The Tastiest Regional Foods You Never Knew Existed

By Jake Schroeder
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Photo Courtesy: Pete Karl II/Flickr

The U.S. is a big country. Head a few states in any direction and you'll find that people not only talk differently, but they eat differently, too. Deep dish pizza in Chicago, bagels in New York — these are the well-known staples. But what about the lesser-known ones? If you look closer, you'll find that each region has signature dishes unheard of in other states. When you see these delicious foods, you'll be ready to plan a cross-country road trip!

Chocolate Gravy

You're probably thinking, "Why didn't I think of that?" This rich sauce hails from the Appalachian region and is traditionally served on top of biscuits for a special occasion. Don't be deceived — it's not hot fudge. It's also not as thick as fudge and not as runny as a regular chocolate sauce, either.

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Photo Courtesy: Edsel Little/Flickr

The base of this sweet treat is either butter or bacon grease, depending on the chef, and either way it leaves the recipient in a chocolate coma. Some theorize that chocolate gravy resulted either from Mexican influences to the south or Spanish colonies to the east.

Chitlins

Go farther south and you'll find this love-it-or-hate-it signature dish. Also known as chitterlings, cooks typically prepare this food outside due to the potent smell it creates. This is because chitlins are made from boiled pig intestines. They get breaded and fried, though, so you can't really tell when you're eating them.

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Photo Courtesy: Barnhousebrewer/Wikimedia Commons

If you've never heard of chitlins, you might be turned off — but don't knock them before you try them. This crispy appetizer is reminiscent of calamari, and when paired with a spicy red sauce it's perfect to eat with ice-cold beer.

Rattlesnake

There's no end to the creative dishes concocted in the Southwest. If you ever find yourself in Arizona or Texas, don't be surprised if you find rattlesnake on the menu. These pesky mountain dwellers make for a tasty meal when fried, stewed, sauteed — or even thrown on the grill.

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Photo Courtesy: Wild0ne/Pixabay

Some compare the consistency of rattlesnake meat to fish, and in landlocked states like Arizona, it's not a bad replacement. Enjoy this rattle-snack sliced with butter on top or battered and deep-fried like chicken nuggets. Whatever you do, don't try and trap them on your own! Their bites can be potently venomous.

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Kool-Aid Pickles

This is exactly what it sounds like. Over in Mississippi, they've been soaking pickles in Kool-Aid since Kool-Aid became a thing. Not only do you get wonderfully vibrant colors, but you get a unique flavor with each one, too.

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Photo Courtesy: Andrea Black/Flickr

The sugary drink cuts the sourness of the pickle, but the sourness of the pickle also cuts the sweetness of the drink. The result is a perfect in-between — a crunchy, subtly sweet addition to your dinner, tasting of cherry or whatever flavor you choose to experiment with. Try them on a salad.

Loco Moco

When you think of Hawaii, you probably think of luaus, surfing and palm trees. Now, you can add loco moco to that list. Loco moco is a wildly popular dish made with white rice, a hamburger patty, a fried egg and a ladle of gravy spooned on top. It doesn't get much more savory than that.

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Photo Courtesy: Sam Howzit/Flickr

This dish is similar to something you might find in a diner on the mainland, and it's enjoyed similarly, as well. You won't find it in a fine dining establishment, but any affordable local spot will surely have it on offer.

Reindeer

Before you start fantasizing about Christmas, remember that reindeer are simply another type of big game. They're similar to elk and deer, so people eat them like elk and deer in some places, too. In the U.S., Alaska is where you’ll find reindeer at restaurants or packaged in the meat section of the supermarket.

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Photo Courtesy: Liam Quinn/Flickr

Unsurprisingly, reindeer don't really venture down south, which is why you won't see them on most menus. For some people, this is a shame. Reindeer store fat outside their muscles, and because of this theirs is one of the leanest, healthiest meats to consume.

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Lutefisk

This acquired taste came over from Norway, and Norwegian families often eat it around the holidays. It consists of fish that soaks in a water-and-lye mixture for several days. The process strips the fish of some protein and essentially creates a salty, shimmering jelly.

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Photo Courtesy: sowwwww/Pixabay

Serve it with a cream or butter sauce on top, and you have a Christmas feast for all to enjoy. No matter your preconceptions, this is a dish worth trying should the opportunity arise. You might just find that, paired with some alcohol, it actually tastes pretty good.

