When most people think of American food, visions of greasy cheeseburgers and fried chicken likely come to mind. But despite this, American food is actually one of the most distinctly diverse cuisines in the world, thanks to an influx of immigrants and bountiful agriculture calling USA home.
California is just one of many states chock-full of ethnic enclaves beloved for their hole-in- the-wall eateries and street food (from melty Philly cheesesteaks and fiery falafel, to food trucks dishing out Korean tacos and Indian samosas).
The country’s past means spicy tuna rolls and banh mi are just as common as steak and buffalo wings. And half the fun is trying all the dishes on offer for yourself.
Here are four quintessentially American cuisines you won’t want to miss on your next trip to the Land of the Free.
Louisiana Cajun And Creole
Southern American food covers an army of cuisines, but Louisiana Cajun and Creole is easily the most unique, says Tory McPhail, chef of New Orleans’ award-winning Commander’s Palace, an institution since the 1800s.
“For us, it’s all about history, flavour and tradition. We were doing fusion food before it was cool, when the city was getting settled by the French and Spanish. Then we threw in American Indian, African and, in the later days, Greek, Italian, Chinese and Vietnamese – that’s the face of new Creole food, the foundation of which is called the holy trinity: onion, celery and green bell pepper.”
Other characteristics of the cuisine include heavy seasoning (paprika, cayenne, black pepper, garlic and onion powder), salt (a means for preservation before refrigeration), hardy pig and an abundance of seafood – meaning dishes like gumbo (a spicy stew built from a rich, dark roux that cooks for hours) and etouffee (shellfish in a light roux smothered over rice) reign supreme.
“Blackened red fish started here in the 1970s, and now it’s on every chain restaurant menu in America,” adds Tory.
Where to get it
- Don’t miss the chicken and sausage gumbo – an exemplary Louisiana Creole dish – at New Orleans’ bustling Cochon Butcher. Bon Ton Cafe also makes a shrimp and crab okra gumbo that will blow your mind.
- Mother’s Restaurant is famous for po’ boys (baguettes stuffed with meat or seafood – or both). Tory likes his with lettuce, tomato, onion, mayo, ketchup and Creole mustard.
- No trip to New Orleans is complete without a stop at Cafe Du Monde, where beignets (deep-fried pastries covered in powdered sugar) and chicory coffee steal the show. Tory puts a modern twist on the classic at Commander’s Palace with his black skillet-seared foie gras over a foie gras and candied pecan beignet.
New England Seafood
Head to northeastern USA for a bounty of fresh seafood native to the region’s coastal waters (think decadent Maine lobster, Nantucket sea scallops and briny clams and oysters).
The abundant fishing industry, combined with extensive dairy farming, a plethora of immigrant influences and a history of preserved foods, has resulted in a wealth of stewed, steamed and baked dishes.
Jamie Bissonnette, chef and owner of Boston’s beloved Coppa and Toro restaurants, lists his favourites as salty cured fatback with fresh churned butter, velvety clam chowder, lobster salad rolls and fried clams with pickle-infused dipping sauce.
“It’s the balance of land and sea – you can smell it,” Jamie says, before waxing poetic about clambakes, a festive tradition involving a profusion of seafood and melted butter.
“Growing up, we’d take a net and mix in all the seafood with potatoes, onions and corn, and my dad would dig a hole in the ground, add seaweed and limestone, build a fire, get the rocks wicked hot, and we’d put all the food on top, sometimes pour beer over everything, and cover it with tarps.
"When it’s done, you just dump everything on to a table covered in newspapers and grab whatever you want.”
Where to get it
- Want to experience a classic clambake? Check out Straight Wharf Restaurant on the island of Nantucket, where buttered lobster, sweet corn, spicy chorizo, potatoes and littleneck clams take centre-stage.
- Trying to name the region’s best clam chowder is like asking an Italian where to find the best bolognese. But the notorious Chatham Squire at Cape Cod puts up a strong fight – plump clams comingle with smoky potatoes, making this creamy soup one for the books.
- Lobster seekers needn’t look further than James Hook + Co in Boston. The third-generation seafood shack brings their daily lobster catch from Maine and Canada down to Boston’s historic waterfront.
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Bagels with lox (cured salmon), smoked pastrami sandwiches and latkes (potato pancakes) are three of America’s most beloved dishes.
The common thread between the plates? They all sprang from New York City delis, thanks to a large community of Eastern European Jews who set up shop after immigrating to the USA.
“Jewish food is all technique-based: smoking, curing, pickling,” explains Nick Wiseman, co-owner of Washington DC’s popular DGS Delicatessen, where all meats and fish are cured in-house.
“These preservation methods were born out of necessity, but now they’re in vogue here, a way to intensify flavours and tenderise meat.”
Where to get it
- When you’re craving zesty pastrami or corned beef, make a beeline to Brooklyn’s Mile End, where the Reuben sandwich comes on pumpernickel bread stuffed with salt-cured beef, Swiss cheese, sauerkraut and creamy Russian dressing.
- Try the chopped liver at DGS Delicatessen, best spread on rye crackers with red-onion marmalade and chicken-skin cracklings.
