Regional American accents may be disappearing because of mass media’s homogenizing effect, but menu items peculiar to a particular area are hanging on, unshakably popular on a local basis but little known elsewhere. Here are six that are hard to find outside their home markets—at least for now.
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Frankfurters may be second only to pizza in varying so widely by region. Upper Midwesterners love their brauts, while coneys, or what other regions would know as a chili dog, are a staple of Cincinnati. Any hardcore New Yorker might brave a dirty water dog (the boiled franks hawked from street carts), while Los Angelenos complain about the price of Dodger dogs (a 10-incher sold in a steamed bun at Dodger Stadium).
A regional variation showing up on more menus is the half-smoke, a smoky, oversized wiener with a coarser grind than most dog breeds sport. It’s a specialty of the Washington, D.C., area, but the variation will likely appear more often outside the Beltway now that several upstart fast casuals are bringing it to the masses.
Their ranks include HalfSmoke, a venture backed by Cleveland Avenue, the new venture-capital firm run by former McDonald’s CEO Don Thompson, and Ben’s Chili Bowl, a D.C. institution that’s expanding beyond the city.
2. Finger steaks
Think of what a chicken finger would be like if strips of beef were used in place of the poultry. It’s called a finger steak, and it’s as strongly connected to Boise, Idaho, as chicken wings are to Buffalo. Each usually starts as a strip of sirloin roughly three and a half inches long. The slice is dipped in a tempura-like batter and deep-fried.
A restaurant order usually consists of several finger steaks served with french fries and a thick slab of toast.
As with Buffalo wings, the invention of finger steaks is usually traced to a single restaurant, the Torch. But the item is now offered by a host of restaurants, at all price levels, in the Boise area.
3. Hoosier sugar cream pie
The dessert is attributed to the Amish and Shakers, religious sects seldom celebrated for their culinary wizardry. Sugar cream pie is the exception. The Indiana legislature established it as the official pie of the state in 2009, but that’s nothing compared to the passion locals show for the specialty.
Historians say it’s a prime example of a “desperation pie,” a concoction that could be whipped together from the meager pantries of a farmhouse kitchen. A simple pie shell would be covered with brown or maple sugar, then coated with flour and filled with a vanilla-flavored cream filling before being baked.
Let sandwich lovers in other areas chomp their hoagies, grinders and heros. In Nebraska, the sandwich to savor is the runza, a bread baked with a pocket of meat or other filling inside.
A runza might be lozenge-shaped, a half-moon, even a triangle. The traditional filling is beef either with or without pok, along with cabbage (pickled or not), onions and spices that impart a goulash sort of taste.
The sandwich is the specialty of Runza, a Lincoln, Neb.-based quick-service chain that holds the U.S. trademark to “runza.” But variations exist, offered under different names.
Cross a kebab with a sandwich and you have the spiedie (pronounced spee-dee), a hot hand-held specialty of Binghamton, N.Y., and surrounding areas in the middle of the state.
It consists of cubes of meat marinated for an extended period (in the eyes of some providers, anything less than two weeks is an unforgivable shortcut), skewered and grilled over charcoal. The cubes are slid off the stick and into a split submarine roll, or what locals call the breads used for heros and the like.
6. Jojo potatoes
A number of areas relish jojos, though the versions sold by local restaurants might vary from one region to another. Essentially, the side consists of steak fry-sized potato wedges, often with the peel still on, that are fried in the grease left over from frying chicken. The potatoes go into the popping, bubbling fat, sopping up the flavor, and are often then served as a complement to the chicken.
Jojos can be found, particularly in diners, in a northerly swath that extends from Oregon through Minnesota.
7. The Bobbie, aka the pilgrim sandwich
When Lois Margolet quit her job in 1976 to start a sandwich chain, she thought the Bobbie would be just the right signature. If you don’t know what it is, you’ve clearly not been to Delaware, where it’s as well-known as cheesesteaks are in Philadelphia or bagels in New York.
It’s essentially a Thanksgiving dinner in sandwich form: pulled turkey topped with dressing, cranberry sauce and mayo. And it’s available year-round at Capriotti’s.
More seasonal is the pilgrim sandwich, a New England specialty made from Thanksgiving Day leftovers. The turkey is sliced rather than pulled, and a slide of cheddar or Muenster cheese might be added to the stack.