“Where y’all from?” It was a question we heard frequently on our cross-country journey. This time, the person asking was Crystal, our waitress at Bea’s, a family-run fried chicken restaurant on the outskirts of Chattanooga, Tenn.
I paused. “Well,” I answered. “It’s a good question. We’ve been spending time on the West Coast this winter with family, and now we’re driving across the country to our home in Maine. We stop in a different city every few days.” Crystal’s eye lit up, and she touched the top of my arm and squeezed it ever-so gently. “I just knew you’ve been everywhere. Tell me everything.”
For close to 25 years, my husband has been begging me to drive cross-country with him. We live in a rural town in southern Maine, and to accomplish even the simplest task — get a quart of milk, visit a friend, pick up a paper — we have to drive. So for me driving is a chore. But after all these years, I succumbed; how many times can a girl say no?
I agreed to make the trip, but I wanted a purpose, so I set out with a question: What is the state of regional food in America? I had images of dinners at McDonald’s and breakfasts at Burger King, of picking up sandwiches from other chains and feeling the sadness that comes from spending time in strip malls. I hoped I was wrong.
I did a fair amount of research before we left, reaching out to friends, reading blogs, social media and trusted websites. And while John did a good deal of the driving, I spent more time than I’d like to admit on my phone each day searching for great places. Each city we arrived in, we sought out local advice: Where do you eat? Where do people have dinner? I told everyone we weren’t interested in the fanciest, high-end restaurants, but wanted their go-to place, the spot that says “home.” We hunted for locally sourced, regional food like surfers looking for that perfect wave, as if the success of our trip depended on it. And in many ways, it did.
All in all, we covered 4,600 miles, heading south from San Francisco to Los Angeles and then driving on to the Grand Canyon; Santa Fe, N.M.; Austin; New Orleans; Chattanooga; Asheville, N.C.; Richmond; and home to Maine.
Other than the Grand Canyon (a culinary wasteland the likes of which I worried we might find in much of the country), we ate incredibly well — from elegant white tablecloth restaurants to fried chicken and barbecue joints to hipster DIY doughnut shops and Indian street food spots. We discovered a truly comforting theme: Amazing food is being cooked around the United States, and people of all generations seem to care deeply about the food they eat. Maybe more than ever.
But while regional food is thriving, you do have to search it out. It doesn’t just appear like the Golden Arches. Plus, regional food is far more complex than lobster in New England or beef in Texas. We found an abundance of cliched, touristy regional food (“Best BBQ in the U.S.,” “Real Southern Food!,” and “Greatest Cornbread in America”) and had to dig deep to find places devoted to continuing and, in some cases expanding upon, age-old culinary traditions.
For instance, in Santa Fe, where restaurants serving “authentic” New Mexican food abound, it took asking the woman at the front desk of our inn, and the woman running the art gallery, and the guy selling ristras (long strands of dried New Mexican chiles) along the side of the highway where they like to eat. Everyone gave the same answer: La Choza.
We arrived at lunchtime, and, indeed, people at almost all the tables seemed to know each other. Located in the old adobe headquarters of the turn-of-the-century Mercer Ranch, La Choza features a menu focused almost entirely on regional specialties: chalupas, tamales, soft blue corn tacos. The green chile stew came with hot, perfectly fried, golden-brown and puffy sopaipillas drizzled with local honey. The enchilada plate, topped with red chile sauce, had just the right bite: a tingle, a buzz, but not so hot that we couldn’t taste the peppers. The group at the next table were trading pieces of turquoise jewelry, and the young mothers behind us were planning a PTO event. The food was terrific, well priced, and we felt part of the day-to-day life of Santa Fe. If only for a meal.
In Austin, we stayed with old friends. They wanted to show off the city’s great food and brought us to a super-hip French bistro (housed in an outdoor tent with chandeliers and billowing fabrics), and a James Beard-award winning sushi restaurant. I was sulking a bit the next day when they asked what was wrong. “Barbecue,” I answered. “I came to Texas for barbecue.” We could have gone down the street to wait hours on line for the famed Franklin Barbecue, or stood in a hot parking lot waiting for the insanely good brisket at La Barbecue, but they wanted to show us Lockhart, some 30 miles south: home to not one, but three old-time barbecue joints.
When we showed up at Smitty’s Market, we walked down a long, dark hallway, where the floor, ceiling, and walls were all blackened by smoke. The place smelled like meat and fat and smoke, and my nostrils flared at the promise of it all. When we hit the end of the hall I saw open-pit fires on the floor of the restaurant. You heard right: open fires on the floor of the restaurant. As we watched huge slabs of brisket, ribs and sausages being lowered into the smokers, I knew we had hit pay dirt.
We met Nina Schmidt Sells, the daughter of founder Edgar A. “Smitty” Schmidt, and she told us a bit of history. Originally opened in 1923 as a meat market, Smitty’s has been smoking meat over aged Texas post oak using the same technique for almost a century. “We don’t use fancy marinades and tenderizers,” Sells told us. “We smoke over Texas wood in open fire pits, just the same way the cowboys used to do it.”
