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Jun 11, 2013 05:52 PM

Regional specialties that really aren't (anymore)

What are some "regional specialties" that visitors to your area bring up, but which were never a local favorite, are now mostly served to tourists, or are so globalized that they're no better at Denny's than in their region for which they're sought after?

As some examples, if you believed advertising, you'd think that Rice-a-Roni was served at every San Francisco restaurant (it was invented here for mass production, but never a local speciality). Likewise, it's common for visitors to grab the first sourdough they see, not realizing that the modal sourdough bread isn't any better than what they can get at Panera back home. There's also the pervasive "clam chowder in a breadbowl" concept, which was never a local specialty outside of tourist spots (e.g., see ).

I'd like to pre-empt my question by asking that this not become a "they don't make 'em like they used to" discussion about local specialties that have changed but which still are better than those found elsewhere. For example, lots of NY'ers complain about the decline in bagel quality, but realistically, even a low-tier NY bagel is still leagues above the top bagels in most other places in the US.

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  1. Rice-A-Roni is just a dumbed-down and boxed knockoff of the Armenian pilaf my ex-wife's grandma taught her to make, which she then passed onto me. There was a lot of snorting around the living room when that commercial came on.

    I think a lot of "regional" items have been co-opted by the food processors, and too often not to the item's benefit. That extends even to ingredients: when Smucker's bought the White Lily brand and assets, they took a flour that had been made in just one mill, from wheat grown by carefully selected farmers, and they shut down the Knoxville mill, moved production to Memphis, and started buying wheat from anyone who grew the low-protein soft variety. And since their lab tests can't tell any difference, they claim - erroneously - that there isn't any.

    Aside from that, you know the commonalization of our foods really started with commerce itself, followed by preservation methods, all the way up to canning, vacuum-packing and freezing. My family's typically Midwestern fare got its Italian additions from Chef Boy-Ar-Dee and its Chinese from Chung King. And the beat goes on.

    6 Replies
    1. re: Will Owen

      Thanks for the insights. Food processors and the spread of people/recipes have certainly globalized food. But there still are foods that have stayed regionally superior owing to access to certain fresh ingredients, lack of global interest, or competition.

      1. re: hyperbowler

        "Planet Taco" shows how Americans, and corporations in particular, spread Mexican food around the globe. And going back to 1900, canners, including Chicago meat packers, spread chili con carne, tamales, and tortillas (yes, canned tortillas) outside of enclaves like San Antonio and Los Angeles.

        Traditional Mexican cooking requires skilled labor. A lot of knowledge and skill goes into making the most basic item, the corn tortilla. Prefried taco shells were developed as a way of making a product that could be assembled by unskilled labor or home cooks, and had a long shelf life. Masa harina (tortilla flour) was another method of reducing the labor requirements.

        1. re: paulj

          I hardly think Mexican food has become a mainstay around the world. In the US, particularly over the past handful of years, yes, but the demographics of many cities and towns are changing too.

          OTOH, during previous ambles through various East Asian supermarkets specializing in imported foods, I've noticed canned beans, peppers and a few other Mexican products (that were also produced in Mexico). Restaurants are few and far between (though Bangkok has a small chain of generic taco/fajita eateries), but who knows what will open next.


          1. re: BuildingMyBento

            Never heard of Tacofredag, Taco Friday? Apparently tacos (more of the taco-bell variety) have become common Friday evening fare in Norway.

            I didn't write that it Mexican, or Mexican-American, food is a mainstray around the globe, but that it has spread, in one form or other, around the globe. And in contrast to cuisines that spread via immigrants, this spread was more American and corporate.

            There is another thread about chilli competition in the UK.

      2. re: Will Owen

        The J.M. Smucker Company purchased the White Lily brand from C.H. Guenther & Sons and that transaction did not include the Knoxville milling facility/plant. The C.H. Guenther & Sons Inc made the decision/chose to close that facility. Not Smucker.

        Initially Smucker’s moved production of White Lily to a premier milling operation. A fifth generation family owned milling operation in Ohio that had served as a secondary miller of White Lily for many, many generations. Some production also went to a previously Smucker owned plant in Toledo Ohio.

        There is no flour mill in Memphis. ~ Memphis is a large distribution facility as well as a jelly, ice cream topping etc. production line last time I checked.

      3. Being an Air Force kid I was introduced to many regional specialties. #1 in Savannah/Albany Ga. it was Georgia BBQ. It was not the gloppy sweet stuff.It is also where I first had pizza.It had lived in Japan and pizza. I had lived in Japan in the late 50's and mid-60's and the Officer's Club was really into being delivered flaming sirloin kebabs. Wen we were transferred to Northern NY state, Plattsburgh, we fell in love with the Michigan Hot Dog also labeled Red Hots. It is indigenous to that area to that area. and area. You might find a place Burlington, Vt.and I knew of a place in Montreal. But it was indigenous to that place in Clinton County NY. Luckily I married a local and we go back as often as we can. The first stop we make is always for a Michigan, also called a Red Hot, and then we eat our fill when when in the area.

