10 Regional Foods You Should Try
Something called a Garbage Plate may not sound like the most appetizing thing to the uninitiated, but namedrop the delicacy in front of someone who’s spent time in Western New York and you’ll likely make their mouth water. That’s how it works with the most niche offerings of American cuisine. Region-by-region, state-by-state, and city-by-city, every local has his or her favorite, and every specialty menu item says something particular about those serving it up and scarfing it down. So we rounded up ten of the wildest, wondrous, only-in-[insert town here] food dishes in these great United States. If they don’t make your stomach growl, well, you just might not be from around here.
1. Reindeer Hotdog // Alaska
Sometimes, it’s simply a matter of resources: What does Alaska have that the rest of the United States doesn’t? A sizeable population of caribou, of course. And thus, the reindeer hot dog—like your normal frankfurter, but instead of beef or pork, it’s made of the creatures pulling Santa’s sleigh and topped with glazed onions. Locals and national foodies in the know point to M.A.’s Gourmet Dogs in Anchorage as the quintessential reindeer dog stand, and two Alaskan companies provide the niche meat. The specialty dog is slowly making its way to the lower 48 states, but if you want to avoid a folly, you’ll have to trek up north for this wholly Alaskan treat. So Alaskan, in fact, these dogs even get served at the Iditarod.
2. Frybread Tacos // Western U.S.
Perhaps known better by the less politically correct moniker "Indian tacos," these southwestern favorites are steeped in Native American history. The usual taco ingredients are the same—beef, cheese, lettuce, etc.—but the shell is what sets this dish apart. The traditional frybread is said to come from what’s known as The Long Walk, the forced relocation of Native Americans in the western U.S. to New Mexico in the mid-19th century, when the only rations available, including flour, sugar, and lard, became the makings for frybread. As such, it remains a hallmark of Native American culture today—and a delicious, if unhealthy, taco shell.
3. Food Drunk // New Orleans
The frosted, prize-bearing king cake itself is not a New Orleans original, even if it is a Mardi Gras staple. But you know what is? The king cake burger, courtesy of one ingenious food truck that had a stroke of entrepreneurial spirit in the lead-up to Mardi Gras 2014. In the true tradition of Mardi Gras, the individuals behind Food Drunk NOLA didn’t settle for selling boring old cheeseburgers—they sold cheeseburgers on a king cake bun. The idea for this sweet-meets-savory masterpiece allegedly came to the Food Drunk staff after a couple of drinks, and what’s more Mardi Gras than parading around New Orleans selling an idea you came up with while a few drinks deep?
4. Heady Topper Beer // Vermont
How about a beer so rare—and tasty—it inspires pilgrimages and black markets? Meet Heady Topper, a double India Pale Ale from Vermont family-run brewery The Alchemist. One of the state’s many breweries (Vermont’s 6.2 breweries per 100,000 adults was second in the U.S. in 2013), The Alchemist is perhaps the best of the bunch, but only produces a certain amount of Heady Topper each year, and limits customers to one case per purchase. And yet, with inspired hop flavors like grapefruit and pine, it’s considered by many in the know to be the best beer in the world. No wonder it’s developed a cult-like following, and contributes to the nearly $200 million craft beer industry that pumps barrels of cash into Vermont’s economy each year.
5. Rocky Mountain Oysters // Western U.S.
Farmers of the western U.S. are resourceful down to the very last bit. Some are so frugal, even, they can’t even bear to throw out the leftover testicles after bull castration, a common practice on cattle farms. What doesn’t get fed to the dogs on the farm is sliced up and deep-fried, becoming a favorite regional snack. According to a 2013 Modern Farmer profile of the “tasty testes,” some even believe the “Montana Tendergroins” (one of the dish’s many colorful names) give men a Viagra-like boost.
6. Hot Beef Sundae // Iowa
With millions of cattle generating billions of dollars for the state’s economy, beef in Iowa is serious business. Not so serious is this dessert imposter and state fair favorite. The hot beef sundae consists of a dollop (or two) of mashed potatoes drowned in beef tips and gravy, sprinkled with shredded cheese, all with a cherry tomato on top, in imitation of a hot fudge sundae. The hot beef sundae is a Midwest far-from-frozen delight—so much so that the Iowa Beef Industry Council offers a recommended recipe on its website.
7. Garbage Plate // Western New York
If you’re unfamiliar with the crown jewel of Rochester, NY cuisine, just ask anyone who went to college in Western New York. The dish that made original purveyor Nick Tahou a household name in the region is a late-night, post-bar staple. The Garbage Plate consists of your choice of meat (traditionally: cheeseburgers, Texas hot dogs, or the region’s own pork white hots) piled on top of a pair of sides (pick two: home fries, French fries, baked beans, macaroni salad), all smothered with mustard, onions, and enough hot sauce to melt even the heaviest lake effect snow.
8. Hoagie Dip // Philadelphia
What you call it—hoagie, grinder, sub, hero—depends on where you call home, but while the sandwich is ubiquitous, Philadelphia has figured out a way to take the hoagie back: turning it into a dip. The city that birthed America isn’t constrained by simple-minded white bread notions of what a sandwich should be. All the ingredients of the perfect hoagie are there (ham, turkey, the saltiest of cold cuts, provolone cheese, peppers, onions) chopped up and drenched in mayonnaise and olive oil, served in a hollowed-out loaf of bread. That, my fellow freedom lovers, is how Independence Hall does a hoagie.
9. Hemp Milk Latte // Washington
As one of four states with legal recreational marijuana use and home to the national-headline-making Hempfest, it’s no secret that Washington loves the cannabis plant. But not all of that has to do with pot, as the kids call it. The state eyes all sorts of uses for hemp—a potential cash crop—and the plant’s seeds produce a fine dairy milk substitute. Perfect for, say, another Washington staple: your morning latte, from Starbucks or not. Yep, coffee and hemp milk—toss in some rain and you have Washington in a nutshell.
10. Hawaii Regional Cuisine // Hawaii
The 50th state isn’t concerned with just one of its dishes—it takes pride in all of its unique island offerings, from ahi and mahi-mahi to macadamia nut spreads that are slathered on everything. Which is why more than two decades ago, a group of Hawaiian chefs formed Hawaii Regional Cuisine, a “culinary movement” dedicated to preserving the state’s particular style of food culture, ensuring every dish has that Hawaiian spirit you can’t get anywhere else.