Food & Drink

The 7 Most Underrated American Food Cities in 2015

Published On 05/17/2015 Published On 05/17/2015

When people think of America's culinary capitals they usually look to the coasts: New York, San Francisco, and New Orleans all regularly top the lists of the best American food cities. But hiding in the "flyover states" and in "harbors-that-not-many-people-live-in" is a cache of culinary talent that's just as worthy of sinking your teeth into.

We've already touched on seven of these underdog cities, but our country's cupboards are hiding so much more deliciousness and so many cities' scenes have exploded in the past year, so we thought it worthwhile to give props to seven more gastronomically obsessed towns. And to show just what makes each great, we tapped a local writer to share what makes that food scene unique. Here are seven cities you'll immediately want to visit.

Flickr/Tony Brooks

Baltimore, MD

"While at a recent wedding in Boston, someone told me 'I like Baltimore, actually.' When I asked him why the 'actually,' he admitted that 'I went there thinking it was going to be a crap hole, and it was actually awesome.' This discovery may have come as a surprise to him and those who only know us from episodes of The Wire, but, as anyone will tell you who’s spent time in B-more, it’s the hidden gem of the East Coast, and we like it that way.
 
Baltimore is like a petri dish that’s been left to its own devices. It sits there just out of the spotlight until you take off the lid and realize all of the crazy stuff happening inside. The art, music, and food scenes are filled with thriving communities that not only don’t frown on experimentation, but expect it. And when you consider the relatively cheap cost of living (for chefs and eaters alike) and the cornucopia of food sources that surround the city -- from the many farms within a 15-minute drive to the endless bounty that is the Chesapeake Bay -- it’s evolved into, if you’ll excuse the pun, a scene ripe for the eating.
 
Most notably we have James Beard finalist Cindy Wolf and 2015 winner Spike Gjerde, the former of which is serving up beautiful plates at the white-tableclothed Charleston, while the latter has been a patriarch of farm-to-table cooking at Woodberry Kitchen a half decade before it was watered down into a Chipotle ad campaign. But that’s just the start. Over 40% of Baltimore Magazine’s top 50 restaurants weren't even around five years ago, with many opening within the last two or three years. Tiny, chef-owned spots like Puerto 511 (Peruvian) and Bottega (salt-of-the-earth Italian) are the perfect examples of people living out their dreams, Union Brewing is turning out national award-winning suds, nose-to-tail butchery (and cooking) is going down at spots like Clementine and Parts & Labor, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg because we can’t give away all our secrets." - Ryan Detter, freelance food writer at City Paper

Courtesy of Dooby's

Don't miss: Smoked/fruit-glazed ham hock at Parts & Labor (if it’s on the menu), pork belly eggs Benedict for brunch at Dooby’s, the mezcal with ghost pepper tincture Ring of Fire cocktail at Bookmakers Cocktail Club, anything from Chef Chad Gauss at The Food Market

Flickr/André Natta

Birmingham, AL

"Birmingham’s post-barbecue and country club food scene started in 1982 with Frank Stitt and Highlands Bar & Grill. Although I visit and review hundreds of restaurants a year, Highlands is the yardstick by which I measure. It boasts the trifecta of service, ambiance, and food. Highlands soon begat many other restaurants in Birmingham and around the South.  

I took Jerry Shriver, the food critic of USA Today, to Highlands several years ago and he was raving about it. Then I said, 'Yeah, Jerry, but if you really want to eat, and I mean EAT, you need to visit Niki’s West, which is next to a truck junkyard on Findley Blvd. They have 75 vegetables from the farmers' market every day, everything that will swim, crawl, jump, or fly, and the best banana pudding on the planet.' Jerry hemmed and hawed about going, but the next week my father called and said, 'Morgan! Did you see that Niki’s West was ranked one of the top five restaurants in the WORLD by USA Today?!' I said, 'Let me guess the writer...'

From high-end to low-end, there’s an expectation of freshness and quality in Birmingham because we are so close to the food that we produce. That proximity, plus Southerners' love of the outdoors, farming, and hunting, plays right into the current food scene, with its emphasis on fresh, quality, and local. And really, that’s what Birmingham has been about for years." - Morgan Murphy, author of Bourbon & Bacon

Courtesy of Deborah Jones/Artisan Books

Don't miss: Highlands' baked grits with country ham, mushrooms & fresh thyme, pimento grilled cheese BLT at MELT, cornmeal-dusted catfish at Ollie Irene, hickory-smoked duck breast at Little Savannah

Flickr/Yuya Sekiguchi

Boulder, CO

"Boulder residents would likely be surprised to find their town on an underrated food city list. And it's not only because Bon Appétit magazine picked Boulder as America's Foodiest Town in 2010. Take a walk down Pearl Street in downtown Boulder, and you'll see what the magazine folks saw.

