These Are 33 of the Best, Most Iconic American Foods
Here in the US of A, we take our icons pretty seriously... especially when those icons are covered in cheese and chili. And must-eat foods are a point of pride and jingoism, as everyone proclaims their hometown's signature dish to be the world's greatest, even if you've never really tried any others. So, in a gesture of national unity, we've tracked down 33 iconic dishes synonymous with 33 different food-famous cities and discovered the very best place in each of them to get your fill. Dig in, and let us know what we missed in the comments.
Reindeer sausage with chili from the International House of Hot Dogs (Anchorage, AK)
You know Dasher and Dancer and Prancer and Vixen… but you probably don't know that they're effin' delicious, and, in the reindeer capitol of Anchorage, the International House of Hot Dogs is the king. They come in a wide variety of toppings from bacon-wrapped to kraut-covered, but opt for the chili dog, which packs enough spice to make your nose glow and your stomach grow three sizes.
The brisket at Franklin BBQ (Austin, TX)
You've probably heard the hype, but in an area where brisket is life and debate runs hot, Franklin BBQ reigns supreme with its totally bonkers brisket. Yes, there is almost always a a 3hr line outside, and you best be there before 10am for any chance at eating (pro tip: bring beer and a lawn chair), but by the time the Texas Sun has risen to half-past scorching you'll be at the counter sucking down a sample slice of the most meticulously smoked brisket in the entire world, and the next few minutes will be a blur of meat so moist and candied in fat that you'll never think of barbecue the same way again. And that's coming from a real-life Texan's meat-stuffed mouth.
The Ghetto Burger at Ann's Snack Bar (Atlanta, GA)
Miss Ann runs a tight ship in her tiny joint, which has just as many rules as Fight Club (eight), and if you don't watch your effin' mouth she'll kick you right out. But even if the sasspot told you to stand on your head while eating, it'd be worth it to score one of her ginormous Ghetto Burgers, a monstrosity of two patties hand-patted by Ann herself and loaded with chili, bacon, cheese, chili, onions, lettuce, and tomato. Resist the temptation to lean on the counter when you're done (or you'll be booted), but do feel free to talk about the Ghetto Burger. You won't be able to help it anyway.
Crab cakes at Faidley's (Baltimore, MD)
Most crab cakes are dainty, puck-shaped appetizers. Most crab cakes aren't Faidley's, which since 1886 has been shelling out baseball-sized, lumpy balls of fried crabby goodness. This is the gold standard of how all crab cakes should taste, and, lucky for those who don't live in Baltimore, they ship frozen versions by mail, making it possible to host the most badass The Wire binge-watching party ever.
Lobster roll at Neptune Oyster (Boston, MA)
It doesn’t really make sense. Why is the best oyster bar and seafood spot in the city sitting in a sliver of a restaurant on Salem Street in the heart of the deepest Italian section of Boston’s most Italian neighborhood? But logic arguments aside, Chef Michael Serpa and crew pack them in every day from lunch 'til close to get a taste of their delicious oysters and the best, most simply incredible Maine lobster roll in the city. We prefer ours cold with mayo BECAUSE WE’RE NOT CONNECTICUT HEATHENS, but we must admit, you kind of can’t go wrong either way.
Shrimp & grits at Hominy Grill (Charleston, SC)
There are so many things to love at Hominy Grill (like the “Big Nasty Biscuit” with fried chicken, cheddar, and sausage gravy), but no matter what else you’re going to stuff yourself with, you need to make room for their classic shrimp and grits. They take perfectly cooked cheese grits, and top it with sautéed shrimp, mushrooms, scallions, and salty, porky, crispy bacon. Chase it all down with a classic Bloody Mary or their kind of hilarious RC/CR (Crown Royal, Royal Crown Cola) and all will be right in your world for the rest of the day.
