America may be a deeply divided nation, but when it comes to the foods we grew up with, there's one thing we can all agree on: Our hometown did it best. Everyone knows about regional juggernauts like White Castle, Whataburger and In-N-Out, but chances are some of these less-famous local chains have a place in your heart too. As for the ones you've never tried? Warning: This list is guaranteed to make you want to plan a road trip asap.
Why it's awesome: If you grew up in New York State between 1960 and 1980, you probably had a Fudgie the Whale birthday cake from Carvel. The whale-shaped ice cream cakes, along with other fancifully named desserts, were the calling cards of this scoop-shop empire. Founder Tom Carvel got his start in Westchester, New York, where he accidentally stumbled into soft-serve when his ice cream trucks lost power; he got the idea to serve the frozen custard that had melted. Carvel (who is credited for coining the phrase “buy one, get one free”) proved to also be a marvelous pitchman; the company has 400 locations globally.
Iconic foods: Flying Saucers (ice cream sandwiches), specialty ice cream cakes (Fudgie the Whale and Cookie Puss), Brown Bonnets (choco-dipped cones).
Where to find it: New York, Arizona, California, Connecticut, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Nebraska, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Texas, Vermont and Virginia.
2. Primanti Bros.
Why it's awesome: Everyone loves coleslaw and fries with their sandwiches, but at the Pittsburgh institution known as Primanti Bros.—which got its start feeding Depression-era truckers across from the docks—the signature “Almost Famous” sandwiches come with the fries and slaw inside. (Legend has it that a rogue line cook accidentally made the discovery when he tried to quickly thaw out frozen fries on the grill.) Locals insist you’ll only find copycats, not the real thing, outside of Pittsburgh (where the original 24-hour branch and its many offshoots exist), but that’s not quite true: New branches have opened outside Pennsylvania, and the company ships its sandwiches to Maryland, Ohio and West Virginia.
Iconic foods: Almost Famous deli-meat sandwiches (with Italian dressing, coleslaw and fries squished together on soft Italian bread), cheese steaks, Smallman Street fries (loaded with chili, nacho cheese, bacon jalapeno and sour cream).
Where to find it: Pennsylvania, Florida, Maryland, Ohio and West Virginia, with new shops in Michigan and Indiana in the works, and online.
Why it's awesome: This convenience-store chain with over 600 locations across the Atlantic seaboard (it originally started out in 1964 as a milk-delivery service) generates a whole lot of love: Wawa has over 1.3 million Facebook fans and 128,000 Twitter followers. Newer stores have 21st-century touches such as touch-screen ordering and free ATMS, but you can still find cartons of milk and ice cream from the chain's own dairy farm, along with its retro-priced breakfast and lunch sandwiches and branded caffeine drinks.
Iconic foods: Customized hoagies (served on rolls from Philly’s famous Amaroso's Baking Company, baked fresh in the store), Sizzli (sausage and egg breakfast sandwiches available on a bagel, croissant, biscuit or French toast), Wawa iced tea and Wawa coffee.
Where to find it: Pennsylvania, Delaware, New Jersey, Maryland, Virginia and Florida.
4. Arthur Bryant's
Why it's awesome: We admit this legendary smokehouse, arguably the most famous BBQ restaurant in America, is hardly a chain (there are only two locations, the original and at Kansas Speedway). But judging on the volume of people who stream though Arthur Bryant's for lunch and dinner, its reach is just as deep. The unpretentious digs (Formica tables, fluorescent lightin, no-nonsense jugs of sauce on the tables) have seen everyone from Harry Truman to Calvin Trillin, who have made the pilgrimage for Arthur Bryant's falling-off-the-bone meats cooked low and slow.
Iconic foods: The full gamut of Kansas City-style smoked meats sandwiches, pork ribs and coveted “burnt-ends” sandwiches (the tasty end pieces of smoked brisket served open-faced).
Where to find it: Missouri only, but its trademarked vinegar-based and sweet BBQ sauces and rubs are available online, and via mail.
5. Surly's Brewing Company
Why it's awesome: This Minneapolis-based microbrewery is responsible for putting Minnesota craft brewing on the map. Despite limited distribution within the Twin Cities, Surly's has racked up multiple awards, including “Best Brewery in America” from the Beer Advocate. It also spawned the passage of the Surly Bill in 2011: The game-changing legislation overturned Prohibition-era regulations preventing small brewers from selling pints of their own beer at their own breweries. That victory eventually led to the opening of Surly's “destination” beer hall, serving sophisticated brew-friendly pub grub, and Brewer’s Table, an upscale restaurant that hosts multi-course beer pairing dinners.
