Cuisines in America
America -- AKA The United States -- has often been described as a "melting pot". This is very, very true. International influences are all over our art, our population, our languages, and most tellingly, our cuisine. Depending on where you live, you can find all kinds of cuisine in the good old U.S. of A.
Your area may not have all of these cuisines, or it may have all of them. Obviously, if you live in Nowhere, Indiana, you can't expect to drive on down to the four-star French restaurant for a bite to eat; and if you live in New York City, you're probably within walking distance of about 20 world-class bistros. Location, location, location. This note is meant as a broad overview of the dining options one can find in the United States.
Before we begin, here are three warnings we have for the tourists and those planning to move here:
1. There is so much sugar in the recipes of many, if not most, dishes here in the States that foreigners not accustomed to it are said to find our food disconcertingly sweet.
2. Our food tends to be in very large portions as well, relative to those of most other countries, particularly in Southern states. So be careful how much you order, it might be more than you expect. Drinks are also much larger, in part because cold drinks contain a lot of ice. (However, don't hesitate to ask for no ice if you prefer it. Restaurants will always comply.)
3. Although this might conceivably vary by region a little, in America we put cheese on everything. On virtually every soup, on virtually every salad, on most kinds of sandwiches... it would be much easier to list the foods our restaurants won't automatically put cheese on, although it's harder to think of them. Those of us who don't like cheese have quite a hard time getting what we want at restaurants, even when the server understands the order. Cheese is status quo for every little thing except for, say for instance, ice cream. If you don't like cheese or don't like it on certain dishes then when in doubt always specify, no matter what the food is, that you want it with no cheese.
Finally, when considering American "ethnic" restaurants, it is advisable to imagine that there is a silent "-American" on the end of any ethnic identification, meaning "Italian" food would be more accurately described as "Italian-American" food. As a rule, all of these types of restaurants get their menus from localized versions of whatever was popular when the primary segment of the immigrant group in question moved to America, and bears little to no resemblance to current national cuisines. Logically enough, the more recent the migration, the closer together "-American" and the original cuisines will be. Vietnamese-American restaurants serve food that is generally quite similar authentic Vietnamese cuisine (the largest wave of Vietnamese immigration coming during/after, well you know), while Chinese-American cuisine, coming from a far more well-established community (fifth-generation Chinese are not uncommon in California) bears almost no resemblance.
"American" food is rather broad, and can encompass a lot of things. Generally, if you're gonna grill it on the Fourth of July, it's American. Hamburgers, hot dogs, steaks and the like are considered to be staples of the American eating scene. However, this is by no means all that falls under the umbrella of American food -- there are plenty of $30+ a plate items that are considered American.
On the lower scale of American food, you've got the fast-food scene. Most fast-food restaurants worth their salt will have hamburgers on the menu, if not several other options. Generally, the only fast-food joints that don't serve burgers are ones that explicitly target a different segment (Tex-Mex, chicken, Chinese, et cetera). Hot dogs are somewhat less common. While "steakhouse" generally has a classier connotation than most restaurants, there are some budget-priced steakhouses (Char-Broiler comes to mind) that serve steaks made of a cheaper-quality meat. Chicken will come into play as well -- most general fast-food restaurants will have chicken sandwiches, and some deal exclusively in chicken. Unfortunately, one of the better widespread chicken fast food restaurants, Chick-Fil-A, is closed on Sundays; fortunately, this is rare and most fast food joints will be open every day of the week save on certain holidays, and many of them are open late into the night. Some might be open all night.
Somewhere in the middle, you can find all sorts of sit-down restaurants that serve higher-quality stuff than what you'll find at, say, McDonald's, but cheaper than the average steakhouse. Frequently these will be "short order" restaurants, which in terms of speediness and food quality lie somewhere between fast food and regular restaurants. Many of these restaurants will term themselves as "cafeterias" (get your food from a steam line, and pay up front) or "buffets" (self-serve, all you can eat). Both have become popular in recent years not only for the massive gorging this allows, but also the convenience of getting your food immediately. Other mid-range American restaurants are sit-down, casual dining establishments, serving as a poor man's steakhouse for when the family wants to go for their weekly steak dinner. Some national chains include Ruby Tuesday, Longhorn, Outback, Applebee's and Chili's.
On the higher end, you've got plenty of fancy bistros that deal in higher-end meats (venison, buffalo, quail, pheasant, et cetera) and higher-class steaks. Generally, if you're looking at USDA Prime beef, it's gonna be served in a fancy restaurant. Finally, if the cuisine is listed as "New American", you'll be looking at a fairly large bill at the end of the night.
