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Issue Date: May 20, 2007

Also this week:
Mystery travel

SUMMER
TRAVEL
REPORT

Top 10 places to eat classic American chow

Cover: Summer Travel
More travel reports:
10 Places to Eat Take in the flavors of the nation.
10 Best out-of-the way Spots We take you off the beaten path.
America the diverse Places that celebrate our nation's many faces.
Top 10 places to have fun The classic summer prerogative -- good, old-fashioned fun.
10 Most Beautiful Places in America A nation blessed with sights -- natural and man-made.
America's 10 Best Historic Landmarks Defining moments and places in the evolution of our democracy.
10 Must-See sites: Understanding of what it means to be American.

You've survived the rigors of travel. Interstate traffic, back-seat turf wars, the cattle call of airport security and the hotel check-in all are receding in the rearview mirror. The suitcases are safely in your room, the kids momentarily placated. You have arrived. Now comes the hard part: navigating the minefield of dining while away from home. Where to eat? Potentially even trickier, what to eat?

Such questions were foremost in our minds as we planned this year's summer travel issue. As usual, we called upon a host of seasoned experts for guidance, and a theme quickly emerged. The way to eat well when on the road, all agreed, is to home in on the dishes that give a particular place its unique flavor. Informed by geography, ethnic heritage, and farming and fishing traditions, our great country's regional cooking offers an endless buffet of great, local specialties: Chicago pizza, low-country shrimp and grits, Philly cheesesteak, Cincinnati chili, Georgia peach cobbler -- the delectable list goes on. To include everything would require a menu as thick as a phone book. So we had to whittle down our culinary tour of America to just 10 terrific places, presented here from east to west, and the 10 iconic, mouthwatering foods to tuck into while visiting.

Happy trails ... and bon appétit.

Wiscasset, Maine

Along the dramatic Maine coastline, the lobster roll is the great sandwich specialty.
The state of Maine has achieved a perfect union of road and food. The road is coastal Route 1. The food is the lobster roll. From Kittery to Camden, a steady succession of harbor-front lobster shacks, family restaurants and polished bistros tantalize passersby with Vacationland's great specialty sandwich. Presentation varies, but the basics are non-negotiable. A true Maine lobster roll consists of succulent chunks of fresh lobster mounded atop a grilled, flat-sided hot-dog bun. In a pinch, a dab of mayonnaise may bind the whole thing together. (Excessive mayo invites other additions, such as chopped celery. This results in lobster salad. Although delicious, lobster salad has no place in an authentic lobster roll.) Drawn butter may be drizzled over the top of the steamed meat. Fries, onion rings or coleslaw are acceptable as sides. Lucky is the gastronome who has tucked into every establishment along the Lobster Roll Highway. Lacking time for a comprehensive study, visitors should head directlyto Red's Eats in the midcoast village of Wiscasset. Served out of a trailer moored by the side of Route 1, Red's rolls consistently win votes as Maine's best. The secret very well may lie in the treatment of condiments: mayo and melted butter are available, but strictly on the side.

Lexington, N.C.

The Piedmont's barbecue is distinguished by the addition of tomato.
Twenty thousand residents. More than 20 different barbecue restaurants. This tidy little ratio says a lot about Lexington, N.C., World Capital of Barbecue. As aficionados know, in North Carolina, barbecue means slow-roasted pork that's dressed with a vinegar-based sauce. Generally, the meat is chopped or "pulled" and served on a bun. If you want beef brisket, try Kansas City. In the eastern part of North Carolina, pit masters cook the whole hog, but not in Lexington. Here, in the Piedmont, they single out the pork shoulder, a particularly rich cut. The local recipe is further distinguished by the addition of tomato to the sauce. So much for BBQ 101. But the true test is in the taste, and in genuine Lexington style, the pork is served with slaw and a side of hush puppies, and it's moist, smoky and melt-in-your-mouth good. More than 100,000 faithful testify to that every fall at the city's legendary Barbecue Festival. But why wait to satisfy a craving? Lexington's pits are always smoking.

