Though the USA is famous for its food, it’s not all about how many McDonald’s there are per capita or how many wings a man can eat in 10 minutes. Pretty much every city across each state has its signature dishes, from cheese curds in Wisconsin to biscuits and gravy in the south and Tex-Mex creations in Texas. These are my top six picks for the absolute best in all things culinary across the country.
New Orleans: best for gumbo, Creole, po’boys and beignets
Louisiana’s capital is famous for many things; jazz music, a raucous Mardi Gras parade and the historic French Quarter – but one of the real highlights of this eclectic city is its food, the likes of which you’ll be hard pressed to find anywhere else in the United States. Take the humble po’boy: just a sandwich to some, this French bread creation has been around since the 1920s and is still going strong. Parkway Bakery & Tavern and Parasol’s are heralded as the best places to get one of these bad boys, filled to the brim with fried seafood like oysters or shrimp.
Gumbo, another New Orleans classic, is one of the oldest dishes in Louisiana and a source of state-wide pride. You’ll find it cooked in many different ways, from Creole to filé to cowan, but one thing all these variations have in common is their rich, dark soup. Find stellar gumbo at Galatoire’s, which has been open and cooking up vats of delicious goodness since 1905.
If you need a sweet treat after all that savoury, there’s only one thing you can eat when in New Orleans: a beignet. What is a beignet, you ask? Well, it’s kind of like a doughnut, but not. A breakfast staple, this deep-fried choux pastry is covered in lashings of icing sugar, and perfect with a coffee to get your mornings started off with a real sugar rush. There’s only one place you should go to sample these beauties, and that’s Cafe du Monde. First opened in 1862, you could say these guys know their way around a beignet pretty well.
Portland: best for coffee, doughnuts, microbreweries and all things organic
‘Keep Portland Weird’: this is the phrase you’ll see dotted all around this slightly wacky city, on car bumpers, signs and even buildings. Oregon’s capital is well-known for its eco-friendliness, hipster vibes and counter-culture in spades. Alongside its interesting characters and plentiful green spaces, you’ll find some coffeehouses and microbreweries (hey, hipsters) that are famous country-wide, and well loved by the locals too.
One of Portland’s most famous food chains is Voodoo Doughnut, which is definitely in-keeping with the wacky vibe. You’ll spot the neon voodoo-doll-doughnut sign from down the street and should expect creative treats like the ‘Gay Bar’, with toppings in every colour of the rainbow, and the ‘Diablo’s Rex’, a chocolate cake batter doughnut with a vanilla frosting pentagram on top.
Once you’ve gorged on ingeniously-named doughnuts, wash it all down with a coffee or a refreshing beer. Though there are plenty of delicious coffeehouses and cafés in the city, one of the very best is Tōv, where Egyptian coffee dazzles time after time. What’s more, this superb coffee comes in an even better setting: a converted red double-decker bus, whose rooftop is kitted out in the style of a true Egyptian living room.
When it comes to breweries, you’re completely spoilt for choice. Baerlic Brewing Company won Brewery of the Year at the Oregon Beer Awards in 2017 and 2018, making it pretty much the best place you could go for a good pint or two. They started making beer out of a basement, and now have two Taprooms (one with 10 resident food trucks). Gigantic Brewing Company is another standout, and pack the punchy claim that they make the ‘best damn IPA in Portland’; they might just be right. Most of their flavourful beers only get brewed once, making them (and their incredible label art) something seriously special.
New York City: best for bagels, pastrami, cheesecake and some of the biggest names in food
Though New York City is home to some of the world’s best, most expensive and trendiest restaurants, its real soul-food often stems from humble beginnings. What’s more quintessentially NYC than a bagel, pastrami on rye or a huge, cheesy slice of pizza? Nothing, as most locals would tell you.
The location of the best bagel is an age-old dispute among New Yorkers, as is the argument of the best kind of bagel, and the best filling. Absolute Bagels has nabbed pretty much every accolade of bagel-worthiness in the 27 years it’s been open, while Ess-a-Bagel has been open since 1976 and still to this day draws 60-minute waits that are eagerly endured. For something a little different, head to The Bagel Store in Brooklyn for rainbow hues, pretzel bagels and even cragels (croissant-bagel hybrids).
According to many locals, the only place you should go for delicious, thinly-sliced, succulent pastrami is Katz’s Delicatessen, a veritable institution. Cured for 30 days, the meat here is the pièce de résistance, the crème de la crème of all pastrami, corned beef and brisket in the world (we’re exaggerating… maybe). Order a gigantic, hand-sliced pastrami on rye, grab yourself some mustard and kraut, and chow down.
