Iconic Midwest Dishes
Evan Lockhart/Thrillist
Evan Lockhart/Thrillist

The 50 Most Iconic Midwest Dishes

Some people refer to the Midwest as America's tummy -- fine, no one calls it that, but they should, both because of its central location and its residents' fondness for combining cheese and carbs in as many permutations as possible.

And yet, viewing the food of the region solely through a dairy-coated, meat-and-potatoes-laden lens is a mistake. Not only will it be difficult to see, but you'll fail to notice the many different cultures contributing to the Midwest gastronomy and you'll miss the inventive chefs who are capitalizing on the bounty of local ingredients. Look, we can't help that a ton of those ingredients also happen to be meats and cheeses, OK?

During our epic arguments to determine the 50 dishes that best represent the Midwest, the five of us -- Midwesterners all -- wanted to make sure this list acknowledged the many food traditions that have helped define where we come from, as well as newer classics that have become emblematic in their own rights. Now grab a Jucy Lucy -- or a slice of Chicago-style deep dish, or any other iconic Midwestern dish that you will never tire of -- and dig in.

The Z-Man
The Z-Man at Joe's Kansas City BBQ | Shanley Cox/Thrillist

The Z-Man

Joe's Kansas City BBQ

Kansas City, Kansas

Some would argue that Joe's brisket on its own is simply perfect. And they'd be right (ditto for the ribs). But anyone who argues against complementing some of America's best brisket with smoked provolone, onion rings, and a kaiser roll should be promptly shown the door. Named after local sportscaster Mike Zarrick, it's the stuff of legend: Some believe it was the secret superfood that ignited a hot streak in the slumping Royals back in 2013, when Joe's sent 51 sandwiches to the clubhouse. They ended up trouncing the Twins, as if instilled with superhuman powers. Maaaybe they should double down this year. At every game. -- AK

Cheese curds

Kroll's East

Green Bay, Wisconsin

Choosing the defining place in Wisconsin to treat yourself to a basket of fried, soul-satisfying cheese curds is no easy task, but one thing was clear: There could be no frills or wrinkles or use of the word "artisan" involved. There could only be cheese. Hot, molten cheese and the thin shell of fried carbohydrates used to contain it. The fact that the excellent, well-sized rendition served at Kroll's happens to take place in the backdrop of a famous stadium where people are known to wear cheese wedges upon their skulls is merely a bonus. And you have cheese options! Yellow Cheddar. White Cheddar. End of list. -- ML

Lou Malnati's Pizza
Deep Dish Pizza at Lou Malnati's | Sean Cooley/Thrillist

Deep-dish pizza

Lou Malnati's

Chicago, Illinois

We're not here to re-litigate the tired "is deep dish pizza" argument perpetuated by so many cheese-phobic New Yorkers. Let's just celebrate the fact that deep dish exists, embodying the "how can we incorporate more cheese into this" spirit of the Midwestern people. Lou's actually represents one of the more restrained entries in the Chicago pizza canon, cheese-wise (for a real exercise in excess try the stuffed version from Giordano's), but the combination of buttery crust, a melty layer of mozzarella, and tangy, slightly chunky sauce is a beautifully balanced introduction to the form. YES, DAMMIT, WE SAID BALANCED, WHY ARE YOU LAUGHING?! -- ML


Bert's Marketplace

Detroit, Michigan

It's not all about the ribs at Burt's. OK, the ribs are pretty fantastic: St. Louis-style, served up with a little Detroit soul, and beckoning eaters to the iconic Eastern Market with plumes of smoke and the siren song of early-morning karaoke. But it's also about the fried catfish. And the vats of wings. And the crazy-cheap cocktails and the live jazz, and coming together at 3am with the rest of Detroit to enjoy it all in tandem, then returning the next morning to follow up that hangover with some more ribs and some more karaoke. -- AK

Kegel's Fish Fry
Kegel Inn Fish Fry | Lacey Muszynski/Thrillist

Fish fry

Kegel's Inn

Milwaukee, Wisconsin

There's no shortage of satisfying Friday fish frys in Wisconsin, but there are far fewer served up by a place that's been pouring beers since the Prohibition days -- in fact, a fish fry here used to be a freebie alongside the purchase of a beer. But it's not just about history here, it's also about the fact that your fish of choice -- be it bluegill, walleye, or cod -- will be fried beautifully and the potato pancakes you'll be getting alongside (because you're smart) will almost make you forget how good your fish is. It'll also make you thankful that the spot wrangled its way out of a pesky 1927 liquor bust. -- ML

