Foodie bucket-list challenge: Visit every state and eat its most well-known dish.
When it comes to food, each state is special in its own way. That said, picking a state dish is as hotly contested as the 2016 presidential election.
While food has the power to unite, some fierce battles have ensued over which snack, entrée or dessert is most representative of a particular place. Fearless, we still decided to play our own version of The Hunger Games.
So, what’s on the menu? Below, we’ve rounded up one signature dish you must try in each state. See which food made our list for your home state, and start making plans for dining as you travel the country.
The Alabama state nut is the pecan, and whether they’re roasted, salted, glazed, candied or stuffed in a pie, locals are skilled at myriad pecan-focused desserts. Don’t leave the state without ordering a slice of homemade chocolate bourbon pecan pie at Pie Lab in Greensboro. For pecan fiddlesticks, which are loaded with chocolate and the legendary nut, or pecan logs, which are essentially nougat treats covered in caramel and pecans, visit Priester’s Pecans in Fort Deposit.
The largest private industry in the 49th state is fishing, and the prize catch is Alaska salmon. In fact, most of the pink salmon consumed in the U.S. is caught in Alaskan waters. Grab a salmon burger or a broiled salmon fillet with mandarin mango salsa at Twister Fish in Juneau.
When the Navajo Indian tribes were forced out of Arizona, they created fry bread to make the 300-mile journey to New Mexico. The doughy snack, which tastes like unsweetened funnel cake, was crafted using white flour, processed sugar and lard provided by the U.S. government. These days, you can get a fry bread Navajo taco, which comes packed with tomatoes, lettuce, beans and cheese at The Fry Bread House in Phoenix.
When in Arkansas, fill up on possum pie. Don’t worry, this chocolate dessert doesn’t contain any animal parts. It does, however, have Cool Whip, fruit or chocolate pudding, pecans, cream cheese and other tasty ingredients. Try a slice of at Stoby’s Restaurant in Russellville (and note that they’re just joking about the dessert only being available during possum season).
California boasts different signature foods, depending on where you are in the Golden State. In Southern California, burgers — namely those from In-N-Out Burger — reign supreme. The fast-food restaurant was founded in 1948 by husband-and-wife team Harry and Esther Snyder. But unlike many other joints, this eatery boasts 100 percent pure-beef patties. Try the cheeseburger “animal style,” which comes with sautéed onions and extra sauce, or the “protein-style” burger, which uses a lettuce wrap instead of a bun.
Rocky Mountain oysters, also known as cowboy caviar, aren’t what they sound like. They’re not oysters or even in the seafood family. In Colorado, these fried finger foods are made from sheep, bull and pig testicles. The dish apparently began with ranchers who needed a cheap source of food. Be open minded — they actually taste like venison and are served with a tasty cocktail dipping sauce.
Shad — cousins of herring and sardines — are fish found in the New England area. Join the annual Shad Bake, which is a springtime tradition in Essex, Conn. During the event, strips of shad are nailed onto wooden boards and secured with pork strips. The boards are then set around a fire and smoked. In fact, Connecticut is so fond of shad that it even became the state fish in 2003.
Delaware is big on scrapple. No, we’re not talking about the board game, Scrabble. The congealed meat, which is a mash-up of buckwheat flour, spices and pork, is cooked to perfection and often served in the morning with eggs and other breakfast foods. You won’t have to look hard to find the mystery meat — diners throughout Delaware feature the dish on their menus.
As the winter season moves in, Florida begins to prepare for the stone crab harvest, which begins on Oct. 15 and ends on May 15. Interestingly, harvesting is done without killing the creature. Instead, the claws are removed and the stone crab is returned to the ocean where it can regrow its lost limbs. Distinguished by their black-tipped claws, the crustaceans are typically served cold with a mustard sauce, but can also be enjoyed hot with butter. One of the top eateries that serve stone crab is Joe’s Stone Crab, which opened in Miami in 1913.