Start at Frasca Food and Wine, where co-owners Lachlan Mackinnon Patterson and Bobby Stuckey have two James Beard Awards. Stuckey is one of 118 Master Sommeliers worldwide, as are six other Boulder residents. Not bad for a town with a population of 100,000 and change. Head West (toward the mountains) and make another stop at OAK at fourteenth, where local meats, vegetables, and even luscious Colorado peaches take a turn in the restaurant's wood-fired oven.

Veer a block or so off Pearl to find the Black Cat, whose chef-owner, Eric Skokan, raises the restaurant's vegetables (including heirloom dent corn for GMO-free polenta), as well as ducks, pigs, and beef cattle on his farm on county-owned land preserved for agricultural uses. This year, Skokan released a cookbook, Farm Fork Food, that he edited on his smartphone from the seat of his tractor. Or try The Kitchen, which has nourished relationships with local organic farmers since it opened in 2004; its nonprofit Kitchen Community builds school gardens, placing more than a 100 in Chicago, where it also recently opened a restaurant to positive reviews. You also might want to try Salt, where the food is local, seasonal, and GMO-free. 

Food, health, and sustainable agriculture have a long, intertwining history in Boulder. The bustling Boulder County Farmers' Market, also near Pearl Street, got its start in 1987. The town that popularized herbal tea and tofu also had a strong hand in craft beer, with Boulder County boasting 40 breweries and counting. After you've taken in the scene, do what Boulderites do: eat and run (or hike or bike). There are trails just a few steps away from those amazing restaurants.

And if that's not enough for you, go East a couple of miles and find Top Chef winner Hosea Rosenberg's Blackbelly, which received well-deserved national attention when it opened last year." - Cindy Sutter, Daily Camera food editor

Courtesy of OAK on Fourteenth

Don't miss: Pekin Paradise Duck Breast with ginger black rice, citrus-spiced macadamia nuts, yogurt, and house-made hoisin at OAK at fourteenth, whatever's in season at Black Cat, tasting menu at The Kitchen featuring the likes of a grilled Koberstein Ranch steak

Flickr/Dean Hochman

Kansas City, MO

"Kansas City is shedding its 'Cowtown' nickname, which was appropriate when the area was home to a thriving livestock exchange, and even later when it was best known for barbecue. While Kansas Citians will still defend their smoked meats until they’re blue in the face, these days we have so much more to brag about when it comes to food -- including multiple James Beard Award winners and nominees. 

Chefs can get creative in Kansas City, and diners are receptive to new concepts. For example, the owners of a local sandwich shop, Happy Gillis, just completed a successful Kickstarter campaign to open an authentic ramen shop next door. It seems there’s a new craft brewery popping up every month, and we frequent world-class cocktail bars like Manifesto and Julep. Butcher shops like Broadway Butcher and Local Pig, along with carefully curated provision shops like Season + Square and The Sundry, make it easy to create a sustainably sourced home-cooked meal. And with so many conscientious coffee roasters -- Oddly Correct, Thou Mayest, and Messenger, to name a few  -- it’s hard to pick a place for a caffeine fix. 

The best thing about Kansas City, however, is that no one is trying to make this place the next New York or San Francisco. We’re doing our own thing and doing it really well -- which has resulted in the emergence of a distinct Midwestern cuisine. Even in the ‘burbs, you’ll find hand-stuffed sausages, house-cured meats, and meticulously crafted cocktails featuring foraged ingredients." Emily Farris, food writer & creative director at Feed Me Creative

Courtesy of Port Fonda

Don’t miss: Chilaquiles at Port Fonda, the Smokin’ Choke cocktail at Manifesto, happy hour at Bluestem

Flickr/Kevin Burkett

Memphis, TN

"Memphis as an underrated food city? Hmm. We’re featured on national television shows and in national publications dozens of times a year, and no serious discussion of barbecue is held without talk of Memphis.
 
But maybe we’re misunderstood. Because of the city’s reputation for great pork barbecue, we’re so closely identified with it that outsiders often fail to see past the pig. Yet we’re home to about 1,500 restaurants, the majority locally owned labors of love. In a four-mile stretch of Madison Avenue, you could eat in a mom-and-pop Korean, Mexican, Jamaican, Cuban, or Venezuelan restaurant and finish up in a Irish pub. And that’s not unusual (or even a start on Madison, which houses more than 40 places to eat). All through the city and in the suburbs, the culinary diversity continues: Ethiopian, Filipino, Brazilian, Vietnamese, Indian, Middle-Eastern -- more than two dozen different cuisines and hundreds of places.
 
