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American cuisine is an amalgamation of food from different cultures, with strong influences from the British Isles, southern Italy, West Africa, France, Germany, Mexico, China and Japan, and from Native American ingredients and techniques. Almost every kind of food in the world can be found in the United States, and most have been adapted into forms that may be barely recognizable in the country of origin. There is also significant regional variation in American cuisine, with the South, Texas, New England, New York City and Chicago in particular being known for their own local specialties.
American cuisine has a lot in common with its people: it's a "melting pot" of almost everything imaginable, and while restaurants that serve American cuisine have a lot in common (usually televisions for sports around the building, a sizeable bar, large eating areas, etc.), there are many restaurants in the United States that do not serve American cuisine, making those that do serve the cuisine almost a minority. As a result, American interpretations of "foreign" food are often significantly different from what's available in the old country.
Another distinctive factor of American cuisine is that many immigrant cuisines are not only present in the U.S., but, due to the often ghettoized nature of immigrant communities, they can be more authentic in line with food in the old country than in some places, as they have to cater less to the general population. In general, cuisines that have only emerged into the mainstream American diet in the last few decades, for example Korean or Ethiopian, will be much more in line with what's common in the old country than say, Italian or Chinese that have a long history with mainstream American culture.
The American interpretation of Italian cuisine is influenced by the large proportion of 19th-century Italian immigrants coming from the (poorer) southern parts of Italy, which is culturally and culinarily distinct from northern Italy. The prevalence of meatballs, which is stereotypical of American-Italian cuisine, is rarely found in any part of Italy. In general the relative abundance and low price of meat in the U.S. contributed to Italian-American cooking being relatively meat-heavy compared to what's traditional in the Old Country.
American "Mexican food" is largely dominated by "Cal-Mex," popular on the West Coast, and "Tex-Mex," popular most everywhere else. An exception is New Mexican food, with its heavy reliance on green chiles, but with a few exceptions you'll have to go to New Mexico to get it. While there are a lot of commonalities between various types, Tex-Mex tends to involve significantly more cheese and less fish than Cal-Mex. For example, a cheesy dip called queso is virtually ubiquitous in Tex-Mex cooking, and almost totally unknown in Cal-Mex, and certainly unknown in Mexico where it's just the Spanish word for "cheese." Chili con carne has its roots in Tex-Mex cooking but is now pretty much considered to be standard American food. Most major American cities also have small hole-in-the-wall taquerias where you can find cheap and delicious authentic Mexican food.
There is also the absurd story of so-called Hunan cuisine, which many American Chinese restaurants advertise but only a small percentage serve. The story goes that during the famous visit of Nixon to China, Chairman Mao (who was born in Hunan to wealthy farmers) would always reply "from Hunan" when Nixon asked him where a dish he particularly liked originated. This was almost certainly due to Mao's local patriotism and the fact that none of the Chinese present dared contradict him (and the Americans didn't know any better). At any rate, upon returning to the U.S., Nixon took many opportunities to praise Hunan cuisine, which is why many Chinese restaurants started advertising it, despite actually serving vastly different styles of Chinese cuisine. Given the long history of Chinese restaurants in the US, "American Chinese" is generally reckoned to be a distinct style of cooking that draws from Chinese tradition but is distinctly American. Chop Suey, Lemon Chicken, Crab Rangoon and fortune cookies are but a few of the classic "Chinese" dishes that many American Chinese restaurants serve that would be totally unrecognizable in China. In fact, fortune cookies most likely originated in Japan, and only became associated with Chinese restaurants after the U.S. internment of most of its ethnic Japanese population during World War II.
Traditionally, most Americans have eaten three meals a day: breakfast, lunch, and dinner, with perhaps a mid-afternoon snack for children. In the last few decades, more people have started "grazing", or eating small snacks throughout the day, so that eating is informal, often solitary, and done quickly between other activities.
Many Americans routinely skip breakfast, and many restaurants don't open for it. Those that do serve eggs, toast, pancakes, waffles, hot and cold cereals, sausages, coffee, etc. Most restaurants stop serving breakfast between 10 and 11AM, but some, especially diners, offer an "all-day breakfast" menu alongside their lunch and dinner menus.
Eggs are popular, and are most often seen in two basic versions: "eggs with" something and "eggs in" something. Eggs with potatoes are usually seen in diners or roadside restaurants, and eggs in some kind of bread are usually seen in fast-food or take-away places. In the first category, the eggs with potatoes can usually be had fried, scrambled, poached, or as an omelet, and the potatoes will usually be the regional interpretation of hash browns or home fries (pan-fried sliced potatoes). Alternatively, especially in the South, eggs with grits are quite common. You'll be able to choose whether you want to add meat (often bacon, sausage, hot ham, and sometimes a beef steak). In the second category, an egg may be fried and in an English muffin, a bagel, or a croissant, or scrambled and inside a taco or burrito.
As an alternative to a restaurant breakfast, you can grab breakfast food such as doughnuts, muffins (the cupcake-style muffins, not English muffins), fruits, coffee, and packaged drinks at almost any gas station, coffee shop, or convenience store.
Continental breakfast is a term primarily used by hotels, especially smaller hotels and establishments on the lower end of the price/luxury scale, to describe a cold breakfast that commonly includes cold cereal, fruit, yogurt, and various pastries and baked goods along with milk, fruit juices, and coffee to drink. These are usually offered as a buffet, or perhaps delivered to your room.
Many restaurants serve Sunday brunch, served morning through early afternoon (and sometimes on Saturdays), with both breakfast and lunch items. There is often a buffet, or you might order from a menu. Sunday brunch is the stereotypical family event for Mother's Day in May, and restaurants open for brunch that morning will be crowded.
Buffets are generally a cheap way to get a large amount of food, and it's a common way for hotels to handle breakfast. For a single price, you can have as many servings of whatever foods are set out. Mid-range and upscale hotels usually offer a breakfast buffet that includes a variety of breads, breakfast cereals, pastries, eggs, sausage and/or bacon, and waffles. At mid-range hotels, the breakfast buffet may be included in the price for your hotel room. At business-class and luxury hotels, breakfast is likely to cost extra – frequently $25 per person or more – and contain an even larger variety of foods. Usually, buffets are self-serve, but some items, such as a large piece of roasted meat or a made-to-order omelet station, might have a staff person to serve you. Since food can be sitting out in the heat for hours, the quality can be poorer than what you would normally be served at a restaurant that cooks food to order. If you go back for a second helping of something, you are expected to get a clean plate every time.
If you are staying at someone's home, then most Americans eat some kind of toast or cereal for breakfast at home, or perhaps you will be offered eggs, fruit, or yogurt.
Lunch prices are typically cheaper at restaurants than dinner prices, often as little as half per item. Lunch is most often eaten around noon; it's uncommon to eat as late as 2PM in much of the country, with some exceptions, including the New York City area. Most restaurants that have separate lunch and dinner menus stop serving lunch around 2 or 3PM, and it's common for restaurants to close for a few hours in the late afternoon to prepare for dinner service.
Common lunch options include fast-food restaurants, sandwich shops, ethnic specialty restaurants (e.g., Mexican, Chinese, Indian, Thai), hamburgers, and pizza.
Lunch buffets usually serve American or Chinese food, but other cuisines, such as Indian, are sometimes served this way. Salad bars, baked potato bars, and taco bars are specific versions of buffets, geared towards building your ideal salad, flavored potato, or faux-Mexican dish.
Dinner is the main meal. Depending on culture, region, and personal preference, is usually enjoyed between 5 and 10PM, although it can be much earlier in the day on Sundays and holidays. Making reservations is a good idea if the restaurant is popular, upscale, or you are dining in a large group.
Restaurants that serve American cuisine will usually serve at least one pasta dish (macaroni and spaghetti are common); some steaks and similar meat dishes that are served with vegetables and/or french fries; and maybe some salads or vegetarian, vegan, and gluten-free items.
- Corn (Zea mays) – Often enjoyed by itself with dishes like corn on the cob, or as an ingredient in larger dishes. Very commonly grilled at summer cookouts and county or state fairs. Also called sweet corn, and known in Commonwealth English as maize.
- Potato – Widely used in French fries, hash browns (shredded or diced and fried), tater tots, mashed potatoes, potato salad, baked potatoes and home fries (fried sliced potatoes). The most standard American potato is the large "russet" variety with white meat and thick brown skin. Dishes like oven roasted potatoes typically use smaller, thinner-skinned varieties with red or golden outsides. Older "heirloom" varieties, sometimes with unusual coloration like purple skin and blue meat, show up at times.
- Green beans (string beans) – Popular in Southern dishes, which may pair it with sweet corn. Also a common diner side. You'll find fresh steamed beans in high-end restaurants, bright green frozen beans in most, and olive-green canned beans in others.
- Peas – Green peas are often served hot with butter as a side dish, or cold on a salad bar. In the dried form, they are the basis of split pea soup.
- Broccoli – Often served as a side to meat, in Italian-American cuisine, or as part of a soup.
- Cucumber – Often enjoyed as pickles, or as an ingredient in wraps or salads.
- Cabbage – Often used in coleslaw and German-American dishes
- Lettuce and spinach – often used in salads, wraps, and sandwiches. A bit of lettuce is often used to give hamburgers a little crunch.
- Carrots – widely used to accompany beef, also often part of "mixed vegetables" sides, which may include broccoli or cauliflower. Also commonly eaten raw by themselves or shredded in salads and sandwiches with lettuce.
- Sweet potatoes, often called "yams" and frequently candied (glazed with syrup) but also often baked or made into sweet potato fries. Sweet potato pie is also a popular dessert among African-Americans and Southerners
- Beets – Often used as part of a salad, or as part of a health-conscious smoothie. UK and Australian visitors know them as "beetroot."
- Kale – Often used for salad and in various kinds of dishes. Kale salads have become trendy throughout the country as the plant's health benefits have become widely known, although it's long been cooked as "greens" in the south, typically mixed with bacon and vinegar.
- Collard greens – A staple of soul food and Southern food, frequently served with ham. A large variety of other greens are common in the South, such as mustard and beet greens.
- Tomatoes – widely used, especially in Italian American dishes and salads. The large, bright red, somewhat watery "Beefsteak" varieties are starting to be supplanted by smaller, more flavorful tomatoes. Small, juicy "cherry" and "grape" tomatoes are common in salads. "Roma" is a very popular smallish, dense, thick-skinned tomato that was developed in the 1950s for sauces and canning — basically a version of the Italian San Marzano tomato but more suited to American growing conditions — that has also become popular as a salad tomato. Farmers markets, gourmet markets, and higher-end restaurants often feature "heirloom" tomatoes, old traditional varieties that come in a wide variety of colors, shapes, and flavors.
- Acorn squash and pumpkins are widely used in the fall, the less sweet zucchini (courgette in UK English) and yellow squash throughout most of the year.
- Eggplant — "aubergine" in UK English, most commonly the large, plump Italian variety, though various long, thin, denser varieties are common in various Asian-American cuisines.