        1 Reply
        1. re: Candy

          Assuming they're the same thing, I'm remembering red hots and white hots from my time in Rochester. Their presence on a garbage/sloppy plate is something definitely a regional specialty!

        2. I think that Philly cheesesteak is no longer a regional specialty, seeing as you can get one (albeit usually a lousy one) in almost every chain sub shop, as well as on top of pizza and inside calzones from coast to coast.

          12 Replies
          1. re: RealMenJulienne

            Good to know. So there's nothing even special about the bread? I've found that a few regional specialty sandwiches are unique if only because their type of bread isn't found elsewhere (Dutch crunch in SF/northern California, breakfast sandwiches and heroes in the northeast, po-boys)

            1. re: hyperbowler

              One or two of the Philly cheese-steak outfits here in SoCal are importing the Amoroso rolls from Philadelphia (a mixed blessing). Some lobster-roll vendors here are also getting the proper top-split buns.

              1. re: hyperbowler

                Well no, cheesesteaks in Philly are made on a good crusty roll from Amaroso, so the bread is special. And I'm not saying that the real-deal sandwich in its hometown is no good. It's more that the term "philly cheesesteak" has almost come to mean a generic flavor of something, like "cajun" or "tuscan". I've seen philly style burgers, pizza, calzones, burritos, etc. The term is overused so it's kind of meaningless now.

                1. re: RealMenJulienne

                  gah! tuscan. i saw some DOG FOOD commercial for "new" flavors, one of which was tuscan something-or-other. really? DOG FOOD? mebbe cuz you can't bring your dog to olive garden for their "tuscan" bread stix?

                  have seen philly cheese steak egg rolls and spring rolls.

                  1. re: hotoynoodle

                    I saw the Tuscan dog food the other day while buying normal dog food. I had a visual of my dog looking up and me and saying "Hey, thanks, lady. I feel transported to sunny Tuscany."

                  2. re: RealMenJulienne

                    Actually Amoroso rolls are not at all important (or very good). Here's a breakdown of who uses what:
                    John's Roast Pork - Carangi
                    Steve's Prince o Steaks - Vilotti-Pisanelli
                    Chink's Steaks - Liscio's rolls
                    Cosmi's Deli -- D’Ambrosio’s
                    Tony Luke's -- Liscio's
                    Geno's Steaks - Amoroso
                    Pat's King o Steaks - Vilotti-Pisanelli

                    1. re: caganer

                      So agree. I associate Amoroso rolls with WaWa, which is fine, but there is some good bread, better bread, in the area that lift the sandwiches to another level.
                      You need the right roll for the right sandwich.
                      Carangi and Dante's are my faves, next is Liscio's.

                2. re: RealMenJulienne

                  From my experience in Philadelphia, roast pork and greens sandwiches are what the locals really eat.

                  1. re: mpjmph

                    x about 20 years now. Great sandwich.
                    Funny story (am from Philly). I was back home visiting in Philly and having breakfast at the Reading Terminal Market when i spied Adam Richman (man vs. food). He was scoping out RTM with production and I asked if he was going to feature the roast pork sandwich since he was at DiNic's. He'd never heard of it.
                    Well, long story short, that sandwich won his best sandwich in America competition and the lines have been insane ever since when.

                    1. re: monavano

                      Yep. I'm solidly Southern, but my parents moved to Delaware a few years ago. My mom and I like to take day trips to Philly for lunch and shopping. We went to DiNic's and were planning to get steak sandwiches. We started chatting with an older lady in line, and she convinced us to have the pork and greens. Amazing.

                  2. re: RealMenJulienne

                    Lots places don't use ribeye steak as the meat in their cheesesteaks. That's oh so wrong.

                    1. re: RealMenJulienne

                      I think the Philly cheesesteaks still taste best in Philly, even if many of the locals aren't eating them, so I'd still consider them a regional specialty even if they're on menus nationwide. I can only remember having one tasty cheesesteak outside of Philly that tasted as good as the ones I've ordered in Philly.

                    2. Grew up in the south, so it's biscuits and sausage gravy to me. Seeing gloppy beige gravy over no-better-than-Grands biscuits makes me weep.

                      6 Replies
                      1. re: pine time

                        Just curious pine time, what do you think of Hardee's biscuits? I'm not a southerner but I've never had a better biscuit anywhere. I plug them every chance I get.