- You’ll find authentic handmade bagels boiled with malt and sugar and dusted in seeds and garlic, piled high with house-cured wild salmon, pickled onions and capers at Kenny & Zuke’s Bagelworks at Portland, Oregon.
“Tex-Mex always gets lumped in as a bastardisation of Mexican food, but in reality it’s America’s oldest regional cuisine,” contends Bryan Caswell, chef at Houston’s El Real Tex-Mex.
“It’s a wonderful representation of the flavours of Mexico by way of Texas, the ultimate spicy comfort food,” adds Stephan Pyles, chef and owner of four Dallas restaurants and one of the founding fathers of southwestern cuisine.
Expect stacks of warm tortillas, plenty of spice (cumin, oregano, cilantro) and a wide array of chillies (jalapenos, guajillo, ancho and chipotle, to name a few).
Unlike true Mexican food, Tex-Mex has a heavy hand for melted cheese and sour cream and is almost always served with beans and rice.
A Tex-Mex meal looks like this: “You’re going to get tortilla chips slapped down in front of you with a red salsa, first thing,” explains Stephan.
“Complete the chip experience with chile con queso (a rich, creamy cheese dip) and then expect to be baffled by a long list of plates with every combination conceivable, usually numbered or named after someone.”
These combos usually contain some amalgamation of enchiladas, tacos, quesadillas and fajitas. “It’s a communal style of eating, best done over margaritas on a patio on a warm summer day,” says Bryan.
Where to get it
- Order the San Antonio Puffy Taco Plate – complete with BBQ pork, smoked chicken and picadillo beef – at El Real Tex-Mex, Houston.
- In Dallas, there’s no better place for tacos than Mia’s Tex-Mex Restaurant, where warm tortillas are stuffed with tender brisket, Monterey Jack cheese, grilled onions and poblano peppers.
- One of Texas’s most authentic Tex-Mex restaurants can be found in San Antonio. Mi Tierra Cafe has been serving some of the best chilaquiles (eggs scrambled with corn tortilla strips and topped with spicy tomato sauce and cheese) since 1941.
Baltimore's Crab Cakes
There’s perhaps nothing Marylanders are more proud of than their prized crab cakes – a sauteed patty formed from lump crabmeat, breadcrumbs, mayonnaise and savoury spices, often served alongside tartar or remoulade sauce.
Whether you want an authentic boardwalk rendition – one that’s been deep-fried and sandwiched between a hamburger bun – or a gourmet version, you’re sure to find it in Baltimore.
Where to get it
- Head to the unassuming G&M Restaurant & Lounge for ultra-moist broiled crab cakes teeming with jumbo lump crabmeat and Old Bay Seasoning (sandwich optional). They’re so popular, you can even order by mail.
- Tilghman Island gets the local and seasonal treatment at Woodberry Kitchen in succulent patties served with tartar sauce and vegies such as wood-roasted spring onion, romaine, celery, cucumber, potatoes and zucchini.
- Though bivalves take centre-stage, the behemoth crab cakes at Thames Street Oyster House are equally earth-shattering. Presented in a cast-iron skillet, these cakes are chock-full of blue crab and served with spicy remoulade.
Our Top 5 Iconic American Foods
America has a big appetite. Let your stomach steer you on a culinary journey around the States, making sure to sample these five decidedly American dishes as chosen by the Flight Centre team:
1. New York Cheesecake
Many will argue the New York variation is cheesecake in its purest form, baked using only cream cheese, cream, eggs and sugar. The Empire State's sweet tooth was truly tempted in the 1900s, thanks to restaurateur Arnold Reuben, inventor of the equally iconic layered Rueben sandwich.
Indulge at Eileen's Special Cheesecake on Cleveland Place, Lower Manhattan.
2. New England Clam Chowder
While clam chowder is no longer reserved to holy Fridays, it remains a time-honoured dish in the northeastern corner of the United States. When it's done well, chowder made on cream, potatoes, onions and clams is guaranteed to warm your cockles.
Crumble your crackers into the broth at Neptune Oyster on Boston's Salem Street.
3. Louisiana Po' boy
The submarine sandwich that trumps them all is undoubtedly the po' boy – crispy fried shrimp piled high on soft French bread. Load up on carbohydrates with a French fry and gravy po' boy, or play it safe with roast beef.
Order your sub with all the fixin's at New Orleans' Acme Oyster House on Iberville Street.
4. Chicago Deep Dish Pizza
Putting the 'pie' in pizza pie, the Chicago deep dish pizza is identified by its three-inch-high crust. The cake-like creation has been oozing its cheesy goodness since the 1940s.
What better place to grab a slice than at the birthplace of the deep dish, Pizzeria Uno on East Ohio Street?
5. Florida Key Lime Pie
The limes growing throughout the Florida Keys are the star of the show in the Official Pie of the State of Florida. An ingenious solution to sweets at sea, the citric acid 'cooks' the mixture of egg yolks and condensed milk.
Try a piece at Kermit's Key Lime Shoppe on Elizabeth Street, Key West.
Visit your local Flight Centre or call 131 600 for more advice and the latest deals on travelling to the United States.