Of course, as with any large country, different parts of America will commonly make different dishes better or worse than other parts. New York City (and its surrounding area) is famous for its superb pizza and to a lesser extent for steak; Chicago disputes New York on both counts; New Jersey treats hot dogs as Serious Business, with recipes changing across county lines; Philadelphia is noted for its cheesesteaks to the point of parody; Texas, Memphis, Kansas City and the Carolinas are known for barbecue (see below); Boston and New England in general are known for baked beans and seafood, particularly "lobstah and clam chowdah". Produce tends to generate the same sort of thing: Idaho is known for its potatoes (it's even on the license plate!); Georgia is famous for peaches (ditto); Florida is inextricably linked with oranges (ditto); Michigan and Washington are both noted for their apples and cherries; etc.
A subset of American food is what Americans call "country" or "country-style" cuisine. As the name implies, country food is based on foods popular (or formerly popular) in rural America, especially the Midwest and South, and typically based on meat and potatoes with vegetables such as corn and okra. Bread is also common, in the dish itself or as a side (buttermilk biscuits and cornbread are staples). Country restaurants invariably affect an old-style appearance (the best-known current example being the Cracker Barrel chain), and tend to be moderately priced. Many country recipes are relatively easy to make at home, though finding some ingredients can be tricky outside the Midwest and South. Tourists, take note: country-style meals are almost always large and very heavy, being based on rural cooking for hard-working farmers and the like.
Barbecue could be considered an offshoot of American cooking, but is distinct enough to warrant its own category. Barbecue (also spelled barbeque and abbreviated to BBQ) mainly consists of a variety of smoked meats, most frequently beef, chicken, and pork. These are often served with sides such as potato salad, cole slaw, and beans. There are four cultural centers known for their barbeque -- Memphis, Kansas City, Texas, and the Carolinas. Each center has its own take on both meat and sauce, and the nature of barbecue might be one of the biggest food-related Internet Backdraft topics imaginable, even within a specific state. Ask any five Texans which restaurant has the best barbecue, and you'll get five different answers. At least. Some of these answers may violently disagree on the very basis of the question: can a restaurant serve acceptable barbecue? This can be a particularly picky issue in North Carolina, where friendships have been made or broken on a love of either Eastern-style (whole pig, vinegar-based sauce) or Lexington-style (pork shoulder, tomato-vinegar sauce).
Barbecue, like American, can run the gamut from cheap to expensive; however, unlike American, it generally tends to rest towards the "cheap" side. Due to the nature of barbeque, there are few, if any, national chains (the only one that springs to mind is Famous Dave's), though there are a few famous restaurants (Sonny Bryan's in Texas, Arthur Bryant's in Kansas City, Corky's in Memphis) and regional chains (Smithfield's in North Carolina, Sonny's in Florida and the South).
Barbecue restaurants explicitly emphasize their Greasy Spoon nature, using decor designed to look as cheap and old as possible. These restaurants will also claim to be "award winning," although what that means can vary. BBQ cooking competitions are taken very seriously, but it's hard to win a competition with styles outside of the area.
Barbecue requires smoking over hardwoods like hickory and applewood. This limits the areas where BBQ can be made: It's generally non-existent outside of its regional areas. "Faux-BQ" is anything that simply has had barbeque sauce, a smokey ketchup-based sauce, added to it. The McDonald's McRib is a prime example.
Also, important distinction: some areas of the country use "Barbecue" as a verb for any outdoor cookout. Real barbecue involves somewhat lower-end cuts of meat (so not steak), cooked over lower heat (so you can't use a propane grill; a smoker is all but required), for much longer periods of time (multiple hours). Those that consider barbecue to be Serious Business will not appreciate someone referring to hamburgers, hot dogs, and the like being cooked on a grill as "barbecued".
During the Revolutionary War, importation of tea was restricted, forcing Americans to shift to coffee. Traditionally this coffee was brewed by boiling coffee grounds in water and either filtering it or clarifying it using a flocculation agent like egg shells. Brewing coffee this way takes considerable skill and can be exceptionally harsh if left too long. Coffee brewed this way is called "cowboy" or "trucker" coffee: it's made to get the most effect out of the caffeine with the minimum equipment available at the expense of flavor.