                        1. re: RealMenJulienne

                          I live in SoCal, and there are no Hardee's here. I've heard that our Carl's Jr. is a "cousin" of Hardee's, but not quite the same (and Carl's serves biscuits--I've not had them, though). So, can't comment. Had a relative who worked at a Hardee's in TN, and while her own scratch biscuits were wonderful, she raved about the Hardee's mixes--but since the mix came pre-made, she never learned their secrets. Best biscuits I ever ate (well, other than grandma's) was at a little no-name place in Pigeon Forge, TN, outside of the Smokey Mts., but then it got discovered and ruined.
                          I make a mean piecrust, but have never made biscuits to my satisfaction. Whenever I get back to KY and TN, I bring home multiple bags of White Lily flour. I can make decent biscuits with that, but not stellar.

                          1. re: pine time

                            Pine time,
                            Where do you go to get biscuits & gravy in SoCal?

                            1. re: Kalivs

                              We've tried most of the chains that advertise biscuits and gravy, as well as lots of Mom and Pops. Do you have a decent source??

                              1. re: pine time

                                I an still looking for "The" biscuit and gravy eatery in my area. When I think I may have found it, the cook departs or the joint closes or they change the sausage they use, whatever. I avoid all chains and concentrate on Mom and Pop places and a couple Convenience stores. When I am not on the road I make my own. In a hurry, Libby's Sausage and Gravy is pretty good albeit on the salty side. I doctor it with a little whole milk and butter. It satisfies.

                          2. re: RealMenJulienne

                            As a border-line Southerner, we have terrible Hardee's in our town. The biscuits are heavy and salty. But once I went to a Hardee's in Montgomery, Alabama and it was one of the best things I ever ate.

                        2. Poutine might be one. While it's hard to find legit Poutine outside of Canada, lots of places are trying to make it now. I actually just saw this today... Pizza Hut (in Canada) making a beef poutine pizza

                          30 Replies
                          1. re: juliejulez

                            here in new england, poutine has become a darling item for gastro-pub type places, with many of them making their own cheese curds.

                            meh. it's late-night drunk food, not something i want topped with foie-gras or lobster.

                            speaking of... when mcdonald's and subway started serving lobster rolls a small piece of me died.

                            also: buffalo wings.

                            1. re: hotoynoodle

                              Haha yeah our hockey bar we go to here in CO has a bastardized version of poutine... just regular cheese, no cheese curds. It's still good with beer though.

                              1. re: juliejulez

                                That's saying something (bastardized) considering how high class poutine is in the first place!

                                1. re: paulj

                                  Ha... but that is an appropriate description for this.... it's just shredded cheese that gets melted along with what I'm guessing is canned beef gravy.

                                  Euclid Hall, which is a "foodie" restaurant here in Denver has a few poutines... the first two sound pretty good to me. What is adolescent celery? haha:

                                  Wild Mushroom, porcini gravy, hand-cut fries, cheddar curds 9.00

                                  Carnitas Papas Fritas, tomatillo green chile, cheddar curds and goat cheese, cilantro, chile lime fries 12.50

                                  Chowda’ Fries, New England-style clam chowder, fried clam strips, adolescent celery 13.00

                                  1. re: juliejulez

                                    Is "adolescent celery" celery that's acting fresh?

                                    1. re: juliejulez

                                      Poutines - our tributes to the Canadian classic – loosely adapted

                                      or how about this:
                                      Broccoli and Cheese Spaetzle, white cheddar spaetzle, broccoli, cheddar whiz

                                      Upgrade any sausage to a Currywurst and we’ll add Ginger Apricot Tomato sauce and a toasted Bretzel

                                      1. re: paulj

                                        against my better judgement, i clicked on the link.

                                        first item and i had a"stop right there" moment:

                                        "Simple Salad, organic baby heads... "


                                        is this restaurant in williamsburg?

                                        1. re: hotoynoodle

                                          Right here in Denver... the executive chef is Jennifer Jasinski, who is will be on this next season of Top Chef Masters (she has other restaurants too, Rioja and Bistro Vendome which are decidedly less hipstery and considered some of the best restaurants here). But, if you watched this past season of Top Chef, her chef de cuisine, Jorel Pierce, was on it, he was one of the guys w/ the goofy hipster mustache and was eliminated quite early.

                                          1. re: hotoynoodle

                                            What do they do with the rest of the organic babies?

                                            1. re: Tara57

                                              EXACTLY!! and what sized heads? we talking brussels sprout-sized or softball-sized?

                                  2. re: hotoynoodle

                                    It's awesome to hear that poutine has descended across the border over there. SF's poutine attempts are all gourmetish, and aren't even as good as the MSG-laded low-tier places of Montreal.

                                    I had a McLobster about 25 years ago, but didn't realize that Subway was doing that now too. The key to lobster roll's seems to be the roll, which is quite rare, but obtainable elsewhere in the US. Even New England places that don't use a vertically sliced roll suffer in quality.

