When I'm visiting a city or state for the first time, I try my darnedest to sample as much of the local cuisine as I can. In South Carolina, I'll find myself scouring the backroads for the sketchy little stands peddling boiled peanuts. If I'm in Green Bay, I head to a sports bar and order-up a basket of cheese curds.
There's just something liberating about forgoing the familiar and noshing like a local.
With that in mind, I started thinking, "What places are directly identified by foods?" Well, the more I researched, the more complicated it became. After all, how many cities can claim pizza or hotdogs? Back to the cutting board it was.
At lunch, I had an epiphany: Sandwiches!
That distinctly American delicacy comes in many different shapes, sizes and flavors. Sometimes they're born of convenience, sometimes necessity. Sometimes they're imported, sometimes homegrown. Best of all, from region to region, there're always strong opinions about whose sandwich is best.
So, without further ado, munch on these ...
New Orleans » Po' Boy
One of two Crescent City entries on my list, the po' boy is deliciously basic. A crispy Louisiana-style baguette sliced, spread with mustard, then piled high with fried calamari, oysters, shrimp or even catfish. Other versions involve ham, sausage, turkey, roast beef, and "debris." In NOLA, opportunities for good po' boys abound, but for a place that's tried and true, turn to Mother's on Poydras.
Insider tip A "dressed" po' boy comes with shredded cabbage, tomatoes, pickles, mayo, plain yellow mustard and spicy Creole mustard. Debris refers to all the tasty pieces of roast beef that fall into the gravy while cooking.
New Haven, CT » Original Burger
Simplicity defines The Original. No bacon. No crumbled bleu cheese. No special sauce. Lean, freshly ground beef prepared on vertical grills then slapped between two golden pieces of toast. That's it. It seems like every town has a place that serves the "best burger," but only Louis' Lunch in New Haven can say they've been doing it since Teddy Roosevelt was elected.
Insider tip Avoid asking for ketchup, mustard or any other condiment. Doing so risks offending the cooks, their grandparents and New Haven in general. Just so you know: the only acceptable garnishes are cheese, tomato and onion.
The pulled pork premise is genius: hickory smoke a pork shoulder until it's tender enough to be pulled apart by hand and served on a plain white bun. The "rub" lies in what's used to flavor the meat. In the Carolinas, there two main schools: vinegar or mustard. For vinegar-based, Eastern North Carolina-style barbecue, try Bubba's BBQ in Charlotte. In South Carolina, Maurice's in Columbia is famed for its mustard-based recipe, Piggy Park and controversial use of the Confederate flag.
Insider tip This is a religious issue for most people. Every region of the US has a style of barbecue they swear is best. I know. But in my defense, not all types of 'cue lend themselves to two pieces of bread quite like pulled pork.
Philadelphia » Cheese Steak
More Philly than the Liberty Bell, the Phillies or even Rocky Balboa, this sandwich was invented by Pat Olivieri in 1930. The core recipe calls for thin-sliced top round, fried onions and hoagie rolls. The cheese depends on your taste: American, provolone or Cheese Whiz. As for where to get one, that's easy: Delessandro's Steaks in Roxborough. Wait. I meant Geno's on South 9th. Sigh. Actually, try both. Then head to Pat's in South Philly, the self-proclaimed "King of Steaks." Who gets your vote?
Insider tip At Geno's, things move fast and counter intelligence is a must. At the first window, place your order, including cheese preference and whether or not you want onions. Pay, get your sandwich and move to the next window for fries and drink.
Louisiana » Muffuletta
For starters, this is a big one. Homemade Sicilian "cleft in twain," layered with finely cut slices of Italian ham, salami and cheeses, and topped off with chopped olive salad. Most associate the muffuletta with the French Quarter's Central Grocery. In other news, folks in nearby Shreveport are sure proud of their "muffy," which uses the same type of bread but mustard instead of olive oil, American cold cuts en lieu of Italian deli meats, and a "special" olive salad recipe. Find them at historic Fertitta's Delicatessen.
Insider tip Folks down in Louisiana know what they're doing when they make the olive salad. Everybody else is a rookie. Seriously.
Chicago » Italian Beef
Like the others, delish but not very salubrious. Chicago-style "Italian bread" is a chewy white loaf sliced lengthwise and filled with sirloin that's been roasted, sliced and seasoned with spices like garlic and oregano. Toppers include sautéed onions and bell peppers or a spicy pepper mix called giardineira. The sandwich was born as curbside fare in the Windy City's Little Italy neighborhood, and that's where the best ones can be found to this day. Just follow your nose to Al's #1 on West Taylor.
Insider tip This can be a sloppy one. The sandwiches are served dripping wet, and you'll quickly appreciate the chewy bread and the paper they're wrapped in. And napkins. Get plenty of napkins.
Pittsburgh » Primanti's Sandwich
The Steel City's one, true home-grown celeb, the Almost Famous Sandwich was born in the 30s when Lou, Dick and Stanley Primanti decided the Strip District's nightshifters needed hearty eats just like their daytime counterparts. To make things easier for their customers (or because they forgot to buy utensils) they just piled everything in the bread – the meat, the cheese, the onions, the coleslaw, the tomatoes and even the fries. The result, of course, was a heaping mess that could be eaten with one hand.
Insider tip Primanti Bros has a lot of interesting "meat" choices, from double egg to pastrami to knockwurst, but go for the Pittsburgher Cheese Steak. After all, it's the #2 best seller, topped only by the Iron City Beer you'll need to wash it down.
Tampa » Cubano
One story claims Cubanos were born in early 20th century Ybor City to feed hungry migrant workers. Folks there've certainly gotten it down pat: sliced dill pickles, Genoa salami, roast pork, ham and Swiss cheese wedged between two pieces of buttered Cuban bread. The sandwich is then pressed until the bread's flat and crispy. In Tampa, Alessi Bakery & Deli is hands-down the place to go. Not to be outdone, Miami comes through with Puerto Sagua, a Collins Avenue diner that's open late.
Insider tip Mojo. Remember that. A Cubano made without pork marinated in this hot, garlicy sauce is, in fact, no Cubano at all ... Just a flat, toasted sandwich!
Buffalo » Beef on Weck
We have German immigrants to thank for this lovely roast beef ditty, served in just about every bar, tavern and pub from Buffalo to Rochester. The secret here is in the roll. Made only in Western New York, kümmelwecks are basically thick Kaisers flavored with loads of caraway seeds and pretzel salt. That said, a good beef on weck is, at the very least, a two-beer sandwich. In Downtown Buffalo, Laughlin's is a great place to try one, even though it's a tad dressy.
Insider tip Buffalonians love this sandwich almost as much as they love wings and the Bills, and they don't mind heavy-handed horseradishing. If your sinuses are sensitive, speak up or sniff later.
Massachusetts » Fluffernutter
The preferred snack of kids all over New England for the last 80 years or so, the Fluffernutter is made by spreading peanut butter and Marshmallow Fluff (made by Durkee-Mower Inc. in Lynn, MA) between two pieces of white bread. It's sticky and high in calories, but it's sure tasty! There's no doubt that New England moms make the best ones. However, if you're on the road, the Mom option is gone. As a consolation prize try hitting Brighams High Street in Boston, where you can enjoy a scoop or two of Fluffernutter ice cream.
Insider tip Last summer, Massachusetts Senator Jarrett Barrios drew gasps with a proposal to all but ban the Fluffernutter from public school cafeterias. Not surprisingly, this was followed by a grassroots campaign to have the Fluffernutter adopted as the State Sandwich!