10 Regional Foods You Should Try

Something called a Garbage Plate may not sound like the most appetizing thing to the uninitiated, but namedrop the delicacy in front of someone who’s spent time in Western New York and you’ll likely make their mouth water. That’s how it works with the most niche offerings of American cuisine. Region-by-region, state-by-state, and city-by-city, every local has his or her favorite, and every specialty menu item says something particular about those serving it up and scarfing it down. So we rounded up ten of the wildest, wondrous, only-in-[insert town here] food dishes in these great United States. If they don’t make your stomach growl, well, you just might not be from around here.

1. Reindeer Hotdog // Alaska

Sometimes, it’s simply a matter of resources: What does Alaska have that the rest of the United States doesn’t? A sizeable population of caribou, of course. And thus, the reindeer hot dog—like your normal frankfurter, but instead of beef or pork, it’s made of the creatures pulling Santa’s sleigh and topped with glazed onions. Locals and national foodies in the know point to M.A.’s Gourmet Dogs in Anchorage as the quintessential reindeer dog stand, and two Alaskan companies provide the niche meat. The specialty dog is slowly making its way to the lower 48 states, but if you want to avoid a folly, you’ll have to trek up north for this wholly Alaskan treat. So Alaskan, in fact, these dogs even get served at the Iditarod.

2. Frybread Tacos // Western U.S.

jeffreyw, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Perhaps known better by the less politically correct moniker "Indian tacos," these southwestern favorites are steeped in Native American history. The usual taco ingredients are the same—beef, cheese, lettuce, etc.—but the shell is what sets this dish apart. The traditional frybread is said to come from what’s known as The Long Walk, the forced relocation of Native Americans in the western U.S. to New Mexico in the mid-19th century, when the only rations available, including flour, sugar, and lard, became the makings for frybread. As such, it remains a hallmark of Native American culture today—and a delicious, if unhealthy, taco shell.

3. Food Drunk // New Orleans

The frosted, prize-bearing king cake itself is not a New Orleans original, even if it is a Mardi Gras staple. But you know what is? The king cake burger, courtesy of one ingenious food truck that had a stroke of entrepreneurial spirit in the lead-up to Mardi Gras 2014. In the true tradition of Mardi Gras, the individuals behind Food Drunk NOLA didn’t settle for selling boring old cheeseburgers—they sold cheeseburgers on a king cake bun. The idea for this sweet-meets-savory masterpiece allegedly came to the Food Drunk staff after a couple of drinks, and what’s more Mardi Gras than parading around New Orleans selling an idea you came up with while a few drinks deep?

4. Heady Topper Beer // Vermont

How about a beer so rare—and tasty—it inspires pilgrimages and black markets? Meet Heady Topper, a double India Pale Ale from Vermont family-run brewery The Alchemist. One of the state’s many breweries (Vermont’s 6.2 breweries per 100,000 adults was second in the U.S. in 2013), The Alchemist is perhaps the best of the bunch, but only produces a certain amount of Heady Topper each year, and limits customers to one case per purchase. And yet, with inspired hop flavors like grapefruit and pine, it’s considered by many in the know to be the best beer in the world. No wonder it’s developed a cult-like following, and contributes to the nearly $200 million craft beer industry that pumps barrels of cash into Vermont’s economy each year.

5. Rocky Mountain Oysters // Western U.S.

jankgo, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Farmers of the western U.S. are resourceful down to the very last bit. Some are so frugal, even, they can’t even bear to throw out the leftover testicles after bull castration, a common practice on cattle farms. What doesn’t get fed to the dogs on the farm is sliced up and deep-fried, becoming a favorite regional snack. According to a 2013 Modern Farmer profile of the “tasty testes,” some even believe the “Montana Tendergroins” (one of the dish’s many colorful names) give men a Viagra-like boost.

6. Hot Beef Sundae // Iowa

With millions of cattle generating billions of dollars for the state’s economy, beef in Iowa is serious business. Not so serious is this dessert imposter and state fair favorite. The hot beef sundae consists of a dollop (or two) of mashed potatoes drowned in beef tips and gravy, sprinkled with shredded cheese, all with a cherry tomato on top, in imitation of a hot fudge sundae. The hot beef sundae is a Midwest far-from-frozen delight—so much so that the Iowa Beef Industry Council offers a recommended recipe on its website.

7. Garbage Plate // Western New York

If you’re unfamiliar with the crown jewel of Rochester, NY cuisine, just ask anyone who went to college in Western New York. The dish that made original purveyor Nick Tahou a household name in the region is a late-night, post-bar staple. The Garbage Plate consists of your choice of meat (traditionally: cheeseburgers, Texas hot dogs, or the region’s own pork white hots) piled on top of a pair of sides (pick two: home fries, French fries, baked beans, macaroni salad), all smothered with mustard, onions, and enough hot sauce to melt even the heaviest lake effect snow.

