During America Week, a parlor game emerged among our editors, in which we discussed what state we'd want to eat and drink in for the rest of our lives if we couldn’t move anywhere else. And, in order to prove each other wrong, we began to research, then really research, and then began to get deep into some weird food forums, and, at the end of it all, we realized we needed to do the most research possible and turn this into a story.
So here is what we did: we ranked states by the food/drink available in that state, focusing on four key questions: 1) What did they produce (beef, oranges, ugh, sorghum?), 2) What iconic items were they known for (Key lime pie? onion burgers?), 3) What is their beer/wine/spirits production like (great breweries/wineries?), and finally 4) What is the food/drink scene like in their cities? Weighing all those factors, here is our by-no-means-scientific ranking. If you disagree and want to tell us how stupid our faces are, well, that’s what Internet commenting forums are all about:
50. South Dakota
When you Google "South Dakota and food," an image of a hungry child crying comes up, and then the computer goes black.
49. North Dakota
This could have been at 50. We flipped a coin.
You pride yourself on your secret “fry sauce,” which is just the same ketchup and mayo hybrid one finds at burger joints EVERYWHERE. But at least you have really arcane liquor laws!
Your most iconic food is meat that a person was too lazy to pack together.
Your football team is named after corn preparation. So that’s something?
42. New Hampshire
Everyone is too busy planning out which NASCAR T-shirt they’re going to wear to vote in the primaries two years from now to cook... all those apples lying around rotting in their yards next to all those old Paul Tsongas campaign signs.
Hoosiers pride themselves on a shrimp cocktail at this one steakhouse that has, like, really spicy cocktail sauce! Try the famous pork tenderloin sandwiches! Are you asleep yet? When you wake up, someone probably will have taken you to a [INSERT LITERALLY ANY FAST-FOOD CHAIN].
It has some sneakily good breweries and unfettered access to freshly ground bison meat. But still… Montana. A rich man’s Wyoming, one might say.
Have you ever bitten into a potato fresh out of the ground? Us neither, but it’s probably better or something?
When you’re not eating wolves that Sarah Palin shot out of a helicopter, we will admit that your fresh salmon and crab legs are not without their charms.
If someone in South Dakota moved here, they would be in foodie heaven. But Arkansas lacks the dominant iconic Southern foods of literally all their neighbors to the South. They do have pretty good cheese dip and possum pie, though.
It suffers from the fact that the bulk of its namesake city lies across the border in Missouri, though it does fully own the culinary hotbed that is... Wichita. Hey, at least confusingly named Oklahoma Joe's is now Joe's Kansas City Bar-B-Que.
35. Rhode Island
You’ve got frozen lemonade, grilled pizzas, serviceable Italian food, and Narragansett. Which would be fine, if you didn’t also have the worst of all styles of clam chowder.
Allegedly inventing the chimichanga and deciding to deep-fry a burrito definitely counts for something. Phoenix has AT LEAST one solid restaurant amidst all the chains (Pizzeria Bianco!). If you happen to be a minority, drop Arizona 13 spots.
33. New Mexico
We don’t blame you for putting that green chile all over everything: it’s quite tasty, but that’s only going to take you so far, friends.
Virginia is for lovers, country ham aficionados, and wishing that BBQ you’re eating had come from North Carolina.
If you didn’t have one incredible pizza town, a corridor of somewhat adorable steamed cheeseburger joints, and pretty good Jamaican food in Hartford, you -- like Darien-native Topher Grace -- would be, AT BEST, in the middle 30s.
On the one hand, you have Las Vegas, in which every single food and drink that Bacchus could ever imagine is available, thanks to its status as Famous Chef Heaven, a place where well-known chefs inevitably go once their aversion to selling out has died. On the other hand, like the chefs themselves, all that food/booze is flown in from Not-Nevada. Sorry, Carrot Top.
You can spend a lot of time on food sites reading about people debating Oklahoma’s signature dish. Is it the onion burger? BBQ? Fried catfish? Or what? And just the fact that people aren’t quite sure (look, it is the damn onion burger, okay?!), is enough to keep OK from moving anywhere farther down the road. Also, don’t you think it’s saying something that Oklahoma Joe’s isn’t actually in Oklahoma?
Birthplace of Wendy’s and corporate home of White Castle! Now that’s a double threat. Other than that, you’ve got a rather questionable style of chili and several restaurants from Iron Chef Michael Symon (also host of ABC’s The Chew!). Also noteworthy: Cleveland has some serious beer game, and the state turns out some impressive ice cream from the likes of Jeni’s and Graeter’s.
