When we released the first edition of our guidebook Roadfood, back in 1977, food oracles and academic fusspots had been lamenting the fact that American food had gone downhill; that it was getting too homogenized, too corporate, and too bland. Our response had been to set out in our car to find off-the-beaten-path diners, barbecue joints, and fried-chicken shacks where things were still done the old-fashioned way, proving that American cuisine was alive and well, and pretty darn tasty to boot.
These days, old-fashioned, quality cooking is proliferating, from those roadside holes-in-the-wall we waxed poetic about in the '70s to fine-dining establishments where chefs are reclaiming, and occasionally even elevating, some of the country's most beloved regional foods. In fact, thanks to food magazines, websites, and TV shows that track down and celebrate local specialties, adventurous eaters sometimes wonder if there's anything left to discover at all.
The answer is yes. There are countless edible wonders out there to explore, and as the nation grows more diverse, so does the array of food it has to offer. All you need is a set of wheels and an eclectic appetite to find unique, creative, and delicious regional specialties from coast to coast. That's what we've assembled here: a roster of must-eat, iconic dishes we've found throughout our 40-plus years of road-tripping. These dishes express the boundless variety that makes eating one's way around America so inspiring.
Lobster Pie at The Maine Diner
The menu is Maine to the max at the Maine Diner. First, spoon into the world's most buttery seafood chowder. Then dig into the lobster pie, a palate-boggling single-serving casserole that the owner's grandma used to make. It contains plump pieces of lobster—soft claw and chewy tail meat—drenched in butter, topped with a mixture of cracker crumbs and tomalley: sheer lobster indulgence. Conclude your Downeast feast with a plate of the diner's blueberry pie or warm Indian pudding.
Fried Clams at Clam Box
The specialty at Clam Box is local, hand-raked clams—from beds in the Essex River, on the North Shore of Massachusetts—breaded in cornmeal and fried until golden. The nuggets are shatteringly crisp, each one big enough to form a super-savory mouthful. A full plate includes an abundance of the native bivalves, along with airy onion rings, French fries, and bright, refreshing coleslaw.
Maple Hurricane Sauce at Polly's Pancake Parlor
Sugar Hill, NH
Maple Hurricane Sauce dates back to the hurricane of 1938, when "Sugar Bill" Dexter (Polly's husband) found himself with an apple windfall he didn't want to waste. He boiled chunked apples in maple syrup until the syrup thickened and the fruit turned exceptionally tender. The concoction's intense apple-maple flavor is breathtaking—an ideal topping for pancakes, waffles, French toast, or pure vanilla ice cream.
Berry-Berry Pancakes at Dot's
There are a number of excellent reasons to love Dot's, a friendly café perched above the Deerfield River. We adore the hot turkey sandwich, jailhouse chili (Yankee style, with beans), and hand-spun milkshakes, but a stack of Berry-Berry Pancakes is the restaurant's true showstopper. The broad, fluffy flapjacks hold a bounty of blueberries, blackberries, and raspberries—more fruit than batter. A spill of local maple syrup complements them perfectly.
White Clam Apizza at Zuppardi's
West Haven, CT
White clam pizza, or apizza, as it's referred to by locals, was first made a glorious reality at New Haven's legendary Pepe's of Wooster Street. It's still great there, but we'd have to argue that the Zuppardi's version is even better. That's because the tiny, tender littleneck clams are opened only when the pie is ordered, meaning they're impeccably fresh and incomparably sweet. The crust is Neapolitan-thin but New Haven–chewy, an ideal bed for the clams and their fragrant companions of garlic, herbs, and grated hard cheese.
Aunt Darla's Pimento Cheese at Red Truck Rural Bakery
As much as we love the cakes and pies at this four-star rural bakery (the Double Chocolate Moonshine Cake is a standout), and as good as the granola is (the best anywhere), what wins our palates is Aunt Darla's pimento cheese. "My aunt Darla is from the Smoky Mountains," proprietor/baker Brian Noyes told us, "so her recipe really is smoky." Yes: paprika-smoky, sultry, and sharp, as well as vividly peppery. What could be better spread across a slice of Red Truck's sunflower seed-dotted wheat bread? Brian sells it by the pint.
Country Ham at Fulks Run Grocery
Fulks Run, VA
Fulks Run Grocery isn't really a restaurant at all, but if you head to the small wood-floored market on a Friday, you're in for the special treat that is ham sandwich day. The back table, which serves as the grocery's office for mail-order sales of the hams they cure out back , is cleared off so customers can sit down and eat. The sandwich couldn't be simpler: little more than slices of skillet-fried country ham held between two halves of a boring burger bun. Never mind the bun, and who cares about condiments when the ham itself is aromatic with the deep, complex cured-pig character that only age imparts, each slice heated until the fat turns translucent and coats the surface in a glistening sheen. Once you've tasted Fulks Run ham, other country hams suddenly seem soft and blubbery.