Although Alabama is the setting for the movie “Fried Green Tomatoes,” the film was actually shot at The Whistle Stop Café, about one-hour from Atlanta. The sign out front reads “fine food at fair prices,” and that’s exactly what you’ll find here. Order up a plate of Ninny Threadgoode’s favorite fried green tomatoes with radish dipping sauce, or try the fried green tomato salad or fried green tomato sandwich.
Poke (pronounced po-kay) is gaining popularity on the mainland, but the freshest version can be found in Hawaii. The dish is concocted with raw ahi fish that’s chopped into cubes and mixed with soy sauce, limu (seaweed) and other ingredients. If you’re going to the beach, grab some poke at the supermarket. You’re sure to find everything from octopus to mussel poke in the seafood section. Fine-dining restaurants like Roy’s also offer poke bowls that are worth a try.
Idaho takes their potatoes seriously. So seriously, in fact, that it even says “famous potatoes” on state license plates. And nearly one-third of potato crops in the U.S. are grown in Idaho. Try a variation of the spud with black beans, salsa verde and cheese at Spuds Waterfront Grill in Sandpoint, or bite into a potato-bacon pizza slice at Pie Hole in Boise.
Illinois, the country’s fifth most populous state, is so fond of popcorn that in 2004 it became the state snack. To keep up with the demand, there are about 333 popcorn farms in the midwestern state, plus plenty of shops to choose from. Folks can taste the caramel and cheddar popcorn at Del’s Popcorn Shop, with multiple locations, or munch on birthday cake popcorn at Mama Lee’s Gourmet Popcorn in Elgin.
Hoosiers know that a proper breaded pork tenderloin sandwich not only hangs over the bun, but also spills off the plate. The origins of the sandwich can be traced back to 1908 when it was founded in Nick’s Kitchen in Huntington, Ind. As the tenderloin connoisseur Rick Garrett once wrote on his blog, every tenderloin is different at each Indiana eatery. But Garrett gives Indianapolis’ Whiskey Business’ hand-breaded pork tenderloin sandwich with pickles, lettuce, tomatoes and mayonnaise a score of five out of five bites.
You’ll need a spoon for your burger in Iowa, the home of the loose meat sandwich, which is often topped with pickles and ketchup. Here, the chain eatery Maid-Rite started slinging loose meat sandwiches in 1926. Its former owner Fred Angell apparently created the steamed ground-beef dish using a selection of spices. But others say the sandwich was created in Ye Olde Tavern in Sioux City. Either way, both versions are tasty.
Ask anyone in Kansas and they’ll tell you that throwing away the brisket ends is a barbecue faux pas. In the Sunflower State, the charred edges of a slowly grilled brisket are a delicacy. Pit masters serve them as appetizers with slices of white bread and sweet Kansas barbecue sauce. Order up a burnt end bowl with cornbread and onion straws at Burnt End BBQ in Kansas City.
The Kentucky Derby is only held once a year, but you can eat derby pie any time you want. The first derby pie, which was born in 1950 at Kentucky’s Melrose Inn, in Tryon, used walnuts, chocolate and a secret filling. Other variations go by the name Kentucky bourbon pie to avoid trademark issues. These include bourbon or pecans (or both). In Louisville, try a slice at The Brown Hotel, or head to the Derby Cafe at the Kentucky Derby Museum for the signature derby pie recipe.
Louisiana is a place where the jazz is always playing and the Cajun cooking is always hot. Speaking of the latter, freshwater shellfish is a staple in the Cajun community. In summer, picnic tables are covered with newspapers — and boiled crawfish, sausage, corn, mushrooms, potatoes and other veggies. Crawfish festivals are also held throughout the state. If you’re in a rush, opt for snagging some crawfish to go at the Crawfish Boil-N-Go in Lake Charles.
About 44,000 acres of wild blueberries grow in Maine, and the summer berry can still be found in New England in September. Try the blueberry jam at Stonewall Kitchen in York, and make sure to save room for blueberry pie at Wild Oats Bakery & Café in Brunswick.