8. Hoagie Dip // Philadelphia

What you call it—hoagie, grinder, sub, hero—depends on where you call home, but while the sandwich is ubiquitous, Philadelphia has figured out a way to take the hoagie back: turning it into a dip. The city that birthed America isn’t constrained by simple-minded white bread notions of what a sandwich should be. All the ingredients of the perfect hoagie are there (ham, turkey, the saltiest of cold cuts, provolone cheese, peppers, onions) chopped up and drenched in mayonnaise and olive oil, served in a hollowed-out loaf of bread. That, my fellow freedom lovers, is how Independence Hall does a hoagie.

9. Hemp Milk Latte // Washington

As one of four states with legal recreational marijuana use and home to the national-headline-making Hempfest, it’s no secret that Washington loves the cannabis plant. But not all of that has to do with pot, as the kids call it. The state eyes all sorts of uses for hemp—a potential cash crop—and the plant’s seeds produce a fine dairy milk substitute. Perfect for, say, another Washington staple: your morning latte, from Starbucks or not. Yep, coffee and hemp milk—toss in some rain and you have Washington in a nutshell.

10. Hawaii Regional Cuisine // Hawaii

The 50th state isn’t concerned with just one of its dishes—it takes pride in all of its unique island offerings, from ahi and mahi-mahi to macadamia nut spreads that are slathered on everything. Which is why more than two decades ago, a group of Hawaiian chefs formed Hawaii Regional Cuisine, a “culinary movement” dedicated to preserving the state’s particular style of food culture, ensuring every dish has that Hawaiian spirit you can’t get anywhere else.

14 Secrets of McDonald's Employees

Justin Sullivan, Getty Images
Justin Sullivan, Getty Images

While there’s virtually no end to the number of fast food options for people seeking a quick meal, none have entered the public consciousness quite like McDonald’s. Originally a barbecue shop with a limited menu when it was founded by brothers Richard and Maurice McDonald in the 1940s, the Golden Arches have grown into a franchised behemoth with more than 36,000 locations worldwide.

Staffing those busy kitchens and registers are nearly 2 million McDonald's employees. To get a better idea of what many consider to be the most popular entry-level job in the nation—staff members on the floor make an average of $9 an hour—we asked several workers to share details of their experiences with errant ice cream machines, drive-through protocols, and special requests. Here’s what they had to say about life behind the counter.

1. McDonald's employees can't always deliver fast food all that fast.

While McDonald’s and other fast-service restaurants pride themselves on getting customers on their way, some menu items just don’t lend themselves to record service times. According to Bob, an assistant store manager at a McDonald’s in the Midwest, pies take an average of 10 to 12 minutes to prepare; grilled chicken, 10 minutes; and biscuits for Egg McMuffins, eight to 10 minutes. In the mood for something light, like a grilled chicken and salad? That will take a few minutes, too. Bob says salads are pre-made with lettuce but still need to have chicken and other ingredients added.

The labor-intensive nature of assembling ingredients is part of why the chain has more recently shied away from menu items with too many ingredients. “We are trained to go as fast down the line as we can, and if we have to stop to make something that has 10 ingredients, it tends to slow things down,” Bob tells Mental Floss. “Corporate has realized this and has taken many of these items off in recent years, [like] McWraps, Clubhouse, more recently the Smokehouse and mushroom and Swiss and moved to items that can go a lot quicker.”

2. McDonald's workers wish you’d stop asking for fries without salt.

A serving of McDonald's French fries is pictured
Joerg Koch, AFP/Getty Images

A common “trick” for customers seeking fresh fries is to ask for them without salt. The idea is that fries that have been under a heating lamp will already be salted and that the employee in the kitchen will need to put down a new batch in the fryer. This does work, but customers can also just ask for fresh fries. It’s less of a hassle and may even save employees some discomfort.

“People can ask for fresh fries and it's actually way easier to do fresh fries rather than no-salt fries,” Andy, an employee who’s worked at three different McDonald’s locations in the Midwest, tells Mental Floss. “For those, we have to pour the fries onto a tray from the fryer so they don't come in contact with salt. It can get awkward sometimes getting everything into position, especially if you have a lot of people working in close proximity and it's busy, so I've had some scalded hands a couple of times trying to get fries out in a timely way.”

3. McDonald's workers have to pay careful attention to the order of ingredients.

McDonald’s is pretty specific about how their burgers and other items are supposed to be assembled, with layers—meat, cheese, sauce—arranged in a specific order. If they mess it up, customers can notice. “In some cases it has a big impact,” Sam, a department manager and nine-year veteran of the restaurant in Canada, tells Mental Floss. “Like placing the cheese between the patties with a McDouble. If they don’t put the cheese between the patties, the cheese won’t melt.”

