Iconic American food adventures
Travelling in the USA has to be three dimensional - things to see, things to do and things to eat! Wherever you go, there will be examples of American food culture that deserve special attention. As you sink your teeth into something deliciously cheesy, sticky, salty or sweet, your relationship with America's past and present will grow. Every US traditional food has a back story, so culinary adventures are also educational.
Best foods to try from the Midwest and East Coast
For these American cuisine adventures, fly Air New Zealand non-stop to either Houston or Chicago, with onward domestic USA connections available with our alliance partner United Airlines. All your USA flights, both international and domestic, can be booked through our website. From October 2020, we'll be flying non-stop to New York* - very handy if you're dying to sink your teeth into a slice of NYC pizza.
* Subject to final regulatory approvals and crewing agreements.
New York bagels, NYC
While bagels originate from Poland, New York can take the credit for making them world famous. After overnight fermentation, rings of dough are poached in water, which creates the chewy texture. The New York bagel is then baked to golden brown. The best NYC bagels are served with a smear of cream cheese and 'lox'- thinly sliced salt-cured salmon fillet.
New York pizza, NYC
In Italy, the home of pizza, you buy an entire pizza. In NYC, you buy thin-crust cheesy heaven one extra-big slice at a time. You'll find a range of toppings, but the classic tomato sauce and mozzarella is a good place to start with New York style pizza. It's said that NYC pizza ovens have absorbed decades worth of pizza scent; like whisky in an oak cask, it imparts a richer flavour.
New York cheesecake, NYC
In 1872, a New York dairyman accidentally invented cream cheese while trying to make a French cheese called Neufchâtel. Cheesecake came along soon after in the 1900s. This rich, dense dessert is baked at a high temperature, which gives it a light brown caramelised exterior and unctuous creamy interior. Don't be fooled by the range of flavours; the traditional NY cheesecake has only a hint of lemon to cut through the richness.
New England lobster roll, Connecticut
While each state has its own version of the lobster roll, this classic lunchtime meal originated in the town of Milford, Connecticut. A hot dog bun is packed with sweet lobster meat, creamy mayo and butter, and then topped with a sprinkling of crispy scallions or celery. You'll find it hard to communicate during a lobster roll session, because the only word you can manage is "mmmmm…"
Philly cheesesteak, Philadelphia
Imagine a crusty bread roll stuffed with hot, thinly-sliced juicy rib-eye beef and smothered with creamy melted cheese. Then, top it with fried mushrooms, tomato sauce, fried onions or hot and sweet peppers, as to your liking. A Philadelphia cheesesteak is not going to win you any healthy eating awards, but 90 years of Philadelphians can't be wrong!
Fried cheese curds, Wisconsin
If you find yourself in or around Wisconsin, make a point of hunting down these deep-fried creamy delights. They're soft, salty, slightly -squeaky balls of cheese that are breaded and deep-fried. Wisconsin farmers produce more than 900 million kg of cheese a year and cheese curds are their most popular local product. Mars Cheese Castle is arguably the best place to eat cheese curds in Wisconsin.
Deep-dish pizza, Chicago
In 1943, Pizzeria Uno created the first Chicago-style deep-dish pizza. It's possibly the most popular food in America - a thick pizza crust baked in a pan with cheese underneath all the other fillings. The top layer is sauce, so what you're really getting here is an upside-down pizza. The crust has butter or corn oil in the dough, which makes it crunchy, buttery and tender. Pizzeria Uno's still going strong, so you can eat the best deep-dish Chicago pizza at its place of origin.
Maryland crab cakes and steamed crab, Maryland
Chesapeake Bay is literally crawling with crabs and crab cakes are the best way to eat them. Find a shack on the beach and settle into a comfort-food meal of fresh, creamy crab meat held together with breadcrumbs, gently fried and served with tartare sauce and lemon. While you're there, get a bucket of steamed crabs flavoured with Old Bay seasoning. Tie back your hair, don the plastic apron and watch the locals for the best crab-opening technique.
Hot dish, Minnesota
The American equivalent of shepherd's pie, 'hot dish' is the ultimate in Minnesota convenience comfort food. It's always on the table at a pot luck dinner and every Mom has her own special recipe. In general, hot dish is made with a base of ground beef with spices, vegetables and canned mushroom soup, then covered with tater tots (potato nuggets) and baked 'til piping hot below and crispy on top. If you can't score an invite to a pot luck dinner, find a table at The Bulldog, Happy Joe's, Eli's or Haute Dish.