The Chicago Dog at Hot Doug's (Chicago, IL)
Chicago's pizza (IF THEY CAN EVEN CALL IT THAT!!) may draw the controversy-stoking headlines, but the Chicago style hot dog is the city's most indispensable delicacy. And you want your first time to be good (unlike certain OTHER firsts), so you're going to wait in line at Hot Doug's and know that all the critical elements -- the steamed natural casing dog, neon relish, the surprisingly hot sport peppers, the fresh tomato slices, the yellow mustard, and the dash of celery salt -- will all come together with impeccable balance and precision. The one minor break with tradition is the use of grilled onions instead of raw, but even the most hardened traditionalist has to acknowledge change is good sometimes… hell, they'll gladly tell you that as they wait in line with you.
The Polish Boy at Seti's (Cleveland)
There are Polish dogs and then there's Cleveland's official food, the Polish boy, which ups the sausage game by cramming a gigantic kielbasa into a bun loaded up with fries and slaw, then dousing it with hot sauce just in case that wasn't intense enough. And at Seti's, the Po' boys also come loaded up with chili and cheese in the event that all that meat and spice wasn't enough to send you into a coma. There's a reason Drew Carey dropped all that weight when he moved out of Ohio… it's hard to find one of these suckers in Burbank.
The green chile Cheeseburger at Steuben's (Denver, CO)
At this point, Steuben's is a tourist trap. It wasn't always this way, but when you're featured on a popular Guy Fieri show, that'll happen. And yet, being surrounded by swarms of out-of-towners when you eat their Green Chile Cheeseburger does nothing to detract from the deliciousness of it. The best time to enjoy it is at after 10pm, when you can get it with a cheap beer and fries for $7.50. The green chiles add a nice bit of heat, the burger's well-seasoned and delicious, the American cheese is beautifully melty, and the challah bun brings it all together. And sure, you could order the burger in the middle of the day for $9, but why would you want to?
The King Loin at Smitty's (Des Moines, IA)
Sometimes, a bun is just circumstantial -- a formality without which a sandwich cannot be called a sandwich. Such is the case with old-school diner Smitty's, which has spent seven decades emasculating buns by putting between them around a frisbee-sized hunk of breaded and fried pork tenderloin, which is hammered into a ridiculous portion that dwarfs the poor little bun. Perfectly seasoned, with a crunchy exterior and a juicy, tender interior, you can score the King Loin with chili and cheese, but why even bother? You're here for the pork, so no reason to mask its amazing flavor.
The coney at American or Lafayette (Detroit, MI)
A Detroit coney has nothing to do with New York's stupid island. It's a dog topped with a bean-less chili, raw onions, and mustard, and it's perfect, mainly because Michigan dogs are made with real cuts of meat (no scraps). And in a city famed for its confrontational skills, the greatest rivalry is between the two best dog houses, which are next door to one another. And they kinda hate each other, since they were both started by Greek brothers 100 years ago, who weren't exactly into the brotherly love thing. Which is better? Depends on how you like your chili. But the best bet's to eat one (our man from the D says American!), then run next door to the other. Just don't have any telltale sauce on your face.
Lau Lau at Yama’s Fish Market (Honolulu, HI)
At Yama’s everyday is “Aloha Friday,” and our friends who grew up there rave about the “salty pork in leafy goodness” that is their Lau Lau. Traditionally, pork and butterfish wrapped in taro leaf and ti leaves and cooked in a steamer oven, Yama’s stands out for their pork/chicken lau lau, which combines delicious fatty pork with juicy chicken thigh and omits that butterfish, making it less fishy and more damn delicious.
Oysters Gilhooley at Gilhooley’s (Houston, TX)
One of our editors was born in Houston, and he likes to point that out whenever he can. And, despite the fact that he hasn’t lived there in many, many years, he also can’t stop talking about this legendary oyster bar where they sell so many damn oysters that they don’t even bother icing them up -- they just rip them right out of the bag and serve ‘em. The move, though, is to grab a beer and get their classic namesake dish, in which they roast oysters that have been painted with garlic butter and sprinkled with Parmesan in a oak and pecan wood-fired BBQ pit until they have almost a creme brûlée like crust on top.