- Blackeyed peas – much appreciated in the South and a traditional New Year's Eve food in Louisiana, where these peas are considered to bring abundance
- Avocado – often used in Tex-Mex and California food, either by itself, in salads or as guacamole.
- Mushrooms are often used in omelets, soup, stews, pasta sauces, on hamburgers and in salads and sides. By far the most popular American mushroom is the common button/crimini mushroom and its mature form, the portabella mushroom. Oyster mushrooms are also occasionally seen. Other types of mushrooms are generally only available at gourmet and/or Asian markets.
- Bell peppers are very commonly used in salads, on burgers, and in dishes in inexpensive restaurants. They are cheap and largely appreciated.
- Onions can be used in almost any savory context, including raw in salads, raw or caramelized with hamburgers, in soups, in omelets and in sauces, but one classic combination is liver and onions, which can sometimes be found on diner menus. "Tobacco onions" is a phrase you'll sometimes see, this just means onions that are deep fried until crispy and tobacco-colored; there's no actual tobacco involved.
- Beans – you'll see a large variety of dried and canned beans for sale in American supermarkets. Pinto beans are a staple in Mexican American cooking, and black beans, while they're only traditional in certain parts of Mexico, are widely available in American Mexican restaurants. Whether these beans belong in chili con carne is a matter of serious debate among its aficionados. Red beans and rice is a well known Louisiana staple. Bean soup, made with white and/or navy beans, is a common diner staple in parts of the South and Midwest, often accompanied by a grilled bratwurst. Smoked ham hocks and lima beans are another American classic. Baked beans are a common side dish for BBQ and at cookouts. British visitors will find that the sauce for American baked beans is generally sweeter, meatier, and less tomato-based than British baked beans.
Grain & nuts
- Wheat – used to make beer and in the form of common flour, to make bread, cakes and cookies.
- Rice – used in Southern and Tex-Mex cuisines, among others.
- Corn – Dried corn is ground into corn meal or processed into hominy. Cornmeal used in tamales and tortillas in Mexican-related foods, cooked into polenta at Italian restaurants, boiled into grits in the American South, and baked into cornbread. Hominy is ground into fine masa for some Mexican dishes, or boiled into hominy grits, or cooked in stews such as pozole. Also the primary raw material for most American whiskeys, notably bourbon (whose grain mixture is required by law to be at least 51% corn) and Tennessee whiskey (which meets the legal requirements for bourbon, but is marketed as a different product).
- Quinoa – increasingly common as a lower-carb, higher-protein substitute for rice, especially in restaurants and sandwich/salad places representing themselves as healthful
- Peanuts – enjoyed by themselves, or as peanut butter. Some restaurants and bars serve salted peanuts for free as a bar snack or part of a meal. Peanuts are also commonly vended at sporting events.
- Pistachios – California is known for its pistachios.
- Pecans – used along with molasses, brown sugar or caramel and sometimes bourbon in a widely available classic American (and particularly Southern) pie
- Almonds – enjoyed by themselves, with fudge in brownies or slivered or crushed into small pieces in cakes and savory foods such as almond-crusted baked fish
- Macadamia nuts – originally from Australia, but first grown commercially in Hawaii, where it is a staple, but exotic and not nearly as good in the rest of the U.S.
- Apples – one of the most popular fruits. "As American as apple pie" is a popular saying. Red delicious and golden delicious used to be the standard American apples, but crisper varieties like gala and Fuji have become more common. Tart green varieties like Granny Smith are sometimes eaten raw but mainly used for cooking.
- Oranges – Florida is known for its oranges.
- Peach – Georgia is known for its peaches. Yellow ones usually have more acid ("flavor") than white ones, with the result that white peaches often seem sweeter and to have a more floral flavor. Old-fashioned "clingstone" peaches are harder to find fresh, and, as the name suggests, they are harder to separate the fruit from the stone, but they usually have more peachy flavor. "Freestone" peaches look redder on the outside and are easier to handle.
- Nectarine – A peach cultivar without fuzz on the skin. Very juicy and much appreciated.
- Cherries – Widely grown, Michigan is known for its cherries. Commonly used in pies, cobblers, etc. or eaten plain.
- Grapes – Common and appreciated in purple, green and red varieties, these are often eaten at buffets and homes. Artificial grape flavor is more commonly used than in Europe.
- Strawberries – mostly grown in California, with peak season from May to July. Enjoyed as is or in pastries like strawberry shortcake.
- Blueberries – a typically American fruit, enjoyed as is, in sweet muffins, with milk and sugar, in pie, in cobblers, etc.
- Raspberries – mostly eaten as is, fresh or frozen
- Cranberries – usually used dried and sweetened in salads, or cooked into a cranberry sauce or jelly, to be served with turkey for the Thanksgiving holiday. Cranberry juice, which usually contains a significant amount of sugar despite its tart taste, is common at breakfast buffets and in diners.
- Lemon – More commonly used as a garnish for cocktails in the U.S. than limes, in tea, and in lemon meringue pie and other desserts
- Lime – The crucial ingredient in Key lime pie and used in many cocktails
- Pineapple – grown in Hawaii and one of the first tropical fruits to be widely imported in cans
- Watermelon – Very common and greatly enjoyed in the summer, a staple of cookouts. Honeydew and cantaloupe are other common melons.
- Rhubarb – most commonly used in strawberry-rhubarb pie, you can also find it in other dishes in restaurants with creative menus
- Beef – part of the origin of the cowboy is linked to the early cattle industry. The US Department of Agriculture grades beef on the extent of its "marbling" i.e. fat distribution, and hence tenderness. USDA Prime is the highest grade, then Choice, then Select. Grades lower than Select are not normally sold at retail and mainly used in processed meat products.
- Pork – pig meat is widely used, particularly in bacon and ham. Pork rib meat is a BBQ classic, as is pork shoulder in some regions.
- Country ham is a type of dry cured ham similar to Spanish jamón ibérico, Italianprosciutto di San Daniele or Chinese Jinhua ham, and is traditionally produced in many parts of the South. One of the most famous versions is known as Smithfield ham, which by state law can only be so called if it is produced in Smithfield, Virginia using a very specific process.
- American bacon is the type called "streaky bacon" in the UK. You'll sometimes be asked how you want it cooked, since some Americans like their bacon cooked till it's almost burned. The pork loin, which forms part of the traditional UK cut of bacon, is cured separately and sold as a ham-like product called "Canadian bacon" (which is called "back bacon" in Canada).
- Chicken – fried chicken is very popular, roasted or rotisserie chicken almost as popular. Chicken wings, particularly Buffalo-style ones which are oily and spicy, are a popular bar snack or meal.
- Turkey – not as popular as other meats at dinner time, it's widely enjoyed during Thanksgiving, and to a lesser extent Christmas. It is widely used, sliced and cold, in sandwiches. A hot turkey sandwich is a poultry version of hot beef sandwich: a slice of white sandwich bread, a slice of roasted meat, and a scoop of mashed potatoes, covered by gravy.
- Duck is not as widely available, but Long Island is known for its ducks.
- Seafood – particularly in New England, the Gulf Coast, the West Coast and Maryland. Lobsters, clams, cod and scrod (various small whitefish) are part of the identity of New England, blue crabs for the Chesapeake Bay area centered around Maryland, Gulf shrimps, oysters, and crawfish in and around Louisiana, catfish throughout the South, salmon and halibut in the Pacific Northwest including Alaska, mahi-mahi in Hawaii, and a wide variety of fish and seafood in California. Trout is farmed, mainly in Idaho, but shipped all over the country. Several other types of freshwater fish, particularly walleye and lake trout, are popular in the Great Lakes region.
- Sausage – the most classic American sausage is the hot dog, or frankfurter. Many Americans, even if they're not Jewish, favor Kosher brands such as Hebrew National as they are 100% beef and considered to be high quality. Bratwurst, a mild, fatty white sausage similar to its German namesake, is also very popular. "Italian sausage," available as either "hot" or "mild," is a coarse, pork-based sausage that's usually either grilled and served on a roll with peppers and onions or chopped up and used as an ingredient in sauces. For the latter purpose, uncased "Italian sausage meat" is often sold. Kielbasa or "Polish sausage" is based on a particular type of sausage from Poland. It's smoked and tastes strongly of garlic and marjoram. "Dry" sausages include salami and summer sausage, both commonly sliced thin and served in sandwiches, and the somewhat more peppery pepperoni, which is probably the most common pizza topping. Breakfast sausages are either the "link" variety, small traditionally shaped pork sausages, usually quite mild, or round, flat, "patty" varieties, which are sometimes somewhat peppery. The Acadiana region of Louisiana is home to a unique type of sausage called a boudin, which is made of ground pork, offal, rice and various spices, and is generally spicy.
- Smoked meats are common. The most popular are probably pastrami (cured and smoked beef), pork ribs, fish (usually salmon but sometimes trout or haddock), turkey, and certain types of sausage, but other meats, a few vegetables, and even eggs are sometimes smoked.
- Wild game — Hunting is very popular in America, but there are complex laws governing the sale of wild game, so game is less common than you might think, and most often found in restaurants that specialize in it, or at someone's home if they happen to be a hunter. Venison, usually from deer but sometimes from elk, is common. Elk chili is popular in Western states where elk are found. Wild boar is common in some parts of the country but is looked down on in others. Popular game birds are dove (i.e. pigeon), grouse, quail, and wild turkey. Other types of game like bear are fairly exotic and you're unlikely to run into them unless you make an effort to seek them out.
- Offal, though common historically, is not particularly popular in mainstream contemporary American cooking. Chicken gizzards as well as chitterlings, or chitlins (i.e. pig intestines) are still Southern and soul food staples. Tongue ("lengua") and to a lesser extent calf brains ("sesos") still show up but mainly in Mexican-American cooking. Chicken livers pop up in a few dishes but beef liver, though once common, is now rare. Beef marrow has experienced a revival in the last few decades, particularly in New American cooking.
America consumes a lot of cheese. While there are some domestic artisanal cheese producers (in fact, to much French consternation, an American cheese won best in show at the 2019 International Cheese Exposition), most cheese is mass-produced in a few varieties, and more sophisticated cheeses are readily available but usually imported from Europe. The following are generally available everywhere – there are some regional variants. Some raw milk cheeses (particularly those not aged 60 days or more) are not legal to sell in the US.
- Cheddar – naturally white, usually dyed orange using a natural substance (carotene). Available from mild to extra sharp (depends on how long it's been aged). Britons will find the extra sharp American cheddar available in supermarkets to be a far cry from English mature cheddars, which are much sharper, though imported English cheddar is usually available at more gourmet-oriented supermarkets.
- Swiss – based on the Swiss Emmental cheese. Pale yellow and slightly nutty tasting, with holes caused by carbon dioxide bubbles.
- Monterey Jack – mild white cheese. Pepper Jack is a variant that includes diced chili peppers.
- American – this is not actually a cheese: by government regulation, it is classed as a "cheese food". It is produced from a blend of grated cheese mixed with emulsifiers and other additives and processed into a homogeneous, somewhat bland and salty product with a very low melting point. It's usually sold as individually wrapped slices and often used for cheeseburgers or sandwiches. Block American cheese is sometimes derisively called "government cheese", since it resembles the processed cheese given to welfare recipients and school children.
