Signature dishes from 30 American cities

Written by:
July 10, 2019
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Signature dishes from 30 American cities

Classic American dishes include cheeseburgers and chocolate chip cookies. But when it comes to American culinary inventions, there is so much more ground to cover than just these most popular options. Stacker took a deep dive into the archives of American kitchens around the country to see which cities can lay claim to 30 iconic American dishes.

From Texas caviar in Dallas to po'boys in New Orleans, the results were extraordinary. The history of American culinary invention is one that dovetails neatly with American history. It is full of cooks making do with what limited ingredients they had and stories of chutzpah, gumption, and inventive and colorful language that turned old classic foods on their heads to create something distinct.

To wit—one spunky chef in Arizona was so upset when one of her cooks knocked a burrito into a deep fryer that she wanted to curse. But because there were children in the kitchen, she invented a curse word: chimichanga. Suffice it to say—no one was cursing after they took a bite from what is now a delicious Tex-Mex staple. And befitting the outsize role college students have in popular American culture, a diner in Rochester, New York, was merely trying to appease the whims of local students late at night when they ended up creating a dish that takes a rightful place among the most legendary of American dishes.

So whether a foodie road trip around the United States is on the horizon or merely an excursion to visit a pa rticular unique slice of American history, click through to see which American cities gave birth to which distinctly American foods. 

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Philadelphia: Philly cheesesteak

A Philadelphia cheesesteak is just what it sounds like—thinly sliced and sauteed ribeye beef combined with melted cheese on a roll, often topped with hot peppers, fried onions, mushrooms, and ketchup. The dish traced its origins to the 1930s when a hot dog vendor named Pat Olivieri decided to grill some beef one night and put it on a roll. A cab driver smelled this first Philly cheesesteak, and a legend was born. 

New Orleans: Po'boy

The po'boy is a New Orleans culinary staple with a history harkening back to the 1920s when two New Orleans restaurateurs decided to support striking streetcar workers by offering them inexpensive sandwiches of French bread with gravy and spare scraps of roast beef. "Here comes another poor boy!" the chefs would yell whenever a new order was placed, and the name stuck. Now, po'boys come in multiple varieties, including fried seafood and French fries.


St. Louis: Gooey butter cake

St. Louis' most famous dessert, gooey butter cake, lives up to its name, and then some. The dish originated accidentally in the 1930s when a baker put too much butter in his coffee cake—to the delight of his patrons. For a seasonal spin, some St. Louisans add pumpkin at Thanksgiving or nutmeg for Christmas. 

Chicago: Deep-dish pizza

Some of Chicago's deep-dish pizzas boast crusts of up to a whopping 3 inches, made of a thick layer of dough formed to a deep round pan and pulled up the edges, baked to about 80% readiness, then pulled out and frozen. Deep-dish was invented in 1943 at famous Chicago eatery Pizzeria Uno, and given the amount of sauce, cheese, and toppings the crust allows, patrons are recommended to eat deep-dish with cutlery instead of their fingers. 

Baltimore: Crab cake

Located near the Chesapeake Bay, chefs in Baltimore have always had abundant access to the blue crabs living in the Bay and have long been combining the crabmeat with breadcrumbs, spices, and crackers to make the cake. However, it wasn't until the 1930s that a proper name stuck. In Crosby Gaige's cookbook "The New World's Fair Cook Book," he coined the term "Baltimore Crab Cakes," and the seafood dish has been associated with Baltimore and Maryland ever since.

Washington D.C.: Half-smoke

Washington D.C.’s hometown dish is the half-smoke—a hot dog with several twists. The sausage in a half-smoke generally consists of half beef and half pork. The dish is then smoked before it’s grilled and then topped with chili, onions, and cheese. The most famous place to get a half-smoke is at Ben’s Chili Bowl, where even former President Barack Obama stopped by to sample the dish.

Boston: Clam chowder

Clam chowder doesn’t limit itself to just clams—the famous New England dish can be made with all types of seafood, combined with milk or tomatoes, salt pork, onions, and other vegetables. Befitting Boston’s long colonial history, the dish was already famous by the 1700s thanks to Boston’s proximity to the Atlantic Ocean and its abundant seafood and has been served since 1836 at Ye Olde Union Oyster House—the oldest restaurant in the country. 