Chimichanga

We're pretty sure this regional food is a beloved treat for everyone who tastes it. Chimichangas are popular in Arizona and are another Mexican-American favorite. This is basically a burrito that gets dipped in the deep-fryer before gracing your plate. Pair it with salad and a dipping sauce, and you'll recover from even the worst hangover in no time.

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Photo Courtesy: Bin im Garten/Wikimedia Commons

What people love about chimichangas is the crisp, greasy outside and the classic combination of meat, cheese and beans on the inside. It really is the best of all worlds. So go ahead and dig in — just don't burn your mouth on that melted cheese.

Scrapple

Also known as "pan rabbit," scrapple resembles a sausage patty — only it isn't one. Its name comes from the ingredients: scraps of leftover meat, usually pork, mixed with wheat flour and cornmeal. Deep-fried or broiled, scrapple is what the Pennsylvania Dutch traditionally eat with their breakfast.

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Photo Courtesy: James Lee/Flickr

So where can you go to enjoy this cuisine? If you happen to be cruising through Maryland, Delaware, Virginia or, of course, Pennsylvania, chances are you'll come across it somewhere. For the full experience, eat it with jelly, maple syrup, apple butter or even honey. (Okay, you can eat it with ketchup, too.)

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Hoppin' John

Hoppin' John is served in households throughout the Carolinas, usually on New Year's Day. It's a piping-hot mix of black-eyed peas, tomato sauce, rice, ham hocks and sometimes sausage. This hearty dish originates from slaves who worked on Southern plantations and has stayed alive to this day.

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If you're eating Hoppin' John and bite down on a dime, don't worry — it's supposed to be there! Tradition has it that the one to find the hidden dime will have good luck in the year ahead. So chow down on your tasty meal, but keep an eye out for something silver.

Poi

If you're a connoisseur of Southeast Asian or Pacific Island cuisine, you've probably heard of taro root. This purple vegetable is what poi is made of, although the dish is typically eaten in Hawaii. They pound taro into a paste and mix it with water before serving it with pork or fish.

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When fresh, poi has a sweet flavor. When left to ferment, however, it takes on a sourness similar to yogurt. It's good for you, too — full of vitamin A, low in fat and made of complex carbohydrates. That's why poi is also a common ingredient in Hawaiian baby food.

Garbage Plate

The name certainly isn't doing this dish any favors, but it doesn't have to. The food alone is enough to win the hearts of many, as it has in upstate New York. Just listen to this combination: home fries, macaroni, baked beans, sausage, eggs and onions. That’s a long list of delicious ingredients.

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The explosion of flavor that happens in your mouth is enough to make you want to move to New York for good. It's unabashedly sloppy, saucy and over-the-top — hence, "garbage plate." After trying this dish just once, the unappealing name will have your mouth watering.

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Boston Baked Beans

Boston is the city of beans — after all, its nickname is "Beantown." Boston does beans unlike anyone else, specifically by smothering them in molasses. There’s a variety of recipes, but the result is a creamy, semi-sweet dish that pairs perfectly with a hot dog.

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Fun fact: Boston had such a monopoly on molasses that it actually experienced a deadly molasses flood in 1919. Despite the tragedy, the city was able to recover and continue making the hearty beans visitors love. Next time you're in this coastal city, don't forget to give them a try.

Alligator

It's not surprising that areas with unique types of animals end up putting those critters on the menu. In Florida, that's exactly what they've done with alligators. You can find crunchy "gator fingers," "alligator bites" and "Cajun-fried gator." Typically, these concoctions come with a ranch-like dip.

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Photo Courtesy: Elsie Hui/Flickr

Most people describe alligator as a firm meat, more similar to fish than chicken. It can be delightfully chewy, depending on the preparation. Either way, it's something the locals enjoy often — and something you should consider trying. Once you move up north, it’ll be hard to find this item in any restaurant.

Shoofly Pie

It turns out the Pennsylvania Dutch have created several unique foods that visitors fall in love with. One of these foods is the shoofly pie, made with brown sugar and molasses filling. Sprinkle powdered sugar on top, and you've got a thick, sweet breakfast pastry.