Shrimp cocktail at St. Elmo Steakhouse (Indianapolis, IN)
Yeah, the steak's pretty fantastic (hell, it made our list of best steakhouses), but the biggest draw at this 102yr-old Indianapolis mainstay is the insane shrimp cocktail, a monolithic mess of five jumbo prawns swimming in a sea of fiery hot sauce and served up in an ice-filled silver chalice that we like to imagine makes us look like Snoop Dogg when he played Huggy Bear. It doesn't. But only because Huggy Bear would never allow his face to be covered with that much red sauce.
Burnt ends at Arthur Bryant's BBQ (Kansas City, MO)
As in every city with a thing for indiscreetly rubbing meat, the debate rages endlessly as to who makes the ultimate brisket and, more importantly, who makes the best burnt ends, those lusted-after chunks of charred ambrosia cut off halfway through the smoking process. Arthur Bryant's is the original, and still the best (Oklahoma Joe's is the runner-up and making a serious bid for the crown), serving up a limited supply of fatty, charcoaled bliss to the faithful who line up for the taste of the Kansas City original.
Chicken & waffles at Roscoe's (Los Angeles, CA)
Chicken and waffles might have originated in Harlem, but when the dude who started Roscoe's heeded the call of the West, he brought with him the secret to perhaps the best chicken and waffles in the country, making Hollywood the destination for the sweet and savory mashup. The no-frills dish includes half a friggin' country-fried chicken, served bone-in atop a hot waffle with a shot of maple syrup. There'll be a line for sure, and you'll scald the roof of your mouth when you impatiently chomp into the chicken, but it's worth it for that decadent mingling of sugar, butter, and grease.
The Cubano at Versailles Restaurant (Miami, FL)
Miami's chock full of delicious Havana cuisine, but the real culinary war wages around who makes the best
Big Montana Cubano sandwich. There are variations throughout the city -- Cubans on a stick, Cuban clubs, Cuban clubs served in nightclubs -- but for the real deal, plop down amid the sea of Cuban exiles trash-talking Castro at Versailles and feast on a perfectly assembled pile of ham, roast pork, swiss, mustard, and pickles served up on a smooshed baguette that'll make you wonder how people in Miami can look so good with these suckers on the menu.
Ribs at Charles Vergos' Rendezvous (Memphis, TN)
People in Memphis will call Rendezvous a tourist trap. And they're right. But when the daily debate about who makes the best ribs in Memphis comes up, old Charles Vergos is always at the top of the heap. Served up "Vous-style" -- neither wet nor dry, but rather basted in vinegar and dusted in spices -- the ribs are served up on the main floor or in the overflow basement that's basically a labyrinth of dining rooms, so your chances of being spotted by the pitmaster at your other favorite restaurant (who is secretly gnawing on a rib) is reduced.
The Jucy Lucy at Matt's Bar (Minneapolis, MN)
"If it's spelled correctly, you're eating a shameless ripoff" reads the rhetoric at Matt's Bar. And while the other bar that claims to have invented the cheese-stuffed burger, the 5-8 Club, might disagree, one thing's for sure: Matt's Bar is the real deal, and for 60yrs they've put their money where their severely-burned mouth is by shelling out humongous burgers with a molten core so tempting that the servers have to warn patrons to let it cool. As a result, the burn unit at the nearest hospital is the most well-fed hospital ward in the U.S.
Beer brats at Milwaukee Brat House (Milwaukee, WI)
The staple foods of Milwaukee might explain why so many of its residents are both sluggish and extremely jolly, and all of them make an appearance at the Brat House, which serves up its pretzel-bunned sausages with huge amounts of beer, plus sides of beer-cheese soup, fried curds, and Bavarian pretzels the size of pizzas. Get the Fully Loaded, which comes with giardiniera, red peppers, shrooms, and kraut. Chase it with a pitcher and a bowl of cheese, and get ready for the long Winter that is your food coma.
