10 quintessential U.S. meals and where to get them

10 quintessential U.S. meals and where to get them

Grilled, fried, slathered in cheese, wolfed down on a street corner. These timeless stateside foods never disappoint
Union Oyster House
The Union Oyster House is said to be the oldest restaurant in the United States.

Sick of high-and-mighty travelers telling you the Big Mac is the apex of the U.S. culinary tradition?

They don't know what they're missing.

Do the unenlightened rabble a favor next time they mount up their high horses, and point them in the direction of these classic eats.

Better yet, get there yourself and get gorging.

1. Barbecue

Can’t go wrong at: Charlie Vergos’ Rendezvous (Memphis, Tennessee)

BarbecueIt may be a dry rub, but it's anything but dry.


Ribs, at least on a commercial level, weren’t on a barbecue menu anywhere before Charlie Vergos started selling them at this back-alley spot near the Peabody Hotel in the 1940s, says son and current Rendezvous owner John Vergos.

Today, the spot that was once an 85-chair parlor seats 750 and sometimes feeds upward of 3,000 gullets a day.

Charcoal pits have replaced the coal chute, and the ribs are cooked for about two hours after being sprinkled with seasoning (or rub).

Order ribs here today, John Vergos says, and they should taste exactly the way they did 40 years ago. In fact, they might have been cooked by the same person -- the head chef has been at the restaurant for more than four decades. 

“So many people, when they cook ribs, they’re so obsessed with the sauce,” Vergos says. “They forget that you need to taste the meat, and you need to taste the smoke.”

52 South 2nd St., Memphis, Tenn.; +1 901 523 2746; www.hogsfly.com; from $14.75

2. New England clam chowder

Can’t go wrong at: Union Oyster House (Boston)

Clam ChowderWicked good.


Chowder is all over the map, both in terms of geography and appearance.

In New York, it’s red. In Rhode Island, it’s watery. But everywhere in New England, traditional clam chowder should have minced clams, onions and potatoes.

At the Union Oyster House -- which first opened its doors in 1826 -- a 150-liter kettle brews somewhere in the neighborhood of 200,000 cups and bowls of chowder every year.

Head chef William Coyne says you should be able to stick a spoon in your bowl and almost -- but not quite -- get it to stand up.

Coyne says people come to "America's oldest restaurant" for the history, the "chowda" and, of course, the oysters.

Depending on the tide, he says, the oysters on your plate could have been in the ocean seven or eight hours earlier.

“You’re not going to get any fresher than that, unless you go out yourself and get them,” says Coyne.

41 Union St., Boston, Mass.; +1 617 227 2750; www.unionoysterhouse.com; $7.95 for a bowl

3. Mac 'n' cheese

Can’t go wrong at: Ruth’s Diner (Salt Lake City)

It’s not just a side dish.

Macaroni and cheese continues to find its way into the entrée section of menus nationwide -- a trend that's inspired entire restaurants devoted to the dish, such as New York’s S’MAC.

At Ruth's, a 1940s trolley car that sits at the base of the 3,600-meter Wasatch Mountains, owners Erik and Tracy Nelson carry on the tradition of U.S. comfort food.

Their baked recipe combines four different cheeses, including a little cottage cheese, “to make it a little more moist," according to Erik.

For Ruth’s Gramma Claire’s macaroni and cheese recipe, click to page 2.

4160 Emigration Canyon Road, Salt Lake City; +1 801 852 5807; www.ruthsdiner.com; $11.99

4. Steak

Can’t go wrong at: Michael Symon’s Roast (Detroit)

SteakThe easiest or hardest thing to cook, depending on how you look at it.


Just about every U.S. city has its legendary steak place, but Michael Symon’s Roast in Detroit is the one that sizzles in our dreams.

The restaurant is located inside the Westin Book Cadillac Detroit hotel, but executive chef Andy Hollyday says don’t be intimidated by the valet or linen. Waiters here wear jeans and the loose, happy-hour vibe at the bar sets the tone for the restaurant.

Hollyday’s favorite is the 450-gram house-aged rib-eye, aged for three weeks, then grilled over hardwood charcoal and topped with a marinade of orange juice, balsamic vinegar, olive oil and roasted blue cheese.

1128 Washington Blvd., Detroit; +1 313 961 2500; www.roastdetroit.com; $34

Also on CNNGo: 10 classic American experiences 

5. Chili

Can’t go wrong at: Skyline Chili (Cincinnati, Ohio)

ChiliNew York has nothing on Cincinnati's gorgeous skyline.


Chili, as most U.S. residents know it, is a stew-like concoction of meat, spices and beans -- known in some places as a bowl o' red.

Real chili, if you're from Cincinnati -- where people eat more than 900,000 kilos of it annually, according to the Cincinnati USA Convention & Visitors Center -- doesn't have beans.

Cincinnati-style chili has a cult following with the kind of loyalty normally associated with pizza wars.

Popularized by Skyline, Cincinnati-style chili is thinner than most cook-off entries and the beans, which are optional, are treated as a condiment. It's sometimes served over noodles or a hot dog.

Trying a “three-way” means having the chili over a plate of spaghetti, topped with a mound of cheddar cheese.

Multiple locations in Cincinnati, as well as Ohio, Indiana, Kentucky and Florida; www.skylinechili.com; $5.29 (bowl of three-way chili)

6. Fried chicken

Can’t go wrong at: Mary Mac’s Tea Room (Atlanta)

Fried ChickenThe picture itself is comforting.


