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There’s something exciting about visiting a new place in the United States and discovering an entire menu of items you’ve never tried or perhaps even heard of before. Case in point: baked mostaccioli. Mostly local to Chicago, the pasta dish looks a lot like baked ziti, but features a slightly different noodle shape. And have you had pub subs? These sub sandwiches are only available at Publix grocery stores throughout the Southeast. The list of local delicacies across the nation is never-ending, but we’ve narrowed it down to the most iconic and popular dishes. Uncover a new world of American fare with these 20 regional foods in the U.S.
Lobster Roll, New England
The lobster roll, a ubiquitous New England sandwich featuring a hot dog-style bun topped with buttered lobster, doesn’t have a single origin story, but its history likely began on the Northeastern Seaboard. The first documented lobster roll was served in Milford, Connecticut, at a restaurant called Perry’s in 1929, but the sandwich didn’t gain much fame outside of the state. However, it wasn’t long before lobster rolls became popular elsewhere — first in Long Island in 1965 and then in Maine in 1970, which is where the sandwich is generally said to have originated.
Deep Dish Pizza, Chicago
Who created Chicago’s iconic deep dish pizza — pizza baked in a deep pan, with crust on the bottom and up the sides and filled with cheese, sauce, and toppings — is a hotly contested debate. It was either Ike Sewell, founder of Pizzeria Uno, or Rudy Malnati, father of the famous Lou Malnati’s chain. Sewell claimed he made it, but Malnati claimed the pizza was created when he worked for Sewell and that Sewell stole credit for it. The world may never know, but the pizza will always be synonymous with the Windy City.
Dodger Dog, Los Angeles
Dodger Dogs are a more recent creation, but they already hold a place in the hearts of Los Angeles residents. The hot dog emerged thanks to baseball. When the Dodgers moved from New York to L.A. in 1962, the team’s concessions director brought a little piece of the East Coast with him — footlong hot dogs. The hot dogs being served in the new stadium only clocked in at 10 inches, though, so he renamed them “Dodger Dogs.” The Dodger Dog is a pretty simple hot dog, grilled and often topped with onions, relish, ketchup, and mustard, but the fierce love between a city and its baseball team has made it an enduring regional staple.
Po' Boy, New Orleans
What was once just a sub sandwich on French bread morphed into a po' boy sandwich (short for “poor boy sandwich”) in 1929. In 1922, Benny and Clovis Martin opened the Martin Brothers’ French Market Restaurant and served the sandwiches to streetcar workers. But when the streetcar strike happened in New Orleans in 1929, the sandwich became known as a “poor boy” because it was given to displaced workers from the strike. These days, you’ll find po' boys stuffed with shrimp or other seafood.
Pasties, Michigan’s Upper Peninsula
In the early 1800s, Michigan’s Upper Peninsula experienced a mining boom. The population in the region included many immigrants, especially Cornish families, who were looking for work. The Cornish brought pasties, a meat and vegetable-stuffed hand pie made fresh in the morning and often eaten at work for lunch. Pasties sustained workers throughout those long and difficult days, and their crust made them easy to eat without utensils. The hand pies soon became popular across the Upper Peninsula. Just remember to pronounce it “past-ee,” not “paste-ee.”
Chitlins, The South
Also called chitterlings, chitlins are pieces of pig intestine. The local dish originated from food scraps, particularly animal intestines or offal, fed to enslaved people in the South. Chitlins were slow-cooked or fried and served with vinegar or hot sauce, collard greens, and cornbread. During the Jim Crow era, chitlins were commonly served at venues known to be safe for Black people, and the dish has remained part of Black culture ever since.
