Dodge dim sum. Hold the raves on risotto. Here's the lowdown on Stars and Stripes for the taste buds. Sure, you might have to drive out of the comfort zone, yell your order, or share a table with strangers. It doesn't faze you at all. You crave the most cracklin' chicken in the Carolinas, the sassiest chili north of the Rio Grande, the creamiest milk shake in St. Louis Hence, we bring you the best of American regional fare. Some items are as familiar as crab cakes and cobblers. Others will surprise--Cajun couche couche?While most of these feasts are bargains, we also offer special nights on the town, dining with grounded chefs for whom "regional" means more than a field of local lettuce. Head out,chow down, >and don't forget to lick your fingers.
Fore Street 288 Fore St., Portland, Maine; 207/773-6172; dinner for two about $45. Sample the applewood-grilled scallops and stewed Maine mushrooms with hasty pudding at a sea-view table in this rustic warehouse.
Harraseeket Lunch & Lobster Town Landing, Freeport, Maine; 207/865-3535 (open May 1--October 15); lunch for two $16. Your archetypal Maine idyll: picnic tables on a marina, mighty chowder, supreme steamed clams, awesome lobster rolls. Dessert?Giant whoopie pie.
The Barnacle 141 Front St., Marblehead, Mass.; 617/631-4236; lunch for two $25. Hunt no further for the lushest chowder, the freshest steamers, and plates piled high with ethereal, greaseless fried haddock. This simple spot on the water is a trophy catch.
Blanche & Bill's Pancake House Rte. 4, Killington area, Vt.; 802/422-3816; breakfast for two about $12. A cheery breakfast hut that gets the vote for the best pancakes in New England (Blanche's aged batter is the secret).
Second Avenue Deli156 Second Ave., at 10th St., New York, N.Y.; 212/677-0606; lunch for two about $20. You've partied at Pravda and done lunch at Le Cirque. Now schlepp over to this relic, where sharp-tongued waiters dish out New York comfort classics: soul-warming matzoh-ball soup, chicken in the pot, behemoth pastrami sandwiches.
Pierpoint 1822 Aliceanna St., Baltimore, Md.; 410/675-2080; dinner for two about $65. Sure, you can snag great crab cakes at Faidley's in Lexington Market, but Pierpoint's Nancy Longo is a crab queen of a different kind, blending haute and homey in heirloom recipes: oyster stew with brioche pudding, smoked crab cakes in sorrel tartar sauce.
Reading Terminal Market 12th and Arch Sts., Philadelphia, Pa.; 215/922-2317; lunch for two about $8. The eternal Philly dilemma: cheese steak or hoagie?You can savor the best of both here under one roof. Rick's is the place for fantastic cheese steaks; Salumeria is heaven for plump and juicy hoagies (with real aged provolone).
Original Ray's Restaurant 68 Maplewood Ave., Keansburg, N.J.; 908/739-4710; dinner for two about $30. The indigenous feast of the Jersey shore?Mussels marinara, linguine with everything that swims, Frank Sinatra blaring in the background. Locals love it, and so will you.
Cozy Corner 745 North Parkway, Memphis, Tenn.; 901/527-9158; lunch for two $15. The Taj Mahal of barbecue. Spicy hickory-smoked ribs are the pig's proudest moment. Also on hand: barbecued Cornish hens, burgers, even bologna.
Alice's Restaurant 468 King St., Charleston, S.C.; 803/853-9366; lunch for two about $15. Charleston's soul-food secret can't claim a fancy address and doesn't serve liquor. What it does have is grandmotherly food from the heart: catfish, collard greens, red rice, and plenty of pie.
Brigtsen's 723 Dante St., New Orleans; 504/861-7610; dinner for two about $70. You've done the museums (Command-
er's Palace, Galatoire's); now come to the cottage where Frank Brigtsen wows diners with roast duck, popcorn dirty rice, and rabbit and andouille gumbo.
Café des Amis 140 E. Bridge St., Breaux Bridge, La.; 318/332-5273; dinner for two about $50. Days at this 1925 storefront start with couche couche, an almost-forgotten Acadian treat of skillet-fried cornmeal with cane syrup. Dinner brings fried catfish nuggets, crawfish pie, and turtle soup.
Whistlestop Café 1906 First Ave. N., Irondale, Ala.; 205/ 956-5258; lunch for two about $10. Once owned by Fannie Flagg's great-aunt, this cafeteria outside Birmingham is famous for fried chicken, ham, sweet-potato soufflé, andyou betchafried green tomatoes.