Iconic foods: Surly-named brews such as Darkness (an Imperial Stout), Overrated (a West Coast-style IPA) and Smoke (an oak-aged smoked Baltic porter), plus great in-house charcuterie and sausages, smoked meats, and “hog frites” (seasoned fries layered with spicy fondue, smoked pulled pork and giardiniera).
Where to find it: Minneapolis; soon to be distributed to Wisconsin.
Why it's awesome: What originally started out as just a frozen custard shop in Wisconsin back in 1984 has grown into a massive and beloved fast-casual restaurant chain, with more than 540 restaurants across the United States. What sets Culver's apart from its Denny’s-like competitors is its sourcing: fresh (never frozen) beef from the Great Plains, cheddar from Wisconsin dairies and chickens from Georgia. Where else can you get antibiotics-free chicken tenders with crinkle-cut fries and a small soda (aka pop) for only $5?
Iconic foods: Aside from its trademark ButterBurgers® (named for the lightly buttered buns they're served on), the chain hawks Wisconsin specialties such as deep-fried cheese curds (they squeak when you bite into them) and “concrete mixers” (frozen custard with customized mix-ins).
Where to find it: Wisconsin, Idaho, Arizona, Utah, Colorado, Wyoming, North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, Texas, Minnesota, Iowa, Missouri, Wisconsin, Illinois, Michigan, Indiana, Ohio, Kentucky, Tennessee, South Carolina and Florida.
Why it's awesome: Founded in Greensboro, North Carolina, the privately owned classic burger chain Cook-Out has more than 100 locations and is known for its drive-thru BBQ, burgers “cooked outdoors style” (slathered with chili and slaw, mustard and onions) and 40-plus milkshake flavors.
Iconic foods: Char-grilled burgers, hot dogs, North Carolina BBQ, hushpuppies, hand-spun milkshakes and Cheerwine soda on tap or in floats; the locally produced cherry-red soda is also known as “the Nectar of the North” (but sadly doesn’t contain any real wine).
Where to find it: North Carolina, Georgia, Kentucky, South Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia and Maryland.
8. James Coney Island
Why it's awesome: Houstonians have a soft spot for this homegrown hot dog stand, founded in 1923 by the Greek immigrant brothers Tom and James Papakadis. As the story goes, the brothers tossed a coin to see who got naming rights to the original locale, where the wieners cost 5 cents and a bowl of chili 15 cents. Now often simply referred to as JCI, the chain still serves legacy items such as “secret-recipe” chili, along with NY-, Chicago- and Texas-style dogs and burgers.
Iconic foods: Coney-style hot dogs (with or without Whiz, served on hand-cut steamed bun with mustard, chili sauce and onions), “Jucy Lucy” [sic] burgers (stuffed with melted cheese), regional specialties like Frito Pie (a bag of corn chips topped with chili and cheese) and Delaware Punch (a non-carbonated fruit soda).
Where to find it: Texas (greater Houston area).
9. The Varsity
Why it's awesome: Long before “Do you want fries with that?,” “What’ll ya have?” has been the daily refrain at this Atlanta-based chain, founded in 1928 with an original two-acre outpost that claims to be the world’s largest drive-thru (accommodating 600 cars). The Varsity aims to be all about wholesome goodness: It gets its meats delivered daily and makes it own regional specialties, such as pimento cheese and fried fruit pies, from scratch. Just don’t go on a Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets game day when, according to the company’s website, an estimated 30,000 fans visit the Downtown branch.
Iconic foods: If you go, brush up on your ordering lingo: “heavyweight” (hot dog with extra chili), “glorified steak” (hamburger with lettuce, mayo and tomato), “bags of rags” (potato chips), Ring One (onion rings) and a F.O. (Frosted Orange). And don’t forget to order the fried apple or Georgia peach fruit pie, served a la mode.
Where to find it: Atlanta.
10. Waffle House
Why it's awesome: Like beacons in the dark, whose bright-yellow signs promise breakfast all day, these iconic 24-hour roadside cafes have fed countless Southerners weaned on groaning plates of Americana comfort food (Jimmy Dean sausages, Smithfield bacon, Sara Lee desserts) and of course, waffles. (By the chain's own estimate, approximately 145 are sold every minute.) There are now more than 2,100 Waffle House locations scattered across the U.S, inspiring countless songs and movies along way, and the original Waffle House branch in Decatur, Georgia has been converted into a museum. (Plus, the chain has its own stealth record label.)