Chicory root can also be brewed like coffee, and became a mainstay of Confederate forces during the Civil War due to Union blockades. Chicory and coffee blends are still popular around New Orleans.
European coffees like espresso and cappuccino made its way to the States via troops during World War II. G.I.s who weren't used to the strength of European coffee would order espresso with extra water, creating café americano. After the war, coffeehouses specializing in these styles opened and became a mainstay of Beatnik culture in the 1950s.
Meanwhile, American coffee manufacturers got into a price war, replacing Arabica beans with harsher Robusto to reduce costs. Home brewers shifted to using percolators, which force the water through the grounds repeatedly: Although this coffee didn't have to be separated from the grounds, if left too long the coffee would overbrew, making it bitter. Together this created extremely low-quality coffee which drove people away from the drink in droves.
Coffee houses saw a renaissance in a few cities (most famously Seattle) starting in the late '70s, eventually spreading nationwide by the '90s. These new brewers continued to make European coffees while also improving on traditional American coffee. Perfection of the electric drip coffee maker finally made it easy to get the correct brewing time, while the smaller shops were able to tightly control the quality of their beans. While American coffee is normally brewed in large pots instead of single servings, steady heat will eventually turn it bitter. Some makers will put timers on their carafes, replacing coffee that has sat for more than an hour.
During this time Starbucks created heavier, sweeter coffee drinks. While derided by coffee enthusiasts, they caught on with non-coffee drinkers to create an international business. To this day, Starbucks is nearly a separate market from other coffeehouses, even becoming the only coffee option in some areas. While some cities have a plethora of options and local coffeehouses, in others, your choice is between Starbucks and Dunkin' Donuts.
Starbucks is seeing serious competition from McDonald's McCafe drinks, while even gas stations, which were once synonymous with bad coffee, have adopted many of the coffee house practices to make a drinkable (and profitable) product.
Contrary to the popular belief of the United States as a strictly coffee culture, Americans do drink tea and lots of it, especially in the South. What makes American tea different from its counterparts in Europe and Asia (and therefore making it "not count" it seems) is that the majority of Americans prefer their tea be served cold. Not cold as in "lukewarm"; cold as in "refrigerated, and with ice cubes in it". The reason for this is simple: it gets damn hot in the South or on the Great Plains in the summer, and coffee is pretty much useless for keeping you cool and hydrated. Iced tea works surprisingly well, though.
It is standard procedure in some parts of the country (mostly the South) to offer cold tea brewed with lots and lots of sugar, the fittingly-named "sweet tea". In fact, the presence or absence of sweet tea in American restaurants and diners has been given serious academic study for its use in defining the cultural boundary between the North and the South. (Though regarding this border determination process, McDonald's, which serves both sweet and unsweetened tea nationwide, doesn't count. They're a trope in and of themselves.)
Those non-American tea drinkers who visit the United States would be wise to make sure you know exactly what you're getting when you order "tea". Depending on how common it is for tea to be served cold, receiving iced tea might be the default. Almost all but the cheapest of restaurants will specify that it's "iced" on the menu. The quality of the tea itself depends on the quality of the restaurant, although most American restaurants are not the tea connoisseurs that many of their European counterparts are. A newcomer's best bet for decent hot tea is, ironically enough, coffeehouses.
American teas tend to be blended specifically to be brewed cold. As with coffee, the popularity of herbal teas started as an alternative drink during the Revolutionary War, and remain a popular option for hot tea.
Diners are small, often family-owned restaurants that are predominantly found in the Northeast and, to a lesser extent, the eastern Midwest/Great Lakes region. They do exist elsewhere, especially chains like Friendly's, Denny's, IHOP and Waffle House, but not to the same degree -- and calling such chains proper diners is an easy way to find out that Baseball is far from the only culture-related topic that Northerners can get violently angry about. Diners were descended from railway dining cars; the first diners were long, narrow, prefabricated structures that resembled their inspiration. Eventually, diners built in permanent structures became more common. One of the defining characteristics of diners is that they are open 24 hours a day; this is from the days when night shift factory workers would stop in for a meal on the way home, and continued once their late operating hours made them a major part of many areas' nightlife. The classic Fifties Malt Shop or Greasy Spoon is very often a diner, helping to immortalize the image of the diner in places far beyond where they are usually found.