- Parmesan – this American version of Parmigiano-Reggiano, usually sold grated or ground into a powder, is still widely available though steadily dwindling in popularity by comparison to the real thing. It's generally used as a topping for pasta dishes or salads.
- Cottage – less common now than it was in the 1970s and 80s, it's a mild curd cheese.
- Mozzarella – a curd cheese somewhat lower in moisture than traditional Italian Mozzarella, used mainly as a pizza topping or on heroes (also called Italian sandwiches, hoagies, grinders, etc.).
- String – a kind of Mozzarella that has a stringy texture and is often eaten as a snack, especially by children. This is commonly sold as a bag of individually wrapped single servings.
- Cream – an unripened, slightly sour, spreadable cheese.
- Provolone – a fairly strong hard cheese, often available in slices for Italian sandwiches where they're popular (several Eastern cities, for example).
- Muenster – a mild relatively soft but still sliceable cheese, often used on turkey sandwiches and the like.
- Bleu — based on the French Roquefort. White and crumbly, with veins of pungent blue mold. Most commonly made into salad dressing, but also sometimes a salad ingredient or a hamburger topping.
Condiments and sauces
- Ketchup – sweet and slightly tangy tomato-based red sauce used as a dip for french fries as well as a topping for hamburgers and hot dogs (but not in Chicago!). Occasionally spelled catsup.
- Mustard – the tart, bright yellow French's brand, and its imitators, is the classic American mustard, but various types of nuttier tasting brown mustards are also popular. Wine-based Dijon mustard is also common. Hot mustards such as Colman's are not as popular.
- Tartar sauce – a variant of remoulade made of mayonnaise, chopped capers, chopped pickles, and herbs. Commonly used as a sauce for fried fish.
- Relish – in the American context this usually means a spread primarily made of diced sweet pickled cucumber.
- Steak sauce – a tangy brown sauce used mainly on steak and hamburgers. A1 is the most popular brand.
- Hot sauce – Tabasco is the most ubiquitous US hot sauce; it's fairly thin, spicy, and vinegary. Crystal is also very popular in most of the South. Mexican hot sauces, especially Tapatio and Cholula, are also widely available, as is Sriracha, a thicker, somewhat sweet and garlicky Thai-inspired sauce made in Los Angeles. There is also a bewildering variety of small hot sauce producers, some of whose products are extremely spicy.
- BBQ sauce – largely based on the sauce served with Kansas City BBQ, it's usually sweet, reddish brown, involves tomatoes, and is sometimes slightly spicy.
- Tomato sauce – refers to a huge variety of savory sauces with stewed, crushed tomatoes as the primary ingredient, used primarily as a sauce for pasta and pizza, but also for some sandwiches and meat dishes. Many different brands and styles of canned tomato sauce are available in supermarkets, but most decent restaurants and serious Italian-American cooks make their own. Sometimes called "red sauce;" major variants include "marinara," a simple sauce made with tomatoes, onion, and herbs, "bolognese" or "spaghetti sauce," which often has meat, cheese, or anchovies, and "pizza sauce," which is mostly just tomatoes. Unlike in the UK and Australia, "tomato sauce" never refers to ketchup.
- Gravy – made by using flour and/or cornstarch to thicken the fat that drips from roasting meat. "Giblet gravy" is less common but has chopped, sauteed giblets, i.e. liver, gizzard and other poultry offal added. Commonly served with roast turkey and with mashed potatoes. Vegetarian gravy, typically flavored with onions and sometimes mushrooms, is sometimes available. The white gravy served with "biscuits and gravy" and some other Southern & Midwestern food is made with milk and sausage.
- Maple syrup — although better known as a Canadian product, the United States is also a major producer, particularly the state of Vermont. Commonly drizzled on pancakes and waffles. As genuine maple syrup is quite expensive, corn syrup is more often than not used as a substitute in cheap to mid-range establishments.
American bread is often stereotyped as being fairly dire, but that hasn't really been true for several decades. While the spongy, sweet, sliced white bread epitomized by Wonder Bread is still widely available, other breads have gradually risen to the forefront. "Whole wheat" bread is brown and made from unmilled flour, though cheaper brands are almost as heavily processed and full of preservatives as cheap white bread. Rye bread is primarily made from wheat but flavored with rye flour. Sourdough white bread is particularly associated with San Francisco, but can be found in most parts of the country. French-style white baguettes are common, and while they rarely approach the quality of the best Parisian boulangeries, have become a standard for classier sandwiches and for restaurant bread baskets. "Squaw bread" is a famous dark, dense, very flavorful multigrain bread, though the term (not so much the bread itself, which most people agree is tasty) has become controversial, as many Native Americans consider the term "squaw" to be pejorative.
- Cucumber – the word "pickle" used generically in the US almost always refers to pickled cucumbers, either the salty and vinegary "dill" variety or the "sweet" version. Dill pickles are common as garnishes for sandwiches, sweet pickles are often eaten with hamburgers.
- Sauerkraut – German-style brine-pickled shredded cabbage, common as a topping for hot dogs or other sausages, and a traditional part of the Reuben sandwich.
- Okra – pickled okra is part of Southern cuisine.
- Tomatoes – tomato pickles are part of Jewish delicatessen cuisine. They may not be available at all Jewish delis, but they are traditionally much appreciated to go along with your sour and/or half-sour dill pickles that accompany your pastrami or corn beef sandwich.
- Peppers – Pepperoncini are the mildly spicy to fairly strongly spiced pickled yellow peppers called "pepperoni" in Italy (in the US, pepperoni is a type of sausage). They are widely available as a sandwich topping. Mild banana peppers and spicy pickled jalapenos are also common. There are also regional pepper mixes such as the "sweet" and "hot" mixes served in Chicago diners and Italian beef joints. "Giardiniera" is a similar Chicago-based but widely available variant that includes a variety of other chopped vegetables besides peppers. It differs from Italian giardiniera in that the vegetable mix is a bit different, it usually includes olive oil, and it's more commonly eaten as a sandwich topping than as an antipasto, as is traditional in Italy.
- Onions – small pickled pearl onions are used as an ingredient in certain cocktails.
- Pickled pigs' feet and pickled eggs – Though rarely seen anymore, both of these were standard bar food historically.
- Pawpaws (Asimina triloba) are a fruit native to America, with a pale-yellow, custard-like flesh and a flavor that might be described as a cross between banana and pineapple. They spoil quickly, but are enjoyed locally in the areas where they grow. You can eat them raw or make them into jam, but prepared foods made with pawpaw are hard to find on store shelves.
- Okra is occasionally used in southern cuisine, either fresh, fried, cooked down as a thickener in gumbo, or pickled.
- Artichoke – widely popular in California (where they're grown) – something of an expensive rarity in many other parts of the country.
- Huckleberries (most commonly black huckleberries, Latin name Vaccinium membranaceum) are widely gathered from forests in the Pacific Northwest and some other Western states and are often used in pies and other desserts. A jar of huckleberry jam is a common souvenir if you visit places where they grow.
- Wild rice — a grain with a very distinctive, complex, nutty flavor that's not in fact closely related to ordinary rice. Cultivated varieties exist, but they're far inferior to what's gathered in the wild by Native Americans, particularly in northern Minnesota, where it grows in shallow lakes. Unless you're visiting that area, expect the genuine article to be expensive.
- Abalone — a delicious, flat marine snail found off the California coast. It grows very slowly, so to ensure its survival, it legally must be harvested by free divers, i.e. no scuba gear is allowed, and only larger and older specimens can be taken. It can be surprisingly hard to find because much of the catch is exported to China, where it commands much higher prices. Your best bet for trying it is to become friends with an abalone diver, though if you've got the cash, it may show up in high-end Japanese and Chinese restaurants from time to time.
- Lobster — two species of lobster are commercially harvested in the United States; the California spiny lobster, and the American lobster from Maine. While the latter is highly celebrated and widely available in seafood restaurants, the former is difficult to find this side of the Pacific, even in California, with most of the catch being exported to China.
- Alligator — you may encounter alligator meat in the traditional cuisines of some parts of the South, such as Louisiana and Florida.
- Turtle — Turtle meat is used to make turtle soup, which is a traditional dish in the Cajun and Creole cuisines of Louisiana. Turtle was once considered a delicacy throughout America, but it's largely associated with Louisiana cooking nowadays.
- Crawfish — something like a miniature, freshwater lobster; it's common around the coast of the Gulf of Mexico and particularly featured in the cuisines of Louisiana.
- Frog legs — the muscular hind legs of frogs are a feature of Louisiana cooking, especially Cajun style.
Some well known regional specialties are described in the section below and in the various US regional articles. The following is a non-exhaustive list of items commonly served at "American" restaurants in most parts of the country.
- Hamburger – often considered the quintessential American food, this ground beef patty on a bun needs little introduction. While it's a fast food classic, it often shows up on high-end menus as well, with better quality meat and bread and often with creative toppings.
- Steak – while Americans don't have the highest per-capita beef consumption in the world (that honor belongs to Argentina), many of them do love their steak, and every American city has high-end "steakhouses." There are a wide variety of cuts: New York Strip and London Broil are popular lower cost options; Ribeye, Porterhouse, and Filet Mignon are at the higher end. Flatiron steak is a tougher but very flavorful cut that's become increasingly popular. "Chicken-fried" or "country-fried" steak is a more downmarket offering often available in diners. It's a thin, breaded, fried steak, like schnitzel or milanesa, usually topped with gravy. The US Department of Agriculture grades beef based on "marbling" i.e. fat distribution and hence tenderness. USDA Prime is the highest grade and steakhouses will usually advertise that they serve it. Most commercially sold steak is USDA Choice, the next highest grade, or USDA Select.
- Omelette – unlike in their home country, France, omelettes (also spelled omelets) are mainly seen as a hearty breakfast or brunch food in the US. They're a thin disk of fried beaten egg folded over with a filling inside. Two common types are the Denver omelette, with green bell peppers, onions, and ham, and the Spanish omelette (not actually a Spanish dish), with sausage, tomato, and cheese. There will commonly be other types available, often including a "house special," or you will be asked to choose a combination of fillings. Crawfish omelette is a specialty of New Orleans.
- Eggs — besides the omelette mentioned above, the traditional American full breakfast typically involves eggs, and many Americans are very particular about how they like their eggs cooked. As a result there are numerous terms for cooking eggs. If you see on a menu, "eggs, any style," these are some terms to use.
- Scrambled — the white and the yolk are mixed together, and rapidly fried.
- Poached — a shelled egg is dropped into boiling water, the white curdles and the yolk is warm but still liquid. The lightly poached "coddled egg" that's popular in Britain is mostly unknown in America.
- Hard-boiled — boiled in the shell until the white and the yolk are thoroughly cooked.
- Soft-boiled — boiled in the shell for a slightly shorter time so the yolk is still gooey
- Sunny side up — a pan-fried egg with a solid white and a liquid yolk in the center. British tourists will find this to be their traditional fried egg.