Iconic foods: Sweet cream pecan waffles, grits and biscuits with sausage gravy, Texas melts and hash browns served eight ways including “smothered” (with onions), “covered (with cheese), chunked (“hickory smoked”) or “scattered all the way” (all of the above).
Where to find it: 25 states including Georgia, Florida, Mississippi, Kentucky, Arkansas, Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, Ohio, Missouri, and Kentucky.
11. Skyline Chili
Why it's awesome: Few dishes evoke more nostalgia and are more misunderstood than Cincinnati-style chili, the signature dish at this fast-casual chain, which started in Ohio. Founded by a Greek immigrant, the restaurant’s so-called chili bears little resemblance to chili con carne; it refers to a Mediterranean-spiced red sauce that’s ladled over spaghetti or hot dogs and gets its distinctive flavor from chocolate, cinnamon, allspice and Worcestershire. Cincinnati-style chili is not unique to Skyline—it’s hawked by numerous chili parlors in the area—but Skyline is one of the most famous and beloved purveyors.
Iconic foods: Cincinnati-style chili served “3-ways” (spaghetti topped with Skyline Chili and smothered in a mound of bright orange cheddar cheese), “4-ways” (choice of beans or onions added) and “5-ways” (beans and onions both added).
Where to find it: Ohio, Indiana, Kentucky and Florida.
Why it's awesome: Although it seems hard to get excited about something called a “loose meat sandwich,” this regional specialty, sold at thousands of diners and independent mom-and-pop joints throughout the Midwest and Central States, elicits pangs of hunger and homesickness for many transplants. Since 1926, Maid-Rite (the self-professed “home of the loose sandwich) has been doling out these Sloppy-Joe-esque ground beef sandwiches sans the tomato sauce, plus other sandwiches and regional specialties “made right” since 1926.
Iconic foods: The Original Maid-Rite (ground beef with sautéed onions on a freshly steamed bun), The Cheese-Rite (just add cheese), malts, cheddar cheese curds and The Tender-loin, an oversized breaded pork cutlet sandwich (equally beloved in Indiana).
Where to find it: Iowa, Illinois, Minnesota, Missouri, Ohio and Wisconsin.
13. Lou Malnati's
Why it's awesome: When it comes to deep-dish pizza, Chicagoans have strong partisan views that usually fall along geographical lines. Although Southsiders will point to Edwardo’s “stuffed pizza,” the ubiquitous Lou Malnati’s, which has more than 40 branches, wins for sheer volume. What sets the ‘za apart from others is its trademark thick, flaky, buttery crust that’s more akin to a pie-crust than to a traditional pizza dough. Unlike thin-crust pizza, Malnati’s deep-dish pies are built backwards: First the mozzarella goes on top of the high-shouldered crust, followed by the fillings and then tomato sauce and a sprinkle of cheese. The result is a two-napkin, fork-and-knife affair.
Iconic foods: Three-Cheese Bread, Lou’s Italian Ice, and deep-dish pizzas such as The Chicago Classic (sausage and cheese) and The Lou (four-cheese blend with spinach and mushrooms).
Where to find it: Illinois (Chicago only, but they do ship their frozen pizzas nationwide).
Why it's awesome: Windy City expats still dream about the Chicago-style dogs at this Illinois-based institution. Originally launched by Dick Portillo in 1963 as simply “The Dog House,” in a trailer with no running water, it has since grown into a company that operates 50 restaurants across the country. All of Portillo's food is prepared from scratch in its two commissaries. (The company claims that the average Portillo’s serves more than four to five times the average domestic McDonald’s in a day.) Adding to its appeal is the restaurant’s folksy décor, which showcases old-time Chicago memorabilia and music.
Iconic foods: Chicago-style hot dogs (topped with mustard, relish, chopped onions, sliced tomatoes, kosher pickle and sport peppers), Italian beef sandwiches, chopped salads and Chocolate Cake Shake (chocolate cake blended into a chocolate milk shake).
Where to find it: Illinois, Indiana, Arizona, California (the company also ships its top sellers).
15. American Coney Island
Why it's awesome: Nathan Handwerker (of Nathan’s Famous) might have been the first to hawk hot dogs to the masses, but the Keros brothers, Greek immigrants who opened American Coney Island in Detroit in 1917, made them into the storied Michigan favorites they are today. There are more than 500 different Coneys scattered across the greater Detroit area, but American Coney Island (the original) and Lafayette Coney (which rival Bill opened next door) are still the most famous. Whether you’re an American, Lafayette, National or Kerbey Koneys partisan, chances are if you grew up in Michigan, these messy wieners remain the defining taste of your past.
