Reader Request Week 2021 #8: Local Favorites

srs asks:

Whenever we visit family in Ohio, they like to take us to Marion’s pizza. As an Ohio resident, can you explain the appeal?

(I didn’t think it was bad, just completely unremarkable and not deserving the enthusiasm)

We have a Marion’s near me (they’re Marion’s Piazza’s, not “Marion’s Pizza”; it’s describing a place, not a food), and I would agree with the assessment that the pizza there is perfectly fine but not particularly memorable or exceptional in any significant way. Likewise the ambiance is not especially notable; the one near me has an interior that is meant to resemble a piazza, which is doesn’t, really, but it’s their thing, so fine. You order in a line and then you pick up when your order is called and then you eat and then you leave. It’s fine! But it’s not the greatest dining experience you’ll ever experience (and if it is, get out more).

It’s not great! But it’s local, and it’s what people grew up with and establish as their baseline of what pizza (or burgers, or burritos or whatever) are and should be. It’s their version, the version that looms large in their head. And therefore, it’s the best! And therefore, they want to share it with you.

And it get it — not with Marion’s, which I did not grow up with, but with In-N-Out Burger, which I did. To me, the In-N-Out Double Double (animal style, of course) is the platonic ideal of the fast food burger, the burger all other fast food burgers aspire to be, and largely fail at becoming. It’s not that those other burgers are bad, some of them are quite good, they’re just not the Double Double. They can’t be blamed for that. The only thing that can be a Double Double is a Double Double.

Then people who did not grow up with In-N-Out try a Double Double and… they think it’s fine? But not the greatest burger in the history of fast food burgers and perhaps not worth making an actual pilgrimage for, and waiting in either In-N-Out’s ridiculously long drive-thru lines or jamming one’s self into their famously crowded (in pre-COVID times) dining rooms. “It’s good but it’s not Whataburger/Culver’s/insert regional chain they grew up with here” is their take.

Which makes sense to me, because that’s what they grew up with. That’s what’s established in their mind as the platonic fast food burger. And they are no more wrong about that as I am about the Double Double being the best fast food burger, or srs’ family thinking Marion’s is the exemplar of pizza, or anyone thinking their own particular area’s specific weird food of choice is pretty amazing and worth sharing.

The last one, incidentally, is how Krissy and I found ourselves at Maid-Rite a couple months after moving to Ohio, because locals swore their loose-meat sandwiches were legendary and we couldn’t consider ourselves locals until we had some of our own. Well, we wanted to experience the local thing! So we went! And it was fine! But also I’ve never developed a fanatical love for loose-meat sandwiches in the time since. I missed the window in which the “it’s local and therefore awesome” filter would get passed over them. This is also why I am entirely immune to the so-called “charms” of “Cincinnati Chili,” which strikes me as an abomination of the word “chili” and also of the word “food.” But other people love it. I am content to let them love it. They can have my share. More for them.

The thing about local favorites is this: when people are taking you to the local favorite, what they’re doing is saying “this is a what I love, and is a part of how I see myself, I want to share it with you.” It’s not about the food so much as it is about the experience and what it means to them. And one can certainly honor that impulse, even if one finds the actual food underwhelming. And they will do the same, when you are sharing your personal regional favorite, if you have one, which you almost certainly do.

— JS

64 Comments on “Reader Request Week 2021 #8: Local Favorites”

  1. I was with you until you dissed Cincinnati Chili. When I lived in Middletown I was a Skyline addict and have never lost the habit. Now if you’re referring to that wannabe GoldStar I completely understand….

  2. Marian’s I get as someone who moved to Dayton as an adult. It’s not the greatest pizza, but I get the appeal. I agree with you on Cincinnati chili. Why Skyline is so popular is one of the more enduring mysteries of this part of Ohio.

  3. They trick may be finding out what previous immigrants to the area tout as the local favorites.

    When I moved to Binghamton, NY, two friends who’d preceded me by a couple years took me to Lupo’s Spiedie & Rib Pit for spiedies.

    They were fantastic!

    Though my wife and I moved away 25 years ago, we still have spiedie sauce shipped down to Alabama to make our own.

  4. I tried Cincinnati chili recently. “Pumpkin spice sloppy-joe sauce over spaghetti” was how I described it. It’s not bad, it might even be good under the right circumstances. Fortunately I knew enough not to expect actual chili.