Hot Brown, Kentucky
Located in downtown Louisville, Kentucky, the Brown Hotel is a popular destination for those looking to try a dish steeped in Kentucky history. In 1926, the head chef of the hotel, Fred Schmidt, was looking for something different to serve guests, rather than the same old ham and eggs he regularly cooked. So into the kitchen he went, using ingredients he had on hand to make the hot brown. It’s an open-face sandwich featuring two slices of crustless Texas toast pressed with turkey, tomatoes, Mornay sauce (béchamel sauce with gruyère cheese), and two strips of bacon in an X formation. The sandwich is then broiled, topped with pecorino cheese, parsley, and paprika — and voila!
Key Lime Pie, Florida
Head down to Key West in the Florida Keys and you’ll be able to try authentic key lime pie. The tangy citrus pie was allegedly invented in Key West in the 1890s by a mysterious woman known as Aunt Sally. But the earliest recipe for the pie in Florida wasn’t published until 1949 by the Key West Woman's Club. Further up north, an almost identical recipe was published in 1931 by the Borden Dairy Company — in New York City. The pie is popular around the country, but Floridians have embraced their potential historical connection to the dessert. Nearly every restaurant serves it and almost every family has their own recipe.
Spam Musubi, Hawaii
Spam musubi is a fusion dish combining canned Spam and Japanese sushi. After the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, U.S. residents of Japanese descent were forced into internment camps. Spam was ever-present because it was both inexpensive and available, while other meat products were facing shortages. Hoping for a food that reminded them of their traditional cuisine, Japanese prisoners placed slices of Spam on top of sushi rice. Modern-day renditions season the musubi with shoyu-sugar sauce and wrap the entire bundle with dried seaweed.
Fried Cheese Curds, Wisconsin
Cheese curds are already a quintessential Wisconsin snack, but fry them up and you get even deeper into Dairyland culture. Coincidentally, both regular cheese curds and fried cheese curds have been around since ancient Rome. But Wisconsin makes the most cheese in the country, and curds are a standard cheese creation. The first thing to know about cheese curds is that they aren’t fresh if they don’t squeak when you bite into them. The second thing to know is that if they’re fried, you should dip them in ranch dressing. You can also try them with marinara sauce, but that’s not a very Midwestern thing to do.
Bialys, New York City
It may look similar to a bagel, but a bialy is its own thing. The Polish snack arrived in New York City through immigrants from Bialystock, Poland, in the 1800s, and it wasn’t long before they became popular in the Big Apple. Here’s how to tell a bialy apart from a bagel: It’s similarly round but the middle isn’t a hole; it’s just a depression filled with onions and poppyseeds. Bagels are boiled and baked, so they have a chewier texture than bialys, which are just baked. Bialys don’t have a shiny exterior either; they’re matte.
Philly Cheesesteak, Philadelphia
Though originally invented in Philadelphia — and indeed still most popular there — the Philly cheesesteak has become an enduring part of the food scene in the greater United States. In its simplest form, the traditional Philly cheesesteak is a sub stuffed with thin-sliced ribeye steak and cheese. Hungry customers then have the option of getting their Philly cheesesteak with mushrooms, peppers, onions, and Cheez Whiz. The sandwich was invented in 1930 by Pat Olivieri, who owned a food cart selling fish cakes and hot dogs. As the story goes, Olivieri got tired of his menu and sent his brother to the local butcher to get some beef. He came back with thin-sliced ribeye. Olivieri fried it up, and the cheesesteak was born. It didn’t have cheese at first though; one of Olivieri’s employees added that in the 1940s.
Horseshoe Sandwich, Illinois
If you don’t live near Springfield, Illinois, it’s likely you’ve never heard of the horseshoe sandwich. It was invented at the Leland Hotel in the 1920s — though whether the dishwasher or the bartender created it is up for debate. The original iteration actually looked like a horseshoe, featuring a piece of toast topped with a horseshoe-shaped slab of ham, a potato cut into eight pieces to look like the horseshoe nails, and cheese sauce. The sandwich has since evolved into a piece of toast topped with either a hamburger patty or a regular (unshaped) piece of ham, with fries smothered in cheese sauce on top.