Iconic foods: Chili dogs (natural-casing hot dogs dressed with chopped onions and yellow mustard on a steamed bun), chili fries and “loose hamburgers” (crumbled ground beef in a hot dog bun, covered in the Coney condiments) and sundry Greek specialties.
Where to find it: Michigan (although many franchises ship kits so you can make your own).
16. Farrell’s Ice Cream Parlour
Why it's awesome: If the name “The Zoo” and its accompanying sirens and theatrics ring a bell, you probably grew up in Northern California, where Farrell’s Ice Cream Parlour reigned supreme as every grade-schooler’s premiere birthday destination. But the old-timey ice cream parlor (replete with waiters dressed in pinstriped vests, newspaper-type menus and old-fashioned candy) was sold to The Marriot Corporation in 1985, and by 1990, most of the locations had closed. New owners have resuscitated the old Farrell’s look and feel, including bringing back The Zoo, although now you’ll only find branches in Sacramento and throughout Southern California (as well as in Hawaii).
Iconic foods: The Zoo (a trough of 30 scoops of ice cream with chocolate sauce, strawberry topping, marshmallow topping, whipped cream, sprinkles, cherries and bananas, and requiring two servers to deliver it—one in the front, one in the back).
Where to find it: California and Hawaii.
17. SPUD Fish and Chips
Why it's awesome: For anyone who grew up around the Seattle area, the childhood years likely included outings to Aki Beach followed by a batter-fried dinner and milkshakes at SPUD Fish and Chips, a Pacific Northwest chippy founded by a pair of English-born lads in 1935. Greasy goodness aside, the chainlet, which now includes branches in Edmond and Juanita Beach, uses only locally caught fresh fish and real potatoes, and follows strict environmental practices including recycling all of their used cooking oil and composting all food waste.
Iconic foods: Fish and chips (choice of cod, salmon or halibut slathered with tartar sauce), onion rings, plus Pacific Northwest regional specialties such as oysters from Gray’s Harbor, wild mushrooms, and Darigold® dairy for the milkshakes and root beer floats.
Where to find it: Washington (Seattlearea only).
18. Dick's Drive-In
Why it's awesome: Slinging burgers since 1954, this cash-only American Graffiti-esque diner (which now has six outposts) is pretty much where everyone in Seattle goes to eat and sober up after a wild night of drinking. But despite Dick's Drive-In's simple and astonishingly cheap offerings ($1.75 for a 1/8 pound cheeseburger, $1.90 ice cream cones), the skinny patties made from fresh, never-frozen beef and served on locally made buns ‘til 2 am nightly have amassed quite a following. They've been named “Life-Changing” by Esquire and “Best of Seattle” by Seattle celebrity chefs such as Tom Douglas, solidifying their legacy for future generations.
Iconic foods: Deluxe burgers (double 1/8 pound grilled patties, with melted cheese, lettuce, mayonnaise and pickle relish), hand-dipped shakes and fresh-cut fries.
Where to find it: Washington (Seattle area only).
19. El Pollo Loco
Why it's awesome: This fast-casual chain (pronounced “L Po-yo Lo-co” and translated as “The Crazy Chicken”) specializes in Mexican-style fire-grilled, citrus-marinated chicken. It got its start in L.A. in 1980, but fans up and down California and other parts of the West are loco for El Pollo Loco's succulent birds, served in bowls, tacos, quesadillas and burritos. Sure, you can get better Mexican food at your local taqueria, but devotees still pick up El Pollo Loco’s bargain-priced three-course Family Chicken Meals when they’re too lazy to cook.
Iconic foods: Citrus-soaked fire-grilled chicken, giant avocado tostadas, churros.
Where to find it: California, Arizona, Nevada, Utah, Texas.
20. Carolina's Mex
Why it's awesome: Few things makes a Southwest transplant more homesick than green chiles, be they stuffed into a “wet” burrito, folded into a quesadilla or slathered on top of a cheeseburger. Every New Mexican and Arizonan has his or her favorite indie spot, but for Phoenix residents, Carolina’s Mex’s green chile chicken, oversized hand-made tortillas, and Mexican-style breakfasts are the real enchilada.
Iconic foods: Chimichangas, machaca (dried shredded beef with bell pepper, onions, tomatoes and eggs) and green chiles mixed into burros, tamales and tacos.
Where to find it: Arizona (Phoenix only).
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