Hot chicken (Medium) at Prince’s Hot Chicken Shack (Nashville, TN)
Our friends in Nashville were vehement that Prince’s be included on this list. And they know their chicken. The key to the unique, hot-fire deliciousness of Prince’s might have something to do with their cooking method, in that they fry up their chicken in cast iron rather than a deep fryer, but it’s also, as our food writer friend Jennifer put it, “an appreciation of the simplicity of the Prince’s experience. No need to mess with sides -- just chicken on white bread with pickles.” Note of warning: don’t get the hot unless you want to feel like someone is punching you in the mouth with a blow torch, and dip everything in ranch. You’ll be just fine.
The muffuletta at Central Grocery (New Orleans, LA)
Sure, it sounds like it could be the name of some weird female Muppet, but the Muffuletta's actually the handiwork of a Sicilian immigrant who, in the early '20s, got tired of all the Cajun stuff and fired out a dense bread stuffed with layered olive relish, mozzarella, ham, salami, and cheese. No stupid vegetables here. The Central Grocery invented the thing, and it's since become an international craze. The original remains the best to this day, and the huge line of locals waiting to get one at the small Italian market in the French Quarter will gladly tell you why as you wait.
The pastrami sandwich at Katz's Delicatessen (New York, NY)
Yes, you will be overwhelmed, and yes, there will be a huge line of tourists. But intermingled with those confused Nebraskans will be real locals who, for the past 125yrs have flocked to Katz's for a taste of its legendary pastrami, which is cut to order and served up in exceedingly large piles on a flimsy piece of bread that never stood a chance against the drippings. Eating the sandwich without dissecting it requires you to unhinge your jaw like a python, but any way you can get that house-smoked beauty in your mouth is well worth the effort. And the wait. And enduring those Nebraskans.
The roast pork at John's Roast Pork (Philadelphia, PA)
Look, we're not telling you to skip the Philly Cheesesteak. Definitely don't do that, because John's has perhaps the best in the city. But get it in tandem with the ridiculously fresh, juicy roasted pork that gives John's its name and its sterling reputation since people started lining up at the window in 1930. Score one with sharp provolone on a perfectly baked bun, then retreat to a picnic table and inhale it and your perfect cheesesteak before the juices totally destroy the bun.
Any sandwich at Primanti Bros. (Pittsburgh, PA)
The nation's dotted with restaurants that specialize in kitchen-sink sandwiches stuffed to the brim, but they all owe a debt of gratitude to Primanti's, a place that has caused serious lockjaw and waistline expansion for the good people of Pittsburgh. No matter what you get -- cheese, roast beef, a burger, sweet sausage -- your meat of choice comes stuffed between two thick cuts of Italian bread and topped with fries and a tangy coleslaw that adds a blast of cold to the hot meat (add an egg, it's worth it). The joint's branched into a local chainlet with a couple satellite stores in other cities (lucky bastards), but the Strip District location's the real deal, serving up its gut bombs 24hrs a day.
Ike's Vietnamese Fish Sauce Wings at Pok Pok (Portland, OR)
In a city known for its innovations on seemingly ordinary foods -- where people will wait in line for 45mins for a phallic donut, call a grilled cheese gourmet, and consider eating something made of weeds from some dude's yard a privilege -- it's weird to call a chicken wing a must-have food. But it is. That's because the Vietnamese-inspired wing at the Thai street-food mecca tastes unlike anything you've ever had, a sweet, garlicky, fishy piece of perfection that spawned a bi-coastal mini-empire for Pok Pok. You might think they're even glowing when you get them… but that's just the coat of caramelized sauce on top of the fried skin. You will soon be wearing this, and you will love it.