Diner food is often at the low-medium end of the price range, and tends to include such traditional American fare as burgers, grilled cheese, hot dogs, sandwiches and soups, as well as an assortment of regional foods -- after all, most diners are small businesses, and cater primarily to the locals. One thing that sets diners apart from many restaurants is that they also serve breakfast foods, such as pancakes, waffles and eggs, at all hours of the day, rather than just during the morning. In addition, since most diners are owned by people of Greek, Slavic or Jewish descent, such Eastern European and Mediterranean foods as gyros, moussaka, blintzes and matzoh ball soup are common. Diners rarely serve alcoholic beverages, although coffee is ubiquitous. Many local diners have specialties derived from whatever it is the cook is particularly good at making. A local diner might be well-noted and loved in the community for that particular specialty, and it's occasionally the safest bet on the menu.
Two different cuisines which get lumped together because they come from Louisiana and start with the letter "C." Both began as colonial-era cuisines from whatever ingredients could be foraged from Louisiana Territory, and have increased in popularity across the US. Creole food used classic 19th-century French recipes with local ingredients, with influences from Spanish Caribbean and German immigrant cooking. Cajun cuisine is simpler country-folks cooking. Cross-pollination due to cultural proximity blurs the distinction between them the further you go from southern Louisiana. Both have also updated with French cuisine, incorporating and refining, and now many metropolitan areas around the country feature five star New Orleans-style restaurants.
Has become near-synonymous with the two best-known evangelists of the style, Emeril Lagasse and Paul Prudhomme.
Composed mostly of any food trend begun in California that settles into longevity, with influences from Spanish to Polynesian to Mediterranean. Vaguely-defined, yet considered a safe menu style for restaurants in larger cities. Typically overlaps with Sonoran to Tex-Mex, depending on the region. However, sourdough bread has a large presence due to the local strain of yeast needed, which renders baking it in other areas very difficult.
Outside of California the term "Californian" is nearly synonymous with vegetables, particularly avocado (a major California crop).
Beer in America is somewhat contested: you have your casual drinkers, and you have your snobs. The only real difference is whether or not they'll touch one of the mainstream brands. There is much butting of heads between these groups, but if we're lucky, not while they've been enjoying their particular brand.
Mainstream brands are the beers that foreigners are usually talking about when they make jokes about how bad American beer is. This is not a very nice thing to say about anyone's alcohol, and casual drinkers don't like hearing it. They're meant to appeal to a very broad demographic at a very low price, so they tend to be mass-produced using recipes that result in a fairly inoffensive brew. American mass-market brew (and it isn't just American anymore, as brands like Carling, Kirin, Heineken, Kingfisher, and Tsingtao can attest to) differs from the "traditional" lager and pilsner beers it's based on by the addition of considerable amounts of adjuncts. These are cereal grains other than barley, added to the brew to give alcohol content and a generic sweetness without all the subtle flavors of barley malt and hops. This type of brew isn't just brewed for cheapness; American barley and hop strains can often be more robust and overpowering than their European counterparts due to the warmer growing climate.
"Craft beers", also known as microbrews, are meant for a more discriminating clientele, and usually come in smaller batches; the American Brewer's Association defines a microbrewery as one that produces less than 6,000,000 American barrels a year. These beers have come into their own as a high-class drinking option, with many places even having beer sommeliers who can recommend the best beer to complement your meal. These brews tend to be more flavorful (and there are literally hundreds of brands to choose from), but are much more expensive, due both to the smaller batch sizes and to the higher variety of flavors calling for more varied ingredients. Snobs drink exclusively craft beer, and look down upon mainstream brands in much the same way (and for much the same reasons) as foreigners are stereotyped as doing. Some states with a significant craft beer culture are California, Colorado, Oregon, Wisconsin, Michigan, Louisiana, and Washington.
Much of the microbrew trend can be attributed to President Jimmy Carter repealing a ban on home brewing, giving Americans room to experiment. Meanwhile, his brother was promoting "Billy Beer," a... distinct mainstream brew that seemed to capitalize on Billy's love of alcohol.
It's what you eat on Christmas Day because nothing else is open. But other than that, Chinese food mainly consists of a wide variety of meats, either breaded or steamed, often served with a starch such as rice or noodles. There are several different types of Chinese cooking, but your general Chinese takeout place will follow these rules.
Lower-end Chinese places tend to be little takeout shops. Home delivery is a staple at the lower end of Chinese food (a common stereotype is the poor college student/recent grad who survives on cheap Chinese takeout). While quality and taste will vary, there are some good takeout shops all around the country. Strip-mall buffets have also become fairly common in recent years, especially in suburban areas.
