A guide to American food
Parents and kids alike tend to love the food on family holidays in the USA. There are huge portions for hungry teens, all manner of sweet delights for youngsters and excellent healthy eating and vegetarian options for calorie-conscious parents.
Here are a few of our favourite USA foodie highlights to get your mouth watering:
The west coast
With its sparkling coastline, flappingly fresh seafood features on many menus in the west coast states of Oregon, Washington and California. Make sure to try cioppino, a briny stew packed with crab, clams, prawns and whitefish. Artisan bread is ideal for mopping up the juices and a real favourite is sourdough, which was popular with miners during the Gold Rush. Head to Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco and you’ll be spoilt for choice with steaming chowders, served in a golden carved bread loaf.
The Mexican influence is strong in this part of the US too. Kids will love the finger food like burritos, tostadas and tacos. Though Texans will swear they invented it, this is also burger country. Yes, the first McDonald’s opened in 1953 in Downey California. But it’s not fast food we’re talking here. You’ll find gourmet burgers with all kinds of trimmings in hip cities like San Francisco and Los Angeles. Veggies and vegans will love the meat-free options, the sparkling salads and zingy smoothies. Of course, California is one of the world’s best wine producers too, so if you like a tipple, you’ll be spoilt for choice.
Sweet tooth? Try this
It doesn’t get more Willy Wonka than a tour at Dandelion Chocolate Factory in San Francisco. Head here to learn all about the art of chocolate-making from bean to bar (and sample some chocolate along the way). It would be rude not to.
The Midwest was settled by communities from all over the place but the influences of Eastern Europe and Germany are particularly strong here. So you’ll find all sorts of interesting pies and sausages, heaps of hot dogs and bratwursts along with pasties and delicious pierogis – a kind of stuffed dumpling. There are spectacular artisan cheeses to try and you’ll often find them on top of pizza. Chicago Pizza is not like anything you’ll find in Italy. It’s deep dish, super cheesy, and like a pie. Chicago is also the place to try truly great hot dogs slathered in pickles, onions and peppers. Fancy something to wash it all down with? You’re in a great place for beer. There are microbreweries turning out all sorts of zesty brews, just perfect for quaffing.
Did you know?
You’ll be spoilt for choice for food in Las Vegas. It’s home to a whole host of mouthwatering dishes, from shrimp cocktail, chicken wings, onion rings, and sushi, to paella, prime rib, hamburgers & chateaubriand (tenderloin steak).
Arizona, Texas and New Mexico
If you’re a meat-eater you’ll love the food in the USA and few places do it like Texas. Here the steaks come in one size: huge. Barbecue is a serious business across the country and different states do it in different ways. And everyone obviously argues that theirs is best. In Texas, you can feast on juicy ribs, pulled pork, slow-cooked brisket and more. Cuts are rubbed with herbs and spices to add extra layers of smoky flavour. In these states bordering Mexico, the Mexican influence is unsurprisingly strong. Along with usual favourites like burritos, enchiladas and chillis, look out for posole – a hearty stew of corn, pork and (of course) red and green chillis. See if you can find any sopapillas too. These little parcels of deep-fried dough come stuffed with beans, rice, and meat and are smothered in cheese.
The Deep South
Southern American cooking is often called soul food and it’s certainly heartwarming stuff. It reaches its lip-smacking climax in Deep South states like Mississippi and Louisiana. Creole and Cajun food blend all kinds of influences – in particular, French and West Indian – to offer comforting, spicy dishes packed with flavours. Famous dishes to try in places like New Orleans include gumbo – a thick soup of seafood, chicken and okra and jambalaya – a kind of paella packed with similar ingredients.
In Florida, the foodie influence is the Caribbean. They even have a name for it: Floribbean! Jerk chicken, rice and chicken and roasted pork are a few favourites. Make sure to save room for a slice of creamy, tangy key lime pie, Florida’s most famous dessert. One dish that might surprise you is a biscuit. In the US, a biscuit is a soft doughy roundel that looks like a scone and is savoury, not sweet. They’re particularly popular in the south and usually eaten for breakfast. Typically they’re served with a gloopy white gravy made from sausage dripping, flour and milk with bits of bacon and sausage added in. They’re definitely an acquired taste.
The east coast
Ever heard the phrase ‘as American as apple pie‘? Packed with tangy apples, topped with flaky pastry and with a side of vanilla ice cream, it’s eaten all over the country. But if there’s a place to try apple pie, it’s Vermont, as it’s the official state pie. Seafood is also fantastic right down the east coast. Blue crab is a must-try if you’re around Chesapeake Bay, close to Washington DC. They’re simply boiled or steamed, and then you tuck on in. In the far north, Maine is famous for its juicy lobster rolls, while any visit to Boston should involve sampling the creamy delights of clam chowder.
Further south in places like New York, chowder’s made with tomatoes rather than cream and equally tasty. Clam cakes – little doughnuts with chopped clams inside – are often served alongside. The Big Apple is, of course, famous for bagels stuffed with just about anything you can think of, but pastrami and cream cheese are two big favourites. And if you make it a little further south to Philadelphia the dish to try is Philly cheesesteak – sandwiches made with thinly sliced beef and topped with melted cheese.
Finally, have you ever heard of grits? It’s a kind of boiled cornmeal porridge that originates from native Indian recipes. It’s often eaten at breakfast with ham, eggs and bacon or even fried catfish. You find it all over the USA but its Georgia and South Carolina where it’s most popular.
How much can I expect to pay for food & drinks?
You can expect to pay between $15-$20 per dish for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, per person.
Depending on your preferences, you can expect to spend in the region of $15-20 per meal, per person. Cheaper breakfasts can be found in local bakeries for around $10.
Tipping & tax
Tax isn’t included in any advertised prices, and in California, a sales tax of 7.5% is added to all the food by the time the bill comes. It isn’t as high in other states; around 3 or 4%. Tipping is part of the culture in the US and is considered unnegotiable unless you’ve had a terrible meal. On every bill you receive, you’ll have the option to tip 15%, 18% or 20%, and in higher-end places, they recommend leaving 18%, 20% or 25% tip.
Tips for vegans and vegetarians
Let’s face it, being a meat-loving nation, America isn’t exactly famous for its vegan and vegetarian offerings. But there are plenty of great options available if you do a little pre-planning – especially in major cities. San Diego has a growing veggie and vegan food scene, with plenty of juice and smoothie bars, as well as a weekly farmers’ markets to peruse. Unsurprisingly, image-conscious LA is also home to a host of healthy-eating joints. And is it any wonder that San Francisco – being a progressive city – is well on its way to becoming Happy Cow’s top vegan city?
We recommend: Wholesome Bakery, San Francisco, for a tasty choice of dairy-free cakes.
So forget fast food and soda. American cuisine is packed with variety, cultural influences and top-notch flavours. For many travellers, it’s a surprising highlight of their USA holiday.
If you’re hungry for more USA travel tips, head to our travel guide below.