The original (maybe) Reuben

Crescent Moon

Omaha, Nebraska

With respect to the 58 or so generations-spanning Jewish delis in New York, rumor has it that the holy combination of corned beef, rye, sauerkraut, and Thousand Island has its roots in Omaha's Blackstone Hotel. Crescent Moon -- which is also a fantastic beer bar -- still uses that iconic recipe, and holds its own against its Big Apple brethren as one of the nation's best sandwiches. That's just a fact. We're not courting controversy here. But if we were, we might posit that Plattsmouth-born noir author Raymond Chandler was a celebrity way before all those less famous Rays in NY. -- AK

Coney Dog at Lafayette
Coney Dogs at Lafayette Coney Island | Jeff Waraniak/Thrillist

Coney dogs

Lafayette Coney Island

Detroit, Michigan

To the uninitiated, a true Coney is a Michigan-made dog hit with a beanless chili (dry in Flint, soupy in the D) plus mustard and raw onions. It's the lifeblood of Michigan, and at Lafayette they're whipped up in a bustling Greek kitchen and carried to your seat by the armload. You can probably find a better Coney dog in Flint or around Detroit, but there's no more iconic place to get one (or four… they're cheap) than this generational icon right across from Comerica Park. Well, there might be one equally iconic place right next door at American (long story). But… Lafayette's better. Shots fired. -- AK

Tater-tot pizza

Rhombus Guys

Grand Forks, North Dakota

College-town pizza joints aren't usually shy about weird combos, but Rhombus Guys has the distinction of making stunt pies that are actually, you know, good. And we're not just talking about a taco pizza, though it has one of the better versions of that available. We’re talking crazy stuff like the Louisiana Saturday Night with spicy marinara, shrimp, peppers, and sausage, or a shrimp scampi pie. But Rhombus gets iconic status by riffing on another Midwestern icon: hot dish. Yup, that's cream of chicken as the base, beef layered throughout, corn, cheese, and, of course, tots. Too much? Well, you can also get the best slice of pepperoni in the state here. But you don't become an icon by being predictable with your pizza. -- AK

Jucy Lucy
The Jucy Lucy at Matt's Bar | Ashley Sullivan/Thrillist

The Jucy Lucy

Matt's Bar

Minneapolis, Minnesota

"Jucy" is not a typo, friends. I mean, it is. But if you're looking for the One True Lucy -- a melty wedge of cheese sealed between two griddled, nearly overdone burger patties -- that Juicy better not come with an "I," or any other cute riff off the original name. Matt's is one of two dives that claims origin dibs on the Jucy Lucy, the other being the 5-8 Club, a 10-minute drive south on Cedar Ave. Regardless of whether Matt's is the original progenitor, it easily does the best (and best-known) version of this messy burger in the city. The amateur mistake here is digging in right when your burger hits the table. You're just asking for molten cheese to burn your tongue. -- LB

King tenderloin sandwich


Des Moines, Iowa

Hoosiers love to loudly proclaim… well, a lot of things. But one of those things is that they invented the pork tenderloin sandwich, which is basically an oversized, pounded-out pork chop cooked up schnitzel-style then plopped on a bun about one-third the size of the cutlet. Iowans are a bit more polite about it, mostly because they're probably right to claim it as their own. And Smitty's has been serving the best since 1967. The tiny little diner has long resisted the urge to fancify perfection. Here it's just a big-ass, golden pork cutlet pounded ultra thin, fried, and housed between a bun that might as well be a novelty hat. It's as delicious as it is hilarious to look at… and it's plenty funny-looking. -- AK

The Polish Boy

Seti's Polish Boys

Cleveland, Ohio

Cleveland's best, most beloved Polish Boy -- which has nothing to do with Poland -- comes from a truck with its limited menu stamped in Comic Sans on the window side. As the city's first food truck, Seti's has been frying (yes, frying) Michael Symon's favorite sandwich (if you consider the hot dog form a sandwich, anyway) for the past 16 years, 15 of them parked in the lot of a restaurant supply store. But back to that frying thing: Seti Martinez himself slow-roasts kielbasa and deep-fries the sausage for the crispest casing possible right before putting it on a short hot dog bun, then topping it with French fries, coleslaw, and barbecue sauce. It's an absolute train wreck if you're trying to eat one of these with any ounce of finesse, so it's best to accept that you'll be covered in sauce by the time you've finished. -- LB