Chinese take-out is nearly synonymous with the oyster box, a trapezoid-shaped paperboard container with a small metal handle. The oyster box originated from oyster restaurants, which were the cheapest places to eat on the coasts in the late 19th century: A reference to such a restaurant, which always has sawdust on the floors, or the box itself show that the character is poor working class. Over time oyster stocks went down, while Chinese restaurants expanded delivery, adopting the container.
Higher-end Chinese places use some more variation in their recipes, but are actually pretty similar in menu choices to the lower-end ones. They are usually tea houses which serves a lot of seafood ranging from carp to abalone and hot pot dinners.
National chains include: Pei Wei, PF Chang's (the owner of Pei Wei), Panda Express.
Note that there is a divide between Americanized Chinese food and authentic Chinese cuisine. Americanized Chinese has its own standard dishes (e.g., Chow Mein, General Tso's Chicken, Orange Chicken, Hunan Beef, etc.) which bear little resemblance to traditional Chinese dishes, but are widely available in the US and have been adapted to Western tastes. Numerous dishes also exist which have Americanized versions substantially different from the original, such as sweet and sour pork, twice-cooked pork, or kung pao chicken. Authentic Chinese uses a wider range of ingredients, many of which are unfamiliar or alarming to Westerners, such as pig ears, pork belly, or duck's feet, and tend to use a much greater variety of spices, especially hot peppers of many kinds.
While Americanized Chinese restaurants are nearly universal, authentic Chinese restaurants tend to be located in or near urban areas with large Chinese immigrant populations. They may have two separate menus, one for American Chinese and one for authentic Chinese cooking, and generally specialize in the cuisine of one or two regions within China (Sichuan, Hunan, Shanghai, etc.)
The first Chinese restaurants were buffets, set up to feed migrant workers who lived in tiny kitchen-less apartments. Americans slowly started going to these restaurants, and eventually they turned into sit-down restaurants for family dining, although all-you-can-eat buffets are still a mainstay of Chinese restaurants. Most would run meal specials where for a single price one could order items from two columns and also get egg rolls and soup. This is mostly a Dead Horse Trope, but it pops up in 20th century media like the film With Six You Get Eggroll.
On a related note, there are many Americanized Chinese restaurants that claim to serve "Hunan" cuisine or have "Hunan" in their name. Authentic Hunan cuisine is quite distinctive and difficult to find in the US. The usual explanation for this phenomenon is that when Richard Nixon visited China and was welcomed with a lavish banquet, whenever he found a particularly tasty dish he would ask Mao Zedong where the dish was from. Mao, having been born a peasant in Hunan Province, pretended that these were all dishes from Hunan, and Nixon returned to the US singing the praises of Hunan cuisine.
Sometimes perceived as a snooty choice, with thick, rich sauces accenting food you probably can't pronounce. French cuisine is recognized as the world's best cuisine, as France often wins the Bocuse d'Or competitions (basically, a competition where all the countries of the world compete to see who cooks the best). As such, it's rare for a French restaurant to be on the lower end of the price range. French is almost uniformly found in fancy, high-end bistros.
Occasionally it's the other snooty food choice, but the prevalence of pizza and pastas as American dishes lessens that impact tremendously. Italian mainly consists of pasta, which is sometimes only available as spaghetti and sometimes is its own dish, and pizza, usually accented by a tomato sauce (or, if you're feeling bold, Alfredo). There are several other dishes, including fish, beef, and chicken, but pasta and pizza are almost uniformly associated with Italian cooking in the American mind.
Italian, like American and Chinese before it, can be found in virtually any price point you want to search. Lower-end restaurants are usually local pizzerias, which are described below. High-end Italian restaurants have a much broader menu, and may call themselves bistros or, less commonly, ristorantes. The number of places you can find (especially at the higher-end) is usually proportional to a city's Italian population. Italian isn't a generally popular choice for fast food, as it takes a while to cook and tends to have a low portability.
While some pizza restaurants serve some Italian food, most concentrate specifically on pizza, and may also offer salads, garlic bread and Buffalo wings. It has three main regional styles:
- New York pizza has very thin, soft crust and is cooked in a wood- or coal-fired oven at a very high temperature. It is sometimes eaten with the slice folded in half and eaten like a sandwich.
- Chicago deep dish is almost like a pie. The crust sides are an inch or more in height, and is filled with cheese, sauce, and toppings. This style was created at Pizzeria Uno, which has since become a national chain.