Fried chicken dates to the Middle Ages and beyond.

Mary Mac’s may not have invented the dish, but they've come close to perfecting it.

Restaurant partner Hank Johnson insists there’s no secret, other than brining the chicken quickly “with a little love dosed in on the side.”

“When you come to Mary Mac’s,” says Johnson, “we try to make you feel like you’re walking into someone’s house that you love.”

That means having the option of getting your back rubbed by the restaurant’s “goodwill ambassador,” Miss Jo, who floats around the six dining rooms offering her famous table-side massages.

224 Ponce De Leon Ave. N.E., Atlanta; +1 404 876 1800; www.marymacs.com; from $10.45

7. Jambalaya

Can’t go wrong at: Coop’s Place (New Orleans)

JambalayaCajun perfection.

Traditional Creole jambalaya calls for a mixture of celery, peppers and onions along with various kinds of meat.

There are plenty of options along the French Quarter in New Orleans. Our pick is the version served at Coop’s Place, a fixture on Decatur Street, which comes with boneless rabbit.

We’re also partial to the Jambalaya Supreme, which comes with shrimp, crawfish and smoked pork.

1109 Decatur St., New Orleans; +1 504 525 9053; www.coopsplace.net; $9.95

8. Cheeseburger and fries

Can’t go wrong at: Casper’s & Runyon’s Nook (St. Paul, Minnesota)

When co-owner Mike Runyon and lifelong friend Ted Casper acquired St. Paul’s legendary Nook bar in 2000, they brought in the former owner, Mickey Braunsen, who ran the place for 30 years, to teach them how to craft her famous burgers.

Part of the process involves seasoning the grill by cooking bacon and onions on it each morning. The Juicy Nookie burger, the duo’s answer to Minnesota’s signature “Juicy Lucy,” is a Black Angus burger with the cheese inside.

Runyon calls the effect, “an explosion of goodness.” Add vinegar-soaked fries, a 1919 Root Beer and drink in the nostalgia.

492 South Hamline Ave., St. Paul, Minn.; +1 651 698 4347; www.crnook.com; $8.75

9. Hot Dog

Can’t go wrong with: Pink’s (Los Angeles)

HotdogHmm ... the Martha Stewart dog or the Lord of the Rings dog ... decisions, decisions.


If there’s one food that symbolizes U.S. culture it’s the encased meat product served in a split roll and covered with any number of toppings including (though never in Chicago) ketchup.

A Hollywood institution, Pink’s has built its reputation on creative toppings and dogs that "snap" when you bite into them.

“We wanted to make the hot dog something you could think of as food with a much broader appeal than what you get at a ball game,” says Richard Pink, whose father started Pink's in 1939. “We wanted to say, ‘It’s a real meal on a bun.’”

On weekends, waits in line can last up to an hour.

Celebrities inevitably stop by. Some have been immortalized by having a dog named after their condiment preferences. The Martha Stewart Dog comes with relish, onion, bacon, chopped tomatoes, sauerkraut and sour cream.

709 N. La Brea Ave., Los Angeles; +1 323 931 4223; www.pinkshollywood.com; from $3.45

10. Pizza

Can’t go wrong at: Grimaldi’s (Brooklyn, New York)

PizzaThin or deep dish.


In the shadow of the Brooklyn Bridge, Grimaldi’s churns out coal-oven pizzas with handmade mozzarella, tomatoes imported from Italy and a secret-recipe dough.

Put it all together and you get reliably long lines out the door for what many have called New York’s best pizza.

A new location -- all of two blocks away from the original -- doubled its seating capacity. But the line remains.

Our suggestion: skip the crowd with a pie to go, and picnic on the nearby promenade. Browse the website for other locations around the country.

1 Front St., Brooklyn, N.Y.; +1 718 858 4300; www.grimaldis.com; from $12

Also on CNNGo: World's 50 most delicious foods

Click to next page for Gramma Claire's mac-and-cheese recipe from Ruth's Diner in Salt Lake City

Gramma Claire’s Macaroni and Cheese

From: Ruth’s Cookbook, Ruth Diner, Salt Lake City

3 cups uncooked macaroni noodles

2 ½ cups grated cheddar cheese and  2 ½ cups grated Monterey jack cheese, mixed together

1 cup cottage cheese

¼ cup melted butter

1 cup diced onion

¼ cup flour

3 cups milk

2 bay leaves

1 tbsp paprika

2 tsp salt

1 tsp pepper

Cook macaroni, drain, do not rinse. Sauté onions in butter, add flour to make a roux. Cook one minute.

Add to onion roux:

Milk and the spices, bring to simmer, stirring often and add 3 cups of cheese mixture and cottage cheese.

Stir well, remove from heat and remove bay leaves from mixture.

Add macaroni noodles to milk mixture, mix well.

Pour ½ of macaroni mixture into a 2-quart baking dish, cover with ½ of the remaining grated cheese, add remaining macaroni mixture and cover with the remaining grated cheese mixture.

In small bowl mix:

¼ cup melted butter and 1 ¼ cup of bread crumbs.

Top macaroni with bread crumbs and bake at 350 degrees until golden brown, about 45 minutes.

Also on CNNGo: Your pick: World's 50 most delicious foods 

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