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.
The center of the food scene is still Santa Fe, which made its name back in the '80s with new New Mexican fare, but great options abound across the state, especially to the south toward Albuquerque along Highway 14, a.k.a. The Turquoise Trail. This scenic byway is not only home to a disproportionate number of authentic New Mexican restaurants, but it's also one of the prettiest stretches in the Southwest.
Three essential stops: Stock up on green chile bread ($8) and biscochitos, an anise-flavored shortbread that is New Mexico's official state cookie ($3 per dozen), at the Golden Crown Panaderia (1103 Mountain Rd. NW, 505/243-2424, goldencrown.biz), near Old Town Albuquerque. In Cerrillos, on Highway 14, you'll recognize the San Marcos Café from the gaggle of chickens, peacocks, and turkeys noisily clucking about an Old MacDonald–type ranch. The croissant-like cinnamon rolls are essential (flaky and sweet), but for something more traditional, order the muchaca: a scramble of eggs, beef, and pico de gallo (3877 State Hwy. 14, 505/471-9298, cinnamon roll, $4; muchaca $11.50). Santa Fe's Coyote Café (132 W. Water St., 505/983-1615, coyotecafe.com) has been around since 1987 and is responsible for new New Mexican cuisine. So skip the green-chile cheeseburgers and opt instead for barbecued duck quesadillas ($12) and Eric's New Mexican Meatloaf, with its requisite green chiles and spicy chorizo gravy ($12).
CENTRAL MAD RIVER VALLEY, VERMONT
Head there via a four-hour drive northwest of Boston.
Vermonters were eating locally grown food long before the media injected the term "locavore" into the national lexicon. And nowhere is farm-fresh food more deeply rooted than in the 30-mile Mad River Valley between Waitsfield and Stowe Mountain Resort. Hemmed in by the Green Mountains, the valley has been a hotbed for the local foods movement since 1987, when George Schenk opened his now renowned American Flatbread pizzeria in Waitsfield. These days, small-scale farms, family dairies, and New American bistros are popping up like dandelions along Mad River's main drag, the winding Route 100.
Three essential stops: At Three Shepherds Cheese, Larry and Linda Faillace's raw milk cheeses include Cosmos, a soft-ripened cow's-milk cheese covered in organic Italian herbs, garlic, and red pepper flakes, available at the Waitsfield Farmers' Market (108 Roxbury Mountain Rd., 802/496-3998, threeshepherdscheese.com; Mad River Green, 802/472-8027, waitsfieldfarmersmarket.com; $20 per pound). While Whole Foods stores nationwide sell frozen pizza from American Flatbread, the real thing is just outside Waitsfield at the company's first location. Naturally, the restaurant serves Ben & Jerry's for dessert (46 Lareau Rd., 802/496-8856, americanflatbread.com, pizza $17.50). Nab one of 15 or so outside seats at Hen of the Wood, a charming restaurant in a converted gristmill in Waterbury. It's a bit of a splurge, but well worth it for sheep's-milk gnocchi ($16), local rib eye with fingerling potatoes and grilled leeks ($31), and a mostly Vermont cheese list (92 Stowe St., 802/244-7300, henofthewood.com).
DOOR COUNTY, WISCONSIN
Find your bearings 170 miles north of Milwaukee.
The upper Midwest does not leap to mind as a crucible of culinary genius, but you might want to think again. Across western Wisconsin, there's a minor revolution afoot, a movement to bring back the traditional pies, small-batch gin, Cornish pastries, and Danish kringles the area was once known for. Any given Saturday, particularly on the Door Peninsula sandwiched between Green Bay and Lake Michigan, you're almost guaranteed to happen upon roadside fish boils and farm stands loaded with fresh apples, juniper berries, Montmorency cherries, and, of course, artisanal cheeses (it is Wisconsin after all).
Three essential stops: Fruit wines are gaining popularity among oenophiles, and the county's top-rated quaffs are at Door Peninsula Winery (5806 Hwy. 42, 800/551-5049, dcwine.com). Just north of the town of Sturgeon Bay, the 36-year-old winery recruited California vintner Paul Santoriello, who has made wines for the likes of David Bruce Winery, a pioneer of cutting-edge production techniques. At the northernmost tip of the peninsula, the Voight family has been smoking fish since 1932 at Charlie's Smokehouse. There are other fish on the menu—trout, salmon, and chubs—but the maplewood-smoked local whitefish is the item to order. Grab a table overlooking the water (12731 Hwy. 42, 920/854-2972, charliessmokehouse.com, whitefish $5.50 a pound). Also just off the northern tip, small-batch gin, vodka, and white whiskey are distilled from Washington Island's wheat and juniper berries by the award-winning Death's Door Spirits (920/847-2169, deathsdoorspirits.com; bottle of Death's Door Vodka, $35).