Smith House 84 S. Chestatee St., Dahlonega, Ga.; 706/867-7000; family-style meal $14 per person. A gracious old inn with no reservations, no menus, and communal tables. Folks drive the 70 miles north from Atlanta for warm cornbread, cracklin' fried chicken, creamed corn, and cobblers.
Mark's Place 2286 N.E. 123rd St., North Miami; 305/893-6888; dinner for two $80. Mark Militello is still turning somersaults at his just-revamped North Miami original. The Bahamian conch with vanilla-rum sauce and napoleon of sweet plantain with Cuban braised pork are as impressive as ever.
Victor's Café 2340 S.W. 32nd Ave., Miami; 305/445-1313; dinner for two about $65. Where Miami's Hispanic elite meet to eat black beans and glamorized Cuban classics.
Crab Trap 2 4815 Memphis Rd.,
Ellenton; 941/729-7777; dinner for two about $30. Crab is the draw at this ebullient family seafoodery set in a wildlife sanctuary. They grill it, stuff it, boil it, bake it. The 14-page menu also lists alligator, conch, and frog's legs.
Reata Bank One Bldg., 35th floor, 500 Throckmorton St., Fort Worth, Tex.; 817/336-1009; dinner for two about $60. Cowboy chow goes classy at this new Texas hot spot, with murals, hide-covered chairs, and city views. But don't bet on upscale nouvelle. You're here for steaks, bock-batter quail, tamales, and chicken-fried steak.
Kreuz Market 208 S. Commerce St., Lockhart, Tex.; 512/ 398-2361; barbecue beef $6.90 per pound. This 94-year-old BBQ parlor doesn't bother with plates, forksor even sauce. Purchase by the pound (or pick up sausage by the ring), and cart your bundle into the huge dining area, where you add on the trimmings and dig in with both hands.
The Fort 19192 Rte. 8, Morrison, Colo.; 303/697-4771; dinner for two about $60. In a replica of Colorado's first fur-trading post, your champagne bottle is opened with a tomahawk. But the food is hardly faux. Mythic frontier fare (buffalo, elk, Colorado lamb) is scrumptiously turned out.
Tomasita's 500 S. Guadalupe St., Santa Fe, N.M.; 505/983-5721; dinner for two $14. Tomasita's killer margaritas, fried sopaipillas, and chiles rellenos will have you turning the other cheek to kitschy cheese-drenched Tex-Mex affairs. Order the blue-corn "Christmas" enchiladas (with red and green chili sauce). Qué rico!
Gene & Georgetti 500 N. Franklin St., Chicago, Ill.; 312/527-3718; dinner for two from $55. All you ever wanted in a steak palace: red chairs, a clubby forties feel, waiters who've seen it all, and, of course, heroic T-bones and succulent strip steak. Vintage fedoras optional; the "garbage" salad a must.
Smoke Stack Bar-B-Q of Martin City 13441 Holmes Rd., Kansas City, Mo.; 816/942-9141; dinner for two from $20. Great BBQ joints are to Kansas City what suits are to Armani. But head here for sheer variety and oodles of local color. Classic burnt ends and brisket aside, there's turkey, fish, rack of lamb, crown prime beef ribsand the best baked beans in town.
Ted Drewes 6726 Chippewa St., St. Louis, Mo.; 314/481-2652; $2 a shake. In an ice-cream-crazy city (the cone made its world debut at the 1904 world's fair), Ted Drewes's "concrete" frozen custard is the stuff of legend. Join the line, decide on a flavor, and watch the server flip your gravity-
defying frozen shake upside down.
Camp Washington Chili 3005 Colerain Ave., Cincinnati, Ohio; 513/541-0061; lunch for two about $10. A Macedonian immigrant invented it, locals obsess over it: Cincinnati chili, cooked with sweet spices and served on spaghetti. Order the "5-ways" (chili, spaghetti, beans, onions, and cheese); to play by the rules, follow it with a glass of buttermilk.
White Gull Inn Main St., Fish Creek, Wis.; 414/868-3517; fish boil dinner $14.95 per person. A Wisconsin fish boil is a regional feast: Great Lakes whitefish are poached with new potatoes in a huge cauldron, then served with a splash of melted butter and lemon. Finish with Door County cherry pie. (Reserve early in summer.)
Chinook's 1900 W. Nickerson St., Seattle; 206/283-4665; lunch for two about $30, dinner for two $40. If fishermen eat here, the seafood has to be fresh. Watch the boats in the terminal below as you indulge in oyster pot pie, razor clams, Dungeness crab, alder-planked salmon, and Washington wines. For dessert: berry cobblers.
