.
New Orleans: Seafood Gumbo
First, you make a roux. You'll see that phrase on all sorts of souvenir items in the Crescent City, and it's the first step in making gumbo, one of New Orleans' many signature dishes. To the roux (a mix of fat and flour) you add the Holy Trinity (celery, green bell pepper, and onion), seafood or meat (sometimes both), and rice. It's hearty and delicious.
New Orleans has a lot of great dive bars but not all of them serve food and the ones that do often serve mediocre food. But Coop's Place is different. Don't go for the ambiance and don't go for the service but do go for the seafood gumbo laden with fresh Gulf shrimp, oysters, and crab claws.
Wine and Cheese: From Napa Valley to Rural Wisconsin
Three of my favorite things in life are wine, cheese, and culinary tours. Long gone are the days when American wine was Boone's Farm and American cheese was, well, American Cheez. With places like the Napa Valley and rural Wisconsin turning out some of the very best wines and cheeses in the world, America can hold its own against any of its European counterparts.
Wine lovers can visit a number of wineries on the West Coast, but if you want to brush against a little wine history, head to Grgich Hills Estates. Mike Grich was a winemaker at Chateau Montelena and made the award-winning Chardonnay chronicled in the movie Bottle Shock. He opened this winery after his big upset win.
You need a little sustenance to go with your wine, so head to Wisconsin. There are as many as 60 artisan cheesemakers making more than 600 types of cheese, many of them made using pre-industrial methods in small batches.
Alp and Dell is a one-stop shop for cheese lovers. It's a retail store selling local cheese, sausages, and wines, and it's a cheese producer. Visitors can tour the facilities and watch the cheese making process.
Don't Forget Your Tex-Mex
Tex-Mex is the delicious marriage between Mexican and American cuisines, created by the Tejano people living in Texas. The cuisine may not be truly Mexican or truly American, but it has become its own legitimate category of cooking.
Austin has a great food scene, and Fonda San Miguel is one of the building blocks. The restaurant has been open for a few decades and retains the original chef. Good mole is hard to find. It tends to be overly sweet in a nod to American palates, but not at Fonda. Their mole is what a good mole should be.
The restaurant also doesn't do what so many subpar Tex-Mex places do, cover every dish with mounds of shredded cheese. Don't get me wrong, I love cheese, but when you see that, you can bet it's covering up inferior food.
Hit the Road
This is a tiny taste (ha!) of the great food America has to offer. People too often stick to what they know, big chain restaurants, especially when traveling. This is a terrible mistake! One of the best things about travel is tasting the food of a different place, which you can't do when you're eating at Applebee's.