Avec Dates
Chorizo-Stuffed Medjool Dates at Avec | Courtesy of Derek Richmond

Chorizo-stuffed Medjool dates


Chicago, Illinois

Many chef-driven restaurants like to change up their menus, but they know full well there are certain dishes that would cause a full-scale riot were they to disappear. Such is the case with Avec's coveted dates, which are stuffed with house-made chorizo, wrapped in bacon, and swimming in a perfectly piquant piquillo-tomato sauce. They're served with fresh ciabatta, as this is a "leave no morsel behind" kind of dish. You may think you've had something similar before at another restaurant. You haven't. Eat these. -- ML

Turkey Dave

Dave's Cosmic Subs

Chagrin Falls, Ohio

There are many sub joints in the Midwest -- nay, the world -- but there is only one Dave's Cosmic Subs, harbinger of '70s San Francisco hippie culture by way of addicting sandwiches. Though it's nearly impossible to mis-order, the lineup of far-out subs is best experienced at its most simplistic in the Turkey Dave. The familiar meat foundation is the perfect stage for thick shreds of mozzarella, biting banana peppers, and peppery, lick-off-the-plate delicious Dave's Sauce. (Pick up a bottle of it while you're there to pour over everything later.) Dave's has taken Northeastern Ohio and a handful of other states but storm, but do yourself a favor and get one at the original hole-in-the-wall in Chagrin Falls. Take the sandwich to go and find yourself a bench at the nearby falls, which are indeed cause for chagrin. -- LB

Burnt Ends at LC's Barbecue | Shanley Cox/Thrillist

Burnt ends sandwich

LC's Bar-B-Q

Kansas City, Missouri

While you'll find loyalists to fellow icons like Arthur Bryant's and Jack Stack among KC barbecue fiends, our hearts lie with LC's. Your mistake when you go to LC's for the first time is to think that the burnt ends sandwich is actually a sandwich. Now, I guess technically it is, because of the two pieces of bread on either side, but really it's just all of the fantastic burnt ends piled on one piece of white bread and topped with the spot's unique sauce. Despite it not even really being a sandwich, it is one of our favorite non-sandwiches in the world. And don't fret about the mess you're making on your hands and face: There is a reason there are two rolls of paper towels on every table. -- Kevin Alexander

Frozen custard


Greenfield, Wisconsin

Yes, we can hear the good people of St. Louis already furiously clacking away at their keyboards in defense of Ted Drewes, and we come not to disparage the iconic Missouri purveyor of this Midwest summer staple. We come only to praise the rich, creamy denseness of the product at Kopp's, whose regular offerings like carmel and blueberry are augmented by rotating special flavors like German chocolate cake and grasshopper fudge. Yes, Wisconsin has a way with dairy products. Speaking of dairy, you've already spoiled your diet today with custard, but you'd be remiss to skip getting the excellent cheeseburger as well. -- ML

Shrimp cocktail

St. Elmo Steak House

Indianapolis, Indiana

In addition to being an excellent showcase for the more dramatic side of the Brat Pack and one of the best steakhouses in America, St. Elmo is a direct counterargument against the conventional wisdom regarding the avoidance of seafood in landlocked states. That's because the best and most famous thing on the menu is a shrimp cocktail consisting of four jumbo prawns floating in a signature, horseradish-spiked secret sauce. It's the shrimp cocktail to end all shrimp cocktails. Just be wary. It's pretty spicy. Come to think of it, maybe that's what St. Elmo's Fire really means… we'll let you ponder that over the dulcet tones of a Rob Lowe sax solo. -- AK

Roasted Pig Head
Roasted Pig Head at Greenhouse Tavern | Courtesy of Greenhouse Tavern

Roasted pig head

Greenhouse Tavern

Cleveland, Ohio

Let's not sugarcoat this; the pig head at Greenhouse Tavern is a somewhat grotesque affair. It's James Beard Award-winning chef Jonathon Sawyer's challenge to a skittish dining crowd: Just eat the fucking face. As a calling card for zero-waste local eating, it's effective. Once you're past the presentation of charred, Ohio-raised Babe, that face, prepared BBQ style, is mighty good. It's a visceral reminder that meat consumption isn't bloodless while simultaneously connecting the modern diner back to what the traditional roots of the Midwest are all about. -- LB

Indian taco

Cheyenne Crossing

Lead, South Dakota

Born from the ugliness of the forced relocation of indigenous people, fry bread originated as a way to take stale, government-issued ingredients and do something to make them edible. Delicious, in fact. Over time, fry bread evolved into what is basically an unsweetened funnel cake, one perfect for taco ingredients. These days, the absolute best in the country can be bought at roadside trailers throughout the Black Hills and the Badlands, with mounds of meat, cheese, lettuce, olives, and sour cream. But if a roof consisting of something more than stars is something you crave (or you don't do roadside food), the general store/cafe/lodge known as Cheyenne Crossing has been dishing up some of the best in SoDak for years. It's also a gorgeous place, smack in nexus near Mount Rushmore, Sturgis, Spearfish Canyon, and Deadwood, meaning you've got great scenery to view as you wipe all that taco meat off your shirt. -- AK