And Memphis might have more down-home, country cooking, soul food -- whatever you want to call it -- restaurants than cities twice the size. Let us serve you a plate of fried chicken with mashed potatoes and turnip greens, or crisp catfish and hushpuppies. Don’t think we forgot fine dining: Restaurant Iris owner Chef Kelly English, Andrew Michael Italian Kitchen owners Andy Ticer and Michael Hudman, and River Oaks Restaurant owner José Gutierrez have been named Food & Wine Best New Chefs.
 
And for what it’s worth, Elvis was misunderstood, too. Until he wasn’t." - Jennifer Biggs, food writer and dining reviewer for The Commercial Appeal, Memphis’ daily newspaper

Flickr/Evan Blaser

Don’t miss: Chicken from Gus’s World Famous Fried Chicken, Besh BBQ shrimp at The Second Line, cachapa at Arepa and Salsa, chicken liver bruschetta at Porcellino’s Craft Butcher

Wikipedia/Alex Boykov

Portland, ME

"Portland certainly has the lobster thing on lock, but there's also a surprising number of chef-owned restaurants with craft cocktail programs in this small city of 65,000. Because of our proximity to the ocean and small farms, chefs have an abundance of local seafood, meat, and produce with which to create a thriving restaurant scene.

Many of the most popular restaurants are near Portland's Old Port, a charming cobblestoned area on the waterfront. Several James Beard Award winners and nominees are behind popular restaurants like Fore Street, Duckfat, Eventide Oyster Co., Hugo's, Central Provisions, and Miyake. There's great barbecue, of all things, at Salvage BBQ; the food-truckers-turned-brick-and-mortar at East Ender put new twists on classics; and Bar Boulud alums at Piccolo serve hearty Southern Italian fare.

Maine's craft beverage scene is gaining attention, with over 60 breweries in the state, and local bars pouring locally brewed beer. Portland's inexpensive industrial neighborhoods, like East Bayside and Riverside, are filling with craft breweries, the old standbys like Geary's and Allagash, and the newcomers, Bissell Brothers and Rising Tide Brewing. Then there's plenty of meaderies and distilleries to round it all out." Kate McCarty, author of Portland Food: The Culinary Capital of Maine

Courtesy of Eventide Oyster Co.

Don't miss: Anything from the raw bar at Eventide Oyster Co., turnspit-roasted organic Maine half chicken at Fore Street, cold-smoked burger at East Ender

Flickr/Timothy Burling

Providence, RI

"Rhode Island may be the smallest state in the nation, but it earns big accolades in the food and drink world. Providence boasts innovative chefs and easy access to the freshest seafood, including calamari, clams, lobster, and sustainable, local fish species like scup and fluke landed a half-hour away in Point Judith. Rhode Island’s oysters, Matunuck, Moonstone & Walrus and Carpenter, come straight from ponds to your plate in a matter of hours. Farm Fresh Rhode Island’s Market Mobile also transports fruits and vegetables directly from surrounding farms through the back doors of restaurants.

Not only does Providence cook with the best ingredients in the world, but it also cultivates renowned chefs. Johnson and Wales University is the epicenter of culinary talent with alumni including Tyler Florence, Mark Ladner, and Emeril Lagasse. Many of the school’s trained chefs remain in Providence running the city’s best restaurants: birch’s Ben Sukle, Momofuku alum James Mark, who owns north restaurant and north bakery, Matthew Varga of Gracie’s, and Derek Wagner of Nick's on Broadway.

Providence also embraces a vibrant ethnic food scene thanks to its diverse population and an audience that appreciates all cultures. Taste Peruvian food at Los Andes, Japanese shabu shabu at Ebisu, and mole poblano at El Rancho Grande. When it comes to fresh seafood, farm produce, and international specialties, you can find it all in Providence." Jamie Coelho, associate editor at Rhode Island Monthly

Courtesy of north

Don’t Miss: $49 four-course prix fixe meal at birch, roasted chicken ramen at north, pescado a lo macho at Los Andes, mole poblano at El Rancho Grande

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Dan Gentile is a staff writer on Thrillist's National Food and Drink team. He lives in Austin, TX, which is a very appropriately rated food city. Follow him to barbecue all the time at @Dannosphere.

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