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Photo Courtesy: Christopher Paquette/Flickr

Traditionally, people eat shoofly pie with a cup of strong coffee to wash it down, and that's how die-hards enjoy it today. What better way to start your morning? Legend has it that the pies sat cooling on window sills and attracted a fair amount of unwelcome flies — and shoofly pie was born.

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Provel Cheese

If you're not from Missouri, chances are you've never heard of this specific type of cheese. Provel cheese comes on anything and everything, from pizza to cheeseburgers. It’s the specialty cheese of St. Louis — all the locals know it. Sprinkled on pasta or slapped on a sandwich, it's always the go-to cheese of Missouri.

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Photo Courtesy: Melissa/Flickr

Provel is made by combining Swiss, cheddar and provolone cheeses and then adding smoke flavoring (typically in liquid form). It's soft and processed, so it doesn't take much to get it to the gooey, stretchy consistency that locals love. This cheese is literally melt-in-your-mouth good.

Hot Brown

Ah, the Hot Brown. Pretty much what it sounds like, this open-faced sandwich is hot and brown, and it's an all-time favorite of Louisville, Kentucky, residents. This "culinary icon" was invented at the famous Brown Hotel — looks like the name has more meaning than we thought.

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Photo Courtesy: Phil Denton/Flickr

The recipe consists of a cheesy, buttery sauce on top of a hot turkey breast, crispy bacon and fresh tomatoes. Oh, and don't forget the bread somewhere in there. Eaten open-faced and typically with a fork and knife, it’s a common menu item during Derby season. Just make sure you're hungry for it.

King Cake

The king cake is famous in New Orleans, but its origins actually lie in France and Spain. This delectable treat is made from a twisted bread cake occasionally filled with fruit, chocolate or cream cheese and topped with colorful icing. Back in the 1800s, an uncooked bean was hidden inside as a game.

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Photo Courtesy: Phil Denton/Flickr

Nowadays, the bean has been replaced with a small baby figurine. During Mardi Gras, the person who gets the baby in their slice of the cake is "king" for the day and has to bring the cake next time around.

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Cheese Curds

Most people know that Wisconsin is the cheese state. Passing through a Wisconsin airport, you’ll see plastic cheese-head hats and cheese keychains — people just can't get enough of it. One of the ways Wisconsinites choose to enjoy their dairy is by way of bite-sized snacks called cheese curds.

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Photo Courtesy: Greg Tally/Wikimedia Commons

Cheese curds are curdled chunks created during the cheese-making process. They're fresher than your average cheese and often have a rubbery texture. Once you try one, however, you're certain to come back for more. The fried variety is especially tasty as a bar snack or as a quick appetizer.

Shrimp and Grits

The history behind this Southern delicacy is an interesting one. Fishermen ate shrimp with their grits in the morning, and eventually, it became a staple of high-end restaurants. The recipe has certainly been modified and expanded over the years, but the base is always the same.

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Photo Courtesy: Founding Farmers/Flickr

You haven't had shrimp until you've had it on top of grits. The shrimp's buttery goodness pairs perfectly with the creaminess of the grits to create a dish that satisfies seafood lovers everywhere. You can even try it spicy. With onions, tomatoes or even bacon, it's a must-try if you're visiting South Carolina.

Gumbo

Louisiana boasts a signature comfort food called gumbo, and families cook it up on celebration days. It's essentially a smorgasbord of ingredients — shrimp, chicken, sausage and assorted vegetables — in a flavorful sauce. Some make it spicy and others don't, but everyone serves themselves a second helping.

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Photo Courtesy: Jeffreyw/Flickr

Pair it with a slice of bread and a glass of wine, and you'll be passed out on the couch after dinner. This dish is especially popular on chilly winter nights (or rainy ones — Louisiana doesn't really get a winter). If you're visiting, someone will probably offer a bowl to you.

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Bialys

Nope, look closer. It's not a bagel. Bialys are close cousins to the bagel, and they're also seen mostly in New York, but there are two key differences between the two. Bialys have a center depression where bagels have a hole, and they lack the iconic bagel sheen due to the manner in which they're baked.

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Photo Courtesy: Ernesto Andrade/Flickr

The divet in the middle is where the baker places onions, garlic, poppy seeds or any other filling of choice. The roots of this tasty bread come from Jewish people — particularly those from Poland — and now everyone enjoys it.