Gene & Jude's
Hot Dogs at Gene & Jude's | Courtesy of Gene & Jude's

Hot dog

Gene & Jude's

River Grove, Illinois

Look, you can blindly stumble into any old-school-looking joint with a Vienna Beef sign out front and there's a solid chance you're going to enjoy at least a solid representation of a Chicago-style hot dog, but if you want a singular tubed-meat experience in Chicago you should… leave Chicago, head to nearby River Grove, and get in line at Gene & Jude's where they’ve been at it since 1950. The steamed, natural-casing dogs adorned "Depression" style (that's mustard, relish, onion, and sport pepper) are topped off with a pile of fresh-cut fries. There are no seats. There is no ketchup. You will not miss either of them. -- ML

Swedish meatballs


Minneapolis, Minnesota

You may think the height of Swedish meatball luxury comes during a shopping trip to IKEA, but rest assured, you can do better. Specifically, you can do better at this delightful cafe connected to the American Swedish Institute in Minneapolis (where else?!). The tender protein orbs are deep with aromatics like allspice and juniper, but they're also just the beginning. They're resting on a creamy potato puree with a bright cucumber salad and tart lingonberry jam, plus a velvety mustard sauce that brings it all together. Best part? There isn't a soul-crushing furniture assembly project awaiting you when you're finished. -- ML


M & M Bierock

Wichita, Kansas

If you wanted to be really traditional about it you'd get down on some bierocks someone's aunt brought to a potluck, but on the off chance you aren't invited to any potlucks, M & M does about as fine a rendition of these meat-filled German carb pockets as anyone in Kansas, where they're particularly beloved. Don't be alarmed by the humble appearance of the drive-thru-only joint, which recently changed ownership and name but has been serving up the same bierock recipe for decades. Beef is most traditional, but you can get cheese in the mix, or go ham & cheese if you want to throw a curveball in there. No need to wait until you get home -- these are handheld eating at its finest. -- ML

Buddy's Pizza
Detroit-style Pizza at Buddy's | Buddy's Pizza

The Detroiter

Buddy's Pizza

Detroit, Michigan

It's only in the past few years that the rest of the country has discovered the joys of the Detroit-style pie, but its birthplace, Buddy’s, has been slinging its signature rectangular pizzas on a rundown intersection of the city since 1946. The pizza very much embodies Detroit's "Motor City" nickname and is baked in old metal pans once used at car factories, which gives it a satisfyingly crispy edge. What really sets pies like the signature apart is the layering of the ingredients: The Detroiter starts with pepperoni, then the cheese (specifically Wisconsin brick cheese), and then streaks of a mild tomato sauce. The result is a pizza that is the perfect middle ground between Chicago's thick, heavy deep-dish pies and New York's thin, chewy slices. -- Khushbu Shah

The horseshoe

D'Arcy's Pint

Springfield, Illinois

A delicacy seldom found outside central Illinois, the horseshoe is a hearty foodpile that soaks up alcohol for a long night of drinking and leaves hangovers cowering in its wake. Start with a base of Texas toast and a mountain of fries (carbs!), pick your protein poison (burger patties are a popular choice, but you could go any route from chili to Buffalo chicken to walleye), and let them douse the whole thing with a comically heavy-handed helping of house-made cheese sauce. The sauce recipe is invariably a closely guarded secret at D'Arcy’s Pint, an Irish bar that's become more famous for its horseshoe game than slinging Guinness. Good luck (!) finishing it. -- ML

Saratoga chips

Montgomery Inn

Cincinnati, Ohio

Sure, they may take their name from a New York town that questionably claims to have invented the potato chip (which is also where the founder learned how to cook them), but the Saratoga chips at Montgomery Inn unquestionably belong to Cincinnati. Montgomery Inn may be a chicken-and-ribs joint, but you could be forgiven for wanting to make an entire meal out of a pile of the perfectly crisp, golden-brown, just-thick-enough fried potatoes dipped repetitively in BBQ sauce. Actually, go ahead and do that. No one's judging. -- ML