- Over easy — probably the most popular American fried egg, where the egg is flipped once so the white coats both sides of the yolk, which is still liquid.
- Over hard — a fried egg cooked longer so the yolk is cooked through.
- Eggs Benedict — common classy breakfast and particularly brunch dish: a halved English muffin with ham or Canadian bacon, a poached egg, and hollandaise sauce. Usually served in pairs. "Eggs Florentine" is a vegetarian version that substitutes spinach for the ham. Smoked salmon is sometimes also substituted for ham.
- Corned beef hash — not as common as it once was, but still a diner breakfast mainstay: chopped corned (i.e. cured) beef mixed with diced potatoes and fried.
- Spaghetti and meatballs – an Italian-American classic but widely available at standard American restaurants. Meatballs are made of beef, pork, or a mixture of the two, flavored with traditional Italian herbs such as oregano, served over spaghetti noodles with a tomato based "red sauce," and usually topped with powdered or grated Parmesan cheese (the domestic U.S. version of the Italian Parmigiano-Reggiano)
- Cornbread — a common side dish for a wide variety of American cuisine, at its most basic level it's ground corn flour and butter (though it's usually more complex), baked in a skillet until it forms a sort of dense cake, often with a touch of sweetness. Sometimes associated with the South, or cowboys "out West," it's now common in most parts of the country, particularly among African-American communities. The "hushpuppy" common in Southern cuisine, and also regularly offered with fried fish nationwide, is deep-fried cornbread (often flavored with onions, peppers, and/or various spices).
- Chili con carne — typically just called "chili," this was originally a specialty of the Texas-Mexico border but is now standard American food, found in diners everywhere, but not typically found on Tex-Mex restaurant menus. It usually involves either ground or finely chopped beef, though venison is sometimes used in areas where hunting is common. The meat is browned and then slow cooked with tomatoes, onions, herbs, and chili peppers. Its spiciness level varies from quite mild to screamingly hot, though what you get in restaurants will usually be on the milder end unless stated otherwise. Authentic Texas chili does not have beans, but outside of Texas and its immediate environs pinto beans or red beans are fairly common additions. Cornbread is a very common side dish.
- Baked potato — a large, whole, brown, thick-skinned "russet" potato, baked with skin on until soft. The most basic version is just served with a pat of butter, but sour cream, chives, bacon bits, cheese, etc. are common add-ons. "Potato skins" have much of the potato scooped out and emphasize the toppings. "Twice-baked" potatoes are baked, then have the interior scooped out, mashed with butter, stuffed back inside the skin, usually topped with paprika, and then oven-browned.
- Macaroni & Cheese — Elbow pasta baked in a cheese sauce. Varies from the very basic instant variety where a package of pasta is mixed with powdered cheese and milk to much more authentic versions where a complex mix of cheeses is added to pasta and slowly baked. More modern variants, which are often sold in modern gastronomic pubs, can include other ingredients such as lobster, crab, bacon, ham and sausage. Many southerners, especially African-Americans, take Mac & Cheese very seriously, and exact recipes are closely guarded family secrets.
The US has a variety of traditional salads that are often eaten as a full meal. While traditional American food is often stereotyped as "meat and potatoes," Americans have long taken salad fairly seriously. Most American salads are lettuce-based; traditionally, this would be the crunchy but rather bland iceberg lettuce (except in Caesar salad), but mixed lettuces, often described as "mixed greens" or "spring mix," are becoming more standard.
- Caesar – Although actually invented by an Italian man in Tijuana, Mexico, this is often seen as quintessentially American. It's a fairly simple salad of romaine lettuce and croutons with a dressing made of beaten eggs, Parmesan cheese, lemon juice, and anchovies, though the inclusion of anchovies is becoming rare in restaurants that are not either high end or very traditional. Often chicken or shrimp are available as an option to make it more substantial.
- Chef – the chef salad is somewhat variable, but a typical version will have turkey, ham, hard-boiled eggs, some sort of cheese, lettuce, tomatoes, and cucumber.
- Cobb – Invented at the long-defunct Brown Derby restaurant in Los Angeles. Bacon or ham, chicken, blue cheese, hard-boiled eggs, avocado, lettuce, and tomato.
- Greek – Based loosely on the horiatiki salad served in Greece. Feta cheese, black olives, lettuce, tomatoes, cucumber, pepperoncini. Like the Caesar salad, chicken is often an option.
- Waldorf – Invented at the Waldorf Astoria hotel in New York. Lettuce, apples, grapes, celery, and toasted walnuts, with a mayonnaise-based dressing.
- Wedge – a somewhat oddball salad that had a resurgence in popularity in the early 2000s, especially at BBQ restaurants, but seems to be waning. Literally just a wedge chopped out of a head of iceberg lettuce, drizzled with ranch or blue cheese dressing and usually accompanied by garnishes such as bacon bits.
- Taco salad – A fried flour tortilla shell stuffed with lettuce, diced tomatoes, and shredded Cheddar cheese. The dressing is one or more among salsa, guacamole, and sour cream, most often all three. The creation is then topped with ground beef, chicken, or (for vegetarians) beans and/or Spanish rice.
You'll often be asked for your choice of salad dressing, common choices being:
- Ranch – widely popular in the US and pretty much nowhere else, it's a mild, creamy mixture of buttermilk, mayonnaise, sour cream, dill, and chives.
- Italian – this is basically what's called "vinaigrette" in the rest of the English-speaking world: vinegar and oil with herbs. You also can often ask for "vinegar and oil" in which case you'll be given red vinegar and olive oil, and you can mix it yourself.
- Balsamic – a vinaigrette made with sweet, dark brown balsamic vinegar.
- Blue Cheese – made mostly of blue cheese and cream.
- Russian/Thousand Island – both made mainly of ketchup and mayonnaise. Thousand Island is usually a bit thicker. Thousand Island is also sometimes used on hamburgers and a very similar sauce called "fry sauce" is common as a dip in Utah.
Small cold salads are often served as side dishes. A few common ones are:
- Coleslaw – chopped cabbage and (usually) carrots, mixed with a vinegar and (usually) mayonnaise based dressing.
- Potato salad – chopped boiled potatoes. The dressing varies by region, though it's usually mayonnaise or mustard-based, or a mixture of the two.
- Macaroni salad – similar to potato salad, but made with elbow pasta instead of potatoes.
- Pasta salad – not the same thing as macaroni salad, usually rotini served cold with a vinaigrette and sometimes chopped vegetables and herbs.
Americans love sandwiches. Delis and fast food outlets typically allow you to customize your sandwich as much as you please, but there are a number of traditional sandwiches widely eaten for lunch.
- BLT – Bacon, Lettuce, and Tomato, usually dressed with mayonnaise. Sometimes avocado is added.
- Club – usually a double-decker BLT with thin-sliced turkey and sometimes cheese added in.
- Reuben – Pastrami or corned beef, sauerkraut, and Russian dressing, on rye bread. A variant of the Pastrami on Rye, a Jewish deli classic but available everywhere.
- French dip – a warm sandwich with roast beef, it comes with a ramekin of salty beef broth that you dip the sandwich into.
- Philly steak – a Philadelphia classic, but available in most of the US. Thinly sliced grilled beef on a roll with cheese. The processed spread Cheez Whiz is most traditional in Philly, with provolone the second most popular option, but in the rest of the country some mild cheese like American or jack is usually used.
- Tuna salad – the basic ingredients are shredded canned tuna and mayonnaise, but any deli worth its salt will add all manner of other ingredients such as chopped celery and/or apples, chives, mustard, Worcestershire sauce, hot sauce, etc. Chicken salad, egg salad (made of chopped hard boiled eggs) and potato salad are also common.
- Italian subs/heroes/hoagies/grinders, etc. – there is a large number of regional names, but they all basically refer to an oval-shaped sliced roll with a mixture of thin sliced spiced dry sausages (typically salami and mortadella, but sometimes pepperoni, etc.), usually cheese, typically provolone, usually tomato and iceberg lettuce, and often pepperoncini. The most common dressing is "Italian" salad dressing (see above), but most delis will allow extensive customization, and most will have a house special version. Many pizzerias that serve heroes offer hot chicken or eggplant parmigiana heroes and tomato sauce-based meatball and/or sausage heroes topped with mozzarella, in addition to the ones made with cold cuts described above.
- Peanut butter and jelly – more likely to be encountered at someone's home, for children.
- Grilled cheese — most commonly cheddar or American cheese between two slices of white bread, cooked till crispy in a buttered pan. Often paired with a small bowl of tomato soup. Fancier versions using other types of cheese, more exotic breads, and additions like bacon and tomatoes are often seen.
- Tuna melt — a grilled cheese with tuna salad added.
- Patty melt — a grilled cheese with a hamburger patty.
Americans often skip dessert. The traditionally huge portions given in main courses probably contribute to this. But there are several American desserts that visitors should try if they get the chance.
Apple pie is an American classic. The best apple pie is made from tart apples seasoned with a generous amount of sugar, along with cinnamon, nutmeg and sometimes cloves, giving it a complex, subtle flavor, and all baked in a pastry crust. Pie à la mode means that it will be served with a scoop of vanilla ice cream. Other fruit pies include blueberry pie, blackberry pie, cherry pie, rhubarb pie, etc. If you run into them on a rural diner menu, there's a good chance they will be excellent. Georgia is famous for peach pie, but it's not too common elsewhere. Pecan pie is predominantly Southern in origin, but widely available in the US. It involves a lot of molasses and sugar and is extremely sweet, but with a nutty undertone. Pumpkin pie is a custard pie with a combination of spices so popular that pumpkin pie spice flavoring (usually cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, cloves, and sometimes allspice) can be found in the autumn months in cookies, flavored coffee, and breakfast foods. Sweet potato pie and squash pies are very similar; most people can't tell them apart.
Cheesecake is usually in the New York style, and available all over the country, and is another American classic. This is a dense, custard-like pie made from cream cheese, eggs, and sour cream, with a crust made out of crumbled graham crackers, baked but served either at room temperature or cold, and typically topped with some type of fruit preserves, often cherry.
Frosted layer cakes, now appearing at birthday parties all over the globe, are an American invention. Most restaurants above the fast-food level offer at least one kind of cake. Look for tall slices of chocolate cake, spiced carrot cakes with cream cheese frosting in restaurants, and rows of cupcakes in bakeries.
For less formal treats, brownies (a bit like a flat, dense chocolate cake) and cookies are popular available at grocery stores, bakeries, and sometimes fast-food restaurants. Chocolate chip cookies are the most characteristically American cookies, although frosted sugar cookies are very popular. For UK visitors, what you call a "biscuit" is generally referred to as a "cookie" in America; an American "biscuit" is a round, buttery, savory pastry something like a cross between a croissant and a scone.
