What do you think of as American food? Burgers with melted cheese, mustard-squirted hot dogs, a Caesar salad – with or without chicken? Surely the melting pot of America has moved on in its flavours?
I decided to find out on a five-week culinary road trip from New York to Los Angeles, dipping into the Southern states along the way, and tasting everything from creole bread pudding souffle to Monterey cheese-spiked grits.
Here is my pick of the best – and the most surprising – gastronomic gems.
Gotham Bar and Grill, New York
Gotham Bar and Grill, above, is a New York institution located in the heart of the West Village
Pictured is Vic’s Burger, with a soft brioche bun, bone marrow, crispy shallots and sweet mango sauce
In the heart of the West Village, this is an institution. The high ceilings, split-level dining and bustling bar full of sleek New Yorkers sipping Cosmopolitans is enough to make you feel you’re in Sex And The City. The ‘nouveaux-American’ menu includes oysters and mango-dressed burgers – the juiciest I have had the pleasure of tasting.
Standout dish: Vic’s Burger, with a soft brioche bun, bone marrow, crispy shallots and sweet mango sauce (£21.60), gothambarandgrill.com.
I Got Your Crabs, Kitty Hawk, North Carolina
Tasty: I Got Your Crabs is a roadside diner, complete with stainless-steel bar and bright orange booths
This roadside diner, complete with stainless-steel bar and bright orange booths, is only typical where its interiors are concerned. Owner Hunter Stuart’s daily catch is used across the menu, including crab cakes served with a home-made spicy mayo salsa, alongside endless refills of sweet pink lemonade.
Standout dish: Crab tacos packed with shredded cabbage, red pepper, red onion, a sweet hit of mango and an explosion of lime (£4.60), igotyourcrabs.com
The Lifesaving Station, Sanderling Resort, Duck, North Carolina
The Lifesaving Station in North Carolina was built in 1874 as a refuge for shipwrecked sailors – order the blueberry pancakes
Pop in for breakfast at this site, built in 1874 as a refuge for shipwrecked sailors, and order blueberry pancakes made from a fluffy, ultra-light batter and the size of your face.
Standout dish: Northern Banks Breakfast, complete with pancakes, sausages, bacon, eggs (over easy) and a mighty filter coffee that comes with endless refills (£11.60), sanderling-resort.com.
Husk, Nashville, Tennessee
The only place you should try shrimp and grits – boiled cornmeal – is in this stately mansion. Here, Southern comfort food has been redefined, with posh fried chicken, cherry pepper devilled eggs and grits that do taste of something.
Standout dish: Monterey cheese spiked-grits, topped with pearlescent drops of pickled beetroot, shrimp and microgreens. A painting in a bowl (£12.35), husknashville.com.
In trendy East Nashville, this relaxed eaterie has a tasting menu of ‘nouveaux Southern’ with dishes such as grilled turnips dressed with black vinegar, chilli and ginger, and chocolate souffle.
Standout dish: Sweet fingerling potatoes elevated with pistachio, lemon and fermented green tomato butter (£9.25), setsuneast.com.
Iris, Memphis, Tennessee
Chef Kelly English has taken the finesse and flavours of Creole cooking to Memphis and given them an Italian twist at restaurant Iris
Chef Kelly English has taken the finesse and flavours of Creole cooking to Memphis and given them an Italian twist, with plates such as duck confit carbonara and wild mushroom cannelloni.
Standout dish: Creamy crawfish gnocchi in a sauce of spicy andouille sausage, mushrooms and microgreens, served with a home-baked molasses bread roll (£13), restaurantiris.com.
Helen’s BBQ, Brownsville, Tennessee
Served up a treat: Anastasia, on the right, with travel companion Iska Lupton, at Helen’s BBQ
Grandmother Helen Turner serves up 12-hour smoked pork shoulder with coleslaw, beans and spicy barbecue sauce in a former garage. This red shack is more than 100 years old and Helen has been at the helm for 25 of those.
Standout dish: Pulled pork roll with a hefty squirt of Helen’s secret recipe barbecue sauce (£3).
Old Capitol Inn, Jackson, Mississippi
Close to Jackson’s must-visit Civil Rights Museum, this cosy inn delivers hefty servings of Southern fare at reasonable prices. Dishes are best enjoyed by the fountain in the ivy-covered garden.
Standout dish: Panko chicken served with mac and cheese (cheddar!) and sweet tea refills (£5.40), oldcapitolinn.com.
Costera, New Orleans
Chef Brian Burns takes Spanish-style tapas and gives it a Louisiana kick at Costera in New Orleans
Chef Brian Burns takes Spanish-style tapas and gives it a Louisiana kick, delivering plates such as blue crab salad with charred tomato, olives and fried garlic, and blistered shishito peppers, uniting local produce with punchy Cajun flavours and flair.
Standout dish: Perfectly soft-on-the-inside, charred-on-the-outside octopus a la plancha with heirloom bean and herb salad (£13), costerarestaurant.com.
Commander’s Palace, New Orleans
New Orleans landmark Commander’s Palace serves up ultra-fluffy Creole bread pudding souffle
Weekend brunch is a cause for celebration, with balloons adorning every table in the three enormous dining rooms of this landmark eaterie. If the cochon de lait eggs benedict doesn’t fill you up, then the ultra-fluffy Creole bread pudding souffle should do it.