Inn at Langley 400 First St., Langley, Whidbey Island, Wash.; 360/221-3033; prix fixe dinner $50 per person. Meals at this weekend-only spot espouse the concept of dinner as theater. In a Frank Lloyd WrightdoesJapan dining room, the chef talks you through the five-course menu and then cooks while you watch. Count on artistic renderings of choice regional produce, with perfectly matched wines.
Jens' Restaurant Olympic Center, 701 W. 36th Ave., Anchorage, Alaska; 907/ 561-5367; dinner for two $65. How do you define an Alaskan?Someone who can cook salmon 50 ways. Though Danish by birth, chef Jens Hansen spins wonders with five species of native salmon, plus king crab, halibut cheeks, and reindeer (a local specialty).
Wildwood 1221 N.W. 21st Ave., Portland, Oreg.; 503/248-9663; dinner for two about $65. Cory Schreiber's pristine Northwestern menu is an elegant ode to the regional and the seasonal: skillet-roasted Kamilche mussels, Oregon poussin with Gala apple bread pudding.
Swan Oyster Depot 1517 Polk St., San Francisco; 415/673-1101; lunch for two about $20. This fish storecumoyster bar gleams with the past: film noir San Francisco before sourdough turned into daily bread and fresh became a fetish. Marble counters, fish displayed in the windows, wisecracking waiters.
Café Japengo8960 University Center Lane, La Jolla; 619/450-3355; sushi for two about $40. The final frontier of SoCal sushi. Fish wings in daily from round the globe; Apollonian waiters deliver stylishly improbable rolls.
Babette's 464 First St. E., Sonoma; 707/939-8921; five-course dinner $49 per person. Its funky Sonoma charm lures local wine makers, hipsters, and epicures. Quintessential wine-country cuisinericotta quenelles with black-truffle butter, hedgehog mushrooms with French lentils.
Spago 8795 Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood; 310/652-4025; dinner for two about $85. If you've written off Spago (too star-struck, all booked-up), think again. Sixty new seats and a redesigned back room that's no longer ranked as Siberia make Spago newly welcoming. The iconic L.A. food is as good as ever, and you're guaranteed to spot a celeb, even if it's Wolfgang himself working the room.
Tail o` the Pup 329 N. San Vicente Blvd., West Hollywood; 310/652-4517; hot dogs from $2.20. The best franks are still at Pink's, but nothing beats the architecture here: a giant stucco hot dog from 1945.
Ono Hawaiian Foods 726 Kapahulu Ave., Honolulu; 808/737-2275. The place for locals with a hankering for luau. form a line on the right. be cool. no get mad, reads the sign. And you won't, after kalua pig and ahi in every guise.
Alan Wong's Restaurant 1857 S. King St., fifth floor, Honolulu; 808/949-2526; dinner for two about $85. Wong rides the tsunami of Hawaiian flavors with the fearlessness of a North Shore surfer.
Hamura Saimin 2956 Kress St., Lihue, Kauai; 808/245-3271; lunch for two about $10, no credit cards. For Hawaiians, the most coveted souvenir from Kauai is a take-out box of Hamura's fabled saimin. This tiny lunch counter isn't easy to find, but persevere and you'll be rewarded with the best-loved noodle soup in the state.
David Paul's Lahaina Grill 127 Lahainaluna Rd., Lahaina, Maui; 808/667-5117; dinner for two $90. Maui's most marvelous restaurant navigates the globebut taste the plum-roasted duck lumpia and Kona lobster-crab cake, and you'll hear the chef hum, "There's no place like hale" (home).
To market, to market
Ferry Plaza Farmers' Market The Embarcadero at Market St., San Francisco; Saturdays 8 a.m.1:30 p.m. Ever whispered love poems to a lettuce or proposed to a peach?You will in this petting zoo for produce. Organic veggies too beautiful to bite, plus cheeses, sourdough, and seafood.
French Market 1008 N. Peters St., New Orleans; 504/522-2621. In the heart of the Vieux Carré, a farmers' market, res-
taurants, shops, and jazz galore. Anything from fresh okra to Cajun spice rubs, hot sauces, and jambalaya mixes.
Pike Place Market 85 Pike St., Seattle; 206/682-7453. The best in the country, period. Do as the locals do: buy orange tea at Market Spice, the Post Alley coffee blend at Seattle's Best Coffee, and boutique beers at the Athenian Café.
Central Market 4001 N. Lamar St., Austin; 512/206-1000. Only in Texas. A cattle-ranch-size barn crammed with aisles of salsas, chilies, 130 types of fish, 200 square feet of cheeses, plus a cooking school and a great café.
Palacio de los Jugos 5721 W. Flagler St., Miami; 305/264-1503. An array of stands serving up all manner of Latin treats: sugarcane juice, batidos (tropical shakes), exotic chips, Colombian corn griddle cakes.