There's nothing worse than enjoying a great dish at a restaurant and coming to the realization that you'll never have it as good again. Unless you're able to hop in the car every time you crave a Boogaloo Wonderland Sandwich from Chef Greg’s SOUL “N” The Wall in Detroit, or Grilled Steak Fajitas from the Original Ninfa's in Houston, you're left with the memories of those perfect bites, but no way to recreate them at home.
Understanding that home cooks don't have access to great food from every part of the country is one of the reasons that Staff Photographer Steve Klise and I hit the road a few times a year. We aim to find those hidden regional foods that are worth being highlighted and enjoyed by home cooks everywhere, anytime they want. Our pursuit of the best dishes the country has to offer has taken us to almost every corner of the country, from Maine to California, Wisconsin to Texas, and many places in between. With that said, take a look at a few of my favorite recipes inspired by restaurants we've visited around the country—then make them at home.
1. Shrimp Po’ Boys
I went to the Annual National Shrimp Festival in Gulf Shores, Alabama, this past year to conduct research for our Shrimp Po’ Boys recipe. “Shrimp Fest” was everything a shrimp lover dreams of because you’re able to enjoy shrimp in every way you can think of, including “poor boy” style. (Read “The Birth of a Sandwich” to learn about where the name of this sandwich originated.)
After trying some of the best po’ boy variations the South had to offer, we went back to the test kitchen to develop our own version with two rules in mind: It must include a satisfying range of spicy-savory Southern flavors and be good enough to not leave any po’boy hungry. [GET THE RECIPE]
On the Road Tip: The Annual National Shrimp Festival started in 1971 as a bid to extend the summer tourist season. Currently, the festival attracts 250,000 people with a common love for shrimp, live music, and the white sandy beaches of coastal Alabama.
2. Potato-Cheddar Pierogi
I was unabashedly enthusiastic about pierogies after eating more than my stomach had room for during our trip to Pittsburgh’s historic Polish American quarter and Allegheny County.
On the Road Fun Fact: Before the first World War, roughly 2½ million Polish immigrants arrived here in the U.S., and many of them moved to Pennsylvania to work in the state’s booming coal and steel industries. By 1920, a third of the workforce in Pittsburgh were Polish Americans. So it’s no surprise that Pittsburgh is known for its Polish food, including kielbasa, bagels, and pierogi.
3. South Carolina Smoked Fresh Ham
The usual go-to cut of pork for backyard barbecue is the pork shoulder, but in certain corners of the Carolinas, many pitmasters swear by ham. David Hite—who specializes in whole-hog barbecue—is one of them. I had the opportunity to try the famous smoked fresh ham that Hite’s Bar-B-Que is known for and it was remarkably savory . . . the perfect deep-flavored filling for a summertime sandwich. [GET THE RECIPE]
On the Road Tip: Want extra cracklins with your ‘cue? Ask for some “new skins.” These long sheets of extra skin are smoked by themselves in order to augment the crunchy bits already attached to larger cuts of smoked pork.
4. Spicy Cheese Bread
Don't be angry if you're bumped in the back while wandering through the farmers' market in Madison, Wisconsin. It is likely that the person who walked into you has their attention on a giant loaf of steaming, fragrant bread and is pulling off chunks and gobbling them down as they stroll around.
Stella's Bakery sells dozens of loaves of their famous spicy cheese bread at this market, where the soft, sweet, chewy, cheesy, spicy snack is legendary. Since not everyone has easy access to Stella's and the market in Madison, we set out to create a similarly delicious bread back in the test kitchen—one that took minimal active work and yielded a substantial reward. [GET THE RECIPE]
On the Road Fun Fact: Every Saturday from mid-April to mid-November, you’ll find the sprawling Dane County Farmers’ Market in full swing around Capitol Square in downtown Madison, Wisconsin. What started as a ramshackle group of five farmers in 1972 grew steadily over the years. It’s now 150 vendors strong and one of the most competitive farmers' market for vendors to get into.
5. North Carolina Cheese Biscuits
When we heard about North Carolina cheese-stuffed biscuits, we knew we had to taste them for ourselves. The biscuits served to us at Flo’s Kitchen and Mom’s Grill in North Carolina were just what we were looking for: massive cathead biscuits stuffed with local hoop cheese.