Apple pie, everywhere
There's nothing more American than apple pie (despite the fact it originated in England) and the best place to eat it is in an all-American diner. The USA's best apple pie is made with sweet short pastry filled with cinnamon-spiced stewed apples, then topped with a lattice of pastry. It's served piping hot with vanilla ice-cream or whipped cream.
Best foods to try on the West Coast
To enjoy California's iconic eats, fly Air New Zealand non-stop to either San Francisco or Los Angeles. If you're venturing further, you can add a domestic flight with our alliance partner United Airlines. All your USA flights, both international and domestic, can be booked through our website.
Creamy clam chowder, San Francisco
You haven't been to San Francisco unless you're eaten clam chowder on the bay. It's the most Instagrammable of meals; a sourdough bread bowl filled with briny clams, creamy potato and cream-based soup with a sprinkle of bacon and herbs. Sometime in the 17th century, fish chowder soup made its way to the west coast of the USA. The Native Americans added clams and it became the dish it is today. If you're travelling to the east coast, New England clam chowder is another must-eat.
Sourdough bread, San Francisco
With origins in ancient Egypt, sourdough bread became common in San Francisco during the 1840s gold rush. It was easy to make and highly durable, so could survive in the pockets of hard-working miners. What's more, something in the local water made the bread even better! The ideal sourdough loaf should be crusty and golden on the outside, and chewy and slightly sour on the inside.
Fish tacos, California
California's proximity to Mexico has allowed many tasty food traditions to cross the border. One of the best is fish tacos - white flaky fish dipped in batter and fried 'til crispy, then served in a soft taco shell with avocado, mayo, pickled vegetables, guacamole , cheese, corn, coriander…the list goes on. If you're staying in LA, look for the restaurant called Best Fish Taco in Ensenada - the name says it all.
In-N-Out burger, throughout southern California
Since 1948, In-N-Out burgers have been a mainstay of SoCal fast food. The brand is proud of its consistent, high-quality burgers; it pays a good wage to its staff; and it runs two charitable foundations. The menu is straightforward - hamburger, cheeseburger, double-double or the not-so-secret menu, which amps up the patties, cheese or veges.
Cobb salad, Los Angeles
In the 1930s, an LA restaurant owner - Robert Cobb - threw a bunch of leftovers together and accidentally created a legend. Lettuce, chicken breast, boiled eggs, avocado, bacon, tomatoes and Roquefort cheese are the basis for this meal-in-a-bowl. To finish, it has a drizzle of red-wine dressing for zing. A Cobb Salad is a tasty way to get some of your 5+-a-day.
Indian fry bread, southwest California
It might not sound like a traditional Native American dish, but the Navajo people invented fry bread in the mid-1800s when the US Government made the tribe to relocate from Arizona to New Mexico. The land in New Mexico couldn't support growing their traditional beans and vegetables, so the tribespeople were provided flour, sugar, salt and lard. The Navajo mixed them together to form dough and fried it like a fritter. It's served with honey or jam, or as a savoury dish with meat (aka Indian fry bread tacos).
Pacific Ocean salmon, Pacific Northwest
There are five species of Pacific salmon in the Northwest - coho, pink, chum, sockeye and king (chinook). If you're travelling in this area of the USA, you'll know you're getting the freshest catch of the day. Whether you like it raw in sashimi, or seared and served with a splash of lime, Pacific Salmon is full of Omega 3 fats that help with everything from glowing skin to heart health.
Oysters, Pacific Northwest
If you're an oyster lover, there are four species to discover in the Northwest. The native Olympia is tiny and rare; the Pacific is the one you'll commonly see on the half-shell; the European Flat is less common, but delicious; and Kumamoto is plump yet small - a good beginners' oyster. Whether you enjoy your oysters raw with an acidic dressing or breaded and pan-fried, a crisp Napa Valley white wine is the perfect accompaniment.
Best food experiences in the South
To catch these indulgent southern eats, fly Air New Zealand non-stop to Houston, then pick up a rental car or connect to a local domestic airport with our alliance partner United Airlines. All your USA flights - both international and domestic - can be booked through our website.