Ice Cream is common throughout America. The most popular flavors are chocolate, vanilla, and strawberry, but a large number of other flavors are also available (the Baskin Robbins chain famously advertises "31 flavors"). Ice cream which incorporates nuts and candy is popular: Rocky Road is a classic flavor where small marshmallows and nuts are embedded in chocolate ice cream; mint chocolate chip is very popular and embeds small chocolate bits in mint-flavored ice cream. "Neapolitan" ice cream has layers of chocolate, vanilla, and strawberry, and its more authentically Italian basis, Spumoni, usually has layers of pistachio, cherry, and chocolate. Both are particularly popular in parts of the country with large Italian-American populations. A basic ice cream sundae is a scoop of vanilla ice cream covered with chocolate syrup, usually with a sweet, marinated maraschino cherry on top, but other common additions include caramel syrup, whipped cream, and chopped nuts. A banana split is a type of large sundae where a banana is cut in half lengthwise, and topped with usually 3 scoops of ice cream and sundae toppings.
Donuts (or doughnuts), although very sweet, are usually considered a main breakfast food or a snack rather than dessert.
Many regions, or even cities in the United States are also known for their own signature dishes. Some of these can be difficult to find outside their respective cities and regions, while others are widely available everywhere but still best sampled in their area of origin. Southern cuisine can often be found in African-American communities throughout the country due to the legacy of the Great Migration, when African-Americans migrated away from the South to Northern cities in large numbers to escape discrimination, and brought many Southern recipes with them.
Bagels are type of doughnut-shaped, dense bread that's boiled and then baked, and a specialty of the Jewish community in New York City. They are best eaten when they're fresh and still hot.
Barbecue is a much-beloved regional food. Also spelled "barbeque" or abbreviated "BBQ." It is both a style of slowly cooking meat, and the sauce used to flavor that meat. It is available in several styles:
- Carolina barbecue is typically made with pork.
- North Carolina barbecue is typically made with a whole hog (Eastern North Carolina) or pork shoulder (Western North Carolina). Lexington is famous as a center of Western North Carolina barbecue and has a 1-day barbecue festival every October. North Carolina barbecue uses a sauce of vinegar and spices.
- South Carolina barbecue uses a mustard- and vinegar-based yellow sauce.
- Kansas City barbecue uses several kinds of meats you can choose from, including beef, pork, lamb and sausage. The meat is dry rubbed, with sauce added to taste at the table.
- Memphis barbecue is typically pulled pork served on a bun with sweet, thick barbecue sauce, accompanied by cole slaw. Rib tips are also a popular dish at barbecue establishments.
- Texas has several types of barbecue. A variety of meats are used but beef is much more common than with some other types of BBQ. Brisket is the most popular and famous cut. Beef ribs are also fairly common.
- St. Louis is also known for its homegrown style of barbecued pork ribs.
- Santa Maria barbecue is from California's Central Coast and not widely seen elsewhere. A lightly seasoned tri-tip beef roast, where the fat hasn't been trimmed off, is cooked slowly over an oak fire, so the fat melts and tenderizes the meat.
While all regional BBQ styles have some national distribution, BBQ outside of the above regions and their immediate neighbors will likely be either Texas or Kansas City style. In some parts of the country it's still common to refer to grilling outside as "having a barbecue," but this is disappearing as awareness and popularity of "real" barbecue has grown, and, at least in the South, you'll likely be corrected if you do this.
Bread pudding is particularly popular in the state of Louisiana.
Buckeyes are a treat made in Ohio where a peanut butter core is surrounded by chocolate.
Buffalo wings are chicken wings smothered in spicy sauce. They started in Western New York, but now enjoy nationwide popularity. Traditionally they're deep-fried bone-in, skin-on, but breaded varieties, and "boneless wings" which bear a suspicious resemblance to spicy chicken tenders, are creeping in.
Cincinnati is well known for its unique take on chili, which is really more of a Greek-style meat sauce made with spices such as cinnamon and cloves, and is generally used as a sauce for spaghetti or hot dogs, often together with cheese, beans and onions. Cincinnati is also known for its goetta (pronounced "get-uh") sausage, a mixture of ground meat (either pork or a pork-beef mixture) and steel-cut oats.
Wisconsin is known for its cheese, and fried cheese curds and other dairy products are very popular there. American Football's Green Bay Packers have a longstanding association with cheese imagery due to the local cheese industry. Vermont is also known for its cheddar cheese.
Cheesecake is a specialty of New York City but popular in most of the country.
Cheesesteaks are popular in Philadelphia.
Clam chowder originated in New England and is also popular on the West Coast.
Chicago hot dogs are hot dogs loaded with vegetables, and never include ketchup.
Italian beef is a Chicago area specialty — thin sliced beef that's browned and then slowly simmered in broth with herbs, served on a roll with either a "sweet" or "hot" pepper mix.
Crab cakes are a specialty of the state of Maryland.
Fried chicken, although widely available everywhere, is generally regarded as a specialty of the South.
- A variant of this dish, known as hot chicken, is one of the signature dishes of Nashville, and is spreading outside the immediate region.
- Boneless variants on this include chicken nuggets (lumps of formed, processed chicken meat, battered and fried), chicken strips (bigger than nuggets and usually made of sliced breast meat), and chicken patties (big enough to use one in a sandwich and often made of ground chicken).
Fried green tomatoes, consisting of unripe tomatoes battered in cornmeal and fried, are popular in the Southern states.
Grits are a common side in restaurants in the South, especially for brunch or lunch. Grits are made from ground corn that is served steaming from being boiled, usually with plenty of butter added and sometimes other ingredients, especially cheese. They are very tasty and well worth ordering if you are in the South. Shrimp & grits is a Louisiana classic.
The hot brown is common in Kentucky. Smoked turkey, bacon, tomato, and mornay sauce are layered on top of toast and baked. Benedictine, a spread or dip made of cream cheese and cucumber, also originated in Kentucky.
Huevos rancheros are a common breakfast dish in California and the Southwest. There are many variations on this theme, but the basic concept is to poach eggs in tomato-based salsa (spicy red sauce), typically with jalapeños though other chilis can be used, with corn tortillas and often refried beans on the side.
The jibarito is a plantain and beef sandwich that is a specialty of Chicago's Puerto Rican community.
Key lime pie is enjoyed widely, but originates from Florida.
Lobster rolls consist of lobster meat and mayonnaise or butter, lemon juice, salt, and pepper. The dish is associated with New England, especially Maine.
Pepperoni rolls, consisting of white bread rolls with pepperoni baked in the middle (sometimes including cheese), are ubiquitous in West Virginia, especially at convenience stores, but virtually unknown outside of the state and its immediately surrounding areas.
Pimento cheese is a popular cheese spread for sandwiches or crackers in the south. It usually consists of cheddar, mayonnaise or cream cheese, and often hot peppers and spices.
Provel cheese is a processed cheese consisting of a mixture of cheddar, provolone, and Swiss that is widespread in St. Louis cuisine, especially the city's signature thin-crust pizza, but virtually unknown outside that area.
Salsa verde is spicy green sauce. A version of it can be found anywhere where there are taquerias, but it's particularly delicious in New Mexico and parts of neighboring states, where it's a specialty. In New Mexico, you can have many dishes with salsa verde for breakfast, lunch or dinner.
The sushi burrito was invented in San Francisco in 2008, but is now beginning to spread around the country.
Toasted ravioli is another specialty of St. Louis, where it is sold at many Italian restaurants.
Whoopie Pies are small cake sandwiches with cream filling, popular in New England and near Amish communities.
Creole cuisine traces its origins to the city of New Orleans, and is known for its signature dishes such as po' boys (big sandwiches on a fluffy white baguette), beignets, gumbo, jambalaya, étouffée and oysters Rockefeller. Many people confuse Cajun and Creole cuisine, and, while they do have some dishes in common, in reality they are fairly distinct.
Gullah-Geechee cuisine is the cuisine of the African-American communities from the Atlantic coastal regions of South Carolina and Georgia. Due to their relative isolation, these communities developed a distinct culture from other African-American communities, and their cuisine also differs significantly from the soul food found in African-American communities elsewhere.
Hawaiian cuisine reflects the unique heritage of the state, fusing Native Hawaiian culinary traditions with those of the continental United States, and Hawaii's large ethnic Japanese and other Asian-American communities. Signature dishes of Hawaiian cuisine include spam musubi, poke, mahimahi, kālua pig and loco moco.
Lowcountry cusisine is from the Lowcountry region of South Carolina and coastal Georgia, with the cities of Charleston and Savannah being the main centers of this cuisine. Signature dishes of this cuisine include shrimp and grits, catfish stew and Hoppin' John.
New Mexican cuisine derives from a fusion of the state's Native American, Spanish and Mexican heritage from the time before it was captured by the United States in the Mexican-American War, plus some influences from the wider United States. It is famous for its use of chilis, especially green chilis, as salsa verde is ubiquitous in this cuisine. A common dessert or accompaniment to meals is the sopaipilla, fried pastry dough usually drizzled with honey.
Tex-Mex is a Mexican-American fusion cuisine from the state of Texas. Though unrecognizable to most Mexicans, many dishes date back to the time when Texas was under Mexican or Spanish rule. Some common dishes of this cuisine include nachos, fajitas and chile con carne.
The quintessential quirk of American cuisine – so much so that some fast food restaurants of American extraction even do it outside the U.S. – is the "free refill". Coffee, fountain sodas, and other soft drinks are often offered with free refills, and in much of the South it's even common for your server to offer a refill in a takeaway cup as you're leaving. However, bottled and alcoholic drinks are not offered with free refills.
Some restaurants do not offer any free refills. It is more common in mid-tier and fast-food restaurants than in high-end restaurants. The prevalence also varies by region; in cities with high real estate costs, restaurants don't offer free refills because they don't want you to linger over your "bottomless cup of coffee". Expect to find free refills at most restaurants in the middle of the country, but not in New York City.
A glass of water is almost always free, regardless of the type of restaurant. At restaurants with table service, it is quite common for the server to bring a pitcher of tap water (usually with copious amounts of ice, and sometimes with a slice of lemon) for free even before you order, and for it to be replaced with a new one when it even appears it might near emptiness. At other restaurants, including fast food places, just ask for "a cup of water" when you place your order. But beware if you are asked for "still or sparkling water" when you are seated, because you will be charged for either one and need to specifically ask for "tap water" in that situation, unless you want to pay for bottled water. In some states, bars and nightclubs are required to serve tap water for free.
If there's a drought in a particular part of the United States, they will sometimes make a temporary local law against providing the free glasses of water – unless you ask for water. They hope that by only providing glasses of water when you ask for it, that they'll save water by reducing the number of cups that need to be washed.
You'll still get charged for bottled water and fizzy water, if either of these are available at that restaurant.
If you're thirsty between meals, there are often many water fountains in major cities. Look for these near the restrooms in any large store or transit center, as well as in parks, government buildings, and other public places.
Coffee and tea
Traditional American coffee is relatively weak compared to what's typical in Europe and is often drunk "black," though it's common to add sugar, cream, milk, or "non-dairy creamer." Prior to the introduction of the drip coffeemaker in the 1970s most American coffee was either boiled or made in big percolators. In fact, the classic drink "Americano" was developed by French and Italian coffee shop owners during WWII in an attempt to replicate the type of coffee American soldiers preferred, by diluting espresso with hot water. In parts of the US, especially the northeast, "regular coffee" refers to coffee with 1 pre-packaged container of cream and 1 packet of sugar added in, but this isn't universal and will either be met with puzzlement or a cup of plain black coffee in other parts of the country, where you're expected to add cream and sugar yourself.