Au Cheval Burger
Cheeseburger at Au Cheval | Courtesy of Au Cheval


Au Cheval

Chicago, Illinois

Oft-imitated but never quite duplicated, Au Cheval's elevated (but not TOO elevated) take on a griddled diner burger has continued to drive hours-long wait times since it debuted in 2012, the crowds filled with a mix of first-timers wondering if it'll live up to the hype and repeat customers assuring them it will. The components aren't anything that revolutionary -- Prime beef, Kraft cheese, a schmear of Dijonnaise, thinly sliced pickle, a beautifully toasted bun (plus fried egg and/or thick-cut bacon if that's how you roll). But there's some kind of alchemy that takes place in the process that transforms them into a burger experience that's become a required stop on any beef lover's bucket list. -- ML

Dutch baby


Indianapolis, Indiana

Daytime-only Milktooth has been drawing an ever-increasing number of national food-obsessed eyeballs toward Indianapolis since it opened in 2014, and the Dutch baby pancakes are a big reason why. While the topping game-plans evolve with the seasons, the common denominator is a pillowy, crisp-edged cornmeal cake that provides the base for inventive yet familiar ingredient combinations like local ham and Gruyere with pineapple-corn mostarda and grapes. Even though you're enjoying it at 11am with one of the excellent cocktails, calling it "brunch" doesn't quite seem to do it justice. -- ML


Shatila Bakery

Dearborn, Michigan

There's baklava and then there is Shatila's baklava. While this dish is technically just phyllo layered with honey, butter, and nuts, the version made at this Dearborn dessert emporium is infused with what can only be more magic than your favorite unicorn dessert. Shatila has been feeding the greater Detroit area since it was founded by a Lebanese immigrant in the 1970s, with its baklava gaining particular national acclaim. So much acclaim, in fact, that you can actually have boxes shipped to you worldwide. The best order here is the variety pack, so you can get every shape and style of baklava that it makes. We promise the shipping fees are worth it. -- KS

Sugar Cream Pie
Mrs. Wick's Sugar Cream Pie | Courtesy of Mrs. Wicks

Sugar cream pie

Mrs. Wick's

Winchester, Indiana

This sugar cream pie is so iconic that it is the official state pie of Indiana AND the official pie of the Colts. Mrs. Wick's is a pie powerhouse, churning out 36 kinds every day in its cafe in Winchester that was opened to keep factory workers from drinking too much during the lunch hour back in 1944. The sugar cream was so popular with the locals that it became the viral food sensation of the late '40s, snowballing into a pie that was replicated by every single person from Indiana (even Dan Quayle has a recipe). As satisfying as this simple wonder is, no wonder a pie as milquetoast as its origin state would dominate the dessert culture. -- LB

Marion's Deluxe

Marion's Piazza

Dayton, Ohio

The "Piazza" in the name of this Dayton-area mainstay refers not to its signature food item but to the Italian-courtyard-inspired interior decor of the chain's nine restaurants. Ponder that, as well as the very existence on the menu of something called a Tuna Boat ("delicious tuna salad with green olives, cheese, and tomato sauce"), while you sip from a 40-ouncer of Miller High Life and consume your fair share of a Marion's Deluxe, a thin-crust pizza that's piled comically high with pepperoni, sausage, mushrooms, onions, and green peppers, and sliced into improbably tiny slices. Each sliver of pizza real estate is perfectly satisfying, yet never so filling that you can't talk yourself into having just one more piece. -- John Sellers

Silver Butter Knife Steak

Murray's Steakhouse

Minneapolis, Minnesota

Murray's is one of those high-end steakhouses from yesteryear. And by yesteryear, we mean yesterdecade, since it's been around doing Minnesota's best steaks since 1946. There's a lot of history here, and it used to be the prime hangout for the Lakers before the team moved to a place where lakes don't exist. The Butter Knife Steak is, and always has been, its masterpiece, a 28oz, 30-day aged sirloin trimmed by house butcher Boyd Freeman -- a veteran of beef artistry since 1977 -- and tender enough that it can be cut with a butter knife. Lest you think that's BS, they'll make a show of demonstrating tableside. It's intended to serve two. You won't want to share once it arrives. -- AK

Toasted Ravioli
Toasted Ravioli at Charlie Gitto's | Courtesy of Charlie Gitto's

Toasted ravioli

Charlie Gitto's

St. Louis, Missouri

Toasted ravioli are basically a more refined take on the mozz stick. And by refined, we mean you're still eating them at a bar and dripping grease all over yourself, but at least this time there's pasta involved. And probably some meat in the middle, too. Like many iconic Midwestern dishes, there's some debate about who actually invented it, but we're prone to believe the claim of The Hill's Gitto's, largely because we were too excited to resist eating a dozen of them, and now we're too tired to do any actual reporting. -- AK

