EAT LIKE A LOCAL
5 Tasteful U.S. Trips
Sussing out places that serve bona fide regional specialties is a high point of any road trip. In five corners of the country, here are restaurants worth a detour.
LOUISIANA'S CAJUN COUNTRY
Focus: 100 miles west of New Orleans.
All too often, Cajun cuisine serves as shorthand for generic "spicy comfort food." But that's a gross simplification. According to Donald Link, a chef and author of cookbook-memoir Real Cajun, the cuisine "is a one-pot cooking style based on country-French cooking roots, German sausage making, and the resourcefulness of African slave cooks." Loosely translated, that means perfectly spiced (though not spicy) sauces; deep, rich gumbos; and novel creations like boudin (a meat-and-rice-stuffed sausage) that are rarely seen outside central Louisiana.
The heart of Cajun country lies between Baton Rouge and Lake Charles, but the culinary center is inside a rectangle that has I-10 as the southern strip, White Oak Highway and I-49 as parallel bookends, and Highway 190 as the northern stretch.
Three essential stops: In Breaux Bridge, Café Des Amis is a can't-miss stop for Saturday breakfast. Order the oreille de cochon, fried dough shaped like pig's ears, stuffed with boudin. Then dance to music played on the guitar, washboard, and accordion (140 E. Bridge St., 337/332-5273, $7 stuffed). Drop in for the state's best crawfish boil at Hawk's in Rayne, just off I-10. Quick-cooked mudbugs (a.k.a. crawfish) go best with a side of Denise's boiled potatoes and a cold beer (416 Hawks Rd., 337/788-3266, hawkscrawfish.com, open only during crawfish season, starting around Dec.; $18 for three pounds). About 50 miles from Breaux Bridge is the cute town of Jennings, home to Frey's Crawfish House—a must for its shrimp and corn bisque, chicken and sausage gumbo, and Mrs. Shonda Zaunbrecher's bread pudding topped with whiskey sauce (919-A N. Lake Arthur Ave., 337/824-6004, freyscrawfish.com, chicken and sausage gumbo $12).
SOUTH CAROLINA'S LOW COUNTRY
Start in Charleston and the counties surrounding it.
This might come as a surprise, but the cuisine of South Carolina's low country has a lot more to offer than shrimp and grits. The region is named for the southern counties along the coast. True low-country food is a complex mix of fresh seafood, native rice, and legumes, and is seeing a renaissance unlike any other cuisine in the U.S.
"The food and products available in this region are completely different from what was around ten years ago," says Sean Brock, chef of McCrady's in Charleston. Farmers are reintroducing many of the crops that were lost after the Civil War, such as original breeds of wheat, corn, and benne, and many kitchens are reviving long-neglected recipes. This reenergized food scene has earned Charleston chefs the James Beard Foundation awards for Best Chef in the Southeast the past three years. For thorough exploration, start in Charleston and wind south among the moss-draped oaks that line coastal Route 17.
Three essential stops: If you think grits are a mushy breakfast food, you've never had Robert Stehling's worthy version. Hominy Grill, in Charleston, delivers creamy perfection: local shrimp sautéed with bacon, scallions, and mushrooms over cheddar and Parmesan-spiked Old Mill of Guilford grits (207 Rutledge Ave., 843/937-0930, hominygrill.com, $17). In McClellanville, Thornhill Farm (Hwy. 17 N., 843/887-3500, ourlocalfoods.com) is a store, not a restaurant, but its supply of local meats, artisanal cheeses, and fresh veggies is unrivaled. Grab some fixings for a sandwich, and don't forget to get a Coke as well. In between the two, Charlotte Jenkins' Gullah Cuisine restaurant is a tribute to the low-country's African-American heritage. Jenkins has been ladling out the region's tastiest she-crab soup since 1997. If crab's not to your liking, opt for a plate of Gullah rice, a cousin to paella (1717 Hwy. 17 N., 843/881-9076, gullahcuisine.com, a cup of she-crab soup $6).
NORTHERN NEW MEXICO
Gateway: Santa Fe.
Whatever you do, don't call it Tex-Mex. Folks in New Mexico are justifiably touchy about their food, a fusion of Native American, Spanish, and Mexican traditions. Instead of insulting locals by asking for a burrito, win their hearts by ordering green-chile cheeseburgers, Frito pies, whole-wheat sopaipillas, or grass-fed beef enchiladas—all flavored with that quintessentially New Mex ingredient, chile—the hotter, the better.