Rochester, New York: The garbage plate

The garbage plate may not have an appetizing name, but locals and visitors alike swear by the taste. Made of a base layer of meat (hamburger, cheeseburger, pork—the options are endless) and topped with home fries, baked beans, macaroni, and hot sauce, the dish may not be the healthiest, but it has legions of devoted fans. It was created in the kitchen of diner chef Nick Tahous, who made it when college students came in late one night requesting a dish with “all the garbage on it.”

Dallas: Texas caviar

A melange of beans, vegetables, and sometimes cabbage, Texas caviar has nothing to do with fish, despite its name. The Dallas dish was invented in the 1940s by the food service director of famous Dallas department store Neiman Marcus and has since become a staple in the kitchens of Texans, for its versatility, its taste, and its ability to be made well in advance. Cowboy caviar, of course, is the other name for the dish.

New York City: Black-and-white cookie

The black-and-white cookie is more like a flattened cake, with toppings of half vanilla frosting and half chocolate—hence the name. The origins of the cookie are relatively murky, but many accounts trace it back to Glaser's Bake Shop in Manhattan's Yorkville neighborhood, where Bavarian immigrants introduced the dessert to their clients and the city around 1902.

Los Angeles: Cobb salad

Befitting a city as health-obsessed as Los Angeles, the Cobb salad is perhaps its most famous signature dish. The salad consists of lettuce, tomato, bacon, ham, eggs, avocado, cheese, and vinaigrette, and it originated at the old school Hollywood restaurant, the Brown Derby. It's named after one of Brown Derby's owners, who was once married to Gloria Swanson.

San Francisco: Fortune cookies

It may surprise fans of the sweet, hard, origami-esque fortune cookie to learn that the cookies were created in San Francisco by Japanese tea garden owner Makoto Hagiwara, who ordered the cookies (reportedly inspired by a similar 19th-century Japanese cookie) from Bay Area bakery Benkyodo in 1918 to serve with tea. The switch to Chinese food restaurants is linked to a dark chapter in American history when Japanese-Americans were rounded up and put in concentration camps in the 1940s, leaving the Chinese to take over the fortune cookie market.

Tucson, Arizona: Chimichangas

Chimichangas—deep-fried burritos filled with rice, cheese, and meat, then topped with sour cream and guacamole—are said to have emerged from the kitchen of Tucson's historic El Charro Cafe. In the 1920s, the cafe's owner is said to have been upset when her cooking staff accidentally flipped a burrito in a deep fryer, but because young children were in the kitchen at the time, she reportedly changed her curse word to 'chimichanga.' And just like that, a beloved Tex-Mex classic was born.

Buffalo, New York: Buffalo wings

Buffalo wings are not actually made from buffalo, but are instead so named because they were invented in Buffalo, New York. The origin of buffalo wings can be traced back to 1964 when the owners of a Buffalo-area bar decided to fry chicken wings and serve them with hot sauce and blue cheese. The name comes from the method of preparation—and not at all from the animal.

Whitman, Massachusetts: Chocolate chip cookie

Chocolate chip cookies are seen as one of the most quintessential American foods, which makes it surprising that the delicious dessert has only been around since the 1930s. The owner of a bed-and-breakfast called Toll House Inn was out of baker's chocolate she needed to make a chocolate cookie, so she chopped up semi-sweet chocolate instead, intending it to melt in the oven. It didn't, and one of the world's most beloved desserts was born.

Schiller Park, Illinois: Twinkies

Twinkies—packaged sugary snack cakes filled with cream frosting—were invented by the Continental Baking Company in Schiller Park, Ill., in the 1930s as a way to reuse shortbread pans. With the fresh fruit the bakers wanted out of season, they turned to cream, which would later allow the iconic desserts to be packaged.

Key West, Florida: Key lime pie

Key lime pie, which consists of key lime juice, sweetened condensed milk, and egg yolks, comes from Key West. The dish had been made around Florida for generations by the time it was written down in the 1930s, but most accounts point to an inventor named “Aunt Sally” in the 19th century who was a cook for one of the area’s many old mansions. The condensed milk that makes the dish so distinctive was used because Key West did not have access to fresh refrigerated milk until the 20th century. 

Latrobe, Pennsylvania: Banana split

The banana split was invented in the city of Latrobe, Pennsylvania, in 1904, by an apprentice pharmacist challenged by a friend to invent a new food. Bananas had recently been imported to the United States for the first time, so the pharmacist (and soon to be inventor) took three different flavors of ice cream and three different flavors of sauce, whipped cream, a banana, and topped it with a cherry. The banana split would go on to become an icon of Americana.