If the goal of life was to eat cheddar cheese and maple syrup while drinking delicious craft beers that kind of taste like apricots, Vermont would be number one. But since the goal of life is actually to acquire a reality television show and then your own line of stylish, yet practical dish towels, Vermont is only 27.
26. New Jersey
Despite all the negative PR brought on by its citizenry, New Jersey is actually something of a poor man’s New York, particularly when it comes to Italian food. Which trumps being a poor man’s Wyoming.
25. South Carolina
Their mustard-based BBQ sauce is either the best or worst thing to ever happen to BBQ, depending on how you feel about mustard. Charleston has gotten so much love as an underrated dining city in recent years that it might’ve gotten a touch overhyped, but there’s no doubt there are some serious culinary chops to be found there. Also, there’s nothing wrong with a good Lowcountry boil, unless you have a shellfish allergy.
Florida jokes are so easy. It’s like, “BLAH BLAH BLAH EVERYONE IS CRAZY OR OLD; SUBPRIME MORTGAGES, ELIAN GONZALEZ.” But the thing is, the Sunshine State has some moves. For one, they get a lot of that sunshine, and so they grow those famous Florida oranges and those famous key limes, and less famously, starfruit, which are in season nearly year-round. On top of that, Miami’s whole Cuban influence means delicious sandwiches, arroz con pollo, and the like. And -- when you get away from South Beach -- they’re starting to do good things on the cocktail front. But yeah, it’s still Florida, though, so that had to factor in.
Surly’s was at the forefront of a damn fine brewing scene, but really this ranking is about the glorious innovation that is the Juicy Lucy. Any chump can melt cheese ON a burger, but it takes vision to put it INSIDE the burger. For such achievements you get a pass on that suspect-looking hot dish stuff.
Cheese! ALL the cheese. Fry it and dip it in ranch dressing! Do they have vegetables in Wisconsin beyond bratwurst-bound grilled onions? Who cares?! Wash it all down with one of the beers that made Milwaukee famous, or better yet, some New Glarus.
Even if they throw batteries at EVERYONE, you can’t argue with the fact that Philadelphia is a veritable food/drink powerhouse, what with cheesesteaks, roast pork, Philadelphia Distilling, and the seeming thousands of quality restaurants. And don’t sleep on Pittsburgh either! We love Bar Marco, and AMERICA LOVES FRIES IN SANDWICHES! Penn breweries like Victory, Troegs, and Stoudt's also play a factor, but, look, not everyone has what it takes to be in the top 20.
It's weirdly the original home of the coney hot dog, which always confuses the hell out of everyone else. Also, if you’re up above the Mitten, try their pasties (the meat pies, not the stripper nipple covers). Detroit-style pizza actually manages to be quite distinct and delectable while living in the shadow of another Midwestern style. Additional points (well, this isn’t really point-based, so… “points”) for its farmer’s market cred (Michigan cherries, morel mushrooms, and the like) and for being on the short list of the best beer states in the country on the strength of outfits like Bell’s, Founders, and Kuhnhenn.
Thanks to its geographic neighbors, the Magnolia State reps a staggeringly good slew of deep-fried Southern and soul-food gems, like catfish and pork chops, plus the étouffée, po' boys, and jambalaya of the state to the South. But Mississippi is also famous for its bountiful pecan trees, caramel cakes, and Gulf crabs and shrimp. They also have award-winning barbecue, and even an astonishingly active and interesting hot tamale trade in the Delta, due to the blending of African American and Mexican immigrant cultures. And you can enjoy all that with local booze, since recent legal change means a rise in breweries (the OG Lazy Magnolia, but also Crooked Letter, Southern Prohibition, and others).
Crab cakes and football, right? That’s a quote from a hit movie called Wedding Crashers, and it is hilarious if you understand the context. But seriously, aside from blue crabs, and a great seasoning for said crabs, Silver Queen corn, and maybe Smith Island cake, Maryland is a little light on the power corridor of native foods. And while Baltimore is actually underrated when it comes to dining, we hate to break it to you, but Natty Boh is brewed in North Carolina now. DON’T KILL THE MESSENGER.
It’s tough to pin down the “thing” that really defines Colorado food-wise -- it’s kind of a mish-mash of Western influences that’ve migrated from elsewhere (they’re big on green chile) with a heavy dose of meats like buffalo and Colorado lamb, but Denver and Boulder are both solid culinary hubs, and the state’s enlightened drug policies only stand to help your enjoyment of whatever you’re eating. But, really, a hefty part of this ranking is a nod to Colorado’s role as one of the most pioneering craft beer states, a spirit that endures today as they turn out beer made with Rocky Mountain Oysters. They still make lots of good non-testicular beer too.