I tried one of Smitty’s hand-tied jalapeño sausages, the juices rolling down my chin, and proclaimed it the best sausage I’d ever eaten. The brisket, the ribs and the smoked turkey breast, wrapped in butcher paper and served with a sleeve of Saltines, were outstanding.
Texas and barbecue are so intrinsically linked that we couldn’t resist walking down the street to Black’s, a competitor to Smitty’s, to try their famous Flintstone-size beef ribs — perfectly tender meat that almost falls off the bone but is still juicy, smoky and just right. By midafternoon, I was “drunk” on smoked meat.
If ever there were a city with a distinct regional cuisine, it would have to be New Orleans. When we arrived, with visions of crab gumbo, shrimp etouffee, po’ boys and beignets, we headed straight to Clancy’s, a popular uptown restaurant where waiters still wear jackets and serve you with a formality that seems lost in most of the country. The menu at Clancy’s is also slightly old-fashioned, traditional and always spot-on: seafood gumbo, crab salad, smoked duck, and sauteed veal with crabmeat, asparagus and a rich bernaise sauce.
I thought I understood what regional cuisine is all about. But then we heard about a new place in town, and I had to rethink my original question: What exactly is regional cuisine? Sure, it refers to traditional foods, using indigenous, local ingredients. But regional cuisine, like our country, is constantly evolving. We are a nation of immigrants, and the culinary traditions that new communities have brought here are changing the face of regional American food.
Vietnamese immigrants, for instance, have had a major impact on southern Louisiana. It’s no wonder that one of the most outstanding meals of our trip was at a new restaurant that fuses the flavors of the Mississippi Delta and the Mekong Delta. The amuse-bouche at Maypop got our attention: a savory curry beignet with wasabi cream and lime powder (a nod to NOLA’s traditional fried, sugared beignets). The dishes that followed — such as crispy fried P&J oysters with bourbon barrel soy mash aioli and spicy cucumbers; and house-made squid-ink fusilli with local blue crab, chorizo sausage, coconut butter and mint — demonstrated that fusion cooking is not just a gimmick. In the right hands, it extracts the best from multiple cuisines and creates something new and exciting.
Regionalism can also shift when American chefs travel and bring home new ideas and influences. Chef Katie Button spent years in Spain cooking under Ferran Adria at the world-famous el Bulli restaurant. Born in South Carolina and raised in New Jersey, Button came back to the States and fell in love with the arty, food-focused town of Asheville, N.C., where she opened Curate and later Nightbell, where she reinterprets classic dishes of Appalachia and the South. When Button serves a deviled egg, it’s a nod to a favorite dish at church suppers across the South. But in Button’s version you can clearly see the influence of Adria’s molecular gastronomy. An empty egg shell is filled with an ethereal corn sabayon, smoked trout gravlax and smoked pimento foam. The dish is brought to the table perched on a custom-designed stainless steel egg holder. Our server left us with instructions to dig to the bottom to get all the layers of the tiny treat.
Innovation is great, but our travels proved that some of the best regional fare is also the most traditional: the barbecue of Texas, the burgers of California, chile dishes of the Southwest, seafood of the South and East. And many of the places we discovered en route were third-, fourth-, and fifth-generation restaurants.
Back at Bea’s, in Chattanooga, we ate in a dining room that hasn’t changed much since it opened in 1952. Red-and-white mosaic floors and large family-style Formica tables fill the room. Each table is capped with a Lazy Susan piled high with plates of all-you-can-eat Southern specialties such as the aforementioned fried chicken, pulled pork, biscuits, corn bread, sweet potatoes, collard greens, beans, potato salad and more. Dessert is always cobbler; the only thing that changes is the fruit, depending on the season.
“Why mess with tradition?” asks Crystal, our waitress. “We got a good thing going here. I mean, just you taste this crunchy fried chicken. This is American food at its best.”
We drove through the rolling green of Virginia and stopped for the night in Richmond. Thomas Jefferson grew up nearby, and his presence is felt all over the city. Exploring Richmond in search of local cuisine, I kept asking myself the question posed by Jefferson’s character in the musical Hamilton: “So, what’d I miss?”
The next morning we discovered Perly’s, a hip, Jewish deli with a slight Southern twist. Sunday mornings mean long lines waiting for a taste of Perly’s blintzes, filled with preserved orange and blueberry sauce, and dishes such as the Benny Goodman, two poached eggs piled onto homemade latkes topped with a lighter-than-average hollandaise and house-smoked salmon and salmon roe. Perly’s makes its own pastrami and breads, and reimagines Jewish deli food for this new century.
Then it was on to Maryland, where we got stuck in bumper-to-bumper Beltway traffic (on a Saturday afternoon!), and then cruised north to Maine. The first thing we did when we crossed the border into our home state? Drove straight to Bob’s Clam Hut in Kittery, for a bowl of briny clam chowder and an overstuffed lobster roll.
As happy as we were to find such good food all over the country, there really is nothing like the sweet taste of home.
Gunst is the author of 15 cookbooks, including “Soup Swap: Comforting Recipes to Make and Share” (Chronicle, 2016), and is resident chef on NPR’s “Here and Now.”
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