Smithfield, Virginia: Smithfield ham

Smithfield hams have a particular pedigree. They must come from the meat of peanut-fed pigs, and must be cured, treated, processed, and smoked in the town of Smithfield. This specific method was tied to its current name in the 1870s by a producer in the town. The town also boasts the world’s oldest ham, dating back to 1902—a Smithfield, of course—which is in a museum, covered in mold.

Bandera, Texas: Chicken fried steak

Essentially an American wiener schnitzel, the origins of chicken fried steak are somewhat debated, but the general consensus is that immigrants from Germany and Austria Americanized the dish. The dish is prepared by coating steak, pork, or chicken in flour and eggs. Then, it is placed in a deep fryer and served with southern classics like fried okra.

Saratoga Springs, New York: Potato chips

A picky resort guest in Saratoga Springs is responsible for one of the most classic American snacks—the humble potato chip. In 1853, a guest at the Moon Lake Lodge sent his french fries back, claiming they were too thick. The insulted chef sent back a version he was sure the customer couldn’t call too thin, and a staple of American snack cabinets was born.

Omaha, Nebraska: Reuben sandwich

Although there are several claims to the invention of the Reuben sandwich, many food historians believe that the dish originated at a weekly poker game in Omaha, at which a grocer by the name of Rueben came up with the recipe. The sandwich is made of grilled corned beef, Swiss cheese, sauerkraut, and Russian dressing between slices of rye bread.

Pasadena, California: Cheeseburger

The cheeseburger is perhaps one of the most famous American dishes, made merely of grilled beef topped with cheese and slapped between a white bread bun. The first cheeseburger is alleged to have been made at a roadside restaurant called the Rite Spot by the owner’s son in 1924 when it was sold for 15 cents. 

Narragansett, Rhode Island: Clams casino

Clams casino is a beloved New England dish that traces its roots to a resort in Narragansett in the early 20th century. The dish is made of clams on the half-shell combined with breadcrumbs and bacon and came from a resort guest’s request for the chef to whip up an untraditional spin on clams to surprise people she was having for lunch. 

Cincinnati, Ohio: Cincinnati chili

What makes Cincinnati chili so special is the unusual blend of spices added to classic chili, including cinnamon, chocolate, allspice, and Worcestershire. A Macedonian immigrant invented the dish in the 1920s, and his Greek restaurant, which was doing poorly, turned around when he began offering chili with unconventional spices. The chili is typically enjoyed on pasta, loaded with toppings.

Kansas City, Missouri: Kansas City barbecue

Kansas City barbecue comes from Kansas City and is made by slow-roasting meat and covering it with tomato and molasses-based sauce. This particular type of barbecue was first made out of a trolley barn in a typically African American neighborhood in the early 1900s and has been wildly popular ever since. 

Nashville: Hot chicken

Hot chicken originated in Nashville in the early 20th century, when the wife of a famous Nashville womanizer named Thornton Prince tried to get her revenge on him for keeping her waiting up at night by fixing him a fried chicken dish so hot it would make him ill. Her plan backfired, and Prince loved the meal, which is still beloved today for its integration of cayenne, hot sauce, chili powder, and more into fried chicken.

Winston-Salem, NC: Moravian chicken pie

Unlike traditional pies or quiches, Moravian chicken pie contains no fruit, vegetables, or sweets, only chicken and some broth. The savory dish comes from Winston-Salem, where immigrants from Moravia in the Czech Republic began making the dish generations ago. It is a staple at church fundraisers and in kitchens around the area. 

Newport Beach, CA: Frozen bananas

The humble frozen banana—usually topped in chocolate and covered in nuts—is a wildly popular dish with origins along the California coastline near Newport Beach. Around 1940, a man named Don Phillips is credited with serving the first frozen bananas out of a booth near a ferry dock—an idea he is believed to have gotten from the World’s Fair in Chicago several years before.  

Louisville: Modjeska

A Modjeska is simply a marshmallow covered in caramel. Modjeskas were invented in the 1880s in Louisville, Ky., by Anton Busath who immigrated to the U.S. from France. Busath, a confectioner, was reportedly so enamored with Shakespearean actress Helena Modjeska that he asked her if he could name his candy creation after her. She agreed, and the Modjeska was born. 

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