Americans have such easy access to regional foods that once-unique specialties are now readily available everywhere: a Bostonian might just as easily have a taco for lunch as a Houstonian would eat Chesapeake Bay blue crabs for dinner. Still, there are some places you just have to go to get the real thing - so here are some of our top picks for authentic tucking in.
1. Hot Dogs in Chicago
Chicago is the home of deep-dish pizza, and many may tell you that is the not-to-miss meal, but no less iconic is the famed Chicago hot dog - a wiener and bun that have been 'dragged through the garden' (i.e. topped with onions, tomatoes, shredded lettuce, bell peppers, pepperoncini and sweet relish, or variations thereof - but never ketchup). Take our advice and indulge in both: a dog (or two) and a deep-dish pizza. You can always work it off walking round this friendly town.
2. Gumbo in New Orleans
Scooping out a steaming pot of gumbo is as central to New Orleans life as listening to jazz, zydeco or swamp blues, or chomping on beignets (sugary pastries). Gumbo, a Louisiana favorite, is essentially a hearty broth of seafood or smoked meats, thickened with okra or a wheat-and-fat mixture called roux before being splashed over a mountain of rice. New Orleans serves up countless variations of the basic gumbo recipe, from classic Creole to pungent Cajun. The Big Easy hasn't had it so easy in recent times, but at least it has one of the world's great comfort foods.
It's a teeny building in the tiny Wisconsin town of Mt Horeb (that's OK, no one else has heard of it either), but it packs more mustard than you can shake a ballpark's worth of hotdogs at - 4600 jars, to be exact. There's horseradish mustard that'll singe your nose hair, orange rind-and-espresso mustard that'll wake up your corned beef sandwich and sweet, bubbly champagne mustard that'll make your pork chop giggle. Antique tins and other items of great importance in the history of mustard line the shelves. 'Condiment counselors' spread samples at the back mustard bar.
4. Bagels in New York City
Bagels may have been invented in Europe, but they were perfected during the turn of the 19th century in New York, so it is here you must come to understand the popularity of the bagel in America. While you can get far better bagels at corner delis here than most other places around the country, go to a Jewish deli where they are still hand-rolled. Made simply from flour, water, salt and a bit of malt for sweetness, the key to these hole-in-the-middle rolls is that they should be both boiled and baked. Order yours with 'schmear' (a thick swipe of cream cheese) and add lox for a splurge. Bagels not your thing? Try a knish instead.
You can pretend you're on the tour to learn about the company's socially responsible business practices (use only natural ingredients, buy them from local family farms). But let's face it: you're really at this factory just north of Waterbury, Vermont for the dreamy ice-cream samples swirled with fudge chunks, toffee bars, brownie batter and chocolate chip-cookie dough. Would it not be the world's greatest job to ensure quality control of the 55-gallon fudge tank or proper blending of the peanut-butter-filled pretzels into their vanilla malt base? Ice-cream fanatics have been known to weep onsite.
6. Clam Chowder in Boston
First things first. Ask ten locals about Boston's best chowder - or, as they say, 'chowdah' - and you're likely to get ten different answers. Everyone has an opinion about what makes this combo of chopped clams, potatoes and clam juice in a base of milk and cream a sensation. Order up other New England seafood specialties like clams or oysters on the half-shell, scrod or, of course, 'lobstah'.
7. BBQ in Kansas City
(KS not MO) Savory hickory-smoked brisket, pork, chicken or ribs at one of the 100+ BBQ joints around town is a must for any meat eater. Kansas City's own style of BBQ is pit-smoked and slathered with heavily-seasoned vinegar-based sauces. Rib-sticking good!
8. Soul Food in the Deep South
No region is prouder of its food culture than the South. Classic dishes range from pulled pork to fried catfish, but perhaps Southern fried chicken is the most legendary dish. No matter what you pick, expect heaps of it - with traditional sides like collard greens, black-eyed peas, mashed potatoes and candied yams, to name just a few. Wash it all down with sweet iced tea and you'll feel right at home.
9. Steak in Montana
Livestock outnumber people in Montana by 12 to 1, so it shouldn't come as a surprise that Big Sky Country serves up some of the best steak to be found. All-natural Angus beef is what to look for, and if you don't want it rare, well, you're out of luck. Menus boast not just about steak size, but also wax poetic about the appeal of red meat - the bloodier the better. If well-done is the way you like it, they might just tell you “that's not available here”. Really.
10. Green Chillis in Albuquerque, New Mexico
Green chilli is to New Mexicans what breath is to life - essential. Even McDonald's offers green chilli throughout the region. This staple will be on the menu in some form at every establishment in Albuquerque. Green chilli stew, enchiladas served swimming in the spicy sauce, take your pick and prepare your taste buds for a roasting.