6 of Our Favorite Food Cities in the US
Let’s start with what’s not up for debate: our bottomless appetite for culinary travel. Food has become a “major motivation to visit a destination,” according to the UN World Tourism Organization, whose World Forum on Gastronomy Tourism didn’t even exist until five years ago, and now draws crowds annually to foodie hotspots across the planet (next up: San Sebastian, May 2019).
So perhaps not surprisingly, this year’s MMGY Global Portrait of American Travelers—considered one of the most authoritative snapshots of our tourism habits—reports that while about half of us were “motivated to vacation in order to experience new cuisines” five years ago, that figure has since grown to 70 percent. Little wonder that operators from Intrepid Travel to Cox & Kings are beefing up their food and wine offerings for 2019.
Point is, nobody’s going to dispute our collective hunger for foodie vacations. Where to take them, however, is a matter of never-ending debate. So here’s Travelzoo’s latest leap into the fray: Behold the six U.S. food scenes we’re loving most right now. (Note that we’re dispensing with the usual suspects. You don’t need us to tell you that you can eat ridiculously well every day for the rest of your life in New York, LA, San Francisco, Chicago, NOLA, Miami, Vegas and pretty much anywhere in the Pacific Northwest.) We’re going with less obvious—but no less delicious—choices.
We loved reporting on the Detroit renaissance this year, just as the James Beard Foundation was conferring semifinalist status on a who’s-who of local chefs and bakers. The honorees included everyone from Thomas Lents, for his New American Apparatus Room in the Detroit Foundation Hotel to Kate Williams, for her farm-to-table Lady of the House in the historic Corktown district (leave room for her life-changing potato donuts). In the name of thoroughness, of course, we also hit the old-timey institutions: Lafayette Coney Island and American Coney Island, neighboring rival hot dog joints with evenly split, insanely fervent local followings. Passions run just as deep for the area's Middle Eastern food (the Detroit 'burbs are home to the largest Middle Eastern population outside the Middle East), and though everyone has a favorite kibbeh or kebab, the James Beard crew recently granted American Classics status to Al Ameer, where the hot pepper-spiked Beirut Hummus alone is worth the trip. As for dessert, two words: Shatila's baklava.
Ever since the Old Pueblo—as it’s known to locals—became the nation’s first UNESCO City of Gastronomy three years ago, the long simmering local food scene has been boiling over, with even a humble Sonoran hot dog nabbing a James Beard American Classics award this year. Granted, be it ever so humble, there’s no hot dog like El Güero Canelo’s. Picture a bacon-wrapped frank tucked into split-top roll under a blanket of tomatoes, beans, mustard, mayo, grilled onions and jalapeño. Meanwhile, the same desert heritage ingredients that caught UNESCO’s eye are turning up at brunch hotspots, bakeries and a new bean-to-bar outpost—and if you’ve never tried wild native chile dark chocolate or prickly pear caramel bon bons, fix that soon. But perhaps our favorite iteration of the UNESCO effect is the new Gastronomic Union of Tucson (GUT)—a group of 30 or so pros who through show-stopping pop-up dinners and other foodie events.
Last year alone saw the addition of 30 or so restaurants—among them, the local outpost of chef Sean Brock’s beloved Husk, where heirloom crops anchor such specialties as pimento cheese with Upcountry vegetables and benne crackers. 2017 also saw the arrival of Jianna, whose acclaimed chef, Michael Kramer, taps local farmers, artisans and foodie friends for the building blocks of his modern osteria fare. None of which explains why Gabe Saglie—Travelzoo’s roving on-air correspondent—loves Greenville eating as much as he does: “One of the most food truck-friendly small cities in the country, Greenville sees dozens of these kitchens-on-wheels descend on downtown daily. And the options are plentiful, from the gourmet burgers at The Chuck Truck to the 40-something variations on a dessert theme by The Pound Cake Man.”
In James Beard-anointed chefs alone (12), Houston’s cup runneth over this year. Then the city’s five soon-to-debut food halls, one of which is being heralded as the planet’s first chef hall: With six restaurants under one roof, Bravery Chef Hall houses, among other local concepts, a ranch-to-table wood-burning steakhouse. But in our experience, Houston’s famed ethnic diversity lends the most distinctive flavor to a city where you’ll find everything from amazing Viet-Cajun cuisine to Latin-Middle Eastern. And here’s another distinguishing characteristic of the local food scene: gas station grub so good and plentiful, you could string together a station-to-station food tour (and some foodies do). For starters, you’ll find a gyro pilgrimage site at a Valero, a Shwarma Stop at a Shell and guiso and guac go-to in a Texaco.
Just across the Bay Bridge from Travelzoo’s San Francisco office, Oakland is home to a burgeoning food scene that our local team habitually recommends to visiting friends and family, who never fail to respond, "Really?” But once they zip over for a meal, their skepticism lasts only as long as their server takes to deliver the first dish—perhaps at any of the four Bib Gourmand awardees just named to the 2019 Michelin Guide, or at the only two-starred restaurant in the East Bay, where the venerable inspectors were particularly taken with chef James Syhabout’s “signature slow-poached egg yolk sitting in a bed of onion- and malt-infused cream.” Of course, the Michelin listings are just the tip of the foodberg, as you’ll discover if you visit during Oakland Restaurant Week, Jan. 11-20.
Having declared Portland “America’s foodiest small town” nearly a decade ago, Bon Appetit granted the city an even greater gastronomic title a few months ago: 2018 Restaurant City of the Year. Having since eaten our way through town, we see Bon Ap's point. The place is teeming with celebrity chefs—and as of this year, the Maine Food for Thought tour is stringing together to a whole succession of their restaurants. But the list of must-try spots goes on forever, and branches out in every direction, from a new Jewish Deli where you should try the Montreal-style bagels and matzo ball soup to a restaurant that’s got—as a friend of this author’s would say—all the good treif (think lobster chips with serrano ranch and Moxie-braised pork belly). One final note: If you visit Portland and fail to visit Eventide Oyster Co., your foodie license will be revoked.