New Orleans is known for café au lait, literally coffee with milk, but with the addition of chicory to give it a unique flavor.
The 1970s and 80s found many Americans fascinated by European coffee culture and chains like Starbucks capitalized on this trend, though they often specialize in coffee drinks that are far sweeter and more caloric than what most Europeans drink. Some independent coffee shops adopt the European model, serving coffee in china cups and allowing you to linger, though Starbucks serves its drinks in paper cups. Many Americans still prefer their older style of coffee, particularly in the Northeast where Dunkin' Donuts rules.
Tea is less popular in America, though available most anywhere coffee is sold. Diners will just have some type of mass-market black tea, though higher end coffee shops and restaurants may have more interesting choices. Asian-style green tea has become quite popular, and bergamot-infused Earl Grey is common. Restaurants associated with tea-drinking cultures will have whatever types of tea are common in the home country.
Iced tea is a popular American drink, and treated somewhat like a soft drink, usually brewed black tea served chilled over ice. In the South and parts of the Midwest and Northeast, "sweet tea" is the dominant variety, and if you don't want it heavily sweetened, ask for "unsweet" tea. In other parts of the country, sweet tea is very unusual.
Iced tea is also one of the two components of the Arnold Palmer, perhaps the only mixed non-alcoholic drink widely known in the U.S. A mixture of iced tea and lemonade, typically at least 50% tea, it got its name from the legendary golfer who preferred this beverage during rounds. In the U.S., "lemonade" refers to a non-carbonated mixture of lemon juice, sugar, and water. What the British call "lemonade" would generically be called a "lemon-lime soda" in the U.S.
Restaurants that sell fountain drinks are either "Pepsi" or "Coca-Cola" places. They buy all of their soft drinks from one company or the other. As a result, you'll find Pepsi at Pizza Hut, but never Coca-Cola, and the reverse is true for McDonald's. Each company offers a similar set of options, including lemon-lime sodas (Sprite, Sierra Mist, or — more rarely — 7-Up).
Many restaurants, especially those offering free refills, place the soda machine in the dining area. If you order a soda and later want water, there is often a small lever near the ice machine to dispense water, using the same nozzle as one of the sodas. Many newer machines use touch screens to make a selection, and will simply make water a separate listing. These touchscreen machines will often allow for various flavors to be added to the drink selected, such as adding cherry flavoring to cola.
Although the soft drink market is dominated by various versions of Coca-Cola, with Pepsi as the sweeter-tasting runner-up brand, there are some less common cola drinks, such as Dr Pepper, and a few old-fashioned options, notably root beer (which is non-alcoholic), that can be found in most of the country. There are also regional options worth trying, including Moxie in Maine, Cheerwine in North Carolina, and the Big Red drinks in the Southwest. "Cream soda" is something of a catch all term for a variety of old-fashioned fizzy drinks, only a few of which actually contain cream. They're especially popular in the Northeast. In the South, "coke" is often used as a generic name for any kind of cola drink, so if someone asks you if you want a coke, it's okay to answer "I'd love to try an RC Cola, if you've got it." There's also a famous linguistic divide between referring to carbonated drinks as either "soda" or "pop," but "soda" is making inroads on former "pop" areas.
Most cola is caffeinated, unless specifically labeled "caffeine free." Lemon-lime soda such as 7UP and Sprite, as well as ginger ale, usually isn't, though Kentucky's cousin to ginger ale, Ale-8-One, contains so much caffeine that it's sometimes called "Kentucky coffee". Mountain Dew is a bright green Pepsi product known for its high caffeine content. Some brands of root beer are caffeinated, but the majority aren't. If you're sensitive to caffeine, check the label, ask, or go online to be sure whether or not what you're about to order is caffeinated.
Most Americans don't drink alcoholic beverages every day. A third of them drink no alcohol at all, and only one out of six adults in the US averages even one alcoholic drink each day. In fact, many American Christian denominations, including the Mormons, Seventh Day Adventists and Southern Baptists, prohibit the consumption of alcohol. However, the ones who drink a lot, drink a lot — and there is a thriving industry that caters to them.
Laws regarding sale and consumption of alcohol are more restrictive in the US than in many other countries. The drinking age in America is 21, and if you look young you may be "carded" or asked for identification (ID) to prove your age (it's also pretty common for bars, especially on peak nights, to card everyone). Both the bar and the bartender personally can be legally liable if they sell alcohol to an underage patron, so expect to have your ID scrutinized. Don't be surprised if a foreign ID is treated with suspicion or outright rejected, as youth often use fake IDs from out of state to try to hide flaws in a forgery; bring your passport with you to be sure. If your real ID is confiscated by a bouncer, contact the local police. You generally must consume alcohol in a bar or restaurant, or at a private residence, e.g. the common UK practice of taking your beer with you when you step out of the pub onto the street for some fresh air is illegal in most of the US. Other laws, such as the hours when alcohol may be sold and the types of establishments which can sell it, vary between states and in some cases between cities and counties, so check the relevant state article if you're curious. Some "dry" towns and counties prohibit the sale of alcohol altogether, but these are mainly in rural areas that don't get too many visitors.
If you are traveling for work, unless you work in a related industry, don't expect to encounter alcoholic beverages during the workday. Drinking beer or wine is uncommon before the evening, even if your team goes out to a nice restaurant for lunch.
In college towns, alcohol tends to be very popular, especially on "Thirsty" Thursday and Friday nights.
American beer culture was strongly influenced by 19th-century European, particularly German, immigrants but took a hard hit during Prohibition. The quintessential American beer – although one derided for its bland taste even by many Americans – is perhaps the "Light Beer" which, while light in calories, has the alcohol content of a "normal" beer and is usually served at or near the freezing point. Prohibition also gave rise to cocktails as higher proof alcohol was easier to smuggle, and the mixers helped mask any unpleasant taste of sub-par illicit spirits.
Americans often drink quite a bit during traditional holidays. Two of the booziest holidays are Cinco de Mayo, a relatively minor Mexican holiday that has been heavily promoted by beer companies in the US, and St. Patrick's Day. Don't be alarmed by the green beer that many Irish-American bars serve on St. Patrick's Day, it's just cheap lager with green food coloring.
A uniquely American place to have alcohol is a speakeasy, a secret bar that is well-hidden inside another establishment. Speakeasies trace their history to an era known as Prohibition (1920-1933), when the sale and consumption of alcoholic beverages was illegal throughout the United States. Some examples of authentic Prohibition-era speakeasies include New York City's 21 Club, Chicago's The Drifter and San Francisco's Bourbon & Branch. However, not all modern speakeasies trace their origins to the Prohibition era, as many such places were later built that way to capitalise on the theme for marketing purposes.
Irish-themed bars are common, even in areas that never historically had a large Irish-American population. The degree to which they resemble traditional bars in Ireland varies widely. Most of them emphasize Irish beers and whiskies, and many of the better ones will have a full menu of traditional pub food such as fish & chips and corned beef & cabbage. Naturally, they get crowded on St. Patrick's day.
Dive bars are something of a "you know it when you see it" phenomenon, but many Americans seek them out. A few signifiers are: dim lighting, not particularly up to date decor, a significant obviously local clientele, relatively low prices, and if there's a food menu, it will be mostly fried. Often there will be a pool table. At the other end of the spectrum, wine bars are becoming more and more popular in fancier parts of big cities, serving wine by the glass to a more upscale clientele. Other higher-end bars specialize in rare and expensive whiskies, and/or craft cocktails.
Going to a bar to watch televised sports is common in America. Some bars promote themselves as sports bars, with a lot of TVs and comfortable seating, but nowadays nearly all bars other than the rankest dives or the snootiest wine bars will have several TVs and show most important games. This is especially popular on Saturdays and Sundays during football season, with most college games being played on Saturday and most NFL games on Sunday, and during important playoff games for other sports. Cities where there is a big soccer fandom will sometimes have bars that specialize in showing matches from important foreign leagues.
Unlike many other countries, beer companies are generally prohibited from directly owning bars in the US. Craft breweries are usually allowed to run taprooms which are regulated differently from bars — the rules vary from state to state, but they often have different opening hours, often cannot serve any alcohol other than beer, and sometimes are prohibited from serving food.
American alcohol comes in a number of varieties. The alcohol content of most beer and wine is labeled as a % ABV (alcohol by volume), distilled spirits by "proof," where the proof number is essentially twice the ABV.
- Beer – A few low-quality domestic brands dominate the beer scene, although craft beer companies have surged in popularity since the mid-2000s. Nearly all mass-market beers are light Pilsners, but craft beers come in almost any style you can think of. Beer in general and mass-market beer in particular is seen as a blue-collar drink, but "craft beers" are often seen as the domain of hipsters urbanites and snobs. Nationally, the most popular brands, in order, are Bud Light, Coors Light, Budweiser, Miller Lite, and Corona Extra. "Three Two" beer (3.2% alcohol by weight, or about 4% ABV), is sold in grocery stores in two states, Utah and Minnesota; only liquor stores can sell full strength beer.
- Hard cider – Once used by pioneers to ward off disease, cider fell by the wayside during Prohibition. Since the 2010s, cider has been regaining popularity in the Midwest and Great Lakes region. In the U.S., only "hard cider" is alcoholic. Other drinks labeled as "cider" are what Europeans would refer to as "cloudy apple juice".
- Wine – California wine, especially from the Napa Valley and its neighbor, the Sonoma Valley, is widely enjoyed. The Santa Ynez valley and to a lesser extent the area around Temecula are also California wine regions. Oregon and Washington also have wine-growing regions that are well-known on the West Coast. You'll find small wineries scattered around upstate New York, the southern Midwest, and the northern South, essentially anywhere you can grow wine grapes, but hardly any of this wine is distributed nationally. Some other regions, such as New Jersey, are known for their fruit wines (wines made from fruit other than grapes). In contrast with Europe, class tends to be a better predictor of wine consumption than geographical region. Wine is frequently drunk in regions not known for growing it and frequently abstained from in traditional wine regions.
- Fortified wines are not terribly common — port is the only one most people regularly drink straight. Sherry and vermouth are more commonly used for cooking or as cocktail ingredients. Other fortified wines such as Thunderbird and Night Train have an ill reputation, seen mainly as a tipple of poor alcoholics.
- Whiskey – Whiskey is fairly popular, especially in Kentucky which is known for its bourbon. Tennessee whiskey is also fairly well known. Bourbon is legally defined as being American made, distilled from a mash containing at least 51% corn, and aged in new charred oak barrels. No specific aging period is legally required, but almost all bourbons are aged for at least two years, and many are aged for four or more. Most Tennessee whiskey meets the legal definition of bourbon but is marketed as a different product. The other 49% of the mash can vary widely, and the "mash bill", i.e. the mix of grains, is a subject of discussion among aficionados. Some bourbons are mostly corn, but if you explore the subject you'll hear about "high-rye" and "wheated" bourbons as well. Irish, Canadian, Japanese and Taiwanese whiskeys enjoy some popularity, but Scotch whisky, usually just called "Scotch," remains the most popular import. All beverages sold as "whiskey" (or "whisky") must be at least 80 proof, and most whiskeys are bottled at that level or slightly higher, but 100 proof "bottled in bond" bourbon is also common, and some unusual and expensive whiskeys are much higher. If you're purchasing some fancy whiskey as a souvenir, be aware that, due to their high flammability, spirits higher than 140 proof can't be taken on aircraft.