Ask anyone from Maryland and they’ll tell you no one whips up crab cakes like they do. Recipes vary, but most include blue crab meat mixed with mayonnaise, Worcestershire sauce, Old Bay seasoning and saltines. Try the jumbo lump crab cake at Faidley’s Seafood in Baltimore, or sample the Hawaiian and Tex-Mex crab cake sandwiches at the Crab Cake Café in Oxon Hills.
Grab your oyster crackers — it’s chowda time. Chowder in Massachusetts has a thicker and creamier consistency, thanks to milk, quahog chunks, potatoes and bits of bacon. In a rush? Take your soup in a bread bowl to go from Boston Chowda Co. Or sit and savor each sip in Boston’s historic Union Oyster House, which was established in 1826 and is known as the oldest restaurant in the U.S.
Michigan is home to the Cornish pasty, which is a delicious pastry stuffed with meat, potatoes and vegetables. The hearty fillings fueled hardworking Finnish and Cornish miners in the area back in the 1800s. These days, the pastries have become a state staple. Pick up a vegetarian pasty at Amy J’s Pasty in Hancock, or maple pork pasties at Joe’s Pasty Shop in Ironwood.
What’s for dinner, you ask? If you’re in Minnesota, it’s a time-honored tradition to whip up a hotdish in your cast-iron skillet. Elsewhere in America this dish is referred to as a casserole but, in Minnesota, the dinnertime favorite, which includes meat, veggies, cream sauce, and tater tots, is known as a hotdish. Restaurants like The Bulldog Northeast in Minneapolis elevate the meal with beer-braised brisket, while The Mason Jar in Eagan bakes its hotdish in a stone-fire oven.
When it comes to farm-raised catfish production, Mississippi beats out all other states (it raked in $179.2 million in sales in 2013). Turns out, the animals prefer the Mississippi’s muddy clay bottom. Sample the fish with french fries, hush puppies and fried pickles at Jerry’s Catfish House in Florence, or Aunt Jenny’s Catfish Restaurant in Ocean Springs.
In Missouri, toasted ravioli makes for a delicious appetizer. The dish, which hails from Sicily, made its way to The Hill, the Italian neighborhood in St Louis. Stories vary about how the dish was created — some say it happened by accident when ravioli was dropped into oil. One of several restaurants that claim to have invented the dish is Mama Toscano’s Ravioli in St. Louis. Here, diners can choose from two types of meat-filled ravioli with a side of marinara sauce.
Nothing says Montana quite like bison. Native Americans used every part of the animal for food, clothing and other essentials. Today, there are plenty of reasons to try buffalo beyond the curiosity factor. Buffalo is sweeter and lower in fat and cholesterol than beef. Try the bison nachos at Ted’s Montana Grill in Bozeman, or bite into a buffalo burger at the Lighthouse Restaurant in Gardiner.
Save Cheese Frenchies, a popular finger food in Nebraska, for your diet cheat day. The triangular grilled cheese sandwiches are covered in cornmeal before hitting the fryer. You can thank the now-shuttered King’s Food Host for popularizing the dish in the 1960s and 1970s. These days, folks can order them at Don and Millie’s, with locations in Lincoln and Omaha, as well as other diners throughout the state.
Nearly every Sin City resort features an all-you-can-eat buffet. Perhaps the star of these buffets is the shrimp cocktail. In fact, more than 60,000 pounds of shrimp are consumed every day in Las Vegas alone. In 1959, the Golden Gate hotel became the first to serve the seafood-and-cocktail sauce combination for fifty cents. And while the price has certainly increased, the love for the dish hasn’t wavered.
The official New Hampshire state motto is Live Free or Die. One of those freedoms is to eat lobster rolls to your heart’s content. The quintessential New Hampshire sandwich is made with buttered lobster that’s stuffed in a roll with lemon, celery, salt and pepper. Get your fill at one of The Beach Plum’s three locations, which serves up anywhere from six- to 20-ounce lobster rolls with chips.
You may find yourself in a heated debate with New Jersey locals when discussing whether a particular sandwich is called the pork roll or Taylor ham. The latter name comes from John Taylor, who created the sandwich in 1856. No matter the moniker you choose, this tasty salted-ham sandwich is a beloved breakfast for New Jerseyans. The recipe is simple: Taylor ham, egg and cheese on a roll. Munch on one from Olde Towne Deli in Boonton, or Hoagitos in Asbury Park.
