Ed Levine, lifelong food hound and author of New York Eats, roams the nation in search of the next great bite. Here, 10 down-home classics and where to find them, from California to New England
There are two kinds of people in the world: those who are willing to go anywhere for something good to eat, and those whose last supper would consist of whatever's in the fridge. As a food critic, my job is to uncover the best kielbasa, the fluffiest matzoh balls, the most decadent cheesecake—which often hide in unexpected places. For me, sightseeing and museums take a back seat to finding the tastiest morsels within a 100-mile radius. And fancy restaurants have nothing on some of my secret holes-in-the-wall. Here are my favorite food detours in the United States.
1. Los Angeles: THE BURGER
The Apple Pan in West Los Angeles is only 20 minutes from anywhere you're likely to be in L.A., including the airport. And because it's open until midnight, it's a perfect pit stop when you're booked on the red-eye. There are no tables, just a U-shaped counter where you plunk yourself down, order one of the just-the-right-size burgers (garnished with Tillamook Cheddar from Oregon or sweet barbecue sauce), crisp fries, and the pièce de résistance, an overstuffed slice of flaky-crusted apple pie. 10801 Pico Blvd.; 310/475-3585; lunch for two $25, no credit cards.
2. Lockhart, Texas: BARBECUE
Living in the barbecue wilderness that is New York, I'm forced to hit the road to satisfy my urge for 'cue. I've eaten barbecue in more than 20 states from Massachusetts to California. I've even judged a BBQ contest in Tennessee. Though the ribs at Philip's in Los Angeles are sublime, and the pork shoulder at Armstrong's in Helena, Arkansas, is hard to beat, the brisket at Black's Barbecue, in Lockhart, 30 miles southeast of Austin, is perfection. Black's doesn't receive the same accolades as its more famous barbecue-joint neighbor, Kreuz Market, but it should. The brisket is just smoky enough, and so tender and juicy you can cut it with a fork. 215 N. Main St.; 512/398-2712; lunch for two $20.
3. New Orleans: THE OYSTER PO'BOY
Whenever I visit New Orleans and start to miss the slightly louche beauty of the French Quarter of 20 years ago, I steal away to the Garden District, a 20-minute cab ride from Bourbon Street. There, amid the art galleries and antiques stores, is Casamento's, one of my favorite oyster bars in the city. The tiled interior makes it look like the most gorgeous bathroom you could imagine. The raw oysters from the gulf are mild and delicious, but the star attraction is the po'boy: thick buttered slices of toasted white bread filled with crisp, greaseless fried oysters. Even avowed mollusk-haters have been turned around by this Platonic ideal of a sandwich. 4330 Magazine St.; 504/895-9761; lunch for two $20, no credit cards.
4. Chicago: THE HOT DOG
Chicago is the hot-dog capital of the nation, and there's no finer frankfurter in the Windy City than at Superdawg Drive-In. The Superdawg aesthetic would be a bit much if the dogs weren't so fine. As you approach the little silver hut, you notice two giant sausage figurines on the roof, caricatures of founders Maurie and Flaurie Berman. Your snappy, garlicky beef hot dog is delivered to your car, where you eat it drive-in style. The red take-out box, adorned with a sketch of a hot dog in swimming trunks relaxing on a chaise longue, says it all: "Your Superdawg lounges inside, contentedly cushioned in Superfries." The spuds are excellent, and the franks come comfortably attired in mustard, relish, onion, pickle, and hot peppers. 6363 N. Milwaukee Ave.; 773/763-0660; lunch for two $15, no credit cards.
5. Traverse City, MICHIGAN: CHERRY PIE
At the Traverse City Pie Co. in northwestern Michigan, aerospace industry refugee Mike Busley and his wife, Denise, turn out perfect cherry pies with all-shortening crusts and local fruit (Michigan grows 70 percent of the nation's cherries), and without goop-producing cornstarch. I can never choose between the Old Mission Cherry and the Grand Traverse Cherry Cobbler (which, despite its name and streusel topping, is indeed a pie and is never too sweet). I invariably order a slice of each. 525 W. Front St.; 231/922-7437; pie for two $5.
