Our appetite for culinary travel has expanded as quickly as our waistlines. We can’t think of a better way to experience the true essence of a destination than through its local cuisine. Large U.S. cities with diverse populations like New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago are always a haven for foodies because of their wide array of dining options. But several smaller cities are serving up some serious competition with food offerings worthy of any culinary bucket list. Here are five fabulous foodie destinations for your next unique culinary adventure.
1. Charleston, South Carolina. Charleston’s emergence as a top-tier foodie destination is no surprise to us. It has been featured on numerous Travel Channel and Food Network shows. The food traditions of the Gullah people, brought to the Carolina colony from western Africa, have given Charleston a few centuries head start on the farm-to-table trend. Today, scores of restaurants, several with James Beard awards or nominations, offer creative variations of traditional Southern and low-country cuisine that just seem to taste better in Charleston than anywhere else it might be served.
Some of the must-eat dishes found on menus throughout the city include shrimp and grits, fried green tomatoes, she-crab soup, low-country boil, whole fried flounder, and fresh oysters. For an extra treat, try the bacon-and-bourbon pecan pie at the Dixie Supply Bakery & Cafe.
Our favorite Charleston restaurants include Husk Restaurant, Magnolias®, High Cotton®, Halls Chophouse, Pearlz Oyster Bar, and Hominy Grill.
2. New Orleans, Louisiana. We consider New Orleans to be one of the greatest foodie cities not only in the United States, but in the entire world. Heavily influenced by Cajun and Creole cultures, New Orleans has its own distinctive cuisine that we find absolutely addictive. In fact, New Orleans is the only city to have two sandwiches appear on our list of 10 bucket-list sandwiches—the muffuletta from Central Grocery and the bacon-wrapped, fried-oyster po’boy from Zimmer’s Seafood.
Many classic New Orleans dishes are made with rice or are served over rice. Jambalaya, gumbo, crawfish étouffée, andouille sausage, or red beans and rice are all readily available throughout the city and should not be missed. If you have a sweet tooth, save room for some other New Orleans favorites like bread pudding, bananas Foster, and pralines. Beignets and coffee with chicory from the Café du Monde are a must for anyone visiting the Big Easy, but get there early to avoid extremely long lines.
3. Portland, Maine. For a small city that experiences cold temperatures much of the year, Portland is a real hot spot when it comes to food. Of course, being a port city with a ready supply of live Maine lobster certainly doesn’t hurt, particularly when local chefs are able to incorporate the revered crustacean into so many dishes. Lobster bisque, lobster dumplings, lobster mac and cheese, lobster tacos, and lobster omelets are just a sampling of what you can find in Portland restaurants.
Lobster rolls are among Portland’s most popular foods and are an absolute must. There can be some variation in how the rolls are prepared, but they are most commonly served either cold with mayo or warm with butter. If you visit Portland without eating one, you should never be allowed to travel anywhere again. Ever! Unless, of course, you have a shellfish allergy, in which case you are exempt from this rule.
You can find just about any kind of food your heart desires in Portland, as it ranks among the nation’s cities with the most restaurants per capita. When it comes to dining, we believe in asking the locals. Locals turned us on to Gilbert’s Chowder House (that serves a life-changing seafood chowder in a paper cup) and The Porthole Restaurant & Pub (where we enjoyed a legendary Bloody Mary and an unforgettable breakfast of corned beef hash with fried eggs and roasted sweet potatoes).
4. Santa Fe, New Mexico. Santa Fe proves that a city doesn’t have to rest on a body of water to be a great foodie destination. Dining options are creative and plentiful in Santa Fe. The fusion of American, Mexican, and American Indian flavors over a couple of centuries have evolved into the foods that epitomize southwestern cuisine. Here, green and red chilies are more popular condiments than mustard and ketchup.
Viewfinder Tip: Restaurants in foodie destinations tend to be very popular, so be sure to make reservations whenever possible to avoid long waits for a table.
C.G. Higgins is a chocolatier and candymaker, where everything is handmade using the finest all-natural ingredients. We are fans of his red-and-green-chili pecan brittle. Geronimo has AAA Four Diamond and Forbes Four-Star Restaurant awards. With a menu that changes seasonally, Geronimo’s beautifully plated dishes are a symphony for your senses and a cause for celebration. Jambo Café was influenced by the amazing aromas of Chef Ahmed Obo’s mother’s Lamu Island kitchen off the coast of Kenya. His dishes are a Caribbean-African fusion and include slow-cooked goat in an island curry sauce, east-African coconut lentil stew, and grilled organic jerk chicken.
5. Portland, Oregon. A thriving food-truck scene, close proximity to the Willamette Valley wine region, and Voodoo Doughnut, the most innovative doughnut shop on the planet, has quickly vaulted Portland to the top of our food destinations.
Portland has a unique vibe and proudly proclaims its weirdness. Its eclectic culinary scene provides some unique dining experiences. In the South Waterfront neighborhood, Chef Debbie Frangipane of the popular gastropub The Groaning Board whips up her signature fried chicken, cauliflower mash, swiss chard, and made-from-scratch buttermilk biscuits. Another favorite, Asian inspired Pok Pok on SE Division, serves a legendary dish called “Ike’s Vietnamese fish sauce wings” that is truly unforgettable. And Salt & Straw on NW 23rd Avenue has “Stumptown Coffee & Burnside Bourbon,” a pick-me-up in a neat little scoop of ice-cream perfection.
What are your favorite foodie destinations?