  5. Kelly Sedinger – Buffalo, NY, USA – I write by night and work with hand and power tools by day...I have unhealthy obsessions with books, movies, music, food, and bib overalls. I live with my wonderful family (brilliant wife, brilliant kid, three lovable but dumb-as-post cats) near Buffalo, NY.
    Kelly C Sedinger

    It’s funny how being local can also have absolutely nothing to do with it! I’ve never been in Cincinnati in my life; the closest I’ve been is a single ride on I-70 during my college years…and yet, I love Cincinnati chili (though admittedly it’s better if you find a recipe and do it yourself; it’s a product that REALLY does not translate well when canned). I drive a lot of pizza fanatics crazy with my refusal to anoint any of America’s many wonderful varieties as “the ideal” (though I do get salty with huffy NYC partisans who dismiss Chicago deep-dish as “a casserole”), and as a Buffalonian, I drive a lot of locals crazy by insisting that yes, there are many wonderful ways of doing chicken wings out there, and yes, dipping them in Ranch dressing is perfectly fine (the local default is blue cheese).

  6. …and then there are those of us who hate many of the “local favorites” we grew up with because we spent a lot of time working in non-chain restaurant kitchens.

    D*ck’s Burgers taste like a bag of… They’re horribly overcooked, with not enough contrast between the supposed fabulous smashed-crusty exterior and the interior (because they’re too thin to have an “interior”), the buns have all the fabulous flavor and texture of a grocery-store white loaf from the 60s, the cheese is almost flavorless, the condiments vastly oversalted and too sparing at the same time (and do not get me started on any vegetable matter; if you’re serving green tomatoes, you’ve got to cook them first, and probably not plop them on a burger in the first place)… They haven’t improved in half a century. When there’s more flavor in the equivalent offering from McZorgle’s, your local favorite has problems. And when the staff would be considered surly in Paris, you’ve got a real winner.

    I like the concept of five-way chili — just not the usual execution. When done with good, spicy-hot-but-heat-isn’t-the-only-flavoring homemade chili with beans that has a hint of cinnamon (barely noticeable) and molé, mixed in with properly prepared robust pasta, with sweet onions and a really sharp cheese, a five-way is a nice change from the routine. Not to mention a good way to feed teenaged boys (and what I describe there is only marginally more expensive than expected; trust me, I had two of those teenaged boys). But if the cinnamon is in the front of the mouth, with no bitter balance, the chili is plopped on top of overcooked American-generic spaghetti five minutes before serving and swimming on a colored-water ooze, with a scattering of last week’s onion trimmings and grated “American cheese-food product” on top — that is, Skyline! — not so much.

    And pizza. That restaurant was an Italian family restaurant run by Sicilian immigrants. You can guess my opinion of almost all “local pizza favorites”… beginning with “if it takes less than 48 hours to prepare the dough, fail.”

  7. I used to travel for a living, and to me, one of the pinnacles of this is Stewart’s Shops. They are a gas station/convenience store chain that has really good ice cream. When I’m was in the area of a Stewart’s Shop, I stopped in. I loved having an ice cream outside on a picnic table. And yet, it’s a GAS STATION. Ridiculous, right?

    Raleigh, NC has an interesting one-two punch of local burger joints: Char-Grill and Cook Out. For me, Cook Out is better, but you know wars have been fought, civilizations have been decimated, card tables have been upended and fruit cakes have been left abandoned and untouched when the battle lines have been drawn. Lo, there was weeping and sadness when the great C-G/CO battle of 1997 stormed the nearby Chapel Hill area, laying waste to a mini-mall recycling dumpster.

  8. You are so right—what we grow up with is our standard for the way it should taste. I’ve read fiction set in the not too distant future where, for example, someone who has grown up drinking synthetic coffee is given a cup of real coffee. He raves about how good it tastes. I always think that no, he would think it doesn’t match up to what coffee should taste like because he is used to the other drink.

  9. Kelly C – agree 100%. We whip up a batch using our own version(s) of the recipe about every 3 months. Tried holding a CChili party once but despite trying to be polite the guests all seemed unenthused.