- Midwest-style pizza has a thin cracker crust and a wider range of toppings than New York pizzas. Although the term isn't famous, the style is very popular thanks to international chain Pizza Hut. Oddly enough, a square-slice variety of this, known as "pub pizza," is eaten in Chicago more often than the deep-dish variety mentioned above.
In 1981, Wolfgang Puck and Ed LaDou started Spago's, a restaurant that would put just about any topping on a pizza from barbecue chicken to zucchini flowers. Over time almost anything with unusual toppings or seasoned crust has become known as California style.
Buffalo wings, sometimes called hot wings, were invented at a restaurant in Buffalo, New York at the request of the owner's son. These are chicken wings that are deep-fried, grilled, or baked and then coated in a spicy hot sauce; traditionally they're served with celery and either blue cheese or ranch dressing to serve as a cooling contrast. In some areas pizza and hot wings (and perhaps garlic knots) are the go-to food for watching sports.
Much like Chinese places, almost all pizza restaurants offer home delivery and takeout. Pizza is the most popular food for delivery in America, which is where we get the trope Pizza Boy Special Delivery.
Unless you're cutting it up for a child or other person who can only handle smaller pieces of food, under NO circumstances should pizza be touched with a knife and fork.
Mexican restaurants are very popular, particularly in the Southern and especially Southwestern United States (that is, states that tend to have a high Mexican population or high Mexican influence). These can run the gamut from very cheap to very expensive, depending on the location of the neighborhood.
Like Chinese, Mexican food is very regional. Some of these regions are in the U.S. with the major types being Tex-Mex, Cali-Mex, and Southwest or Santa Fe-Mex. These aren't so much Americanized versions of Mexican as these areas were originally part of Mexico. However, the most Americanized restaurants generally label themselves as Tex-Mex. Anything labeled "Authentic Mexican Cuisine" is very Americanized, often to the point of replacing traditional sauces with brown gravy. Some restaurants serve Mexican food aimed at immigrants hewing more toward cuisine found in Mexico. Often these have "taquería" in the name, even if their specialty isn't tacos.
National chains include: Taco Bell (cheap, and not very authentic), Chevy's (mid-range, and more Tex-Mex), Qdoba (mid-rage, Cali-Mex), and Chipotle (high-quality food made on an assembly line, like a deli but with Mexican food).
Short for "delicatessen," although nobody calls it that anymore (exceptions are described below), a deli is a store that can best be described as a cross between a grocery store and a fast-food restaurant. Delis specialize in selling cold cuts and sandwiches (often on rolls; these may be referred to as "subs," "heroes" or "hoagies" depending on location), and while nothing (apart from the chicken) is fried, sandwiches can often be toasted. Delis can be found as separate businesses or as part of grocery stores and supermarkets (the "deli counter"), and may be independently owned or part of a chain. To many people, the deli is often viewed as the healthier alternative to fast food; whether or not this is true depends mainly on how much meat and toppings you slather your sandwich with, which can push calorie counts above many fast food offerings if you're not careful.
Most family-owned delis are concentrated in cities (New York in particular is famous for this) and are Jewish-owned, serving kosher food; the image of the "Jewish New York deli" is so prevalent that delis outside of New York will refer to themselves as "New York-style," and Italian and German-style delis will call themselves "European delicatessens" to avoid confusion. Very low-end delis can often be found in convenience stores. Over time, kashrut has relaxed in America, leading to a further division between "New York-style" delis that will serve meat and cheese together (i.e. the popular pastrami and swiss on rye) and strict kosher delis.
Katz's Deli in Manhattan is the most famous deli in the country and has appeared as a location or in the background of many, many movies, including the famous orgasm faking scene from When Harry Met Sally....
National chains include: Subway (playing the New York association and the "healthier than fast food" bit to the hilt), Quizno's.
As in, what we ate before we got that melting pot. The indigenous peoples of the Americas had had a lot of practice cultivating the natural plants of the Americas before European settlers wandered over, and a large part of early Native/European relations was teaching them how not to starve to death. A lot of crops native to America got spread to Europe -- corn, tomatoes, potatoes, pumpkins, and beans, for instance. These crops are still extremely influential in the American diet.