Tacos al pastor


Chicago, Illinois

Chicago often gets dismissed as an epicenter for outstanding Mexican food by disbelieving Texans and Californians. One surefire way to convert any skeptic is to take them to Rubi's, a stand at the Maxwell Street Market that's grown into its biggest draw since opening in 1997. A single bite into that handmade corn tortilla hot off the grill filled with juicy, caramelized hunks of pork sliced straight from the spit will make any non-believers eat their words, although they'll probably eat the rest of the taco first. -- ML


Charcoal Inn

Sheboygan, Wisconsin

When you're the city known for making and eating copious amounts of bratwurst within a state that's ALSO known for said activities, it's safe to say you're in good hands when it comes to eating German-style encased meats in Sheboygan. Here they split the bratwurst open for extra bits of crunch and char courtesy of the coal-fired grill (nope, it's not just a catchy name). Top it off with raw onion, dill pickle, and mustard and then leave it alone -- you're not going to improve upon that trio. Well, unless you ask for a double. Oh, and napkins. Plenty of napkins. -- ML

O&H Danish Bakery's Kringle | Courtesy of O&H Danish Bakery


O&H Danish Bakery

Racine, Wisconsin

These Danish pastries -- converted from their traditional pretzel shape to a less cumbersome, more filling-friendly oval shape by bakers who settled in and around Racine -- are something of a Wisconsin obsession. The Olesen family is now on its fourth generation of doing its best to meet that obsession via their O&H Danish Bakery, turning out classic varieties like apple and cream cheese and boundary-pushing seasonal flavors (think Baileys for St. Patrick's Day). You may note some flavor and texture similarities to other breakfast pastries, but once you've had the experience of cutting into that welcoming ring and slowly making your way through it slice by slice, you'll understand there are no substitutes. -- ML

Hot beef sandwich

Wall Drug

Wall, South Dakota

If you've ever been within 1,000 highway miles of Wall Drug, you've seen its billboards with increasing frequency. Ice water! Dinosaur! Dinosaur that spits ice water! The closer you get, the more you see them… until there's one every 10ft that looks about as old as the road itself. Eventually you arrive, hungry. You get the five-cent coffee. You get the free ice water. You watch the dino roar. Then you go to the cafeteria and get South Dakota's most iconic dish: the hot beef sandwich. It's the exact same hot beef sandwich you get at any diner in America: hot deli roast beef, prefabricated gravy, and soggy white bread that never stood a chance. And it's perfect. Maybe it's the fact that the Badlands are in the background. Or that you've spent endless hours of roads wondering what a Wall Drug is, and subliminally remembered a hot beef sandwich on an old sign. Or maybe it's the dinosaur. Actually, yeah, it's always the dinosaur. -- AK

Fat Rice
Fat Rice | Galdones Photography

Fat Rice

Fat Rice

Chicago, Illinois

Inspired by the Portugal-meets-China cuisine of Macau, Fat Rice has become a mandatory stop on any Chicago food journey, and much of the credit the eponymous Fat Rice. Like seafood? You’ll be digging into prawns and manila clams. Prefer land animals? Curried chicken, char-siu pork, and linguiça are all awaiting you. But what really brings the whole protein festival together is the sofrito-kissed rice studded with raisins and shredded duck, plus even more texture via the deeply crisped edges. Bring hungry friends. -- ML


Fried’s Family Restaurant

Mandan, North Dakota

Knoephla are adorable little German dumplings that dot the menu of many a Dakota diner, making their way into a variety of dishes, though they’re most popularly consumed in soup form. You’ll find said soup on the daily menu at Fried’s, which draws in Dakotans from all over seeking impeccably prepared homemade German deliciousness. You’ll also find them in rotating specials like a knoephla and kraut served on Wednesdays. But the common denominator will be you, unable to stop eating the tiny, tender dumplings as you wonder why the Dakotas are keeping them from the rest of us. -- ML

Gooey butter cake

Park Avenue Coffee

St. Louis, Missouri

Frankly, it's a bit misleading calling gooey butter cake "gooey" when the reversed butter-to-flour ratio of typical cake turns it into the dense, almost-custardy consistency of a lemon square. No matter -- this Depression-era recipe mistake has turned into St. Louis' iconic dessert that needs no preface, meaning it's chill to eat it for breakfast or whatever. Like so many other Midwestern novelties, these are best when homemade, but if you're in a pinch, Park Avenue Coffee makes the best version that you can find in the city. -- LB 