Frozen Custard, Milwaukee
It may look like ice cream, but frozen custard definitely isn’t the same chilled dessert. It has extra eggs and is made and served at a lower temperature, leading to an irresistibly smooth texture. And there’s no better place to try it than in Milwaukee, Wisconsin — the (unofficial) frozen custard capital of the world. The treat was actually first invented in Coney Island, New York, in 1919, when brothers Archie and Elton Kohr needed a way to keep their dessert frozen longer in the summer sun and used extra egg yolks. The two then took their creation to the 1933 World’s Fair in Chicago, where Milwaukee local Paul Gilles discovered it. Gilles later opened Gilles Frozen Custard, the first frozen custard stand in Wisconsin, in 1938.
Cheese Dip, Arkansas
Cheese dip in Arkansas comes with its own unique fusion cuisine: Ark-Mex. The dip isn’t made like Mexican queso; rather, it combines fresh cheese and processed cheeses like Kraft or Velveeta. The dip was invented in the 1930s by Blackie Donnelly, who owned a restaurant called Mexico Chiquito. The cheesy recipe took off and is now served all over the state. Today, Little Rock hosts the annual International Cheese Dip Championship, where restaurants from across Arkansas compete to create the creamiest, cheesiest, tastiest dip for a panel of judges.
Cioppino, San Francisco
Cioppino, a seafood stew with a tomato base, was invented out of necessity by San Francisco fishermen. The stew used leftover catch from the day and was often made right on the boat. Eventually, the Fisherman’s Wharf district welcomed new restaurants that made the soup a true local specialty. Allegedly, the first restaurant to serve cioppino was Alioto’s #8, a food stall that opened right on the wharf in 1925 to serve fishermen lunch.
Johnny Marzetti, Ohio
No, Johnny Marzetti isn’t a person. It’s a casserole that originated in the 1920s in Columbus, Ohio. The dish, which features ground beef, noodles, tomatoes, and cheese, was invented by Teresa Marzetti, an Italian immigrant who opened a restaurant in Columbus after she came to the U.S. in 1896. She named the casserole after her brother-in-law, Johnny. It was such an easy and tasty recipe that households across the state and eventually the Midwest began to replicate it.
Maid-Rite Sandwich, Iowa
Maid-Rite sandwiches originated at an Iowa restaurant chain of the same name founded in 1926. The restaurant still serves this iconic sandwich, which is just seasoned ground beef on a slightly sweet hamburger bun. Any sandwich with ground beef on it in the state has come to be known as a Maid-Rite sandwich. Don’t get it confused with a “sloppy joe,” though. Those feature a tomato sauce cooked into the meat. Locals will often top Maid-Rite sandwiches with pickles, onion, barbecue sauce, or another favorite condiment.
Gerber Sandwich, Missouri
The Gerber sandwich is specifically served in St. Louis. It was invented in 1973 at Ruma’s Deli and named after a regular customer. To make a Gerber, you take a slice of toasted garlic bread and top it with grilled ham and Provel cheese, a local processed cheese made with Swiss, provolone, and mozzarella. The sandwich is broiled to melt the cheese on top and then served open-faced.
Watergate Salad, The Midwest
You might think this dish was created at the Watergate Hotel in Washington, D.C. — as many people believe — but it was actually invented long before the scandal. The earliest recipe most similar to the Watergate salad (a mix of pistachio pudding, pineapple chunks, mini marshmallows, whipped cream, and chopped nuts) was published in a 1913 Kansas newspaper. Instant gelatin had just become popular, and cooks around the country were using it in various recipes. The present-day Watergate salad appeared in 1976, a year after Jell-O introduced pistachio pudding mix. It was originally called “pineapple pistachio delight” but colloquially became known as Watergate salad because the scandal was fresh in everyone’s minds and its green color matched a cake called Watergate cake. It’s also known as pistachio fluff, pistachio delight, or green fluff.