To avoid our main problem—traveling close to 1,000 miles to get them again—we created a recipe with available ingredients for home cooks to have biscuits as big as a cat's head, stuffed with cheese, anytime they crave them. (Editor’s note: No cats were harmed in the making of this recipe.) [GET THE RECIPE]
On the Road Tip: If you can, try to get to Flo's Kitchen early. There's normally a traffic jam in the morning for the drive-through window that trails around the building and back out onto the street for several blocks.
6. Smoked Fish Tacos
When I got back from a trip to Cayucos, California, everyone in the test kitchen was afraid that the sunshine had gotten to me. I couldn’t stop (and still won’t stop) raving about the smoked salmon taco served with a mustardy mayonnaise sauce and chopped apples, carrots, and celery at Ruddell’s Smokehouse.
Since most of us don't have an industrial smoker at home, we found a smoking technique that produces a similar outcome using a charcoal grill. Even our most experienced eaters found this unusual combination of smoky fish and creamy mayonnaise-mustard sauce with fresh slaw irresistible. [GET THE RECIPE]
On the Road Tip: If tacos aren’t your thing, don’t worry—Ruddell’s Smokehouse offers sandwiches as well. Since you're already in town . . . do what the locals do: place an order, grab your loot, and head across the street to the beach.
7. Tennessee Pulled Pork Sandwiches
Devin Pickard, owner of Papa KayJoe’s BBQ in Centerville, Tennessee, has been serving up his signature sandwiches—pulled pork on cornmeal griddle cakes—for over 30 years. After all that time, you’d think Pickard would get tired of barbecue sandwiches, but even he’s said, “I would eat a barbecue sandwich every day of my life, that’s how much I love it.” I second that.
To prove how much we enjoyed this meal, we went back to the test kitchen and recreated a bark-less, pâté-like pulled pork that could easily be sandwiched between a pair of hoecakes. [GET THE RECIPE]
On the Road Tip: If you go to Papa KayJoe’s BBQ in Centerville, Tennessee, it’s worth ordering the pig-pickin' cake. It's named for the fact that it was originally served as a dessert at pig roasts where guests would get wrists-deep in whole smoked hogs as a communal entertainment activity.
8. Puffy Tacos
Residents of San Antonio, Texas, have strong feelings about puffy tacos—deep-fried, light, crisp, emphatically corn-flavored shells that encase savory meat fillings. All San Antonio fans of this dish told me to head to Los Barrios to try the best version of puffy tacos their city had to offer, and so I did.
Los Barrios’ regional take on tacos not only deserved a spot on menus, but in home kitchens too. Once I arrived back home, we went straight to the test kitchen to make that happen. [GET THE RECIPE]
On the Road Fun Fact: The ubiquitous tacos are so important in Texas that the mascot for the San Antonio Missions minor league baseball team is, yes, Henry the Puffy Taco.
9. Texas Barbecue Brisket
Every time I make it down to the Lone Star State for some barbecue, I’m never disappointed. A stop at Killen’s Barbecue in Pearland, Texas, this time wasn’t any different. It was there that I learned some of the best cooking and smoking tips that led to the development of our own Texas-Style Brisket recipe.
If you're willing to invest a bit of time, attention, and patience—and take a bold leap of faith—truly sublime eating is well within reach with this recipe. [GET THE RECIPE]
On the Road Tip: If you go to Killen’s Barbecue you absolutely have to get there early. The throng of barbecue hopefuls can stretch all the way past the end of the block, and attendant customers have been known to bring in TVs and coolers of beer to pass the time standing along Broadway Street.
10. Garlic Fried Chicken
When I returned from Bakersfield, California, I went straight to the test kitchen, pulled one of the Cook's Country test cooks aside on my team, and showed her a few pictures of the fried chicken I had at Pyrenees Cafe. The first question to escape her mouth was, “What’s that all over the chicken?” It was butter and garlic. Lots of garlic. And it was amazing.
On the Road Fun Fact: California is home of the largest Basque-American population. In Bakersfield, California, there’s a group of restaurants referred to as the Basque triangle, and the Pyrenees Cafe is one of the most popular.