4. There’s a reason McDonald’s employees ask you to park at the drive-through.

A McDonald's customer pulls up to the drive-thru window
Tim Boyle, Getty Images

After ordering at the drive-through window, you may be slightly puzzled when a cashier asks you to pull into one of the designated parking spots. That’s because employees are measured on how quickly they process cars at the drive-through. If your order is taking a long time to prepare, they’ll take you out of the queue to keep the line moving. “My store has sensors in the drive-through that actually tell us exactly how long you are at each spot in the drive-through,” Bob says. “We get measured based on something we call OEPE. Order end, present end. [That measures] from the second that your tires move from the speaker until your back tires pass over the sensor on the present window. My store is expected to be under two minutes.” If an order will take longer than that, you'll be asked to park.

5. The McDonald's drive-through employees can hear everything going on in your car.

While the quality of the speakers at a drive-through window can vary, it’s best to assume employees inside the restaurant can hear everything happening in your car even before you place an order. “The speaker is activated by the metal in the car, so as soon as you drive up, the speaker turns on in our headset,” Andy says. “We can hear everything, and I do mean everything. Loud music, yelling at your kids to shut up, etc.”

6. The employees at McDonald’s like their regulars.

Customers eat inside of a McDonald's with an order of French fries in the foreground
Chris Hondros, Getty Images

With hot coffee, plenty of tables, Wi-Fi, and newspapers, McDonald’s can wind up being a popular hang-out for repeat customers. “[We have] a ton of regulars who come into my store,” Bob says. “I'd say at least 75 percent of my daily customers know us all by name and we know them all, too. It makes it nice and makes the service feel a lot more personal when a customer can walk into my location, and we can look them in the eye and say, ‘Hey Mark! Getting the usual today?’ and we've already started making his coffee exactly how he takes it.”

7. McDonald’s staff get prank calls.

Unless they’re trying to cater an event, customers usually don’t have any reason to phone a McDonald’s. When the phone rings, employees brace themselves. In addition to sometimes being asked a legitimate question like when the store closes, Sam says his store gets a lot of prank calls. “Sometimes it’s people asking about directions to Wendy’s,” he says. “A lot of inappropriate ones. Most are pretty lame.”

8. For a McDonald’s worker, the ice cream machine is like automated stress.

A McDonald's customer is handed an ice cream cone at the drive-thru window
iStock/jax10289

The internet is full of stories of frustrated McDonald’s customers who believe the chain’s ice cream machines are always inoperable. That’s not entirely true, but the machine does experience a lot of downtime. According to Bob, that’s because it’s always in need of maintenance. “The thing is, it is a very sensitive machine,” he says. “It's not made to be making 50 cones in a row, or 10 shakes at a time. It takes time for the mix to freeze to a proper consistency. It also requires a daily heat mode, [where] the whole machine heats up to about 130 degrees or so. The heat mode typically takes about four hours to complete, so you try to schedule it during the slowest time.” Stores also need to take the machine entirely apart every one to two weeks to clean it thoroughly.

Bob adds that the machine’s O-rings can crack or tear, rendering the unit inoperable. Seasoned workers can tell if a unit is faulty by the consistency of the shakes or ice cream coming out, and sometimes by the noises it makes.

9. McDonald's employees don't mind if you order a grilled cheese.

Contrary to rumor, there’s no “secret menu” at McDonald’s. But that doesn’t mean you can’t sometimes snag something not listed on the board. Andy says a lot of people order a grilled cheese sandwich. “I've made many a grilled cheese before,” he says. But it’s not without consequences. “Sometimes it can get a bit risky doing it because the bun toaster wasn't designed to make grilled cheeses so sometimes you get some burnt buns or cheese or the cheese sticks inside and it slows down the other buns from getting out on time so that causes more burnt buns.”

Another common request is for customers to ask for a McDouble dressed as a Big Mac, with added Big Mac sauce and shredded lettuce. “I think [it’s] a way more practical way to eat a Big Mac since there's less bun in the way, and it's also way cheaper even if you do get charged for Mac sauce.”

10. McDonald’s workers recommend always checking your order.

A McDonald's employee serves an order
Justin Sullivan, Getty Images

Nothing stings worse than the revelation that an employee has forgotten part of your food order. Contrary to popular belief, it’s not because the employees are being lazy or inattentive. According to Bob, it’s simply due to the volume of customers a typical location has to process in a given day. “We are human,” he says. “Mistakes do happen. We always feel terrible when they do but when we serve 1000-plus people a day, it's bound to happen.”