The final, quintessential New York food is of course the humble pizza slice. Not so humble though, when it comes from a place with as much history and experience under its belt as Lombardi’s. Opened in 1906, Lombardi’s was the first pizzeria in the United States, and still serves coal-oven baked, smoky-crusted pies with fresh mozzarella and homemade tomato sauce. For a true Lombardi’s experience, order the Clam Pie, with fresh-shucked clams and fresh parsley to top it off.
Kansas City: best for barbecue, barbecue and more barbecue
Kansas City, Missouri might seem like a bit of a rogue addition to the list, but trust us, you’d struggle to find better barbecue anywhere in the USA (not that the Texans would agree). Smoky ribs, brisket, pork, chicken, turkey and more are all up for grabs – no purist barbecuers in sight here.
Arthur Bryant, otherwise known as the ‘King of Ribs’ is one of the most renowned barbecuers in history, and his restaurants have been visited by at least three US Presidents, including Barack Obama. Sticking to tradition, the store owners still mix the famous sauce in five-gallon jars, which can be seen in the restaurant’s window.
As featured on the heartwarming show Queer Eye, the Jones sisters of Jones Bar-B-Q run one of the most famous, well-loved barbecue joints in the whole of Kansas City. Their home-made, decades-old sauce recipe can be shipped countrywide, and hundreds line up daily to get their hands on some sauce-drenched ribs before they sell out – which they tend to, every single day.
Last but not least in the barbecue steaks (sorry, I couldn’t resist) is Joe’s Kansas City Bar-B-Que, an unassuming joint hidden away inside a Shamrock gas station just outside of the city. Passion goes into this award-winning spot, and you’ll find classic Southern sides like barbecue beans and potato salad alongside meat by the pound, in case you need to feed an army.
Chicago: best for deep-dish pizza, all-beef hot dogs and Italian sandwiches
Lakeside Chicago has a lot going for it, from stunning museums, to the beautiful Millennium Park (featuring the world-famous Bean) and of course, majestic Lake Michigan which stretches so far it might as well be the ocean.
Another institution to add to the list, you’ll find the original Portillo’s Hot Dogs in Villa Park, a suburb not far from the city centre. This unassuming shack serves all-beef hot dogs the Chicago way – with mustard, celery salt, fresh onions, sliced tomatoes, kosher pickles and sport peppers on a sesame bun; any other way and it’s not a Chicago dog. Another of the city’s classic eats is also best ordered from Portillo’s: the Italian beef sandwich. Slow-roasted for hours, this succulent beef is thinly sliced and served on fresh-baked bread. According to many, the correct way to order it is with a secret recipe gravy drizzled over the top, but some like their sandwich dipped in gravy instead. Also deserving of an honorable mention is their chocolate cake – an experience in itself, made with mayonnaise for that extra moistness.
Pizza pie is possibly the city’s most famous dish, and Giordano’s is the place to go for a fully-stuffed, super deep-dish pizza, with mounds and mounds of cheese crammed inside. Combine this with your choice of toppings and tomato sauce to make a truly iconic Chicagoan meal.
Los Angeles: best for Korean barbecue, California rolls and tacos
With a melting pot of cultures and communities, from South-East Asian to Mexican, and a huge array of restaurants ranging from historic diners to innovative, gourmet cuisine, you’ll find literally anything you want to eat in this vast city.
Koreatown began carving its place into the Los Angeles food scene not long after the arrival of large numbers of Korean immigrants in the 1960s. For some of the best Korean barbecue anywhere in the world, head to Kang Ho Dong Baekjeong, where you’ll arrive to a table full of sides, and watch sumptuous marbled brisket, short ribs and steak be grilled to perfection right in front of you on a tabletop grill powered by charcoal logs and gas flames.
As most LA natives will tell you, Mexican food is part of the lifeblood of this city. You’ll find gourmet restaurants serving delectable dishes, and sidestreet shops dishing up fully authentic cuisine. However, most would argue that the best Mexican food, especially tacos, comes out the side of a truck. Mariscos Jalisco is a no-frills spot whose famous offering is fried shrimp tacos – a deep-fried shell filled with camarones, and topped with home-made salsa and avocado. For another Cali classic, head to Ricky’s Fish Tacos, where you’ll find soft baja fish cooked to golden brown, with chopped cabbage and a selection of sauces.
Your final must-try in Los Angeles comes in the form of an institution completely ingrained in the local culture, where some of the world’s best steaks have been served since 1922. When at Lawry’s The Prime Rib, it’d be rude to have anything other than its classic cut, served from a silver cart and accompanied by mash, creamed corn, mac and cheese or even lobster, if you want to push the boat out.