Best Regional American Food Quirks
Across the U.S., you'll find amazing dishes that have remained proudly regional, never really taking off outside their specific geographic area.
Never tried an ice-cream potato? That's probably because you're not from Boise, Idaho. Not sure what King Cake is? You've likely never been to New Orleans. Think putting peanuts in a Coke can is just-plain weird? Then you're clearly not from the South.
We've rounded up 20 examples of American regional foods and preparation styles that are totally unique to where they're from — and absolutely worth trying.
Atomic Cake in the Southside of Chicago
The Southside of Chicago is home to this unique dessert that’s actually not a single cake at all, but three different cakes stacked on top of each other, each of a different flavor.
"You start with a layer of banana cake topped with a banana filling, with Bavarian cream custard and fresh sliced bananas," Calumet Bakery owner Kerry Moore told “The Chicago Tribune." "Then you put on a layer of yellow cake topped with a strawberry filling, with fresh-sliced strawberries in glaze and strawberry cream. Then you put on a layer of chocolate cake with fudge on top. You ice it up, more times than not with whipped cream, but some people like buttercream, and that's it."
Though this layer cake has been found on Chicago’s Southside since the 1950s, Calumet Bakery is the most famous place to indulge in a slice of it.
Beef on Weck in Buffalo, New York
Buffalo, New York may be best known for its wings, but it’s also home to another, far more local food: beef on weck.
According to Visit Buffalo-Niagara, the famous sandwich doesn’t have a definitive origin story, but most likely can be traced back to either a food stand at the 1901 Pan American Exposition or a German immigrant.
If you’ve never come across one before, beef on weck is a carved roast beef sandwich served on a salty kimmelweck roll. If you’re heading to the Nickel City, make your way Bar Bill Tavern, Schwabl’s, Charlie the Butcher’s Kitchen, Swiston’s Beef & Keg or Ulrich’s Tavern to sink your teeth into this tasty sammy.
Dare we say it may even be better than Buffalo wings?
Sonoran Hot Dog in Tucson, Arizona
There are a lot of regional twists on the classic hot dog, but arguably the best can be found in Tucson, Arizona, in the Sonoran Desert.
According to Cindy Aguilar, a representative for Visit Tucson, the Sonoran hot dog consists of a bacon-wrapped frank, stuffed in a bolillo bun (a type of savory bread traditionally made in Mexico), smothered with beans, onions, mustard, jalapeño sauce and topped off with mayonnaise.
This isn’t your average hot dog: The city’s very own El Guero Canelo is a James Beard Award winner for the Tucson classic.
Apple Stack Cake in Appalachia
Back in the day at Appalachian weddings, neighbors would each bring a layer of cake to the bride’s family. The layers would then be spread with apple filling and stacked on top of each other.
Just like that, a traditional Appalachian favorite was born.
This beloved cake can be made year-round, thanks to the fact that it uses dried apples, instead of fresh ones. And it has a special local element that makes it particularly sublime — the apple filling is sweetened with sorghum molasses between each layer. The cake also needs to sit at least two days to cure, allowing the moisture from the stew-like filling to permeate the whole thing.
Typically, there are at least five layers, but the sky’s the limit.
Slippery Pot Pie in Pennsylvania Dutch Country
If you happen to visit the Juniata River Valley in Central Pennsylvania’s Dutch country, you’re going to want to try some slippery pot pie. Unlike other pot pies, this kind does not include a crust.
According to Buffie Boyer, a representative from the Juniata River Valley Visitors Bureau, doughy square noodles are cooked with meat broth and chunks of either chicken, beef or ham, with potatoes occasionally added for good measure. This traditional Amish stew is especially popular during deer-hunting season in the fall.
Tartar Sauce on Everything in Spokane, Washington
Sure, you can find tartar sauce at most seafood restaurants around the country, but in Spokane, Washington, locals put the condiment on everything, including not only fish, but burgers and fries.
“I’ve never seen anything like it in any other part of America,” Kate Hudson, a representative for Visit Spokane, told “Far & Wide.” “The sauce is downright revered. Order a burger and French fries at any Spokane restaurant and you’re sure to get tartar sauce with it, whether you want it or not. It’s a quirk here in this part of the Pacific Northwest.”
Local restaurant chain Zip’s Drive-In alone makes 40 gallons of fresh tartar sauce every week!