  10. We’ll have to try Marians next time we are going through Ohio, but I totally agree with you on the whole Cincinnati Chili thing.

  11. You’re right about liking and praising what you grew up with.

    In an earlier time, for me in SoCal it was Bob’s Big Boy. I loved those Big Boy burgers, and likely still would if the chain still existed.

    Later, when I went to work in Santa Ana, CA, there was an In-N-Out nearby and I liked that Double-Double from the first bite, though by that time I’d had plenty of other burgers.

    Now I’m in the Portland area of Oregon, and though there are three In-N-Out locations, none are within an hour round trip, and with pandemic and all I’ve not made the trip. But if they open one closer, I’ll be a regular.

  12. of course, local favorites can be tricky. I grew up in Texas and love me some BBQ. But after moving to KY and trying Burgoo, I decided that Kentuckians didn’t understand the concept.

  13. I think Cincinnati Chili works pretty well as spaghetti sauce, too, and will happily eat it.

    I’m just not under any misapprehension that it’s chili.

  14. This raises the question, what local favorites really are all that?

    I moved to Maryland as an adult, and was introduced to the crab cake. A good crab cake is good, but not life changing. It also is expensive. I rarely eat one, as the cost-benefit ratio doesn’t work out for me.

    On the other hand, I also lived in Philadelphia for a few years, also moving there as an adult. A good hoagie is amazing. Also cheaper than a crab cake, though more unhealthy.

  15. The problem with ‘local favorites’ is that my personal ones are all one-offs and nobody relates to them. If Massachusetts has a local favorite it’s ‘Dunkin Donuts,’ can’t get away from them.

    There is one ‘Mexican’ food chain I like, and no it doesn’t have ‘taco’ in the name. Food’s good and the margaritas are strong. But the best burritos are from a seasonal spot in Southbridge.

  16. But In and Out is the best burger! ahem I would be curious to find out something. For example, when companies put one of their restaurants in a different country they tend to tailor it for that particular area and the food sometimes tastes different than where they originally come from because of certain factors, one of them being water. Now, if In and Out started to put stores on the east coast more, would the same thing happen? I’m so used to it being a certain taste here in SoCal and maybe someone visiting might not like it much because of the taste our ingredients give off, but might enjoy it in their own neck of the woods? Only curious. (Note: I know that the east coast or for that matter any other state in the US compared to where I live isn’t another country. My point: is there a regional effect to taste?)

  17. Richard Hershberger:

    I live in Philadelphia, and have rarely had a bad hoagie, whether from Wawa (ask a local) or any other chain. But cheesesteak places will start a war faster than anything you’ve ever seen – Pat’s vs. Geno’s vs. Steve’s vs. Jim’s vs. those who (like me) say all those places are overrated and your local pizza place probably makes a perfectly tasty and cheaper steak. On the other hand, I remeber ordering a steak sandwich on my first trip to California when I was about 15 and being surprised to receive a piece of ribeye on toast. Don’t ever order a specialty dish outside of its native habitat.

  18. Hank Roberts – California – I'm Nobody! Who are you? Are you --Nobody --Too? Then there's a pair of us? Don't tell! they'd advertise --you know! How dreary --to be --Somebody! How public --like a Frog -- To tell one's name --the livelong June -- To an admiring B[l]og! [Parody, with apology to] -- Emily Dickinson____ http://www.cs.rice.edu/~ssiyer/minstrels/poems/711.html ____ Avatar stolen from illustration by James Donnelly of THE BASIC LAWS OF HUMAN STUPIDITY by Carlo M. Cipolla, www.cantrip.org/stupidity.html or http://harmful.cat-v.org/people/basic-laws-of-human-stupidity/ or 'oogle it. _________________________ DISAMBIGUATION: not Hank Roberts the Internet Guy/Vlogger; not the cellist [hankrobertsmusic]; not the camping stove maker; not the angler; not British [hankroberts.org.uk]; not a corporate nor a union officer; not from Chicago; not at Southern Pacific; not the award-winning educator at peacemakersinc. You see the pattern. => If you may know me, ask; likely I owe you a long-borrowed book, an apology, thanks, and applause.
    Hank Roberts

    The farther you get from the origin of the food, the less convincing it seems. Reminds me of one time I was in Vancouver BC on New Year’s and had “Mexican” food. The “guacamole” was a bowl of little green cubes, chopped up green Avocado. Kind of chewy.

