Say what you want about the South – and Northerners will not hesitate to – but most distinctively American food movements were pioneered by the determined gourmets south of the Dixie, massaged into fruition by large populations of immigrants or cultural influences elsewhere. Some styles are comfort classics, like steak and barbecue, gumbo and shrimp, but other places may surprise with their culinary finesse and cultural exploration. The large Cuban population in Miami has helped to shape the city’s food scene, adding hints of neon, an appreciation for cortadas, filling and flavorful breakfasts and some of the best damn sandwiches the world has seen, while elsewhere, students and SXSW stragglers have taken advantage of the balmy Texas sunlight and set up a range of food trucks to blow right past even the best brick and mortar competitors. Taking a trip to the South? Here’s what you gotta taste.
Thanks to the large population of students and music-chasing Millennials, the food truck movement has had a strong presence in Austin. There’s plenty of outdoor opportunities to get in some Korean tacos and hot dogs, but increasingly, down the trendy and colorful South of Congress Avenue (but everybody just calls it SoCo), visitors can line up and grab a bite of everything. This Texan mecca of mobile restaurateurs sets the stage and the spotlight for serious outdoor eating. For a taste of the classic Austin breakfast taco, there’s Torchy’s Taco; Southern soul food enthusiasts can carbo-load on buttermilk biscuits heaped with gravy plus a ton of cheese and other good stuff at Biscuits & Groovy, and for the sweet tooth in everyone, Gourdough serves the mother of all truck-loaded gourmet donuts out of their vintage Airstream trailer.
To get the meat, you’ve got to find the right cow. Judging by the number of excellent steakhouses in Dallas, there are quite the cows in Texas, and the culture to match. As a large cosmopolitan city, Dallas offers both the classic old fashioned chophouse as well as upscale, gourmet steakhouses. For a classed up meat-filled dinner, the Place at Perry’s offers its angus beef in carpaccio form as an appetizer, enhanced with truffle oil, avocado and baby arugula, or in an 8 or 12 oz Angus Tenderloin Filet – their ingredients are all raised humanely and accessed as locally as possible. Paired with a glass of Napa Valley Cab Sauv, diners will want the Place at Perry’s to be their place.
History called them Acadians, diners who don’t know confuse them for Creole, but in New Orleans, where it matters, it’s Cajun, baby! Having originated along Louisiana's bayou, this country-style cooking begins with a dark roux, green peppers, onions and celery and turns into something deeper and heartier, like a big bowl of gumbo or boudin (a Cajun sausage). But where to go for Cajun food in New Orleans? Well, everywhere, depending on what you want. Cochon is the lovechild of Chefs Donald Link and Stephen Stryjewski, an updated and modern Cajun resto offering housemade charcuterie and rustic seafood. For a taste of the passing ages, Arnaud’s Creole Restaurant in the heart of the French Quarter, with long green door-sized clapboard windows and whispers of ghosts, is nearing nearly a century old and exudes old New Orleans charm throughout its Jazz Bistro and genteel dining room hung with crystal chandeliers, fluted columns and mosaic tile floor. The menu highlights Shrimp Arnaud, gulf shrimp marinated in tangy Creole Remoulade sauce; oysters served five ways, speckled trout served with Creole Meunière sauce, and many more super-fresh servings from the sea.
There are approximately 1.2 million Cubans in the Greater Miami Region – the migration began during the 15 year period after the Cuban Revolution; after that, it continued for economic reasons. The presence of this large Cuban population lends itself well to the general culture of Miami, opening up a Little Havana neighborhood filled with restaurants and cafés serving traditional Cubano sandwiches, cortaditos, and traditional meals like vaca frita. Many restaurants have been around since the ‘70s, as evidenced by the glowing neon exterior of Puerto Sagua’s wood-paneled fixtures with large murals of Havana. Located in South Beach, Puerto Sagua is an always delicious hub of tourists, South Beach Cuban exiles and adventurous locals chowing down on pernil asado (pork shoulder braised with onions and spices) and homemade flan, drizzled over with caramel sauce.
Barbecue has always been a point of contention – all Southern states think they’ve perfected it, many of their reputations are buffered by history and reputation, and each state follows its own style. But Memphis is up there. Dry rubbed but never dry, Memphis has one of the most amenable while simultaneously distinct styles in American Barbecue. Sauce on the side, of varying bases (tomato, vinegar, or mustard depending on the place), ribs cut St. Louis style, nicely and neatly, mopped or thickly caked with rub, Memphis cooks to taste. Memphis newbies will get a real education in the art of the ribs and rub at Charles Vergo’s Rendezvous Charcoal Ribs, where they’ve been cooking his signature paprika-heavy ribs over charcoal since 1948. For a more contemporary view of the BBQ scene, Central BBQ has been on a scene for just over a decade and in that time, has amassed a loyal following. They slow-smoke their pork for over 14 hours, ribs overnight and brisket for three. Diners happy chow down out on the snazzy outdoor patio and have their signature pork, ribs, or brisket plates delivered by servers in tie-dye shirts.