- Rye, short for rye whiskey, tends to be a bit more edgy than bourbon, but that's not always the case. If a bar has several bourbons, they will usually have at least one or two ryes as well. Many discerning bartenders favor rye over bourbon for cocktails. The mash for rye whiskey must have at least 51% rye.
- Rum – The area along the Gulf of Mexico is known for its rum. Imported rum is widely available, but due to the ongoing embargo you won't get Cuban rum.
- Vodka — a neutral spirit used in a large number of cocktails. Unless you're Russian, drinking straight, chilled vodka is considered fairly low class in the US. Most vodka is either imported or produced domestically under license from a foreign brand. Some vodka is not a neutral spirit as it's flavored with citrus, vanilla, or a variety of other flavorings. Nearly all vodka is distilled from grain but Polish style potato vodka is sometimes possible to find if you hunt around for it. For example, some markets carry the Austrian-produced Monopolowa brand.
- Grain neutral spirits — essentially high proof vodka containing only ethyl alcohol and water. Illegal in some states. The most notorious is the 190 proof (95% ABV) version of Everclear, which is near the practical limit of alcohol content for distilled spirits. Generally drunk straight only by the young and foolish, but it's used in a few cocktails and sometimes in cooking.
- Moonshine – A relic of the Prohibition era, moonshine became legal in 2010. Moonshine is a spirit that is easy to produce, and the unlicensed version was historically popular in rural areas. Nowadays, however, it's more of a novelty product for urban hipsters. It's essentially the raw corn liquor used to make bourbon or Tennessee whiskey. However, the legal definition of "bourbon" or "Tennessee whiskey" requires that the beverage be aged in new charred oak barrels, which provide those types with all of their color and much of their flavor. Moonshine, or a variant legally defined as "corn whiskey", can be unaged, or aged in either uncharred or previously used oak barrels. Moonshine (or corn whiskey) is often served in a mason jar.
- Malört is a curious, bitter, wormwood-flavored Scandinavian-inspired liquor mainly associated with the Chicago area. Even in Chicago it's divisive (its label used to warn you that most people don't like it at first), but fun to try if you're in the area.
- Liqueurs are not as popular in the U.S. as they are in, for example, much of Europe. Jägermeister, Southern Comfort, Irish cream, and schnapps (which differs from German schnapps) are among the few that are regularly drunk straight. Anisette and limoncello are popular among some Italian-Americans. There was a big marketing push for Campari a few years ago, and most decent bars stock it, but many Americans find its flavor overly bitter and off-putting. Most other liqueurs are generally used as cocktail ingredients.
A cocktail is defined as a drink having at least two different kinds of alcoholic beverages, whereas a mixed drink is just one kind with a non-alcoholic mixer, but in practice the terms are used interchangeably. There's a huge variety of traditional American cocktails, some common ones are below. The majority of American cocktails are either vodka or whiskey based; gin can almost always be substituted for vodka, and brandy for whiskey, though you will have to request this. If you don't specify a brand of spirits to use, bars and restaurants will use whatever their "well" brand is — this varies from some kind of cheap rotgut at downmarket bars to some respectable middle shelf brand at higher-end places. The well version of any cocktail is usually the least expensive. It's usually no problem to ask what their well brand is before you order and choose accordingly. Some higher end bars specialize in "craft cocktails," this includes things like making their own liqueurs and bitters, and reviving long abandoned techniques like making a whiskey sour with egg white.
- Mimosa — Champagne, Prosecco or another fizzy white wine mixed with orange juice. Most popular as a weekend brunch drink.
- Bloody Mary – in its most basic form it's vodka and tomato juice, but a large variety of other flavorings are usually added, e.g. Worcestershire sauce, Tabasco, black pepper, horseradish, etc. The most basic garnish is a celery stalk, but many places go even crazier with the garnish than they do with the ingredients. A variant version originally from Canada uses tomato mixed with clam juice. To order one, ask for a "Clamato Bloody Mary" or a "Bloody Caesar." It's also a common brunch drink, but unlike a mimosa, not exclusively so.
- Daiquiri — sweet and fruity, made with crushed ice, rum, and either fruit juice and sugar or some kind of fruit flavored syrup. Traditionally lime but strawberry is most popular. Somewhat mocked, but still popular in hot, humid locales like Florida and Louisiana.
- Martini – vodka or gin with dry vermouth. Usually garnished with green, pimento stuffed olives.
- Manhattan — bourbon with sweet vermouth and bitters.
- Old Fashioned – an almost forgotten cocktail revived in the early 2000s and still widely popular. Bourbon or rye, bitters, sugar, and orange zest.
- Margarita — very commonly ordered in Mexican restaurants, less so in bars, but still generally available. Tequila, Triple Sec (sweet orange-flavored liqueur), and lime juice. Often mixed with crushed ice, similar to a daiquiri; if you want it with ice cubes order it "on the rocks." If ordered "with salt" that means they will moisten the rim of the glass and dip it in salt. Some places do this by default so be sure to ask for "no salt" if you don't want them to.
- Gin & Tonic — the classic British G&T is also popular in the US: gin and fizzy tonic water, with lime. Rum and Tonic is a popular East Coast variant.
- Screwdriver — Vodka and orange juice. An entertainingly named variant, the Harvey Wallbanger, adds anise-flavored Galliano liqueur
- Other popular drinks where some spirit is added to a non-alcoholic mixer are Vodka & Red Bull, Vodka & cranberry juice, Whiskey & Cola, especially "Jack & Coke" (Jack Daniels and Coca-Cola), and "7 & 7," Seagrams 7 Canadian Whiskey and 7UP. Ginger ale is another common mixer for whiskey. Soda water is a common mixer for Scotch.
- A whiskey sour is made with whiskey, lemon juice, and sugar. Very classy or very traditional bars may add a small amount of egg whites to give it a smoother texture and flavor.
- Long Island Iced Tea — this is one you order not to sip daintily but if you're looking to tie one on, it's an infamous mixture of vodka, rum, gin, tequila, triple sec, and cola.
- White Russian — had a somewhat antiquated reputation until the film The Big Lebowski became popular (the main character is seldom seen without one). Vodka, Kahlua coffee liqueur, and cream. A "Black Russian" omits the cream.
- Irish coffee — one of a handful of American cocktails intended to be drunk warm (at least it may be American. It was either invented in 1952 in San Francisco or sometime before that in Ireland), the classic recipe is Irish whiskey, hot coffee, cream and sugar, but Irish cream liqueur is often used. Just plain whiskey and hot black coffee is seldom ordered in bars, but is reasonably common to make informally, especially by people engaged in cold weather activities like attending a late fall football game or ice fishing.
- Boilermaker — a shot of whiskey poured or dropped into a beer. It's also fine to drink the shot first and then chase it with the beer. Sometimes ordered as just "a shot and a beer."
- Irish car bomb — often offensive to order in Ireland, but perfectly acceptable and even expected in an Irish-American bar. A boilermaker variant where the beer is Guinness and the shot is 1/2 whiskey and 1/2 Irish cream. Should be drunk fairly quickly before the cream curdles.
- Black & Tan — another beer cocktail you may not want to order in Ireland but is very popular in Irish-American bars. 1/2 Guinness and 1/2 lager.
- Jello shot — a shot of some clear spirit, usually vodka, mixed with jello and allowed to set. Not the classiest thing and rarely served in bars, but fun at parties.
- Eggnog — a traditional Christmas drink. Whiskey mixed with eggs, cream, milk, sugar, and nutmeg. Sometimes pre-made eggnog mix is used. Not universally loved, it's sometimes described as "runny custard" and many Americans consider it too rich and eggy for a cocktail, but still quite common. Also, many Americans' first experience of it is being given straight eggnog mix, with no booze, as a child, so that somewhat impairs one's ability to take it seriously as a cocktail.
- Mulled wine — another Christmas season drink: hot, sweetened red wine flavored with cinnamon and cloves. Essentially the same thing as German and Austrian glühwein, and while not nearly as ubiquitous in the US as it is in central Europe, it's popular in many parts of the country.
"New American" or "Modern American" cuisine is something of a catch-all term for a style of American fine dining that's been growing in popularity since the 1980s. Inspired partly by French Nouvelle Cuisine, by way of California Cuisine, it tends to be a fusion of a wide variety of cooking techniques applied to traditional American food, and also often infuses flavors from other parts of the world like Latin America and Asia as homage to the diverse origins of modern-day Americans. In contemporary times, it's sometimes associated with the "local food" and "farm to table" movements, so expect to see a lot of seafood near the coasts, local beef, pork, and poultry in major agricultural areas, and whatever vegetables are common to the local region and season. Quality of ingredients is emphasized: expect wild-caught fish, grass fed beef, free-range poultry, wild-gathered mushrooms, and organically grown, "heirloom" varieties of vegetables. In some cases this has caused controversy, for example, Appalachian residents quietly enjoyed a species of wild leeks known as "ramps" for decades, until they suddenly became popular among trendsetting big-city chefs and now can be hard to find in their native range.
Fast food has spread around the world, largely through McDonald's, and while it has a poor reputation, that does not mean that it is not worth getting fast food while you are in the United States. Fast food is, basically, American cuisine modified so it can be cooked and served very quickly.
- See also: Pizza in the United States and Canada
Pizza, like pasta, is Italian, but it has become a standard part of American cuisine, particularly as a fast food option partly because it is easy to deliver. There are some restaurant chains throughout the United States that serve primarily pizza, and many restaurants that are not part of chains (especially Italian ones) will have some sort of pizza option on their menu. Authentic Italian pizza can be found at fancier Italian restaurants in the larger cities.
American Chinese food
Chinese food in America tends to be quite distinct from food actually served in China. Chinese restaurants are known for often being open during holidays, and for allowing takeout and delivery. General Tso's Chicken, Fried Cream Cheese Wontons, Lo Mein Noodles, Chop Suey, dumplings (often referred to as potstickers), egg rolls, crab rangoons, and other dishes are well known. Many Chinese restaurants in America offer fortune cookies with each meal.
American Chinese food has a fairly long history. It's generally reckoned to have started with "chop suey" houses, but the origins of chop suey, a simple dish of pork and/or chicken, vegetables, and soy sauce, are mysterious, although one common origin story traces it back to the California gold rush, where laborers of all ethnic backgrounds liked it because it was filling, nutritious, and very cheap. From those humble beginnings, the more elaborate types of American Chinese food were developed, and "going out for Chinese" became an American tradition. Chinese chefs reined in some of the more exotic and spicy ingredients, partly because some of them were hard to obtain in the US, and made the food generally sweeter and starchier. Chinese restaurants also developed a bond with Jewish communities since they were typically open on Christian holidays — going to the movies and then getting Chinese food is a typical American Jewish Christmas Day activity — as a result you'll see kosher Chinese restaurants (no pork, dairy, or shellfish) in cities such as New York and LA that have both a large Chinese and a large Jewish population.
