Ben's Chili Bowl, Washington, D.C.
I've lived all over the country -- the Midwest, Southwest, East Coast -- and traveled nearly everywhere else. Regardless of regional affiliations or local alliances, one thing I've noticed about Americans is that our sense of place is often tied to our sense of taste.
Another thing I've noticed: The places to try the iconic food of each locale are decidedly those frequented by the common man -- usually sometime after midnight. Here are just a few of my favorites.
Washington, D.C.: Ben’s Chili Bowl
Yep, Ben’s Chili Bowl is the obligatory low-end eatery of DC, but there’s a reason for that. Opened in 1958 (and still decorated like it) in the space of a former silent film theater, the joint that’s famous for half-smokes (half pork, half beef smoked sausages) covered in chili, onions, and cheese was one of the only storefronts in the city’s U Street Corridor that made it through the riots in the late '60s unscathed. Today, murals of Barack Obama and Bill Cosby adorn the outside of the building, and the restaurant overflows with crowds looking for some hot eats after a night out in the revitalized neighborhood.
Santa Fe, New Mexico: Santa Fe Farmer’s Market
The state bird is the roadrunner and the state flower is the yucca, but more importantly, the state question is “red or green?” -- referring to which type of chilies you prefer. The place to get them is the Santa Fe Farmers Market, located in the town’s historic rail yard. You can buy your chilies raw, or find them roasting in a wire mesh barrel over an open flame (the smell is so good it’s sinful), and the rail yard is an attraction in and of itself. Though it’s been spruced up with some new development in the last decade, including a microbrewery, the area still retains the Old West feel with the Santa Fe Mountains visible in the distance and the Rail Runner commuter train from Albuquerque that rumbles through.
Cincinnati, Ohio: Skyline Chili
Let’s get one thing straight: Cincinnati chili is NOT actual chili. For one thing, it’s a lot more like soup in its consistency, and the fact that it’s flavored with cinnamon, cloves, or chocolate, depending on where you get it, pushes it even farther from that realm. Locals eat it over a glob of spaghetti with a heap of neon cheese atop, and the number one purveyor is definitely Skyline. Though the restaurant is actually a chain where most outlets have little historic merit (think Taco Bell), the fact that it’s important to Cincinnatians’ identity the way pizza is to New Yorkers or cheesesteaks are to Philadelphians definitely elevates it to iconic status.
Speaking of cheese steaks... What list of iconic foods and restaurants would be complete without mentioning Pat’s King of Steaks and Geno’s Steaks in Philadelphia? Locals will have an opinion on which one is better (they are from Philly, after all), while others will refer you to lesser-known neighborhood joints. Pat’s has been around since 1930, while Geno’s, sitting kitty-corner across the X-shaped intersection in South Philly, opened in 1966. Both the food and the experience are perfect representations of the no-nonsense attitude of the city (ordering has its own shorthand language), but perhaps the only thing more iconic than the steaks or the restaurants themselves is their epic rivalry.