Ice Cream Potato in Boise, Idaho
This odd-yet-tasty creation hails from the Westside Drive-in in Boise, Idaho. It looks like a regular baked potato with ice cream on top (horrifying) but is actually a potato-shaped ball of vanilla ice cream dusted in cocoa powder, then topped with Oreos, whipped cream and diced peanuts (delicious).
According to a representative from Visit Southwest Idaho, the inventor, Chef Lou Aaron, has been perfecting his recipe for the ice cream potato for 40 years.
"We could do a movie on how many times people have mistaken this for a baked potato," Aaron told TODAY Food. "They can't believe we're putting ice cream into a potato! They think it's disgusting until they start eating it."
Ballpark Mustard in Cleveland, Ohio
Putting mustard on a hot dog isn’t anything new or special, but in Cleveland, the mustard of choice isn’t your typical yellow variety: It’s a vinegar-based brown condiment.
Though you can get ballpark mustard — also known as “stadium mustard” — anywhere in the Cleveland area, not surprisingly, it’s associated most closely with the city’s baseball venues, where it’s been served since the 1930s. And like baseball, this mustard comes with a rivalry between two brands: Bertman Original Ball Park Mustard and Stadium Mustard (hence the two names). Ask a Clevelander to pick their favorite, and get ready for an impassioned response.
Either way, this mustard is delicious, elevating not only hot dogs, but burgers, sausages and even grilled-cheese sandwiches.
Garbage Plates in Rochester, New York
Though it may not sound like the most appetizing dish, the garbage plate is a Rochester, New York delicacy that’s not to be missed.
According to Visit Rochester, the term “garbage plate” is trademarked by Nick Tahous, home of the original, and you can find the dish in restaurants and bars all over the city.
A traditional garbage plate consists of your choice of cheeseburger, hamburger, Italian sausages, steak, chicken, and white or red hots (a local Rochester hot dog), served on top of any combination of home fries, french fries, baked beans and/or macaroni salad. The whole thing is then usually then topped with Rochester hot sauce — a spicy meat sauce. You can also add a “heartburn garnish” of mustard and onions. Oh, and it’s usually served with a side of buttered bread as well.
Healthy? No. Delicious? What do you think?
Kolache in Texas
Texas may not be the place that comes to mind when you think of traditional Eastern European pastries, but that’s what you get with the kolache.
If you’ve never encountered (or even heard of) a kolache before, basically, it’s like a yeasty, soft doughy vehicle for your favorite sweet or savory fillings, including fruit jams, sausage, cheese and jalapeños. Unsurprisingly, the pastries were brought to Texas — as well as parts of the Midwest — by Czech immigrants in the late 19th century, according to Saveur.
These days you can get them stuffed with other non-traditional fillings, like chorizo or other Tex-Mex flavors, too.
Peanuts in Coke in the Southern U.S.
Tipping a packet of peanuts into a can, bottle or glass of Coca Cola might sound like a mistake, but it actually makes for a popular snack in the southern parts of the country.
According to the National Peanut Federation, this sweet and salty invention probably dates back to the 1920s, when packaged, shelled peanuts became widely available. Food historian and author Rick McDaniel speculates that workers with dirty hands and nowhere to wash up may have started this practice by pouring their salted peanuts into their bottles of Coke.
According to an article in “Esquire,” just don’t try this with Diet Coke: Because it’s not sweetened with sugar, it doesn’t mix as well with the salt of the nuts.
Ranch Dressing on Everything in the Midwest
Of course, you can find ranch dressing anywhere in America; in fact, 40 percent of Americans rank it as their favorite dressing, according to a 2017 study by the Association for Dressings and Sauces.
But despite its widespread popularity as something to put on a salad, veggies or wings, ranch is used as an all-purpose condiment in the Midwest. Here, locals can be found drizzling it on pizza, fries, potato chips, onion rings, you name it.
For a better idea of how pervasive the flavor has become, look no further than Twisted Ranch, a restaurant in St. Louis that serves, yes, 31 different ranch dressings.
Geoducks in Olympia, Washington
Geoducks (pronounced “gooey-ducks”) are a type of mollusk closely related to mussels or clams that are found in mudflats in the states of Washington, Oregon and Alaska. They’re most closely associated with the city of Olympia, Washington, where most are harvested.