Frito pie, New Mexico
This savoury dish was famously called 'warm crap in a bag' by Anthony Bourdain, but you should try it for yourself before you pass judgement. Invented in the 1960s, it's a mix-up of corn chips (Fritos), beef chili, cheese and chopped onions. While it's not exactly fine dining, this 'walking taco' is always a hit with Tex-Mex appreciators.
Craft beer, Colorado
While beer can't strictly be called a best American food (although many might argue that point), it's a compelling reason to visit Colorado. Hops thrive in the Colorado climate, which is why this part of the USA has become craft beer central. Head to one of the events that celebrates the local craft scene for a day of live music and beer sampling. Best festivals include Pints and Pools in Pagosa Springs, Bacon and Beer in Denver, Grilled Cheese and Craft Beer Fest in Colorado Springs, Beaver Creek Craft Beer Fest and Colorado Burning Can Fest in Lyons.
Texas BBQ, anywhere in Texas
Texas barbecue has a cult following that stretches around the world. Introduced to the state by German and Czech settlers, it's a blend of slow-cooking, meat-smoking, precision seasoning and masterful sauce making. There are four styles of Texas barbecue - East, Central, West and South - so you can make a mission of trying them all. Beef brisket, pork ribs, beef ribs, shoulder steak and burnt ends are some of the offerings you'll find on the best Texas BBQ menus.
Hominy grits, everywhere in the south
While this dish may sound a bit like cooked sand, hominy grits is really just another name for polenta. Stone-ground dried corn is combined with milk and butter, then cooked with lots of stirring over low heat until smooth and creamy. Cheese is usually added to the corn grits as a finishing touch. Have yours with bacon, crab or shrimp. Hominy grits wasn't introduced to the USA from Europe; the dish was being eaten by Native Americans (but without milk, butter and cheese) before Christopher Columbus arrived.
Florida Key lime pie, Key West
This 1950s dessert has a crunchy pie crust, a creamy-but-tart lime filling and a meringue topping. It's named after the limes found throughout the Florida Keys, which are more sour and aromatic than regular limes. It's really a lemon meringue pie, but with an appealing extra bite of sourness. The Key West Key Lime Pie Company sells pies to take away; they also have cooking classes, so you can learn to make the best key lime pie ever.
Fried green tomatoes, everywhere in the south
While unripe green tomatoes are not generally eaten in New Zealand, in the southern states of the USA they're an autumn treat. Thickly-sliced green tomatoes are dredged in batter and fried 'til crispy in bacon fat. They are sweet and soft, while still retaining a pleasant firmness and slightly tart flavour. You can eat southern fried green tomatoes on their own or as a side dish with fried chicken, steak or seafood. Every reputable southern diner serves them.
Southern chicken fried steak/country fried steak, everywhere in the south
These are two similar dishes that originated from German immigrants in the 1800s. They both feature a coated, pan-fried steak (similar to wiener schnitzel) that's served with gravy. The distinction between the two is that country-fried steak is dusted in flour and served with brown gravy, while chicken-fried steak (which has nothing to do with chickens!) is coated with eggs and breadcrumbs, then served with creamy gravy. Either way, you're in for a treat.
Nashville hot chicken sandwich, Tennessee
Imagine buttermilk-marinated chicken, dipped in batter and fried 'til crispy, then dunked in a sauce made with cayenne pepper, brown sugar, garlic, paprika, black pepper and some of the frying oil. The saucy fried chicken goes into a soft white bun with some pickle chips for added tanginess. This dish has been around the African-American community since the 1930s and is now recognised as one of the best foods invented in America.
Southern biscuits and gravy, almost anywhere in the south
Biscuits 'n' gravy describes meltingly-tender scones made with buttermilk and butter that are served with rich, pork sausage gravy. It's southern-style breakfast comfort food at its finest. Biscuits have Scottish origins, while the gravy comes from early French cooking. This dish became popular in the south during the food shortage period that followed the US Civil War. You'll find biscuits and gravy at breakfast diners throughout the southern states.
Beignets, New Orleans
Found in the French Quarter of New Orleans, beignets are made from the same dough as doughnuts, but they're fried in an ellipsoidal shape until they are golden and crispy, then dusted with powdered sugar. Perfect with a coffee for breakfast or with ice-cream for a dessert, these French-named snacks originated in Rome before their long journey to the colourful city of New Orleans.