In the autumn, Americans celebrate Thanksgiving, a harvest holiday commemorating the Wampanoag people helping the Pilgrims survive their first winter by giving them food and teaching them the right agricultural methods. (Of course, Thanksgiving didn't become a federal holiday until well into the 19th century, and the real history between the Pilgrims and Wampanoag nation is much more complicated and unpleasant, but it's a nice story for the kids. And it's not to be confused with Canadian Thanksgiving, a month earlier.) Although they've been absorbed into the larger American culture, the traditional Thanksgiving foods are generally thought of as being almost entirely Native-derived--the obligatory turkey, and then typically cranberry sauce (sometimes in a dish with nuts and other fruit, but also it's considered very homey to have it still in the shape of the can), pumpkin pie (as well as apple, rhubarb, pecan, blackberry--but almost never any sort of meat), sweet potatoes, stuffing, et cetera. Since their absorption these foods are now considered quintessentially American.
The Wampanoag nation is indigenous to the northern part of the country, however, and if you start looking at other parts of America you'll find Native influences from much different cultures. Hominy, grits, cornbread, and jerky all came from Plains cultures and like with the Thanksgiving example, they're considered particularly American foods, especially in that region. Closer to the Mexican border, Native culture there has influenced the cuisine so much it's pretty much indistinguishable from what you'd think of as Mexican or Tex-Mex.
Aside from the Thanksgiving story, American children might learn about the "Three Sisters" (corn, squash, and beans) and their significance in Native American agriculture -- they were or are grown as a staple in just about every Native culture across the continent, and they're featured on new editions of the Sacagawea dollar coin. Some tribes depending on location and cultural history also have culinary connections to buffalo, acorns, whale blubber, etc. and this is all in the American cultural consciousness.
In the modern day, there's not much of a sense of Native American cuisine in the American mainstream. Among Natives, frybread  tends to be just about ubiquitous, though, and if you hear anybody making a reference to something typically "Native" to eat, it would probably be that. Also, whenever you hear somebody refer to corn as "maize", it'll almost certainly be in a Native American context.
You definitely won't find a Native American fast food chain restaurant. In a small handful of major cities, you might find a Native American restaurant, and some Native American history museums might have a cafe serving Native food. The National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, DC has the Mitsitam Café, a prominent example of a restaurant serving Native cuisine and well worth the trip. Some cities, mostly in the Southwest, might also feature restaurants specializing in frybread. Of course the best way to experience Native cuisine is with the tribe during a festival or other event.
In recent years Federal food programs have been supplying American Indians with prepackaged food like Spam, making this a major part of their diet. Although rarely thought of as "native," this is often referenced by contemporary American Indian writers.
Not its own type of cuisine, but a type of business, also referred to as "lunch trucks" or "roach coaches". While called carts/trucks, these are often shacks or semi-mobile structures parked in vacant lots and in groups resembling a mall food court. These groups of carts often feature unique food items, including sometimes bizarre twists on domestic or international cuisine. Portland and the rest of the Pacific Northwest are noted for having the best food carts in the nation, while in New York City the "dirty water" hot dog stand -- and its modern variant, the falafel cart with the odd Arab vendor -- is almost a trope unto itself.
Alongside early diners were "owl wagons", movable late-night restaurants that could be brought to a factory or other work area for the convenience of its customers. When automobiles became popular they were moved to truck chassis, creating the lunch wagon. As the ethnic composition of the working class, particularly in the Southwest, shifted from Caucasian to Latino, the wagons shifted to traditional Mexican food, becoming Taco Trucks. This is now the most common name for the vehicles, regardless of what food they serve. True "taco" trucks serve Mexican street food and Kitchen Sink Included Mission-style burritos.
Taco Trucks have much lower overhead than a traditional restaurant, allowing lower prices and serving as a stepping stone for cooks: Several restaurants like the Taco John's chain started out of one of these trucks.
Despite their humble nature, these trucks have long had rabid fans who believe that they are more true to their original ethnic cuisine. In recent years the taco truck has moved to the forefront of cuisine, allowing chefs to specialize in a couple dishes and offer them at a reasonable price. Food served out of these gourmet trucks can be anything from French pastries to Korean BBQ. Fans can keep track of the trucks' locations via Twitter.
In films and television taco trucks are almost always shown as dealing with some illicit activity like drug dealing or industrial espionage.
So a nice boy of ethnic group X and a nice girl of ethnic group Y Meet Cute and start cooking together, and create a new type of cuisine. Often lumped in under Californian, due to California having high rates of intermarriage producing fusion cusine. Fusion has a reputation of being high end, but in reality goes across the board. A famous set of food carts in the bay area are Korean-Mexican fusion with items like Kimchi Quesadillas or Bulgogi tacos. Wolfgang Puck is considered both a Fusion Cuisine chef and a Californian Cuisine chef.
