Local food reviews

Louisiana gumbo, Maine lobster, Coney Island hot dogs, Memphis barbeque, Idaho potatoes, Philadelphia cheesesteaks: the great American road trip is as much about trying the local food as it is about looking at giant bovines. Here's the deal on some of America's regional food scenes.

American's Greatest Food City: New Orleans

First, don't write off Cajun food if your only experience with it is the blackened tunaburger at Chili's. Second, every year some overfunded Institute For Making You Feel Bad About Yourself releases its list of America's fattest cities, and time and again, New Orleans is at the top of the list. But Christ on a pogo stick! If I lived in New Orleans, I would weight six hundred pounds. No, wait: my ass would weigh six hundred pounds. I would be the life support system for the world's largest rump. You should be so lucky as to move to New Orleans this fall and die of morbid obesity before the next sweltering summer. Some of my favorite Big Easy food experiences:

  The crawfish pie at The French Market Cafe, down near Jackson Square. I had three crawfish pies in New Orleans; two were unremarkable, but this one was sooooooo gooooooood. Mmmmmmm. If gluttony weren't a mortal sin I'd have ordered another. Oh, I wish I had. You can always repent.
  The black molasses muffin at K-Paul's. This is Dirk's favorite; Prudhomme's gumbo and blackened bluefin didn't even register compared to the torrent of praise he had for this muffin. Personally, I thought everything at K-Paul's was great, but I think the turtle soup was my favorite dish.
  The cheeseburger at the Clover Grill on Bourbon Street. I chose to highlight this as much for the atmosphere as the fact that a fried egg is a topping choice. If you had a scale of flamboyent gayness in which Rock Hudson is a "one" and RuPaul is an "eight," then the Clover Grill is a "forty." And also, they cook your cheeseburger under a hubcap.
  Too many po'boys (which is something like the food known elsewhere as a hero, sub, grinder, hoagie, or just plain sandwich) to mention. Ham, turkey, fried shrimp, fried clams, fried crawfish, italian meats, alligator, etcetera, and so forth. Not all on the same po'boy, thankfully.

There is no BBQ in St. Louis, but that's okay

Because there is plenty of good barbeque (or barbecue, or bar-b-que, or however you like to spell it) throughout the middle-to-southeastern U.S. The best of all is Arthur Bryant's Barbecue in Kansas City, Missouri. Arthur Bryant's is all about substance over style. It's got the interior design panache of a hospital cafeteria. A sandwich consists of a slice of hilariously inadequate white bread under a giant pile of dripping meat, topped with an equally preposterous slice of bread. It's ludicrously delicious! There's only one reason Arthur Bryant's has earned praise like "legendary," "a Kansas City landmark," "the Grandaddy of Kansas City barbeque," and as Calvin Trillin put it, "the single best restaurant in the world." That's the food. Don't eat for at least seven hours before you go, so you'll have room to try both ribs and a sandwich.

There is other good barbeque, if you don't happen to be near KC. In Memphis, try Jack's Bar-b-que on Trinity. This was my second-favorite BBQ of the trip (after trying BBQ in Texas, Kansas City, Memphis, Nashville, North Carolina, and near St. Louis). I thought it was almost as good as Bryant's; Dirk probably think that borders on blasphemy, but he still thought it was very good. If you prefer North Carolina style barbeque, well, you just have your priorities all messed up, and should probably become a vegetarian.

The Mythical Philly Cheesesteak; What to eat in Philly

If you want a really, really, good cheesesteak, there's only one place to go. That place is anywhere except Philadelphia. We have each been to Philadelphia twice, and between us, we've eaten a total of eight cheesesteaks in five different establishments without finding even one that we would recommend to friends, family, strangers, people we dislike, or starving people. Much like the sorry Hurricane of Pat O'Brien's, being first doesn't always make you the best. Among the disappointing places to avoid eating cheesesteaks is Dalessandro's. They were lazy bastards with bad supply management and dry, flavorless cheesesteaks. Dalessandro's, Dave's, and Geno's all treated us to tough, dry, bland cheesesteaks that I wouldn't wish on anyone. If you have to try a cheesesteak in Philly, at least go to Pat's; I don't know if they're any good, and I doubt they are, but at least they were invented there, so I guess that's something.

But there are two places you should eat in Philly: Lee's Hoagies, and more importantly, Tony Luke's, which is hidden away by a freeway underpass. Lee's makes an excellent Italian hoagie, and my friend (and former Philadelphia resident) Adam recommends the tuna hoagie, which is also very good. But the roast pork sandwich at Tony Luke's (we had ours with broccoli rabe, but you can also get it with spinach) is worth the drive to Philadelphia almost regardless of your starting point.

Chicago: More than pizza

Since I don't have the energy to discuss pizza yet, I'll just say this much about Chicago. Most "legendary" restaurants offering regional specialties don't live up to the hype which surrounds them, but thankfully, some do. Arthur Bryant's in Kansas City was one, and Mr. Beef at 666 N. Orleans in Chicago is another. Apparently Jay Leno is a fan, in case that sort of interests you. Don't bother reading the menu, just go in and order the Italian beef sandwich, dipped with peppers. Eat that, then order another one. Eat that, then go lie down for several hours. Repeat. But don't get there right at the lunch rush, or you'll have to wait.

New York: Pizza heaven

Okay, now we'll talk pizza. Sure, the deep dish at Gino's East in Chicago was a fine food, but it wasn't what I would recognize as pizza. You can't pick it up with your hands, for one. Call me biased, but I think New York makes pizza the way it's supposed to be made, and any variation from it is just that much further from perfection. We had a really smashingly tasty pizza at John's Pizzeria on Bleecker Street (between 6th and 7th) in Manhattan, but you may have to wait in the line outside to get a table. If you time it right, though, you won't have to wait that long. If you want the pizza without the big scary city, I always enjoy a slice from my old haunt, Turiello's in Nyack. It's about an hour north of Bleecker Street, just across the Tappan Zee Bridge. Turiello's is at the corner of Broadway and Main.

New England standards

New England means four food things to me: clam chowder, maple syrup, lobster, and blueberry pie. Since syrup is not so much a food as a condiment, I'll skip it. This is where I got the best of the other stuff:
  Lobster: Oddly enough, the best lobster I had was at a chain restaurant in Plymouth, Massachusetts, The Weathervane. I find this as surprising as you do, but there you have it. I got really, really tasty lobster there. Two of them.
  Clam chowder: The best bowl I had was at the The Lobster Shanty on Cape Cod. I didn't have lobster there; in retrospect, I don't remember why not. It probably seemed like too much work at the time. I'm very lazy.
  Blueberry pie: I do have some caveats in my endorsement of the Log Cabin Restaurant on Route 1 in eastern Maine. The blueberry pie was really good, far superior to the pie we had in Bangor. But the lobsters, while decent, were not the best; and their clams were terrible and full of dirt. I recommend the Log Cabin Restaurant when you just want dessert.