What do you think of as American food? Burgers with melted cheese, hot dogs with mustard and a Caesar salad – with or without chicken? Isn’t the melting pot of America going further in its taste?
I decided to discover a five-week culinary road trip from New York to Los Angeles, dive into the southern states along the way and taste everything from Creole bread pudding soufflé to Monterey cheesy grits.
Here is my choice of the best – and the most surprising – gastronomic gems.
Gotham Bar and Grill, New York
Gotham Bar and Grill, above, is a New York institution in the heart of West Village
Depicted is Vic’s Burger, with a soft brioche bun, bone marrow, crispy shallots and sweet mango sauce
This is an institution in the heart of West Village. The high ceilings, the split-level dining and the bustling bar full of slender New Yorkers sipping Cosmopolitans is enough to make you feel like you’re in Sex And The City. The ‘Nouveaux-American’ menu contains oysters and mango-clad burgers – the juiciest I’ve ever had.
Remarkable dish: Vic’s Burger, with a soft brioche bun, bone marrow, crispy shallots and sweet mango sauce (£ 21.60), gothambarandgrill.com.
I Got Your Crabs, Kitty Hawk, North Carolina
Tasty: I Got Your Crabs is a roadside restaurant complete with stainless steel bar and bright orange cabins
This roadside dinner, complete with stainless steel bar and bright orange booths, is only typical of the interior. Owner Hunter Stuart’s daily catch is used throughout the menu, including crab cakes served with a homemade spicy mayo salsa, alongside endless fillings of sweet pink lemonade.
Remarkable dish: Crab tacos packed with grated cabbage, red pepper, red onion, a sweet mango and an explosion of lime (£ 4.60), igotyourcrabs.com
The Lifesaving Station, Sanderling Resort, Duck, North Carolina
The Lifesaving Station in North Carolina was built in 1874 as a refuge for shipwrecked people – order the blueberry pancakes
Come in for breakfast on this site, built in 1874 as a haven for shipwrecked people, and order blueberry pancakes made from a downy, ultra-light batter and the size of your face.
Remarkable dish: Northern Banks breakfast, complete with pancakes, sausages, bacon, eggs (too easy) and a powerful filter coffee with endless fillings (£ 11.60), sanderling-resort.com.
Husk, Nashville, Tennessee
The only place you should try shrimp and grits – cooked cornmeal – is in this stately mansion. Here, southern comfort food has been redefined, with chic fried chicken, eggs filled with cherry pepper and grits that taste like something.
Remarkable dish: Grits with Monterey cheese, garnished with mother-of-pearl drops of pickled beetroot, shrimps and micro vegetables. A painting in a bowl (£ 12.35), husknashville.com.
In trendy East Nashville, this relaxed eatery has a “nouveaux Southern” tasting menu with dishes such as grilled turnips dressed with black vinegar, chili and ginger and chocolate souffle.
Remarkable dish: sweet fingerling potatoes with pistachio, lemon and fermented green tomato butter (£ 9.25), setsuneast.com.
Iris, Memphis, Tennessee
Chef Kelly English brought the finesse and flavors of Creole cuisine to Memphis and gave them an Italian twist in restaurant Iris
Chef Kelly English has taken the finesse and flavors of Creole cooking to Memphis and given them an Italian twist, with plates such as candied duck carbonara and cannelloni with wild mushrooms.
Remarkable dish: Creamy crawfish gnocchi in a sauce of spicy andouille sausage, mushrooms and microgreens, served with a home-made molasses sandwich (£ 13), restaurantiris.com.
Helen’s BBQ, Brownsville, Tennessee
Served a treat: Anastasia, right, with traveling companion Iska Lupton, at Helen’s BBQ
Grandmother Helen Turner serves 12 hours of smoked pork shoulder with coleslaw, beans and spicy barbecue sauce in a former garage. This red hut is more than 100 years old and Helen has been at the helm for 25 years That.
Remarkable dish: Pulled pork roll with a hefty dash of Helen’s secret barbecue sauce recipe (£ 3).
Old Capitol Inn, Jackson, Mississippi
This cozy inn is close to Jackson’s must-have Civil Rights Museum and offers generous portions of southern food at reasonable prices. Dishes are best enjoyed at the fountain in the ivy-covered garden.
Remarkable dish: Panko chicken served with mac and cheese (cheddar!) And sweet tea fillings (£ 5.40), oldcapitolinn.com.
Costera, New Orleans
Chef Brian Burns takes Spanish-style tapas and gives it a Louisiana kick at Costera in New Orleans
Chef Brian Burns takes Spanish-style tapas and gives it a Louisiana kick, supplying plates such as blue crab salad with charred tomato, olives and fried garlic and blisters of shishito peppers, which unite local produce with spicy Cajun flavors and flair .
Remarkable dish: Perfectly soft on the inside, charred on the outside octopus a la plancha with heirloom bean and herb salad (£ 13), costerarestaurant.com.
Commander’s Palace, New Orleans
New Orleans’ signature Commander’s Palace serves ultra-fluffy Creole bread pudding soufflé
Weekend brunch is a reason for a party, with balloons adorning every table in the three huge dining rooms of this monumental eatery. If the Cochon de lait Eggs Benedict doesn’t fill you, then the ultra-fluffy Creole bread pudding souffle should do it.