Hot Chicken at Prince's
Nashville-style hot chicken has gotten a great deal of attention in the past several years, and there are a handful of restaurants in the city—not to mention around the country—that now specialize in an ultra-hot version. Prince's is the daddy of 'em all, the standard by which all hot chicken should be measured. Unlike Buffalo wings bathed in sticky hot sauce, Prince's quarters and halves are relatively sauceless and ferociously seasoned, down to the bone. The crust, which strips off in luxurious crunchy-chewy patches, glows red-orange with intense pepper punch, salty but not throat-parching. Prince's true feat is engineering a bite that lets the tender chicken and schmaltz flavor burst right through the heat.
Chipped Mutton at Peak Bros. Bar-B-Que Restaurant
Every traveling food lover knows that America's barbecue map is divided between the South, where pork rules, and the Southwest, where beef is king. You can find both in western Kentucky, but the unique meat of choice in this part of the world is mutton. It's a big-flavored protein, and, while its gamy side is undeniable, hours of smoke make mutton's wallop as soft as a prizefighter's glove. Nowhere is it more delicious than at Peak Bros., where the way to have it is chipped, meaning chopped into a boomingly flavorful hash sopped with gravy.
Slaw at R.O.'s Bar-B-Cue
Is slaw really a must-eat bite? In North Carolina, absolutely, especially at R.O.'s Bar-B-Cue. Many Tar Heel barbecue parlors supercharge coleslaw by adding barbecue sauce; at R.O.'s, God knows what ingredients create something billed as "sauce, slaw, dip." The zesty, dark-pink brew is pickle-sweet and cayenne pepper–hot, not only bought as dip and sauce but also used as the stealth ingredient in the restaurant's meat loaf and casseroles. Many customers come to R.O.'s for a slaw sandwich: a well-toasted bun filled with slaw and no meat whatsoever. We like ours paired with R.O.'s succulent hickory-smoked pork.
Shrimp and Grits at Juniper
Ridge Spring, SC
At their worst, grits can be watery, white plate-filler, but South Carolina cooks take them seriously, using stone-ground cornmeal, butter, and milk or cream to create a slow-cooked warm cereal reminiscent of good polenta. At the country-casual but culinarily sophisticated storefront eatery called Juniper, the grits come from Adluh Flour Mills, a century-old establishment in nearby Columbia, and they're topped with a school of peppered shrimp for a complete meal.
BBQ Sandwich With Cracklings at Perry's Pig
There is no shortage of excellent barbecue in and around Augusta, Georgia, but Perry's Pig makes a barbecue-stacked sandwich that's a cut above all others. It is a motley pile of hacked-up pork, dressed with an electrifying sweet-hot sauce and, if you request it—which you must!—a generous heap of crumbled cracklings. The cracklings are extraordinarily crunchy compared to the soft meat they adorn, and their rich flavor, which Roadfood.com contributor Chickenplucker described as "something like pork candy," adds a whole new dimension of luxury to an already-extravagant meal.
Baked Oysters at Lynn's Quality Oysters
As a supplier of Apalachicola's best oysters to restaurants throughout the Panhandle, Lynn's serves bivalves at their finest. Of course, you can have them shucked to order—raw on the half shell, they're cool and utterly fresh, a perfect balance of salty and sweet. But we'd urge you to try them baked: Cooked until just warm, they're served beneath a film of melted cheese and copious bits of softened garlic.
Banana Pudding at Martin's
To conclude a Southern meat-and-three meal, few things are more welcome than banana pudding. Martin's serves the best, at once dense and creamy. The vanilla wafers are moistened but not so much that they lose their structural integrity, which offers a rugged contrast to the softer ingredients—hunks of banana, firm and fresh, spoonfuls of silky custard, the whole thing veined with pure whipped cream. (Duty demands we also note that Martin's pies are blue-ribbon beauties, especially the meringue-crowned coconut custard.)
Country Roast Po' Boy at Fayard's
Fayard's, located in the back of a gas station convenience store, specializes in po' boy sandwiches, dressed and pressed. "Dressed" means slathered with mustard and mayo and garnished with lettuce and tomato. "Pressed" refers to the fact that the sandwich is cooked in a press after it's assembled, compacting the top and bottom of the long, baked-on-premises roll, toasting the bread's surface as the filling warms and its flavors meld. Of course, there are shrimp and oyster po' boys, as well as Boom Shrimp and Boom Oyster (gilded with hot sauce), but the one that sends us into orbit is called Country Roast: sirloin tips roasted low and slow until fall-apart tender, reminiscent of what a New Orleans po' boy chef would call roast beef "debris."
