While big cities like New York, San Francisco, and Chicago get loads of press for their high-end cuisine, there are plenty of other cities all over the US that cultivate their own foodie communities. If you're looking to plan a Summer road trip with quality food to boot, then here are eight sweet cities with renowned restaurants and flavors that pack a punch. Don't see your favorite stop in the list? Chime in with your city in the comments!
There's no better way to ring in an all-American Summer than with hot dogs, hamburgers, fresh ears of grilled corn, and giant slices of watermelon. But if you're in search of a national adventure, might I suggest scoping out the country's regional food scene? Whether you're in Cincinnati or Central Texas, the United States of America is a veritable chest of gastronomic treasures just waiting to be discovered. A few of my favorite local specialties are right this way.
As today's food scene is inspired by so many newer international influences, it's easy to overlook the diversity of this nation's traditional cuisine. Though it, too, relies on the marriage of many different cultures, barbecue as a cuisine is something Americans can hang their hats on as being a product of this country's careful cultivation. But even within the category of barbecue, there are so many regional styles. We've investigated five of the most iconic regional styles of this classic dish to inspire some Summer cooking . . . or a road trip!
We've traveled through the heartland to examine iconic regional barbecue styles, but the birthplace of this nation's smoky tradition lies in South Carolina. In a marriage of the perfect meat with the perfect cooking process, Spanish explorers and their European pigs traveled here in the 17th century and happened upon the American Indians and their slow cooking method with smoke. Long before the region gained the name it boasts today, people were enjoying tender pork thanks to this merging of cultural traditions.
The barbecue developed in South Carolina is not unlike that of its Northern counterpart — with one key difference. Like North Carolinian barbecue, the smoked meat on the coast (the "Pee Dee" region) uses the whole hog with a spicy, vinegary sauce applied during cooking. And in the western part of the state along the Savannah River, the sauce integrates ketchup while the meat of choice is the moister, fattier shoulder. But travel to the Midlands, and you'll come across Carolina gold: a mustard-based sauce traced to early German settlers in the 18th century. South Carolina is perhaps best known for this contribution to barbecue culture, as no other state has adopted mustard sauces with the same fervor.
Take the tour of America's other iconic barbecue regions:
We started west of the Mississippi, examining Texas- and Kansas City-style barbecue, then moved onto the Bluff City, Memphis, for its take on slow-smoked meat. Now we've hit the Atlantic coastline for a cool sea breeze and an overview on North Carolina's smoky eats.
You may have heard that Carolinians distinguish between barbecue from the East and barbecue from the West. Two characteristics hold true for traditional barbecue from either place: in a region where the cattle industry struggled, pork is king, and it's usually served pulled and/or chopped into juicy, bite-sized morsels (often to serve in a sandwich topped with coleslaw). But here the similarities end. Eastern Carolina barbecue uses the whole hog, and then the tender meat is pulled off the carcass to be chopped. While smoking, the meat is mopped with a salted and spiced vinegar mixture to hydrate and season the meat.
Western Carolina-style barbecue (sometimes known as Lexington-style) uses the pork shoulder, a fatty cut of meat, and tends to be moister than the mix of meats in barbecue from the East. Here, the sauce is tomato- or ketchup-based, and restaurants serve up what's known locally as "the brown": the meat exposed to the wood coal smoke on the outside of the shoulder cut.
Expect your barbecue plate to come with a tangy vinegar-based slaw, some piping hot hush puppies, and a heaping serving of pride. Have you tried either style of North Carolina barbecue? Did you have a preference?
After passing through Texas and Missouri on our culinary tour of this nation's iconic barbecue regions, we're proceeding southeast to Tennessee, where Memphis is the capital of this state's meat smoking tradition. Famous for its pork ribs and pulled-pork sandwiches, Memphis boasts a number of world-class smokehouses that give nearby Graceland a run for its money in the popularity contest.
While it's known for its incredibly flavorful dry rub, adherents to this style of barbecue will tell you that most of the flavor comes from the high-quality meat and the slow smoking process, which result in delicious, tender meat even without seasonings. But don't discount the sauce! If you order a rack of ribs, many spots will provide a thin, tangy, tomato-and-vinegar-based sauce — on the side, mind you. This pungent, pucker-inducing dressing will also come drizzled across your pulled-pork sandwich.
These days, Memphis barbecue has hit the mainstream with local restaurateurs Pat and Gina Neely exploding as Food Network celebrities and Justin Timberlake planning to expand his Southern Hospitality barbecue restaurants nationwide. While in Knoxville to watch a University of Tennessee football game, my husband experienced some Southern hospitality of his own when a Vols fan invited him to a true Tennessee-style tailgate barbecue. His take? The best smoked meat he's ever had. Have you tried Memphis-style barbecue? What was your impression?
Certain regions of this country are fiercely loyal to their particular style of barbecue, and Missouri is no exception. The fine city of Kansas City is the birthplace of dry-rubbed barbecue drizzled in a mouthwatering tomato-molasses sauce, and while restaurants here don't discriminate among types of meat (unlike Texas barbecue, pork, chicken, beef, and even turkey are fair game), no upstanding KC smoke joint goes without its own version of the sticky, finger-licking condiment.
It all got started in the early 20th century when Henry Perry opened a stand in downtown Kansas City to serve smoked meats to workers in the city's garment district. Enthusiastic eaters described his secret sauce as "harsh" and "peppery" and followed him throughout the city until he ultimately landed in a trolley barn in the 1920s. Arthur and Charlie Bryant took over the business upon Perry's death in 1946, when they added molasses to his blend to sweeten up the sauce. Today, Arthur Bryant's is still at the heart of Kansas City barbecue.
We recently took a look at what barbecue meant across America, but, as a native Texan, I dare say that no state has more passion for barbecue than Texas.
I have fond memories of entering smoky barbecue joints, where I would make my meat selection, served casually on a styrofoam plate, then head over to the checkered cloth picnic tables, swinging my legs cautiously over the benches to slide into a small space in the crowded bench. I feasted on melt-in-your-mouth tender brisket with a caramelized, crunchy exterior. Depending on the joint, the brisket was either served with buttery green beans and mashed potatoes or sweet baked beans and cornbread. But one thing was for certain: it was much less about the sides, and all about the meat.
Texas barbecue originated in the 1850s; German and Czech settlers opened meat markets when they moved to the state and brought over their native practices of smoking leftover meats that hadn't been sold that day. It was a way of preserving the meat, and Texans took a major liking to it! Keep reading for more about the origins of Texas barbecue.
Despite the growing number of chain restaurants across America, regional cuisine remains as vast as our continent is wide. Some may travel far distances just for a taste of authentic, iconic state dishes, but to know the history behind their creation is another story. For instance, do you know who invented the first Philly cheesesteak? How about the California Cobb salad? We've gathered 50 dishes from 50 states to prime you about the dishes you love. Be forewarned: this slideshow will make you hungry.
Jump ahead to:
- Alabama through Hawaii
- Idaho through Montana
- Nebraska through Pennsylvania
- Rhode Island through Wyoming
— Additional reporting by Susannah Chen, Nancy Einhart, Lauren Hendrickson, Nicole Perry, and Sara Yoo
Over the last week, we've made a coast-to-coast tour of this scrumptious country in search of the foods, techniques, trends, and influences that define each region. At only 236 years old (this Fourth of July marks it's 237th birthday), the United States has spawned countless local cuisines and dishes, each bearing its own uniquely American story. It's impossible to round up every one without penning a tome or two, so we invite you to join us on an eating adventure for a few of our favorites. Grab a seat on our road show when you check out this slideshow!