The Land of Enchantment boasts some of the best Mexican restaurants around, and one of the big decisions you’ll have to make while eating out in New Mexico is choosing between red or green chili. Take your pick — or opt for “Christmas” style to get both — for your sopapillas. These deep-fried dough pockets are stuffed with beans, rice, beef or chicken at El Pinto in Albuquerque. And those with a sweet tooth will appreciate the honey and jam sopapillas at El Paragua in Espanola.
In New York City alone, there are an estimated 24,000 restaurants, several of which serve up pizzas that range from thin-crust pies to deep-dish Chicago-style slices. According to the Pizza Hall of Fame (yes, that’s a real thing), New York is home to the first pizzeria in the country. Your first stop when visiting the Big Apple: Little Italy. Lombardi’s, a neighborhood favorite, started baking Neapolitan pies in 1905. Order a coal-fired, mozzarella-topped pie (there are no slices).
Krispy Kreme might be a nationally renowned donut brand today, but back in 1937, Vernon Rudolph, the company’s founder, was glazing fresh rings of dough at his shop in Winston-Salem. The original glazed donuts are the most popular pick, but folks can also try out-of-the-box options, like one filled with cheesecake and topped with cream-cheese icing and graham crackers.
When German-Russian immigrants settled in North Dakota, they brought with them the hearty knoephla soup. Made with chicken, potatoes and homemade knoephla dumplings, the rich soup is often served with slices of bread. Order up a bowl at the 1950s eatery, Kroll’s Diner in Bismarck, or at the Home Plate Café in Fredonia.
Cincinnati chili, which is scooped onto spaghetti and topped with a pile of cheddar cheese, is dear to Ohioans. The recipe was brought to Ohio by Macedonian immigrants in the 1920s. Today it’s ordered according to a “way” system: three-way means chili, noodles and cheese, while four-way chili includes onions or beans. Its unique flavor comes from all the spices, including cinnamon, chocolate and Worcestershire. And, although Ohio is brimming with chili parlors, make your first stop Camp Washington Chili in Cincinnati.
Oklahoma — where the wind comes sweeping down the plain and the onion burgers sure smell sweet. The onion burger was created during the Depression when Ross Davis, owner of Hamburger Inn, added shredded white onions to hamburger meat. Since then, things have been kicked up a notch. Every year, Oklahomans host the El Reno Fried Onion Burger Day, during which an onion hamburger that weighs more than 750 pounds is grilled. Craving one yourself? Head to Johnnie’s Grill in Oklahoma City or Sid’s Diner in Reno.
Portland is cool, hip and unafraid to push the envelope. That goes for its donuts, too. Voodoo Doughnut changed the game with its unusual treats, and Blue Star should not be missed by anyone with a sweet tooth. The only problem? Picking a favorite.
Although whoopie pies are the official state treat of Maine, folks in Pennsylvania say recipes for the chocolate cake and vanilla cream-filled dessert have been an Amish tradition for decades. The annual Whoopie Pie Festival, which is held in Lancaster County, offers more than 100 different whoopie pie variations, including red velvet and chocolate peanut butter. If you miss the festival, stop by The Whoopie Pie Company in Wyomissing, or Flying Monkey Bakery in Philadelphia to get your fill.
The smallest state in the U.S. (geographically speaking) is be pretty big on clams. A beloved tradition in Rhode Island involves eating stuffies, also known as stuffed quahogs. The shells are typically stuffed with breadcrumbs, minced clam and spices, but different interpretations can be found at a variety of restaurants, including Brick Alley Pub in Newport, and Finn’s Harbourside in East Greenwich.
From peaches to pimento cheese, there’s no shortage of foods that are associated with South Carolina. (Believe it or not, the state ships twice as many peaches as Georgia each year). But perhaps the one that’s most ubiquitous is boiled peanuts, the state’s official snack. The nuts, which can be found at roadside stands and shops, are best in the summer and fall.