Standout dish: Legs & Eggs – crispy duck leg confit, fingerling potatoes and a sunny-side-up hen’s egg (£29), commanderspalace.com.
Olde Tyme Grocery, Lafayette, Louisiana
Louisiana’s finest: Old Tyme Grocery makes hefty baguettes of fried oysters or shrimp, crammed with salad and just about any other filling you can imagine
The po’boy was a roadside sandwich served up cheap for hungry workers (poor boys). This old wooden grocery store makes hefty baguettes of fried oysters or shrimp, crammed with salad and just about any other filling you can imagine.
Standout dish: A foot-long pastrami and cheese sandwich filled with olives, mustard and salad (£4), oldetymegrocery.com
Kulture, Houston, Texas
Although it could pass as a sports bar thanks to its TV screens and stark lighting, this glass-fronted spot has been touted as the restaurant redefining comfort food in Houston. Serving up seasonal dishes in an elegant way, Kulture brings together a relaxed attitude with gastronomic finesse.
Standout dish: The deep-fried red snapper, plated whole with its teeth intact, and a colourful purple, green and orange slaw emerging from the middle (£21.60), avenidahouston.com.
Irma’s Original, Houston
This Tex-Mex joint explodes with colour thanks to red faux snakeskin tablecloths and murals of the staff. Owner Irma Galvan, 78, is forceful in her recommendation of the iced Irma margarita.
Standout dish: Chunky guacamole with home-made chips (£4), irmasoriginal.com.
Snow’s BBQ, Lexington, Texas
Tootsie Tomanetz, an 84-year- old grandmother-of-ten, arrives at Snow’s BBQ (a barn with a corrugated iron roof) in her pick-up truck at 2am every Saturday to begin the smoking process. The place opens at 8am and by 11am, all of the meat – turkey, sausages, chicken and brisket – has been devoured.
Standout dish: Barbecued beef brisket cooked over hot coals for seven hours, and served with home-made beans and slaw, snowsbbq.com.
Mattie’s at Green Pastures, Austin, Texas
This is where locals go to celebrate. Within the grand 19th Century farmhouse, Ethan Holmes gives his grandmother’s dishes a refined finish and treats vegetables with the love they deserve.
Standout dish: Three-way rainbow carrots – orange roasted, purple grilled and yellow shallow-fried – served on a rich harissa houmous and sprinkled with feta, sunflower and pumpkin seeds (£10), mattiesaustin.com.
Inn at Dos Brisas, Washington County, Texas
The Inn at Dos Brisas in Texas pioneers the farm-to-table concept. Staff use everything grown on site
The only Forbes five-star restaurant in Texas is not in Austin, Houston or Dallas, but at The Inn at Dos Brisas in the hills of Washington County. Pioneering the farm-to-table concept, staff use everything grown on site. Even a ‘simple sandwich’ is given the five-star treatment, with sourdough bread, lump crab meat, microgreens and home-baked crisps. It was the highlight of my culinary road trip.
Standout dish: Pot-roasted chicken steamed with hay from the ranch and sealed in a pot with wonderfully buttery brioche. Served with thyme jus and black truffles (£85 as part of a tasting menu), dosbrisas.com.
Maverick, San Antonio, Texas
You can’t leave Texas without sampling a steak and this place does it with style. Grilled sirloin is sizzled to perfection, while an enormous offering of veg-heavy sides alleviate the food guilt in a convivial, exposed-brick dining room.
Standout dish: Sides such as turmeric cauliflower with pickled raisins and shaved almonds (£7), and the freshest radicchio salad with zingy bursts of Texas grapefruit, red onion, hazelnut and ricotta salata (£9.25) steal the show, mavericktexas.com.
Azucar at the Del Marcos Hotel, Palm Springs
A Frida Kahlo-themed paradise dropped beneath the eternally blue skies of Palm Springs, Azucar specialises in Mexican fare. Expect guacamole that sings of lime and hot spikings of chilli; great, heaped piles of crunchy salad; and colourful fish tacos with extra cabbage for good measure, all served by an aquamarine pool.
Standout dish: Swordfish tacos dressed with mango (three for £14), swilled down with a salt-rimmed margarita (£14), delmarcoshotel.com.
Dama, Los Angeles
Dama is a trendy tapas bar with an old Havana vibe located in Downtown Los Angeles
Sample the freshest, most zingy fish versions you’ll find in the city, along with mezcal and rare Mexican wines
The city has become obsessed with tacos. Sample the freshest, most zingy fish versions you’ll find in the city, along with mezcal and rare Mexican wines, at this Downtown tapas bar. Chat to the extremely knowledgeable sommelier for a tailored drink pairing.
Standout dish: Crunchy fish tostada with chilli, lime and coriander, swilled down with a creamy Californian chardonnay. Expect to spend £50 per head, damafashiondistrict.com.
Gjelina, Los Angeles
A-list appeal: Jay Z and Beyoncé are known to pop in for pizza at Gjelina in Venice, Los Angeles
See and be seen at this spot in Venice, where Jay Z and Beyoncé are known to pop in for pizza. The best produce the state has to offer is used for expertly composed salads so lightly dressed that you’ll forget you’re in America.
Standout dish: Pomodoro pizza with Californian-grown confit tomatoes, olive oil, basil and burrata – simple but packed with the intense flavour of sunshine (£14), gjelina.com.