The South is defined as the states that formed the Confederacy during the Civil War - Essentially all the states in the southeast up to Arkansas, Louisiana, and west Texas, but not Florida. Depending on who you ask, Southern cuisine is either the very best (and to some the only) food in America, or a complete joke that treats food that should be hosed down in fat until it's unrecognizable. It should be no surprise that the Southern states lead the nation in obesity rates. Food Network personality Paula Deen specializes in this cooking.
Southern cooking developed as a combination of French, English, and African cooking methods. Use of fat is extensive, particularly through the use of deep frying, butter, and pork fat; many fried foods are described as "Southern" fried. This is often derided by people from other regions, and southern dishes cooked in the rest of the country tend to be much lighter in this regard.
The region's most famous dish is fried chicken, which, aside from being fried with some sort of coating, has an extremely wide range of recipes. Chicken was a rare treat, with black communities referring to it as the "gospel bird" as it was something saved for when the pastor visited for dinner (This type of cuisine is also called "Soul Food," possibly a reference to this practice). As chicken farming improved, it became cheap enough to be used by one of the first road-oriented restaurant chains, "Chicken in the Rough." Fried chicken was traditionally cooked in a pan, but the process was revolutionized when Colonel Sanders invented the pressure fryer, a type of pressure cooker that could cook chicken in a few minutes. It was this, not his herb blend, that helped him launch Kentucky Fried Chicken. Today, most restaurants use this fryer or deep fry pre-cooked chicken, with the pan-fried method saved for upscale restaurants and home.
Several other foods are closely associated with the South: fried catfish, fried okra, grits (corn meal cooked to oatmeal-like consistency, served at breakfast,) white gravy, biscuits and gravy, and baked macaroni and cheese. Along with most BBQ regions being in the south, Virginia is famous for ham and Bourbon whiskey is named after Bourbon County, Kentucky.
Keep in mind that not all food from the south is Southern food: There are a few small regional cuisines like Cajun and Gulah that vary widely from what is served in the rest of the South.
The "Upper Midwest" is typically considered to be anything from Lake Erie to the east, Minnesota to the west, and Chicago to the south. Demographically, the area attracted large numbers of northern and eastern Europeans, who brought with them a sausage, cheese, and beer based cuisine which is most associated with Wisconsin.
...is a world unto its own. American Football is nearly always played on weekends, which gives people lots of time to "prepare" for the game by eating and drinking heavily. Since football largely came about after the rise of the car culture, most modern NFL (and quite a few college) stadiums are in suburban areas, far from pubs or bars. They do, however, have enormous parking lots where people can establish elaborate cooking setups before the game. While most people will opt for the standard portable grill, others have made this into an art form with towed grills or smokers several yards long, or some particularly famous fan of the Buffalo Bills who grills on a converted Ford Pinto.
Die-hard tailgaters consider the tailgate an integral part of enjoying the game. They show up hours early not just to get a parking spot, but so that they can camp and grill and enjoy the day with friends and family. It's not unusual for a tailgater to rent a parking spot for his truck and another for his grill, set up underneath an awning. Then they grill and dine while the kids play cornhole out in the traffic.
- And even then, cheesecake flavors exist
- Be sure to try Arkansan hamburgers!
- pork ribs
- beef in a tangy ketchup-like sauce; commonly just referred to as "barbecue sauce" due to nationwide Kansas City-style brands like KC Masterpiece
- beef brisket, ribs, and sausage in a sauce both thinner and smokier than the Kansas City variety; Texas style competitions require tasting the meat without sauce, and so Texas cooks put less time into it
- pork shoulder or the whole pig, in a vinegar-based sauce that may or may not include tomato
- A unique example, in that they're primarily based in the South rather than the Northeast.
- This reputation dates back to the Prohibition era, which shuttered most American breweries for nearly a decade and a half. When they reopened in the 1930s, many had to start almost from scratch, as brewing had been on its way to becoming a Lost Technology -- many pre-Prohibition brewers were now old and retired, and many Prohibition-era brewers of illegal moonshine and "bathtub gin" were about as knowledgeable on the subject as present-day meth lab operators.
- a flat, simple bread that is deep fried and topped with stew, chili, taco fillings, or powdered sugar and honey; most Americans outside the Southwest recognize it as "elephant ears" sold at carnivals