6. Nashville: COUNTRY BREAKFAST
It's easy to avoid hotel-breakfast sticker shock here by heading out of town, west on Highway 100, to the Loveless Café, for country ham with redeye gravy and biscuits. The dish is served with blackberry and peach preserves, honey, sorghum (a kind of molasses), and yet more gravy (this one made from sausage and milk) for dipping. The biscuits are flaky and golden brown, the preserves taste like the filling of an excellent pie, and the gravies are as smooth as Dolly Parton's voice. 8400 Hwy. 100; 615/646-9700; breakfast for two $20.
7. Queens, New York: EGGPLANT PARMIGIANA
Most Manhattanites I know never venture to the city's four outer boroughs, so it's not surprising that few visitors do, either. And that's a shame, given the treasures awaiting food-lovers outside Manhattan. At the Corona Heights Pork Store in Queens, Mary Lou Capezza's eggplant-parmigiana hero could make a grown man weep. The eggplant is lightly breaded, the tomato sauce is redolent of fresh basil and garlic, the mozzarella has been made that day by Mary Lou's husband, Frank, and the bread (if you request it, and you should) is a baguette from the coal-fired brick oven of a nearby Queens bakery. You'll never want to eat any other eggplant-parm sub again. 107-04 Corona Ave.; 718/592-7350; lunch for two $15, no credit cards.
8. Essex, Massachusets: FRIED CLAMS
While some people despise long layovers between flights, I cherish them as food-finding opportunities. My favorite layover excursion near Boston is to Woodman's of Essex. Without traffic (never plan an airport layover excursion during rush hour), you can get there from Logan in less than an hour. I've eaten fried clams up and down the fried clam belt (from Bigelow's in Rockville Center on Long Island to the Sea Swirl in Mystic, Connecticut, to the Bite in Menemsha on Martha's Vineyard), and I would put Woodman's golden-brown bivalves up against anyone's. Order at least a medium box of whole clams—a perfect blend of crunchy exterior and tender interior—and onion rings. Note: In summer, lines are so long you'll need at least a five-hour layover. 121 Main St.; 978/768-6057; lunch for two $25, no credit cards.
9. New Haven, Connecticut: PIZZA
Sending your kid off to college can be stressful, so I've decided to limit my son's choices to places with serious food nearby. A couple of miles from the Yale campus, you'll find the best pizza in the country at Frank Pepe's Pizzeria Napoletana. Your order is slid into the white-hot (up to 800 degrees) coal-fired brick oven and emerges eight minutes later with a slightly blackened crust and yeasty blisters. This pie is so fine you'll find yourself hoarding the larger slices. The sausage pizza, made with chunks of sweet fennel sausage, fresh mozzarella, and tomato sauce, is wonderful. But it's the white clam pie, with freshly shucked littleneck clams, garlic, and a dusting of Romano cheese, that has me secretly rooting for Yale. 157 Wooster St.; 203/865-5762; lunch for two $25, no credit cards.
10. Walpole, New Hampshire: CHOCOLATE
Nine years ago, Larry Burdick and his wife, Paula, left New York and moved their business, L. A. Burdick Handmade Chocolates, to bucolic Walpole, about two hours from Boston. Burdick, who trained at Le Cirque, had made his mark on the Manhattan foodscape by supplying David Bouley with bite-sized chocolate mice at the chef's original restaurant in TriBeCa. In Walpole, he sells three kinds of mice, but my favorite is the Dark Mouse, made with whipped dark-chocolate ganache and freshly squeezed orange juice (the ears are almonds). And if Burdick's transcendent chocolates aren't enough, his recently opened café, with fellow Le Cirque alumnus James Bergin as chef, should do the trick. 47 Main St.; 603/756-2882; $36 for 16 mice.