Fry Sauce

Utah has a claim to this tasty dipping sauce, but parts of the rest of the country are picking up on it, too. What it is is a mix of mayonnaise and ketchup. And that's it! Not too complicated, but addictive nonetheless.

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Photo Courtesy: Alan Levine/Flickr

Most burgers and fries in this state come with fry sauce on the side — it's practically the law. The beauty of fry sauce is the blend of flavors. There’s just enough sweetness from the ketchup and the right amount of tang from the mayonnaise. It's a creamy addition that everyone loves.

Whoopie Pie

This monster of a dessert hails from New England and is said to have its roots in Amish kitchens. In its most classic form, it has two chocolate cake buns and a creamy vanilla filling, but you can find pumpkin whoopies in the fall. Don't let the name fool you — it's more of a sandwich than a pie.

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You can find these special treats at ice cream stores or bakeries, but consider bringing a friend along. One whoopie pie is typically enough to feed two hungry individuals. That's kind of the best part, though; there’s always more for later.

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Tomalley

Maine is famous for its lobster. It’s also famous for using all of the lobster, including a green digestive gland called the tomalley. The tomalley is found in the center of the lobster, and it's actually considered a delicacy among seafood lovers.

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Photo Courtesy: T.Tseng/Flickr

When traveling in New England, you can find tomalley in pasta dishes, as "tomalley croutons" or added into sauces as a lobster flavoring. If you're already a fan of lobster, it's a good bet you'll appreciate tomalley — they say it has the flavor of lobster, only more concentrated.

Clam Pie

Now here's a pizza we never thought we'd see. In Connecticut, "clam pie" refers to this creative pizza topping: unshelled clams. They're spread out over a white sauce pizza with cheese and sometimes cilantro. It's not a combination many would think to try, but it's stuck around for a reason.

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Don’t confuse this with the other New England clam pie, which is literally a baked pie with clams and other meat as fillings. No matter what, if you ask for a clam pie in a New England restaurant, you'll get something savory that involves clams.

Dutch Letters

These airy puff pastries can be found in the Midwest, specifically in Iowa and Michigan. They're a flaky mix of flour, eggs and butter filled with almond paste on the inside and shaped into letters. The most common letter you’ll find these days is the letter "S."

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Photo Courtesy: heather vescent/Flickr

Traditionally, these pastries were shaped into the letter of the family's surname and served during December holidays. In Michigan, you can find them made with chocolate, especially during the Holland Dutch Winterfest. They’re a tasty dessert with a rich history, and you won't want to miss the chance to bite into one.

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Geoduck

After one look at a geoduck (pronounced "gooey duck"), you might think, "Is that really food?" Yep. Despite their less-than-appetizing appearance, a geoduck is similar to a clam — only much bigger. In the Pacific Northwest, they're served in stir-fries, as deep-fried snacks or sauteed in butter.

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Photo Courtesy: VIUDeepBay/Flickr

Sometimes you can find geoduck sliced into thin, raw pieces that people eat like sashimi. It’s a versatile seafood and an impressive specimen to behold; some grow to a couple feet in length. That's a lot of sushi.

Pickled Pigs’ Feet

You'd be hard-pressed to find a restaurant serving pigs' feet up north — this is a distinctly Southern taste. Similar to pickles, pigs' feet are left to sit in white vinegar, salt and other spices until they reach the desired pickled-ness. You'll sometimes hear them referred to affectionately as "trotters."

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Photo Courtesy: Cory Doctorow/Flickr

Most often, people eat pickled pigs' feet as they are, with a dash of hot sauce on top. It might sound strange to an out-of-towner, but they're actually kind of good for you; they're very high in protein and low in fat. For the adventurous foodie, it's a must-try in the South.

Lobster Roll

We get it — Maine does lobster! But have you had lobster in a bun? This creative dish is typically served at roadside restaurants, and it’s one of the more affordable ways to consume lobster. It's like a hot dog — only instead of a sausage, there's a mix of lobster meat inside.

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Depending on where you are, this roll comes hot or cold with mayonnaise or butter. They're not only in Maine, either; coastal towns in Massachusetts, Connecticut and Rhode Island offer them, too. With a handful of chips on the side, it's the best way to get a quick lobster fix.

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