Bob recommends checking your bag before leaving the restaurant and not taking it personally if there’s an issue. “Be nice to us if you have a problem,” he says. “It's a huge difference between coming to us and saying, ‘Hey, I seem to be missing a fry from my bag,’ and ‘You bastards didn't give me my fries!’” If you want to check your bag at the drive-through, though, he recommends trying to pull ahead so cars behind you can move forward.

11. McDonald's employees don't recommend the grilled chicken.

If a menu item isn’t all that popular, it can wind up experiencing a low rate of turnover. Of all the food at McDonald’s, the most neglected might be the grilled chicken. Because it doesn't move quickly, workers find that it can turn unappetizing in a hurry. “That stuff has a supposed shelf life of 60 minutes in the heated cabinet, but it dries out so quickly that even if it's within an acceptable time frame, it looks like burnt rubber, and probably tastes like it, too,” Andy says.

12. Golden Arches employees aren’t crazy about Happy Meal collectors.

A McDonald's Happy Meal is pictured
David Morris, Getty Images

Happy Meals are boxed combos that come with a toy inside. Usually, it’s tied into some kind of movie promotion. That means both Happy Meal collectors and fans of a given entertainment property can swarm stores looking for the product. “The biggest pain involving the Happy Meals is the people who collect them,” Bob says. “I personally hate trying to dig through the toys looking for one specific one. We usually only have one to three toys on hand. It's especially a pain in the butt during big toys events such as the Avengers one we just had. There was like 26 different toys, and some customers get really mad when you don't have the one that they want.”

And no, employees don’t usually take home leftover toys. They’ve saved for future use as a substitute in case a location runs out of toys for their current promotion.

13. McDonald's employees can’t mess with Monopoly.

The McDonald’s Monopoly promotion has been a perennial success for the chain, with game pieces affixed to drink cups and fry containers. But if you think employees spend their spare time peeling the pieces off cups looking for prizes, think again. Following a widely-publicized scandal in 2000 that saw an employee of the company that printed the pieces intercepting them for his own gain, the chain has pretty strict rules about the promotion. “Monopoly pieces and things like them get sent back to corporate,” Bob says. “We aren't allowed to touch them, open them, or redeem them as employees.”

14. One McDonald's worker admits there have been sign mishaps.

A McDonald's sign is pictured
Tim Boyle, Getty Images

Many McDonald’s locations sport signs under the arches advertising specials or promotions. Some are analog, with letters that need to be mounted and replaced. Others have LED screens. Either way, there can be mistakes. “I've never seen anyone mess around with the letters,” Andy says. “But I do remember one time we were serving the Angus Burgers and the ‘G’ fell off of the word ‘Angus.’ Good times.”

The Reason Why It's Technically Against State Rules to Sell LaCroix in Massachusetts

Justin Sullivan, Getty Images
Justin Sullivan, Getty Images

No one is quite certain what goes into LaCroix (“La-croy”), the carbonated water that’s become a popular alternative to soft drinks. The zero-calorie beverage comes in several distinctive fruit flavors that the drink’s parent company, National Beverage, has described as being derived from “natural essence oils.” That highly secretive process is believed to be the result of heating fruits and vegetables, then making a concentrate out of the vapor.

To try and crack the mystery, Consumer Reports recently approached officials in Massachusetts with a public records request for documentation relating to LaCroix. Massachusetts is one of the few states requiring manufacturers of carbonated water to obtain a permit and submit water quality tests to sell their product.

The verdict? Consumer Reports still isn’t quite sure what goes into LaCroix. But it might be technically against state regulations to sell it in Massachusetts. That’s because the state has no records on file for the mystery refreshment.

The Massachusetts Department of Public Health could not find a permit for LaCroix, and there were no water quality test results on hand, either. Without those documents, the drink should technically not be for sale in the state. After noticing the oversight, Massachusetts sent a request to National Beverage for the necessary information. If the company fails to comply, the state could end up fining them or banning the sale of the drink. A spokesperson for National Beverage told Consumer Reports the company intended to comply with the request.

Why does the state need any information at all? Thanks to some bureaucratic quibbling, carbonated water products are treated differently than bottled water by regulatory agencies. The Food and Drug Administration considers carbonated beverages like seltzer and flavored sparkling water to fall under the heading of soft drinks. While the FDA mandates certain manufacturing standards for those drinks, it doesn’t apply the same rules as it does for bottled water, which is expected to adhere to strict rules about contaminants and quality testing. That leaves certain states like Massachusetts to conduct their own quality assessments.

There’s no guarantee that such testing will divulge LaCroix’s secret to their flavoring process, which is likely to remain a mystery.

[h/t Food & Wine]

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