Milwaukee

Summer brings the scent of grilling bratwurst.
The warm summer weather ushers in a mind-blowing array of fairs to Milwaukee, all of them offering good eats: German Fest, Irish Fest, Polish Fest and the Big Gig -- Summerfest, which is Guinness book-certified as the largest outdoor musical festival in the world (11 days, 11 stages, hundreds of bands, up to 1 million guests). But what really puts the sizzle in the city's summeris bratwurst. Two of the top brat makers, Klement's Sausage Company and Usinger's, call the city home, as do countless connoisseurs of the plump German pork-and-veal (and sometimes all-pork) sausage. In the warm months, natives grill the seasoned links at fairs, picnics and barbecues. Purists can debate endlessly on how to properly serve them: alone on a long, chewy bun or doubled-up on round, crusty semmel roll; with or without chopped onions; slathered in spicy brown mustard (never plain yellow). Out-of-staters are free to overlook the finer points of protocol and get down to the real business of brats -- eating them.

Lancaster, Pa.

When visiting Pennsylvania's Amish country, save room for some rich, gooey shoofly pie.
The Dutch country of southeastern Pennsylvania holds many charms -- restful inns, antiques markets, horse-and-buggy rides along quiet lanes -- but chief among them for sweet-toothed visitors has to be shoofly pie. A staple of farm-kitchens and bakeries throughout the region, this singular contribution of 18th-century German Amish and Mennonite settlers to America's dessert cart is almost beyond classification. You might call it a dense coffeecake with a foundation of gooey molasses built in a pie crust. Or, you might just call it heavenly, especially when it's served warm and topped with some fresh whipped cream. Originally baked in outdoor ovens, the confection attracted flies as it cooled, hence the name. Today, the dessert attracts pie-eyed devotion. The most committed fans belly up to Lancaster's annual shoofly pie bake-off and eating contest, to be held on June 23 this year.

New Orleans

In the Big Easy, no two gumbos are alike.
No gumbo cook in Louisiana (and everyone in Louisiana is a gumbo cook) would dream of divulging his secret recipe for this zestiest of stews. In broad outline, however, the steps are well-known. Take several distinct ethnic cultures with a shared love of food, add a combination of fresh local ingredients, sprinkle with an assortment of seasonings, and simmer in a cultural melting pot for a couple of centuries. The result is gumbo, a stew as unique and flavorful as the city of New Orleans. Gumbo's history began with the French Acadians, who arrived in southwest Louisiana from Nova Scotia in the 1750s. With help from local Choctaws, the Cajuns, as the settlers came to be known, learned to thicken their homegrown stews with ground sassafras leaves. But in and around New Orleans, Creoles (those who are of mixed French, African, Spanish and Native American ancestry) whipped up stews of their own. They thickened theirs with okra, a vegetable introduced to the New World by African slaves who called it kimgombo. Today, gumbo can be made either way, with dried sassafras or okra. Both versions start with roux (flour browned in fat) and typically include celery, onions and green peppers. Beyond that, gumbo is a bit like Bourbon Street: Almost anything goes. Crawfish, crab, shrimp, oysters, sausage, chicken and duck all are welcome -- the idea being that no two gumbos are identical. Put the theory to the test at historic N'awlins restaurants like Commander's Palace and Brigtsen's as well as neighborhood spots like Dooky Chase's.

Blackfoot, Idaho

The Idaho Potato Museum celebrates the spud's unique place in the state's history.
Champagne has its sparkling wines, Florida has its oranges, but perhaps nowhere on Earth is one place more closely associated with a particular agricultural product than Idaho, home of the famously flaky potato. The versatile spud, source of french fries, barbecue chips and everybody's favorite Thanksgiving side dish, mashed potatoes, gets its due at the Idaho Potato Museum in Blackfoot. Appropriately housed in a 1913 stone railroad depot (railways helped Idaho's potatoes dominate dining tables across the land), the unique museum celebrates potato history, growing techniques and trivia. (Idaho's first potato was planted back in 1837 by a Presbyterian missionary named Henry Spalding.) The butter-topped baked potato sculpture out front alone is worth the trip, but savvy travelers will time their visit to coincide with the Eastern Idaho State Fair. The historic gathering runs Sept. 1-8 this year, bringing horse racing, livestock shows, motocross and midway attractions to Blackfoot. Blue ribbons are awarded in a host of hotly contested agricultural divisions, including, naturally, the best and biggest potatoes.