Cannoli at Angelo Brocato's
New Orleans, LA
Let's be honest and admit that cannoli are all too often terrible: cold, tasteless, hard-shelled rather than crisp, and filled with dry, gummy ricotta that has long ago lost its life. Angelo Brocato restores one's faith in the classic Italian pastry. In this grand old New Orleans sweet shop, each one is made to order, the crunchy, full-flavored shell loaded with fresh, just-sweet cheese blooming with flavor. Once filled, the cannoli's ends are dipped in ground pistachios and the surface topped with a dusting of powdered sugar and cinnamon.
Cherry Pie at The Cherry Hut
At the Cherry Hut, a (nearly) century-old farm stand and eatery in the heart of Michigan cherry country, you'll find virtually every cherry-based product imaginable. During the height of the season, the kitchen churns out 500 pies a day, using local cherries and just enough sugar to balance, but not overwhelm, the fruit's beguiling tartness. Piled into a flaky lard crust, each serving is one-quarter of a full-size pie—and yes, you'll eat every last bite, especially if you go all in with à la mode.
Crunchies at Rip's Tavern
Of the many outstanding fried-chicken joints in the Illinois River Valley, Rip's is our favorite, serving quarters—light or dark—encased in a thick, exceptionally crisp crust. While waiting for the chicken to fry, diners get a cardboard tray of "crunchies," a Rip's exclusive. These are hot morsels of batter retrieved from the cooking oil with a broad, long-handled screen, similar to Southern cracklings or, more to the point, Jewish gribenes, glistening with silky fried chicken fat. With their shattering texture and lush flavor, crunchies are virtually impossible to stop eating...at least until the magnificent fried chicken arrives.
Tenderloin at Nick's Kitchen
Iowans won't be happy that we chose a place in Indiana as our favorite source for breaded pork tenderloin sandwiches—a beloved specialty throughout a wide swath of the heartland, from Kokomo to Omaha. Yes, there are great ones in Iowa, but our go-to is at Nick's Kitchen, where they were arguably invented about a century ago. The pork is moist and cream-sweet; its breading is brittle-crisp; the formation of mustard, pickle, lettuce, and tomato is picture-perfect. Here you have the last word in sandwich harmony. Top it off with a slice of proprietor Jean Anne Bailey's dreamy Hoosier cream pie.
Corned Beef Hash at McBob's
We first visited McBob's for its terrific Friday fish fry. But, when we caught scent of the corned beef sandwich at a nearby table, and promptly ordered one for ourselves, we discovered the restaurant's real draw. Torn into chunks too tender to slice, the corned beef is extraordinarily lean, but dripping with flavor. The next morning, we discovered more good news: When the tavern doors open, at 8 a.m., McBob's turns its superlative corned beef into a rough-hewn, succulent hash—the best of all worlds.
Mahnomin Porridge at Hell's Kitchen
It's breakfast, it's dessert, it's good cold and better warm: Mahnomin Porridge is a creation of Hell's Kitchen's late chef, Mitch Omer, who was inspired by the local Cree Indians' use of wild rice in their cooking. Mixed in with the earthy grains are blueberries, cranberries, hazelnuts, and a swirl of maple syrup and cream that moistens and enriches the whole affair.
Five Way Chili at Camp Washington Chili Parlor
Cincinnati Five Way is a far cry from Texas chili. Rather, it's a layered dish of spaghetti, ground beef sauce with a unique Greek twist (including nutmeg and cinnamon), kidney beans, raw onions, and shredded yellow cheese. Every Cincinnatian has a favorite among the city's dozens of chili parlors; our preferred joint is the estimable Camp Washington, which has been serving its magic brew around the clock (save Sundays) since 1940. While all parlors use the same noodles, cheese, and so forth, what makes Camp Washington's version special is the kaleidoscopic flavor of its sauce, the exact ingredients of which are a secret that Chef John Johnson says he has shared with only his wife.
BBQ Brisket at Louie Mueller
In Texas, beef rules, and as satisfying as a ribeye steak may be, brisket can be even more lavish. It basks in the smoke of smoldering live-oak wood long enough to become as tender as warm butter. The exterior, blackened by all its time in the pit, has some crunch and an even more concentrated flavor; the interior fibers literally melt on your tongue. Many restaurants in and around the Hill Country do a fine job of it, but none better than the revered Louie Mueller, a temple of barbecue where decades of smoking beef have turned the walls as dark brown as Maduro tobacco.
Green Chile Cheeseburger at Santa Fe Bite
Santa Fe, NM
No one knows what genius first configured the green chile cheeseburger, a hamburger topped with chopped hot green chilies and cheese, but the irresistible combo has become a New Mexico signature dish. It finds its apotheosis at Santa Fe Bite, where 10 ounces of freshly ground chuck and sirloin are cooked to your specs, smothered with vibrant green Mesilla Valley chilies and melted cheese, and piled into a fluffy-crumbed, house-baked bun. It may not adhere to food-pyramid proportions, but this big, ovoid masterpiece delivers bread, meat, vegetable, and dairy in lip-smacking balance.