Not only is this creature really strange-looking, it also has a unique taste: sweet, crunchy, but still with distinctive shellfish flavors. The geoduck is also much larger than most shellfish, weighing in at around two pounds.
According to Eater, geoducks cost around $20-30 per pound, making them, pound-for-pound, three times more expensive than foie gras.
Frogmore Stew in the Lowcountry
Practically every town in the Lowcountry — the giant marsh extending from the northern part of Florida’s Atlantic coast to Charleston, South Carolina — has its own version of a Lowcountry boil. This one-pot dish usually contains some mixture of sausage, shrimp, sometimes blue or stone crab, potatoes and corn.
In Charleston, a Lowcountry boil is also referred to as Beaufort stew, or more commonly, Frogmore stew. This take on the Southern classic is drained from its cooking liquid and traditionally served on a table covered in newspaper.
Though it’s a traditionally working-class dish, frogmore stew can be found at some high-end restaurants in the south as well.
Booyah Stew in Wisconsin
If you find yourself in Wisconsin — specifically Door County — you may be offered some booyah stew. But don’t be thrown off by the funny-sounding name: This regional favorite is known for being hearty and delicious.
Like many traditional soups and stews, there’s no official recipe for booyah stew, but it’s a slow-cooked one-pot meal of different meats and vegetables, and always includes chicken.
According to the “Milwaukee Journal Sentinel,” the dish can be traced to the migration of Walloons — French-speaking Belgians — during the mid-1800s. It is typically made in giant batches and frequently sold as part of a fundraiser for churches and nonprofits, where giant ice-cream buckets of the stew go for around 20 bucks.
Taylor Ham in New Jersey
There are a lot of great pork products in the U.S., but in New Jersey, one in particular reigns supreme.
Taylor ham is a processed, smoked specialty made with a mixture of spices that is packaged in a tube of casing. The item hit the market in 1856 as "Taylor's Prepared Ham,” but had to change its name after the passage of the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906 because it did not meet the legal definition of ham.
At that point it became, officially, “pork roll” — but the original ham moniker has stuck around.
Goetta in Cincinnati, Ohio
Another city, another pork product. This time it’s Cincinnati — also known as Porkopolis — and the food is goetta.
The idea behind goetta (pronounced like “feta”) is to make the pork (usually the offal or other parts that might otherwise be thrown away) stretch as far as possible by cutting it with grain — specifically, steel-cut oats.
Goetta comes sold in a large sausage loaf shape, and to prepare it, you slice it up and fry it on both sides until it’s crispy. Today it’s served in the Cincinnati area as a breakfast meat, sometimes paired with a dollop of applesauce.
Marionberry Pie in Oregon
Blackberries are delicious, but also pretty common. Marionberries, though, are only found in Oregon.
A cross between Chehalem and Olallie blackberries, marionberries were first bred at Oregon State University as part of a berry-developing partnership with the U.S. Department of Agriculture in the early 1900s, NPR reports. They’re somehow simultaneously tart, sweet and a little savory — and yes, they make for an excellent pie. Plus, given how soft marionberries are, they are unable to be safely shipped out of the area, making them the ultimate regional food.
Marionberry pie is so locally popular that there is a resolution to make it the official state pie of Oregon. We approve.
King Cake in New Orleans
Though king cake is most closely associated with Mardi Gras, it was actually created to celebrate the Feast of the Epiphany on January 6 — when Catholics believe the three wise men visited baby Jesus. Today, it’s available in New Orleans starting at the beginning of the year and remains popular for the next few weeks, leading up to and during Mardi Gras, before the season of Lent.
King cake is a circular sweet pastry that’s a cross between cake and bread twisted into a ring, usually topped with colored frosting and sprinkles. Most New Orleans king cakes also have some sort of trinket — usually in the form of a small plastic baby — baked into them.
According to tradition, whoever gets the baby in their piece of cake gets to be “king for a day.”
Rocky Mountain Oysters in Colorado
Let’s get this out there right away: Rocky Mountain oysters are not, in fact, oysters (or seafood of any kind). They are bull testicles, breaded and deep-fried — and they’re a Colorado special. “The oysters come from a necessary process in the cattle industry, as castrating bulls is important for controlling the bovine population as well as curbing aggressive behavior,” Gastro Obscura reports.
Though they’re most closely associated with Colorado, you can find Rocky Mountain oysters in other parts of the west, as well as in Canada, where they’re called “prairie oysters.”