                                    Buffalo Wings are a good example, especially since the original recipe is well known and easy to make at home.

                                    1. re: hotoynoodle

                                      don't forget panera and d'angelos (which incidentally enough, is a regional darling to some)

                                    2. re: juliejulez

                                      The Butter Chicken one that PH Canada is also doing is definitely something I would give a try.

                                      1. re: juliejulez

                                        The Costco in Richmond BC serves Poutine. A couple Canadian friends claim only real Poutine can be found in Quebec. Anywhere else is just a bastardization.

                                        1. re: juliejulez

                                          It's been a year or 2 since I heard that poutine had become trendy and I'm still in shock.
                                          I grew up in Montreal and to me, elevating poutine to cult status is like glorifying, say, Wonderbread spread with margarine. Cheap and filling but not something that people say breathlessly of: "Oh, I've always wanted to try it."
                                          Colline de bines ... poutine!

                                          1. re: almond tree

                                            Despite their gourmet status and expense in the states, it's funny to thing that izakaya, tapas, and poutine are essentially the buffalo wings and french fries of their native places.

                                            1. re: almond tree

                                              Not sure. I've always wanted to try poutine, because there's no other food that came to mind when thinking of Canada. Actually, there are a few (Tim Horton's, Coffee Crisp, dim sum, and horse...what a team), but the description of poutine made it stand out. I finally tried it in Niagara Falls, Ontario, and know that for the next time, have an avocado ready to sacrifice itself.


                                                1. re: BuildingMyBento

                                                  I'm surprised you'd list horse as a food that would come to mind when thinking of Canada. Not too many Canadians like to eat horses. Horsemeat is more popular in France or Russia. I'm pretty sure I read that Russia is the country that buys and eats the most Canadian horsemeat.

                                                  1. re: prima

                                                    its at every large grocery store in montreal... people definitely eat it

                                                    no clue about the dim sum-canadian connections or the avocado comment tho..

                                                    1. re: kpaxonite

                                                      Horsemeat might be found in every large grocery store in Montreal, but I've never seen horsemeat at any large grocery stores in Ontario, Saskatchewan or Alberta. There are only around a half dozen restaurants in Toronto that serve horsemeat, and I've rarely seen it on menus in other parts of Ontario. I haven't done much grocery shopping in the other 6 provinces, but I haven't noticed horse on too many menus in BC, Manitoba or the Maritimes.

                                                      I'm not surprised horsemeat is more common in a city like Montreal,taking into consideration that horsemeat is quite popular in other parts of the Francophonie.

                                                      Even if you can find horsemeat in large grocery stores in Montreal, I wouldn't consider horsemeat to be a popular food for Canadians in general, or a typically Canadian food.

                                                      1. re: prima

                                                        True I dont consider it typically Canadian either, I just figure if it widely available it must be because someone is buying it.

                                                        I think Bento might just know that it is legal here and since it is not in the US, that in itself might make it appealing.

                                                2. re: almond tree

                                                  Kind of like how PBR got all trendy and cool a couple years ago?

                                                  1. re: NonnieMuss

                                                    Don't know about that trend. In fact I had to google PBR :).
                                                    But maybe like shakshuka in the Middle East (where I moved to from Montreal). That's a hot dish of eggs baked in tomato sauce which has become very faddish in certain circles with dedicated restaurants etc.
                                                    I spent 5 weeks in the hospital years ago and they served shakshuka for supper EVERY SINGLE DAY before it was cool -- because it's cheap and filling I guess. I might be willing to eat shakshuka again, but there's no way in the world I would pay for the experience.

                                                    1. re: NonnieMuss

                                                      I live in a college town, and took my mom out to dinner a few months ago. The restaurant had PBR "on special" for $5/can. My mom was stunned that 1) people still drink it and 2) anyone would pay more than $1 for a can, even at a restaurant.

                                                      1. re: mpjmph

                                                        $5 a can is highway robbery! Shameful.
                                                        I think I remember kegs being around $20-$25 back in the day.

                                                  2. re: juliejulez

                                                    Non-gourmet Poutine can be had in Dania, FL (big Quebecois vacation spot):


                                                    1. re: Bob W

                                                      That "an hard boiled egg" is proof of their Quebecois origins. That and the fact that they have pogos on the menu.
                                                      Wonder if pogos will ever achieve the fame that poutine has?

                                                      1. re: almond tree

                                                        Is a pogo like an American corn dog, which got some fame during the 2011-2 campaigns?


                                                      2. re: Bob W

                                                        There's a "Canadian" burger joint up the road on US1 in Ft. Lauderdale, across the street from a Russian deli/grocery store, that serves poutine.