You are beautiful, you grow tropical fruits, and everyone from your unsullied lands swears by your malasadas, macadamia nuts, and Kona coffee. Maui Brewing has extremely solid beers, and Peter Merriman’s restaurants would be a big deal in any state. But you also swear by Spam Musubi, and I’m sorry, I’ve tried to like it, and I can’t. You grew there, I flew there, though.
Homebase of Coca-Cola, Waffle House, AND Chick-fil-A, earning it the nickname “The Blockage in America’s Artery.” But it’s not just about mass-produced unhealthiness… what with all the pecan pie, peach cobbler, and those dramatically underproduced Holeman & Finch burgers… okay how does anyone in this state live past 35?
Doesn’t quite get its due as a great BBQ state, despite a singular innovation (white sauce, a la Big Bob Gibson’s, on chicken or pulled pork) and other standout joints like Dreamland in Tuscaloosa. Throw in a side of all the other fried, smothered, sweetened goodness that permeates the South, and you’re in surprisingly good culinary hands.
Mass has a lot going for it. Yeah, sure there’s chowder, Boston cream pie, and all that Cape and Island seafood, plus breweries like Sam Adams, Cisco, Harpoon, Clown Shoes, and the like. But there’s also the GREATEST BURGER PLACE IN THE WORLD (the original West Springfield White Hut), every one of Barbara Lynch’s restaurants, and a general distaste for the fake, gross, official signature dish, baked beans, which we respect.
Both Kansas City and St. Louis boast some damn fine BBQ joints. Also, burnt ends are a damn delicacy despite not SOUNDING all that appetizing. Brewers like Boulevard and Perennial have put Missouri on the craft beer map, and the frozen custard in St. Louis makes up for the otherwise unforgivable sin that is Provel cheese.
11. North Carolina
Asheville is cool. It has more breweries per capita than any city in the US. Plus your barbecue -- be it Lexington or Eastern-style -- is all equally delicious. Krispy Kreme was founded in Winston-Salem. So was -- weirdly enough -- Texas Pete’s. And Cheerwine is a thing you wish you invented. Just imagine if you could eat tobacco!
The Pine Tree State is a bit of a sleeping giant in the food world, and not simply because it is actually so big that you can be hundreds of miles North of Montreal, and still in Maine. Their dominance in the lobster game is legendary, as are the tiny lobster shacks covering a wide swath of Southern Maine, but seafood, in general, is often incredible. Their blueberries are tiny, sweet, and equally glorious; their beer game -- led by Allagash, Shipyard, Rising Tide, and Maine Beer Company -- is strong; and everyone in the New England area seems to have simultaneously started carrying Downeast Cider, which started in Waterville. And on top of all that, they have Portland, a small city that’s quickly becoming known as a food/drink destination, thanks to spots like Fore Street, Eventide Oyster, and Duckfat.
The whole “all bourbon has to be made in Kentucky” thing is technically a myth, but from a practical standpoint it’s a fact and is certainly true of all the really great bourbon. This also means the folks in Kentucky are quite good at making delicious things with bourbon, like bourbon balls, mint juleps, and Kentucky Derby Pie (like if a pecan pie had a three-way with a chocolate chip cookie and a bottle of Maker’s Mark). But what are you going to do, just spend the rest of your days swilling whiskey and eating dessert? That actually sounds fantastic, but in the interest of diversity Louisville actually has a seriously on-the-rise restaurant and bar scene, and the Southern fried deliciousness there goes well beyond the handiwork of a certain Colonel.
Tennessee whiskey. Memphis BBQ. Nashville Hot Chicken. You could write more about the amazing food/drink scenes in those cities, or the square delights that are Krystal burgers, but those seven words said it all.
Do you like apples? They were probably grown in Washington. For real though, this state’s a produce powerhouse and farmer’s market wet dream come to life. That sounded gross. You get the idea, though. They also use their natural advantages in the beer and wine departments (they grow, like, 80% of the country’s hops -- thank them!). Their oysters are delicious, even if they won’t actually get you laid. Oh, and you might think you’re familiar with their coffee, but go there, and you’ll invariably be introduced to something new and better.
If you could take the hipster, foodie-centric part of your neighborhood, and stretch it into AN ENTIRE STATE, you’d end up with Oregon. Not only do they have famously fertile wine country in Willamette Valley, but Oregon was one of the leading founders in the craft beer movement, the food truck movement, basically all movements ever. Artisanal donuts? Third wave coffee?!? Really delicious chicken wings covered in fish sauce? It’s all right here.