San Antonio

Warm, spicy tamales are not to be missed in the city of the Alamo.
Some 20 million visitors drop in on San Antonio every year. They check out the Alamo, revel on the River Walk, and, if they're smart, they scarf down a few tamales. Traditionally a homemade holiday food, the stuffed and steamed cornmeal dough treats -- pre-Columbian America's version of dim sum -- are as much a signature of the city's vibrant Hispanic culture as Tejano music and Cinco de Mayo celebrations. Made with a wide variety of fillings (beef, chicken, pork, beans, cheese, and red and green chilies), warm, spicy tamales are prepared by vendors and cantinas citywide. For a true down-home taste sensation, insiders say, head over to either of the city's two close-knit Mexican neighborhoods, the West Side and the South Side. Scour the windows of the mom-and-pop bakeries and markets for hand-lettered, bilingual signs proclaiming the presence inside of homemade tamales. When you spot one, go in and order as many as you can carry.

Los Angeles

The California roll, featuring avocado, crabmeat and cucumber, was first added to the sushi repertoire in 1970s L.A.
In Los Angeles during the 1970s, pre-eminent sushi chef Ichiro Mashita invented the California roll, the avocado, crabmeat and cucumber sushi-bar staple. The rice-side-out California roll, which is fresh, tasty and shrewdly devoid of raw fish, made the erstwhile Japanese curiosity safe for the then-unadventurous American palate. Having established a beachhead in Southern California, the Golden State's namesake roll then made like the Hula-Hoop, skateboarding and countless other California inventions before it: It swept across the rest of the country like a Pacific wave, popularizing more exotic forms of sushi along the way. Visitors to Los Angeles will want to check out Little Tokyo in downtown L.A., the 67-acre district that remains a Japanese-American cultural hub. But any definitive search for the city's best sushi must follow a course that's as broad as the Japanese diaspora in California. Exquisite offerings are available up and down the coast, from celebrity chef-owned hot spots in Beverly Hills to jealously guarded neighborhood haunts in the San Fernando Valley. Any one of them will set you up with a California roll -- and a whole lot more -- of course, if you're willing.

Tucson

Indian fry bread is a Southwest tasty treat courtesy of the Navajo.
Justly famous for its Sonoran Mexican cuisine, Tucson is known for a prized taste treat that is actually a purely homegrown confection. According to lore, Indian fry bread was born of necessity in the mid-19th century, when 9,000 Navajos were confined by the U.S. Army at Fort Sumner in New Mexico. But making the most of meager rations of wheat flour and lard, they invented a chewy, deep-fried bread that quickly became a staple of Southwestern cooking. Sweetened with honey or eaten plain, the delectable puffs are an important symbol of tribal unity today. Ubiquitous at powwows, fairs and roadside stands across Arizona, they're even served by Native American vendors at one of Tucson's other great attractions, the stunning 18th-century San Xavier del Bac Mission in the Santa Cruz Valley (pictured above). For a contemporary twist on a classic, try a Navajo taco: a Frisbee-sized circle of Indian fry bread topped with ground meat, beans, chopped onion and lettuce, tomato, green chilies and shredded cheese. A culinary fusion of modern Arizona's rich ethnic heritage, it's the official state dish.

San Francisco

Italian immigrants made cioppino the Bay Area's answer to bouillabaisse.
Folk etymology contends that cioppino, San Francisco's rich fish stew, originated in the early 1900s on the city's waterfront, where Italian immigrant fishermen urged their compatriots to "chip-in-o" bit of their day's catch to a bubbling communal soup pot. Food historians think it's more likely that the name derives from ciuppin, a type of fish stew native to the Italian port city of Genoa. Whatever the case, San Francisco's answer to bouillabaisse is as emblematic of the great city as the wharves where it was born, a seductive tomato-and-wine broth studded with clams, shrimps, scallops, mussels and chunks of fish. In restaurants high and low, the Bay Area's seafood soul food is doled out by the steaming bowlful, usually accompanied by a pair of crab crackers for opening shells and preferably with a bib. Along with dizzying vistas, colorful neighborhoods and romantic fogs, it's just one more way San Francisco has of stealing your heart.

Cover photograph by Franz-Marc Frei, Corbis


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