Johnnie's Italian Beef
Johnnie's Italian Beef | Mike Gerbert/Thrillist

Italian beef

Johnnie’s Beef

Elmwood Park, Illinois

The best Italian beef in Chicago is, like the best hot dog, not technically in Chicago. Venture to nearby Elmwood Park and get in line at Johnnie’s. Fear not, for it moves fast, and soon you’ll be clumsily gripping an impossibly soft Italian roll made even softer by an extra helping of rich, peppery beef gravy as it becomes one with the thinly sliced beef piled within. This sandwich requires no cheese whatsoever, but peppers (sweet or hot) are advisable. If you’re feeling dangerous/don’t have much to do the rest of the afternoon, have them make it a combo and they’ll add an Italian sausage hot off the grill to the mix. While you’re at it, a helping of their Italian ice does a better job cutting through that meat than Peyton Manning ever could. -- ML

Beer cheese soup

Milwaukee Brat House

Milwaukee, Wisconsin

This isn’t complicated. Beer. Cheese. Spoon. You. OK fine, Milwaukee Brat House gussies their version up with roasted red pepper and bacon, but you’ll find both are welcome additions, along with their use of local brewing standout Lakefront’s IPA. Oh, and there are pretzel holes for dipping, but you’ll power through those quickly and it’ll be back to just you, the spoon, and the soup. The cheese soup. Wisconsin’s the best. -- ML



Everywhere, Nebraska

We’re not sure what the rest of the country has done to be cursed with such a fate as a Runza-less existence, but here we are. Picture a Hot Pocket, but one where the crust is basically a hollowed-out loaf of bread stuffed most often with onion-flecked loose meat. And cheese. Definitely get cheese. And yeah, there are different versions with bacon and ranch and vegetables, but the original is the thing that has launched a thousand fantasies about what would happen if a Hot Pocket tasted like, well, real food. -- AK

Parmageddon at Melt
The Parmageddon at Melt Bar & Grilled | Carissa Russell/Thrillist

The Parmageddon

Melt Bar & Grilled

Lakewood, Ohio

A little bit of backstory for the non-native Northeast Ohioans out there: Parma is a suburb of Cleveland with an extremely high density of Polish people. It's often the butt of Cleveland's inside jokes, but that's neither here nor there because the Parmageddon at Melt mollifies all ill will to embody the city's ancestry in one loaded grilled-cheese frankenwich. Potato and onion pierogies find themselves atop an unforgettably astringent house-made Napa sauerkraut in between two thick slices of Texas toast zapped under the salamander to bubble up the Cheddar cheese. The colossal sandwich is nearly impossible to finish in one sitting, so props if you can get anywhere close. If you're a Melt convert after eating a Parmageddon, consider getting a tattoo of the franchise's logo. It'll get you 25% off artery-busting grilled cheeses for life. -- LB

Beef pastie

Lehto's Pasties

St. Ignace, Michigan

That’s “pah-stee,” not “pay-stee,” sinner: the delicious Upper Peninsula delicacy of simplicity in which beef (or chicken, if you’re doing it wrong) and root vegetables (rutabaga, you beautiful bastard) are baked into an enormous pastry shell, kind of like a potless pot pie. The best pasties are found scattered throughout the UP, and can be bought in shacks, trailers, and roadside stands. But Lehto’s is reliable and, most importantly, conveniently right on the north side of the Mackinac bridge. Get it with gravy, but if you’re a troll who wants ketchup, do it in the privacy of your own home. Luckily, pasties freeze well (that’s why they’re so popular here), and Lehto’s ships its iconic meat pies nationwide. The ones in the stands might be slightly better, but you can’t beat that convenience! -- AK

St. Louis pizza


St. Louis, Missouri

No one is lukewarm on Imo's Provel-topped pizza. You either love it or you hate it. There is no middle ground, and it's the cheese itself that makes it so divisive. Created in St. Louis back in 1947, Provel is a highly processed tri-cheese blend of provolone, Swiss, and Cheddar that comes packaged like fresh bucatini noodles. The resulting texture is strange and the flavor a head-scratcher, which is probably why Provel never went far outside of eastern Missouri. But for the ones who love Provel on their pizza, Imo's and its super-thin crust pies are sacrosanct. -- LB

3-Way Chili
Skyline 3-Way | Flickr/Chiot’s Run


Skyline Chili

Cincinnati, Ohio

Cincinnati chili is not a looker, I'm sorry to say. This monstrosity with a big heart can be found all over southwest Ohio, but no place does it more iconically than the franchise Skyline Chili. Euphemistically called a 3-Way, the runny beef chili is ladled over a plate of spaghetti and topped with what might be an entire block of shredded Cheddar cheese. Adding chopped white onions or black beans makes it a 4-Way; adding both turns it into a 5-Way. Any Way you take it will be a soul-searching experience, a series of questions about how you ever got in front of this plate of spaghetti chili. Before you know it, you're looking at the bottom of a white ovoid plastic plate. Congratulations, you just checked this off your bucket list of weird regional staples to try. -- LB