Remarkable dish: Legs & Eggs – crispy candied duck leg, young potatoes and a sunny chicken egg (£ 29), commanderspalace.com.
Olde Tyme Grocery, Lafayette, Louisiana
Louisiana’s best: Old Tyme Grocery makes big baguettes from fried oysters or shrimp, packed with salad and just about every other filling you can imagine
The po’boy was a roadside sandwich that was served cheaply for hungry workers (poor boys). This old wooden supermarket makes big baguettes from fried oysters or shrimps, full of salad and just about every other filling you can imagine.
Remarkable dish: A sandwich with pastrami and cheese, filled with olives, mustard and salad (£ 4), oldetymegrocery.com
Kulture, Houston, Texas
Although it could pass as a sports bar thanks to the TV screens and stark lighting, this glass-fronted spot has been touted as the restaurant that redefines comfort food in Houston. Kulture serves seasonal dishes in an elegant way and combines a relaxed attitude with gastronomic finesse.
Remarkable dish: The deep-fried red snapper, completely plated with its teeth intact, and a colorful purple, green and orange slaw that comes from the center (£ 21.60), avenidahouston.com.
Irma’s Original, Houston
This Tex-Mex joint explodes with color thanks to red faux snakeskin tablecloths and staff murals. Owner Irma Galvan, 78, is powerful in her recommendation of the ice-cold Irma Margarita.
Remarkable dish: Thick guacamole with homemade chips (£ 4), irmasoriginal.com.
Snow’s BBQ, Lexington, Texas
Tootsie Tomanetz, an 84-year-old grandmother of ten, arrives every Saturday at 02:00 in the pick-up at Snow’s BBQ (a shed with a corrugated iron roof) to start the smoking process. The place opens at 8 a.m. and at 11 a.m. all meat – turkey, sausages, chicken and breast – is devoured.
Remarkable dish: Roasted brisket cooked on hot coals for seven hours and served with homemade beans and slaw, snowsbbq.com.
Mattie is at Green Pastures, Austin, Texas
This is where the locals go to celebrate. Within the large 19th-century farmhouse, Ethan Holmes gives his grandmother’s dishes a refined finish and treats vegetables with the love they deserve.
Remarkable dish: Three-way rainbow carrots – roasted orange, grilled purple and yellow shallow fried – served on a rich harissa houmous and sprinkled with feta, sunflower and pumpkin seeds (£ 10), mattiesaustin.com.
Inn in Dos Brisas, Washington County, Texas
The Inn at Dos Brisas in Texas is a farmer-to-plate pioneer. Employees use everything that grows on the site
The only five-star restaurant in Forbes in Texas is not in Austin, Houston or Dallas, but at The Inn at Dos Brisas in the hills of Washington County. Pioneering in the farm-to-table concept, employees use everything that grows on the site. Even a ‘simple sandwich’ gets the five-star treatment, with sourdough bread, pieces of crab, micro vegetables and home-made chips. It was the highlight of my culinary road trip.
Remarkable dish: Chicken roasted in the pot steamed with hay from the farm and sealed in a pot with delicious buttery brioche. Served with thyme gravy and black truffles (£ 85 as part of a tasting menu), dosbrisas.com.
Maverick, San Antonio, Texas
You can’t leave Texas without tasting a steak and this place does it with style. Grilled prime rib hisses to perfection, while a huge selection of vegetarian sides illuminates the food debt in a cozy dining room with exposed stones.
Remarkable dish: Sides such as turmeric cauliflower with pickled raisins and shaved almonds (£ 7), and the freshest radicchio salad with spicy bursts of Texas grapefruit, red onion, hazelnut and ricotta salata (£ 9.25) steal the show, mavericktexas.com.
Azucar at the Del Marcos Hotel, Palm Springs
Azucar is a Frida Kahlo-themed paradise under the eternal blue sky of Palm Springs and specializes in Mexican cuisine. Expect guacamole that sings lime and hot spikings of chili; large piles of crispy salad; and colorful fish tacos with extra cabbage for a good measure, all served by an aquamarine pool.
Remarkable dish: Swordfish tacos dressed with mango (three for £ 14), thrown down with a salt-rimmed margarita (£ 14), delmarcoshotel.com.
Dama, Los Angeles
Dama is a trendy tapas bar with an old Havana atmosphere in the center of Los Angeles
Taste the freshest, most funny fish versions you’ll find in the city, along with mezcal and rare Mexican wines
The city is obsessed with tacos. Taste the freshest, most funny fish versions in town, along with mezcal and rare Mexican wines, in this Downtown tapas bar. Chat with the highly skilled sommelier for a customized combination of drinks.
Remarkable dish: Crispy fish tada with chili, lime and coriander, topped with a creamy Californian chardonnay. Expect to spend £ 50 per head, damafashiondistrict.com.
Gjelina, Los Angeles
A-list call: Jay Z and Beyoncé are known to come in for pizza at Gjelina in Venice, Los Angeles
See and be seen at this place in Venice, where Jay Z and Beyoncé are known for their pizza. The best product the state has to offer is used for expertly assembled salads that are so lightly dressed that you forget that you are in America.
Remarkable dish: Pomodoro pizza with preserved California candied tomatoes, olive oil, basil and burrata – simple but chock full of the intense taste of sunshine (£ 14), gjelina.com.