When Czech immigrants arrived in South Dakota, they brought with them a pastry known as kolache. Tyndall Bakery, which has been in business in Tyndall for 80 years, bakes these Czech treats with apricot, cherry, poppy seed, apple, cream cheese and other fillings. The dessert, much like the polka dance, is a quintessential part of the Czech Days festival held in Tabor. Legislators have also tried to introduce a bill to make the dessert the official state pastry.
Nashville-style hot chicken is near and dear to Tennesseans. Its birthplace is said to be Prince’s Hot Chicken Shack in Nashville, which has been slinging the spicy poultry dish for over 70 years. The eatery’s founder, Thornton Prince, had a fondness for two things: ladies and spicy chicken. As the story goes, Prince’s girlfriend tried to punish him for his wandering eye by covering his chicken in hot pepper. Prince, however, loved the hot chicken. Today, other restaurants like Hattie B’s Hot Chicken and Bolton’s Spicy Chicken & Fish, both in Nashville, are also top spots to sample the peppery meat.
Whether you prefer brisket, ribs, sausage or pork chops, barbecue is can’t-miss when visiting the Lone Star State. While some joints cook their meat over mesquite, others opt for smoking it atop hickory wood. If you can score a spot at Austin‘s often-busy Franklin Barbecue, order up a platter of grilled meat, slaw, pinto beans and potato salad. For finger-lickin’ good meat that’s cooked over oak, head to Lockhart Smokehouse in Dallas.
When in Utah, fill up on Jell-O. The sweet treat, which is usually mixed with fruits and vegetables, is a state staple, especially within the Mormon community. It’s served at nearly every function, from funerals to potlucks. In fact, Utah is said to consume more Jell-O than any other state in America. And while the jiggly dish is most commonly made at home, folks can also find it at restaurants throughout the state. The crowd favorite flavor: green lime.
Vermont, the nation’s leading producer of maple syrup, celebrates the sticky, sweet confection every year during the Vermont Maple Festival. If you can’t make it to the event, don’t fret. The syrup is also made into candy or drizzled over a stack of pancakes at Maple Sugar & Vermont Spice restaurant in Mendon, where General Edward H. Ripley and his relatives would boil the sap from maples to make syrup.
It won’t take more than one bite to understand why Smithfield, Virginia‘s motto is “ham, history and hospitality.” Smithfield Foods, the world’s largest hog producer and pork processor, was founded in 1936. The hams were so popular that Smithfield is now called the Ham Capital of the World. For your fix of Virginia ham, head to The Homeplace in Catawba, a 1907-built home that serves generous portions of ham, potatoes, green beans and buttermilk biscuits.
Half of the country’s sweet cherries come from Washington. The harvest season begins in June and goes through August. Go cherry picking at the family-owned Hauck’s Orchard in Ferndale, or Stutzman Ranch in Wenatchee. For a slice of cherry pie, check out Twede’s Café in North Bend, which was also featured in the TV series “Twin Peaks.” The café, which was built in 1941, serves up slices that are made fresh daily and topped with whipped cream.
Pepperoni rolls, a delicious combination of pepperoni, dough and mozzarella, are the unofficial state snack in West Virginia. The food was supposedly a favorite of coal miners from Italy who settled in West Virginia. Today, you can find them at convenience stores and restaurants, including Tomaro’s Bakery, which has been operating in Clarksburg for more than 100 years.
The largest German population in the U.S. resides in Wisconsin, so it makes sense that the state is home to some of the best bratwurst in the country. The Badger State is also credited with the creation of the beer brat, which is sausage cooked in beer. The Milwaukee County Stadium has been selling bratwurst to baseball fans since the early 1950s, but you can also order a pint and bratwurst at the Milwaukee Brat House or Old German Beer Hall.
Springtime means it’s hunting season in Wyoming. Morel mushroom hunting, that is. To celebrate the fungi, the state holds the annual Morel Mushroom Festival. If you’re not in town for the event, morel mushroom pasta at The Kitchen in Jackson Hole is a hit. You can also order the sautéed seasonal dish at Snake River Grill, also in Jackson Hole.