Chicken-Fried Steak at Clanton's
A slab of beef that's breaded and fried like chicken is too often a diner disaster, but Clanton's Cafe, one of the original diners along old Route 66, turns out a beautiful chicken-fried steak—tender cube steak enveloped in a thin, crisp crust, topped with a peppery cream gravy. Dennis Patrick, who runs the restaurant with his wife, Melissa (great-granddaughter of original chef Sweet Tator Clanton), told us that the secret behind his perfect beef-to-crust ratio is a dip in an egg-buttermilk mix, followed by a single dredge in seasoned flour. "If you double-dip," he warned, "you will get a steak that looks bigger. But it takes you farther away from the flavor of the beef."
Sonoran Hot Dog at El Güero Canelo
The Sonoran hot dog is America's wildest wiener, and the definitive version is served at El Güero Canelo. An all-beef frank wrapped in bacon gets cooked in a pan until the two fuse together. Then the cooked dog is nestled in an extra-large, extra-sturdy roll from a nearby Mexican bakery and topped with pinto beans, grilled onions, raw onions, and juicy chopped tomatoes. A lineup of condiments finish it off: hot jalapeño sauce, creamy mayonnaise, and mustard. The package is accompanied by a roaring-hot roasted pepper.
Dungeness Crab at Freshy's Seafood Market
Mercer Island, WA
Dungeness crab can be doctored up in all sorts of wonderful ways, but when it's absolutely fresh, it's best unadulterated. At Freshy's, a former gas station turned seafood market and café, a Dungeness crab cocktail is nothing more than a boatload of big, pearly-white hunks of sweet, tender meat. Of course, cocktail sauce and tartar sauce are available, as is aioli, but this crab, redolent of clear ocean waters, needs absolutely nothing to improve it. On the other hand, it would be wrong to leave without digging into an order of magnificent house-made onion rings. They're large and dark and a little scary at first sight, but they turn out to be feather-light, easily crunching into nothing but sweet onion flavor.
Latte at Moore Coffee
Yes, decorative latte art is now common to coffeehouses pretty much everywhere, but it really is an advanced craft in Seattle, and a fine art at Moore Coffee, where baristas effortlessly transform the surface of your drink into an amazing likeness of a feline or canine face, a heart, a tulip, a bunny, or a butterfly. Beyond their beauty, Moore's caffeinated beverages are potable masterworks, especially such exotica as the horchata latte (using sweetened rice milk), Mexican mocha (with chocolate and spice), and Nutella mocha.
Halibut and Chips at South Beach Fish Market
South Beach, OR
At seafood joints all along the Oregon coast, "fish and chips" means more than one thing. Fry-kettle chefs offer salmon, tuna, oysters, calamari, and—best of all—snow-white halibut. The roadside eat-in-the-rough spot known as the South Beach Fish Market does it best, the creamy flesh of the halibut retaining all its moisture inside a golden tempura coat faintly laced with garlic. Good as the accompanying French fries are, onion rings are the must-eat side dish, each basket containing not just perfect, crisp-crusted circles but also a surfeit of yummy onion-flavored batter squiggles.
Olallieberry Pie at Duarte's Tavern
Glossy-black and knobby, the olallieberry looks like a jumbo blackberry. One bite of Duarte's olallieberry pie underscores the difference. When olallieberries are cooked, the heat releases a regal sweetness more like serious wine than frivolous sugar; partnered with butter-rich crust, they are the ultimate bramble fruit. Olallies grow on only a few hundred acres along the California coast, and their season is brief —no more than six weeks of midsummer—so when they are gone, Duarte's uses more readily available marionberries or blackberries, which do make superb pies. But once you know how special an olallieberry pie can be, there is no substitute.
Apple Pie at The Apple Pan
Los Angeles, CA
Apple Pan fans love the hamburgers, which are perfect in their lunch-counter simplicity and beautiful garnishes, but for us, it's the pies that are a siren song. The apple pie is particularly great, loaded with tangy, well-spiced apples that are still a bit al dente. The abundant fruit is sandwiched by a crisp, savory crust that would be delicious to eat simply as a not-so-sweet cookie. Plain or à la mode, it is fruit-pie heaven.
Fish Tacos at The Cottage
La Jolla, CA
Fish tacos first got popular in the US in southern California, close to their Baja roots. Today, the basic concept of fried fish with a creamy sauce can be found in countless variations coast to coast. But none can hold a candle to the fish tacos at The Cottage of La Jolla. Here, pieces of mahi-mahi are seared in a fire, not fried, until their edges are crunchy, their insides clean and moist. Instead of the usual thick white sauce, they're presented with a robust cilantro-avocado salsa and served with a ramekin of black beans and a spill of chunky papaya relish.