Guest post by Dan Gentile
Wherever you travel to, you’re going to need to eat, but for some people the meal isn’t just part of the journey, it’s the destination. If you’re the type that makes a spreadsheet of restaurants to visit on a trip, then it’s likely you’ve already got a bucket list of NYC bagels or Texas barbecue, but even card-carrying foodies might be surprised to learn that Los Angeles’ K-Town is just as big a part of the city’s identity. Here’s seven regions worth visiting for the meals alone.
Most people associate tamales with Latin America, but alongside catfish and other soul food staples, the hot tamale is one of the biggest culinary reasons to visit the Mississippi Delta. No one really knows the origin of the Mississippi-style tamale, but most historians trace their development to either Mexican immigrants introducing it to Black farmers in the early 20th century or soldiers bringing tamale recipes back during the Mexican-American War in the mid 1800s. As opposed to Mexican tamales that use masa and are steamed, “hot” tamales are made using cornmeal and boiled, typically featuring ground beef or pork filling. The ultimate resource for tamale tourists is the Southern Foodways Tamale Trail, which lists over 30 favorites. A great place to start is Joe’s Hot Tamale Place (aka White Front Cafe) in Rosedale, which has served juicy all-beef tamales since the ‘70s, and is the site of the state’s first historical culinary marker.
When visiting Los Angeles, your culinary checklist should definitely include street tacos, sushi, and an afternoon grazing around the Grand Central Market food hall. But then there is one of LA’s greatest culinary traditions, which visitors sometimes overlook:Korean food. Boasting one of the largest Korea Towns in the country, the variety of different types of Korean food is staggering. From KBBQ joints where you grill your own meats in the center of the table (try Sun Ha Jang if you love duck), late-night small plate pub food (Dan Sung Sa), or bubbling spicy soup spots (Surawon Tofu House), LA’s K-Town is not to be missed.
Beignets… and po’boys… and gumbo… and a Sazerac
The reputation of New Orleans as a drinking town might only be eclipsed by its reputation as a food town. Many visitors are drawn to the monstrous daiquiri or classic Sazeracs (have one at the bar that named the drink), but the food is the real star. Deciding on one classic dish is tough, but a marquee day of New Orleans eating would definitely start with a beignet and chicory coffee from Cafe du Monde, include a po boy from a divey corner store like Adams Street Grocery, and end with a bowl of gumbo from Dooky Chase’s, an iconic restaurant founded by Leah Chase, the “Queen of Creole Cooking.”
Deep Dish Pizza
You know what they say, when in Rome… you might still crave a deep dish slice of Chicago pizza. Although Italians may consider it sacrilege, the casserole-style pies of the Windy City hold a special gluttonous place in the canon of comfort foods. Now 50 years old, Pequod’s in Lincoln Park is a local favorite that Eater deemed one of the city’s most essential restaurants. A true old-school institution, it has both a dive bar atmosphere, but somehow also seems like a great place to take the kids after soccer practice. And for dessert, seek out Chicago’s second most popular pizza, “tavern-style,” with a thin, crispy crust that’s the polar opposite of its deep dish cousin.
Over the last decade, the art of Central Texas barbecue has swept the nation. From James Beard awards for now-iconic restaurants like Franklin Barbecue to Netflix specials on 85-year-old Tootsie Tomanetz of Snow’s in Lexington, the gospel of slow-smoked brisket has spread far and wide. Every major city in the state now has at least a couple of barbecue spots whose fatty beef ribs will make your eyes roll back, but it’s even more fun to take to the road and hit a small town joint that’s been around for decades. For the ultimate guide, consult Texas Monthly’s Top 50.
Maine (or Connecticut, depending on who you ask)
Originally considered “the poor man’s chicken,” the lobster transformed over the centuries from a cheap eat to a symbol of luxurious dining. The state most associated with lobsters is Maine, where the crustacean brings one billion dollars into the local economy. The official feast day is in August, when thousands flock to Rockland to dunk limitless claws into butter. It’s served many different ways, but perhaps the most casual, affordable, and controversial is the lobster roll. Maine and Connecticut each lay claim to the sandwich with slightly different variations. Maine serves theirs cold with salt, pepper, light mayo, and sometimes chopped celery, while Connecticut prefers theirs hot and doused in butter. New Englanders may debate the virtues of each, but for a traveler, the only right decision is to try both.
It’s not glamorous, but few foods satisfy quite like the humble cheesesteak. The combination of hot grilled ribeye topped with gooey Cheez Whiz (or Provolone) on a long, crusty bun makes for a bomb of a meal, and one you might regret if you have a busy afternoon planned, but totally worth the subsequent food coma. If you want to go classic, just stick with beef, cheese and onions, but like most regional favorites, there’s a host of new-school options adding everything from truffle whiz (Woodrow’s Sandwich Shop) to Sriracha aioli (Cleavers). If you’re doing a crawl, it’s a requisite to stop at one of the two institutions that claim to have created the iconic dish, Pat’s King of Steaks and Geno’s Steaks, both of which thankfully are still in operation today.
Fish Market Poke
Sure, in the year 2020 you can find a poke bowl in almost every town in America, but there’s no substitute for eating it in Hawaii. One reason is the freshness, with chefs and distributors heading to the world’s second largest fish market every morning for the 5:30 am auction of the day’s catch. From there the seafood travels to just about every eatery on the island, from upscale restaurants to corner stores. If you visit a proper divey fish market like Tamashiro Market, you’ll find over 30 varieties of poke that they’ve been serving in plastic to-go containers since the ‘70s, ranging from Korean-style raw crab poke to ginger shrimp poke. Unlike mainland fast casual poke restaurants where you’ll get a couple ounces of fish on top of a bowl of rice, the fish here is the main course, so expect heaping mounds of thicker chunks of fish with less filler. And since poke itself simply means “to cut or slice crosswise,” there’s a new school of culinary fusion chefs on the island like Mud Hen Water that take an experimental vegetarian approach, substituting beets for tuna.
New York City
The perfect New York City bagel needs to be made with New York City water (although according to science, it may just be the calcium and magnesium rather than the H20). Ask ten New Yorkers their favorite and you’ll probably get ten different answers, half of which would just be a bacon, egg, and cheese from the bodega down the street. But for baked good pilgrims, there’s a few lauded favorites worth seeking out, like Ess-a-bagel in Midtown (the old-school option), tradition-busting Shelsky’s Brooklyn Bagels (try to Sichuan peppercorn), and Russ & Daughters on the Lower East Side topped with a hearty portion of lox (this one will earn you extra Instagram likes).
Dan Gentile is a writer and coffee enthusiast based in San Francisco, California.