TaterTot Haute Dish

Haute Dish

Minneapolis, Minnesota

There is maybe no other restaurant that so profoundly embodies the culinary zeitgeist of a region while also pushing the concept forward than HauteDish. You won't find any hot dishes scooped from Pyrex here; each plate is a reconceived take on an old-school dish -- like the TaterTot Haute Dish, for example. Easily the most well-known menu item, it's a high riff on the low classic traditionally comprised of ground beef, frozen tater tots, and canned cream of mushroom soup. The beef here is marinated short rib, the tater tots mashed potato croquettes, the mushroom soup a porcini béchamel sauce. And -- bonus! -- it's topped with another favorite: green bean casserole, done a la Chef Landon Schoenefeld. I'm pretty sure the Campell's soup-pouring housewives of the 1950s that effectively invented hot dish never saw this coming. -- LB

The Original Maid-Rite


Anywhere, Iowa

The loose meat sandwich is basically a sloppy joe without the sauce. Just a bunch of seasoned ground beef and onions on a bun, maybe with a little mustard and pickles. And if you don’t think that sounds delicious, well, you haven’t been to Maid-Rite, which has been filling stomachs and populating the floorboards of cars with chunks of beef since 1926. It’s a simple pleasure to be sure, one that has become a staple of diners and bars throughout the state. But the original is still the best. You don’t mess with that perfection, even if it makes a mess of you. -- AK

Sour cream and raisin pie

Lange's Cafe

Pipestone, Minnesota

Sour cream and raisin might not sound like a ticket to dessert nirvana to the uninitiated, but once you get yourself a forkful of this upper-Midwest specialty you’ll understand its appeal, especially if that forkful takes place at Lange’s, where you can get your fix 24 hours a day (yes, it’s an acceptable breakfast choice). Fluffy meringue, tangy, raisin-studded custard, perfect crust -- you’ll instantly taste why Lange’s has been drawing hungry people to Pipestone since 1955. -- ML

Pappy's ribs
Ribs at Pappy's Smokehouse | Flickr/regan76

The bison burger

HoDo Lounge

Fargo, North Dakota

OK, we’ve got a truth bomb. NoDak’s pretty short on iconic foods, and we didn’t have it in our hearts to make another lutefisk joke, especially given that there are tons of great restaurants throughout the state that just don’t do anything particularly crazy. God bless your modest charms, North Dakota. But what is often overlooked is that the state is indeed where the buffalo roam, and is chockablock with fantastic takes on the bison burger. The best, for our money, is the HoDo’s take. Sure, it’s upscale, with its lean patty and shallot jam and aged Cheddar. But it’s nonetheless become an icon unto itself, and when you’re the best at something everybody else does, that really does say something. -- AK


Pappy's Smokehouse

St. Louis, Missouri

One of the biggest barbecue misconceptions is the whole idea of the St. Louis style. St Louis-style ribs have to do with the cut of the rib (spare ribs cut in a rectangular shape) and not the cooking or saucing technique. So the fact that Pappy’s is doing Memphis-style barbecue (dry and wet rubs, slow-smoking the meats) in St. Louis is not quite as bold a move as it might appear on its face. But doing it nearly as well as some of the best places in Memphis proper is damn bold. And yet Mike Emerson and Pappy’s pull it off with aplomb thanks to their dry-rubbed, apple and cherry wood-smoked ribs. Come with three friends and get the "Adam" Bomb -- which includes a full slab of ribs, brisket, a pork sandwich, chicken, sides, and a hot link Frito pie. Or just come by yourself, get a slab of ribs, and bring another one home. -- KA

Features editor Leanne Butkovic is setting up her Melt tattoo appointment right now. Follow her @leanbutk.

Senior editor Andy Kryza  firmly believes that Angelo's in Flint, Michigan makes the world's greatest hot dog. Follow him as he attempts to be proven wrong @apkryza.

Deputy features editor Matt Lynch can be found trying to get Italian beef stains out of his clothing. Follow his efforts @mlynchchi.

Khushbu Shah is a senior food editor at Thrillist and is a firm believer that Vernors is the only good ginger ale. Follow her @KhushAndOJ.

Features director John Sellers wants everyone in Grand Rapids, MI, to know that the Yesterdog is #51. Follow him @johnsellers.

Kevin Alexander contributed some BBQ smarts to this report.