American Chinese restaurants range from small "hole in the wall"-style places that primarily offer takeout and/or delivery, with at most a few small tables in an ersatz dining room, to lavish all-you-can-eat buffets. Parts of the US with large Chinese populations typically have Dim Sum restaurants. These are often huge dining rooms where the servers roll carts around with small plates and you can order right off the cart. Doughy, steamed, meat filled buns are the most classic dish, but dumplings, noodle dishes, and various steamed mixtures of rice, meat, and vegetables are also common, and you'll occasionally find stir-fried vegetables such as Chinese broccoli. This is most popular for a mid-day meal on weekends although they're usually open throughout the week.
If you're looking for the authentic cuisine of China, it's fairly easy to find in large cities (Chinatowns, obviously, are a good place to start your search) and in college towns which often contain large populations of international students from China. Many such restaurants offer dual menus of American Chinese and "homestyle" cuisine respectively. If you don't look Asian, it may be assumed that you want the former and not the latter, with the latter menu options sometimes written only in Chinese. If you don't speak the language, you can try just bluntly asking to sample some authentic Chinese dishes that aren't on the English menu, but depending on your tolerance for exotic food you may have to just roll with it when you're given chicken feet, snake soup, stinky tofu, etc. In some restaurants, the authentic Chinese dishes have to be ordered in advance, and may only be available for larger parties.
Another curiosity of American Chinese restaurants is that in many cases the Chinese and English names of the restaurants bear no resemblance to each other. So in Chinese a restaurant's name may be an elaborate, flowery reference to a famous poem or to mythology, but, rightly assuming that hardly any Americans would understand it, the English name will be something basic like "Hunan Palace."
"Mongolian Barbecue" (it's a Taiwanese invention, only notionally related to Mongolia) is another form of Chinese food you might come across in America. You pick out a combination of thinly sliced meat, vegetables, and sauce, and the chef will cook it for you, together with noodles, on a large, flat iron cooking surface.
Although authentic Japanese sushi is available at fancier restaurants in New York City and major cities on the West Coast, for the most part, sushi in the United States has been localized to the point of being hardly recognizable to the Japanese themselves; a common refrain from Japanese people trying American sushi for the first time is that "it's delicious but it's not sushi". While Japanese sushi emphasizes simplicity, subtlety and the freshness of the ingredients, American sushi often makes heavy use of various sauces, mayonnaise, American ingredients such as crab sticks, soft shell crabs and avocado, and even Japanese ingredients not typically used in sushi such as shrimp tempura and wagyu beef, making it "heavier" on the taste buds than traditional Japanese sushi. Uniquely American variations of sushi include the spam musubi, which is a local specialty of Hawaii, the sushi burrito, a hybrid between a sushi and a burrito that was invented in San Francisco, as well as California rolls, spider rolls, volcano rolls and numerous other unique and creative combinations.
Native American cuisine
Native American food is delicious and nutritious, but you're very unlikely to find it in any restaurants. If you're curious to sample it, a better idea is to seek out local powwows. Many dishes use ingredients from the Three Sisters: squash, corn, and beans. Frybread and succotash are two fairly well known dishes. As Native Americans are not a homogeneous group, cuisines differ significantly between tribes. Beware if you are a picky eater, as many Native American cuisines make use of ingredients that most other people would consider exotic.
Many reservations, among them the Navajo Nation, prohibit alcoholic drinks.
Kosher and halal
While delicatessens with Jewish owners may or may not be kosher, those run by non-Jews typically are not. Any restaurant that serves Kosher food will be officially certified and will have a sticker in its window advertising it. Traditional European style Kosher restaurants are found in cities with large Jewish populations: this is generally traditional Central and Eastern European food (schnitzel, potatoes, etc.) with no pork or shellfish, and dairy products eliminated or substituted. For example, schmaltz, i.e. clarified chicken fat, is a traditional butter substitute. In cities with large numbers of kosher-observant Jews, vegetarian restaurants are also frequently kosher. These cities also may have restaurants featuring Kosher versions of other ethnic cuisines, such as Chinese and Mexican. As most American Jews are of Ashkenazi extraction, this is largely reflected in American Jewish cuisine; Levantine dishes such as falafel, shawarma and hummus that are part of the cuisines of Israel and neighboring Arab countries are popular, but specifically Sephardic and Mizrachi cuisine is uncommon in America.
Halal food is quite widely available in major cities. Middle Eastern places, especially if they're owned by Muslims, are often halal, but they don't always specifically advertise it; it never hurts to ask if it's important to you. The Halal Guys started as a New York City food truck and is now a nationwide chain of halal fast food restaurants. Most halal food will be Middle Eastern or Americanized Middle Eastern, but in large cities you may find other food such as Indonesian, Indian/Pakistani, North African, or Muslim Chinese that is also halal.
African-American cuisine is intertwined with the cuisine of the Deep South, with influences from African, European, and Native American cuisines. This style of cooking is known as "soul food". Some signature African-American dishes include sweet cornbread, black-eyed peas, macaroni and cheese, fried okra and fried chicken and waffles. Restaurants serving soul food can be found not only in the South but also in northern cities with large African-American populations.
Diners are a classic piece of Americana, seen in countless films, TV shows, and even classic American art. They've somewhat fallen by the wayside in favor of fast food and fast-casual chains, but are still found in the middle of big cities, in the suburbs, and out in the country near well-traveled highways, a few still bearing the classic sign from a less literate era that simply says "EAT" in large letters. A few chains, particularly Denny's and Waffle House, have standardized the diner experience, but in most parts of the country independently owned diners are still common.
They're generally relatively inexpensive and specialize in classic American fare — hamburgers, sandwiches, steak & potatoes, etc. Typically they will have some pies and cakes available for dessert. Most have fairly extensive breakfast menus. If you want to sit at a table, the waitstaff will usually seat you, or there is usually a counter near the front where you can seat yourself.
Diners in the Northeast are very often run by Greek-Americans, so if there are Greek items on the menu, they are often good choices. While it's not universally true, Northeastern diners are also famous for having enormous menus with traditional American, Italian-American, Greek, and even Mexican food.
Tipping is customary in any restaurant that has table service. Remember that waitstaff are generally paid very low wages (well below the general minimum wage) and are expected to earn most of their income from tips. 15% of the bill was historically the typical tip, but 20% is more common nowadays. For very cheap meals, most people tip at least $2, even if that works out to more than 20%. Bartenders typically get 20% of the bill, or if you're paying per drink, $1-2 per drink (though if you order something very expensive, a commensurate tip is expected). Some restaurants will add a "service charge" to the bill, particularly for large parties. If one appears on your bill, you don't have to tip. In some more progressive areas, a handful of restaurants are experimenting with paying the staff a living wage and eliminating tips. You're unlikely to run into one, but if you do, it will generally be indicated on the menu that you don't need to tip.
Buffets are something of a gray area, since while staff doesn't take orders or bring out food, they still clean the tables and usually bring you drinks. 10% is a common tip amount at a buffet.
In any establishment where you order and receive your food at a counter (other than counter seating in a diner), tipping is entirely optional. Sometimes staff will be allowed to put out a tip jar, and while a buck or two in the tip jar is certainly appreciated, it's not required. Many customers will simply, if they receive coins with their change, put the coins in the tip jar. Likewise, you generally do not need to tip if ordering takeaway, even from a restaurant that otherwise provides table service to sit-down diners.
If you're ordering food for delivery, you're also expected to tip your driver. If the driver is employed by the restaurant itself, as with many pizzerias and Chinese takeouts, a couple of dollars cash upon delivery should suffice. However, if you're using one of the app-based food delivery services such as GrubHub, DoorDash, or Postmates that have proliferated in the U.S. lately, the rules are a bit different. In those cases, the three most important things for you as a customer to remember are that tipping is done in advance, that drivers are free to decline to accept any order for any reason, and most importantly, that the app tells the driver in advance how much you've tipped him or her. In practice, this means that those who fail to leave an appropriate tip regularly experience long delays in receiving their food, or even outright cancellation of their order, due to lack of any driver willing to deliver it. Generally speaking, $3 is about the lowest you can go without worrying about problems with your delivery (GrubHub itself recommends $5 or 20% of the meal price, whichever is more). As usual, if you're in an expensive locale like New York City, round upward accordingly.
Americans eat a lot of snack food, in fact many of them eat far too much. This however contributes to a truly staggering variety of available snack foods.
Snack food is common, especially among people who feel too busy to stop for a regular meal. The candy bar was adopted enthusiastically by Americans, with the idea that it could be eaten in the hand, while walking down the street, instead of your next meal. Trendy large offices often supply snack foods to workers, so if you're traveling for work, you may encounter not just a coffee pot at the end of a hallway, but a kitchen stocked with snacks such as nuts, popcorn, apples, and bottled non-alcoholic drinks. You might also encounter a box of doughnuts or bagels at your first meeting of the day, and then find people bringing a quick snack to any of the later ones.
Modern snacks tend to run less towards honest candy and more towards either fashionably healthy foods or towards outright junk food. Potato chips are available in every size bag from "individual" through "feeds a troop of teenagers". The sheer variety of crackers, corn chips, and potato chips will astound people from countries where these aren't common foods. Visitors from Canada and Europe may nonetheless be surprised that despite the huge variety of potato chips on offer, some of their favorite flavors like "ketchup" are not readily available. (Yes, it's true. Americans love ketchup on their french fries, but ketchup chips have never caught on. Go figure.)
Multiple types of granola bars, usually made with oats or other grains, and usually available in at least chocolate chip, fudge, and peanut butter flavors, are meant to give you something like the convenience of a candy bar, but with more fiber and salt. Some Americans use granola bars not just as a snack but as a quick breakfast. Skip the "fruit snacks", which are marketed towards kids; they are made with a little bit of fruit juice, but they sometimes have more sugar and less protein than gummi bears.
Beef jerky (dried, spiced beef) is another common snack, and usually available in a number of flavors. A variant is the dried, spiced sausage-like product commonly called "beef sticks," of which Slim Jims is the most common brand. Corn Nuts is the brand name of a unique snack made of individual corn kernels roasted and fried until they are very crunchy, and dusted with a variety of different flavors. Roasted sunflower seeds and, to a lesser extent, pumpkin seeds are common. Popcorn is popular and is sometimes seen as healthier than other snacks since it's lower in calories for a given volume of food, but a lot of commercially available popcorn is flavored with so much salt, cheese, and butter as to make this belief somewhat dubious.
Nuts, especially peanuts, fruit, cheese, and vegetables are also common snacks. Nuts, dried fruits, and occasionally chocolates or peanut butter clusters are often mixed together to form trail mix, a food popular among hikers and cyclists, but also often eaten as an ordinary snack.