Christmas-style enchiladas at Tune-Up Cafe (Santa Fe, NM)
Denver and New Mexico can fight all they want about which city makes better use of the green chile, but New Mexico has an advantage in its embrace of both green and red sauces. To that end, the Tune-Up Cafe is like the Rainbow Coalition of sauces, soaking its Tex-Mex style enchiladas in both to make a Christmas-style commingling of sauces that gives you the best of both spicy worlds. Score your enchilada with a side of red chile-coated candy bacon and you've got one of the best one-two chili punches since a fight broke out in TLC's dressing room.
Smoked fish taco at Oscar’s Mexican Seafood (San Diego, CA)
Though Pacific Beach is often criticized by SD locals as the place “dudes from Jersey who just graduated from college and want to learn to surf” move to, it does have some serious upsides, like the proximity to beloved taco shop Oscar’s, which doles out the best fish tacos in the city. We prefer the surf and turf or the smoked fish version, which comes with shredded cabbage, cilantro, diced tomatoes, onion, and avocado, but isn’t perfect until you cover that sucker with their creamy chipotle sauce.
Super Carnitas Burrito at La Taqueria (San Francisco, CA)
The argument for best burrito in SF is intense and usually comes down to two Mission spots: El Farolito and La Taqueria. But we give the edge to La Taqueria, for two reasons: 1) they don’t overstuff with rice, and 2) their carnitas is the best carnitas in the g-damn world. And when you take said carnitas and mix it with guac, salty soft beans, cooling sour cream, melty cheese, and just the right amount of that green salsa on the table? Dear lord, it’s like taking an ecstasy pill that makes you fat and contented instead of thirsty and wanting to rub stuff.
Rub with Love Salmon at Etta's (Seattle, WA)
In Seattle, you've gotta eat fish. And it'd just be rude to not eat one that spends its life swimming aggressively upstream so you can devour it. You can score salmon all over the place, but at Etta's you can watch the fishmongers toss your dinner around at Pike Place before sitting down for the joint's specialty, which is hit with the restaurant's signature spice rub (and, well, some love), grilled to perfection, and served up with cornbread pudding and shiitake mushrooms.
Chislic at the Acoustic (Sioux Falls, SD)
If you've never spent some serious time in South Dakota, you might think that chislic is just a terrible misspelling of the name of the dude from The Shield. But to those who know SoDak well, it's a staple. Basically-marinated beef hunks that are deep-fried and skewered with a toothpick, chislic's the perfect balance of tough and tender. You can get great variations at dives all over Sioux Falls, but at the slightly upscale Acoustic, they put their own spin on it by tossing it in cilantro and calling it gaucho style, which is about as innovative as you need to get when you're serving up deep-fried meat, since it's pretty much perfect the way it is.
Toasted ravioli at Charlie Gitto's (St. Louis, MO)
More so than its weird-ass pizza, St. Louis is renowned for its toasted ravioli, a fancy cousin to the mozzarella stick that's filled with either cheese or meat (or both), breaded and deep fried. Damn near every restaurant serves the dipping wonders, but the Hill's casual Gitto's totally nails it with a pile of itty bitty cheese/beef/spinach-filled pasta served with a side of special sauce. The best also claims to be the original, but you won't really care whether that's true as you order your second round.
The chili half-smoke at Ben's Chili Bowl (Washington, DC)
Sure, it sounds like something you found in an ashtray, but the half-smoke is about as common in DC as a lobbyist getting busted for solicitation. And none are more beloved than those at Ben's, which opened its doors in 1958 to become an oasis for bipartisan gluttony in the Shaw neighborhood. Basically like a hot dog on HGH, the spicy beef/pork half-smoke here comes covered in Ben's namesake chili, plus mustard and raw onions. It's actually named after Bill Cosby on the menu, since the comedian's been spilling chili on his sweaters since the '60s. Get it split in half and grilled for extra oomph. The sausage, not the Cos.
Kevin Alexander is Thrillist’s national food/drink executive editor, and Andy’s boss, so he merely pretends to listen to Andy’s nostalgic stories while watching House Hunters International. Follow him at @KAlexander03 and he'll send you a polite e-card.