In today's day and age, it seems like you can find just about any type of food you want, especially if you live in a big city. Want a super-authentic banh mi, or perhaps a traditional Belgian Liège waffle? There's a food truck for that. Heck, even if you live in the middle of nowhere you can log on to sites like Goldbely and order food items right off the menu from some of the country's most legendary restaurants. But from a stuffed sandwich in Lincoln, Neb. to a breakfast sausage that's available only near Cincinnati, there are still plenty of regional specialties that are certainly worth traveling for.
When you think about it, all food started out as a regional specialty. Even pizza, one of the most popular foods in America, got its start as a regional style of flatbread in Naples before spreading like wildfire after immigrants introduced it to the American palate. For various reasons, some foods catch on in popularity and become household names, and others linger in relative obscurity, beloved to a handful of lucky locals while the rest of the country is barely aware of its existence.
In 1978, Henry Lopez opened Henry’s Puffy Tacos in San Antonio, and a legend was born. They don’t differ much from a traditional taco, except for the fact that the raw corn masa tortillas are fried in hot oil. Instead of becoming a traditional crunchy taco shell, they puff up into a light, fluffy folder for the fillings, and the results are delicious. You’ll find puffy taco joints all throughout Texas, but most are still located in San Antonio.
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The cheesesteak might be The City of Brotherly Love’s most enduring contribution to the culinary world, but the snack that’s most closely associated with the city is in fact the soft pretzel, and it’s made there in a style not found anywhere else. Most of these pretzels come from the Philly-based Federal Pretzel Baking Company (America’s first large-scale soft pretzel factory), or the Philly Pretzel Factory chain (the world’s largest Philly-style pretzel bakery). The long, soft pretzels look different from others you’ll find, and you shouldn’t leave Philly without trying one.
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Kolache (plural for kolach) are a type of filled dough with Czech roots that have become very popular in many parts of Texas, as well as parts of Iowa, Wisconsin, and Minnesota. The majority of the ones you’ll find envelop a dollup of fruit with soft, semisweet dough and are eaten for dessert or as a breakfast pastry, but some also include meat, bacon and eggs, and basically anything else the baker wants to include. While they’re most popular in Texas, word is finally starting to spread: a shop specializing in them recently opened in Brooklyn.
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The pork roll (also known as Taylor ham) is something you’ve most likely eaten in New Jersey. It’s a slightly-smoky breakfast meat that resembles bologna, and it’s typically sliced and pan-fried or grilled before being paired with egg and cheese on a roll, in a crazy-good gutbuster of a sandwich known as the Jersey Breakfast.
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Upstate New York was home to a booming Sicilian population in the early decades of the 20th century, and like spiedies many traditional Italian dishes took on a regional life of their own. Nobody knows exactly who invented chicken riggies, a pasta dish usually involving chicken, rigatoni, and hot or sweet peppers in a spicy and creamy tomato-based sauce. And yes, there’s a Riggiefest.
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Ask someone who loves food what their first culinary stop in New Orleans will be, and they’ll most likely tell you Café du Monde, for some beignets and chicory coffee. To make a beignet, squares of choux paste are deep-fried and dusted with powdered sugar, and there’s really nothing else like it anywhere, even at carnivals. They’re light, dense, crunchy, and soft all at the same time, served piping hot, and one of the finest pastries on earth. Good luck trying to find the real deal outside of New Orleans, though.
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When we talk about regional foods you won't find anywhere else, we're not talking about the many regional variations of pizza, or burritos, for example. While it might be tough to find a New Haven-style pizzeria in Boise, you can still find pizza. You're not going to be finding runzas in Boise, or New York, or anywhere outside of Lincoln, Neb.
So while it may seem like it's possible to log onto the internet or pick up the phone and get any food you can ever think of delivered to your door, there are still plenty of foods out there that you're going to have to travel for, sometimes thousands of miles. It's a big country out there, and there's still plenty of food that's known and beloved only by the lucky locals.