Chicago is a world-class dining city, nailing everything from the heights of haute cuisine (Alinea regularly ranks as one of, if not the best, restaurants in North America) to the humbler, everyman fatness that comes from their triple (bypass) threat of deep-dish, Chicago dogs, and Italian beef. The level of Mexican cookery is also seriously underrated (and goes well-beyond Rick Bayless). To say that the rest of the state isn’t bringing QUITE as much to the metaphorical and literal table is an understatement, but it can lay claim to the horseshoe, a glorious open-faced sandwich of thick toast that's topped with the protein of your choice (hamburger patties, classically) and piled high with fries and an irresponsible amount of cheese sauce.
Look, there’s been so much waxing poetic about the cuisine of New Orleans over the years (both from within and from outsiders) that it gets to feel repetitive. You know all the buzzwords: Cajun and Creole, gumbo and jambalaya, po’ boys and crawfish étouffée, and so forth. It doesn’t change the fact that it’s all unspeakably delicious, which is why lesser versions of it constantly show up on menus around the country. Also, New Orleans may well be America’s finest drinking city, and we don’t just mean the shenanigans on Bourbon Street. Do yourself a favor next time you’re there and class it up for a few damn minutes while you enjoy a Ramos Gin Fizz at the Sazerac Bar.
3. New York
Even though the Big Apple only has mostly normal sized apples, it also has just a FEW other things going for it, from the advantages that come from being a major immigration hub for generations (the pizza’s just the tastily foldable tip of the iceberg) to the delicious results that come from waves of chefs flocking there to try and make it among the scores of Michelin-starred elites already doing their thing. New York’s also contributed quite handsomely to what you do in bars, from cutting edge cocktail innovations to so many beers (Ommegang, Brooklyn, Southern Tier) to, oh yeah, BUFFALO WINGS. Fresh Long Island seafood is spectacular. The bagels that NY expats won’t stop talking about really are that good. Say what you will about New Yorkers, although you’ll probably have a tough time since your mouth is full of their delicious food.
Everything is bigger in Texas. I know that because of T-shirts, but also because it’s true. Whereas most states have one style of BBQ -- maybe two -- Texas has four: East, Central, South, and West (Sorry, North). And these styles, particularly Central Texas, happen to be amongst our favorite barbecue in the whole world. There’s a reason that line is so long at Franklin, y’all. Texans invented their own style of cuisine (Tex-Mex), their own style of chili (no beans!), and the ballpark nachos (in 1973 at Arlington Stadium). There are famous cattle ranches like King in South Texas, which is bigger than all of Rhode Island. There are the big beer producers -- the Lone Stars and the Shiners -- but there are also the small ones, like Jester King and 512. There is Whataburger.
Aside from all that, you could make a damn compelling case that four cities (Austin, Houston, San Antonio, and, okay, maybe (!), Dallas/Fort Worth) are all destination-worthy when it comes to eating, with Houston and San Antonio only recently being given the props they deserve. Say what you want about the prolific talents of NYC, but once you get outside the boroughs, no one is exactly lining up to heap praise on the food/drink in Albany and beyond.
We didn’t want it to be California, friends. We wanted it to be some kind of off-the-radar spot like South Dakota or Texas, but we didn’t map the geography of this nation to favor the Golden State; God, or some kind of mapographer did. Let’s start first with some numbers. California has 80,000 farms; it produces HALF OF ALL US-GROWN FRUITS, NUTS, AND VEGETABLES. Half, friends. 50%. And you know about the wine, right? 800 miles of coastland with fog, wind, and rain to keep vines interesting, and all of that warm inland and hills to produce more of it than any other state. And who gives a sh*t if Paul Giamatti doesn’t drink Merlot? California makes 100 different varietals of wine. Have you ever heard of a Mourvedre?!? I have not, but those grape-stomping bastards make it. And we haven’t even gotten to the cities.
San Diego and its fish tacos and craft beers; LA with its innovative food truck culture (Kogi BBQ) and restaurants (Animal, Trois Mec, Baco Mercat); San Francisco with its Mission burritos and a food/drink culture second only to maybe NY in the entire country. But you know what puts it all over the top? The fact that you could take away those places, and it’d still have enough good food cities to be in the top 10. Oakland/Berkeley with its “anything SF can do, I can do cheaper and potentially better” vibe. San Jose and its cultish ramen from Santouka and Halu. Sacramento and those delicious burgers at the Squeeze Inn with that cheese skirt. Trust me, friends, it’s California on a knockout, and it ain’t even that close.
Sign up here for our daily Thrillist email, and get your fix of the best in food/drink/fun.
Matt Lynch is a Thrillist senior editor who hopes Puerto Rico one day becomes a state and turns these rankings UPSIDE DOWN. You can follow the vitriol he's about to receive from Indiana at @MLynchChi.