  19. This Minnesotan will happily take John’s (or anyone else’s) share of Cincinnati chili – Goldstar or Skyline. My sister lived between Cincinnati and Dayton and it was an instant hit with me. Also am unhappy that Steak ‘n Shake never made it to the upper Midwest…

  20. What the heck is a loose-meat sandwich?

    In-N-Out used to be good, but I’ve always been disappointed whenever I’ve gone in the last 15 years or so. Whataburger (more common where I live now) is also all right, if not amazing.

    Honestly, a lot of my favorites seem to have gone downhill this millennium. I do love trying local chains and mom-n-pop’s when I get to travel, though. Why would I travel half-way across the country and eat something I could have at home?

  21. timeliebe – Central NY – Dreaded Spouse-Creature to bestselling fantasy author Tamora Pierce (SONG OF THE LIONESS, THE CIRCLE OPENS, BEKA COOPER: A TORTALL LEGEND series), a co-author of TORTALL: A SPY'S GUIDE, Co-author with Tamora Pierce of Marvel's WHITE TIGER: A HERO'S OBSESSION for Marvel Comics. Contributing Editor for VIDEO Magazine during the 1990s, Columnist for C/Net 1999 - 2002.
    timeliebe

    This is also why I am entirely immune to the so-called “charms” of “Cincinnati Chili,” which strikes me as an abomination of the word “chili” and also of the word “food.”

    Says the man who’s definition of “burrito” is An Abomination Unto Nuggan. I’m surprised Krissy or Wil Wheaton hasn’t called for an exorcism of your food tastes….

    Cincinnati Chili first came to my attention when the late Anthony Bourdain did an episode set in Cincinnati, where he visited his friend and fellow food writer Michael Ruhlman. It opened at what Bourdain said is the first Skyline Chili, where he happily chowed down on a three-way while Ruhlman picked at his looking ready to puke.

    While I admit Bourdain ate many things I would never consider eating myself, Skyline Chili…spoke to me in a strange atavistic way.

    I didn’t get the chance to try it until the first time I was driving to and from Chicago on my own. Tammy and Julie elected to fly, but since we were there for nearly a week between MidAmeriCon II and area author visits (remember those?), I drove with our luggage and travel gear.

    It so happened there was a Skyline Chili in a strip mall near where I spent the night outside Indianapolis. I got there too late to eat supper there, so I had a Skyline Three-Way (Chili, Shredded Cheddar Cheese and Onions) for breakfast. It was…amazing. I ate two plates full, and order four plates to go so I could share them with Tammy….

    So don’t be throwing shade on Skyline Chili!

  22. timeliebe – Central NY – Dreaded Spouse-Creature to bestselling fantasy author Tamora Pierce (SONG OF THE LIONESS, THE CIRCLE OPENS, BEKA COOPER: A TORTALL LEGEND series), a co-author of TORTALL: A SPY'S GUIDE, Co-author with Tamora Pierce of Marvel's WHITE TIGER: A HERO'S OBSESSION for Marvel Comics. Contributing Editor for VIDEO Magazine during the 1990s, Columnist for C/Net 1999 - 2002.
    timeliebe

    I like the concept of five-way chili — just not the usual execution.

    Jaws, I am intrigued by your culinary boldness, and wish to subscribe to your newsletter.

  23. timeliebe – Central NY – Dreaded Spouse-Creature to bestselling fantasy author Tamora Pierce (SONG OF THE LIONESS, THE CIRCLE OPENS, BEKA COOPER: A TORTALL LEGEND series), a co-author of TORTALL: A SPY'S GUIDE, Co-author with Tamora Pierce of Marvel's WHITE TIGER: A HERO'S OBSESSION for Marvel Comics. Contributing Editor for VIDEO Magazine during the 1990s, Columnist for C/Net 1999 - 2002.
    timeliebe

    I’ve read fiction set in the not too distant future where, for example, someone who has grown up drinking synthetic coffee is given a cup of real coffee.

    Eve Dallas thinks your blasphemy should be prosecutable under the Illegals Act.

  24. Unfortunately, some of the best dining places that I grew up with in San Antonio are no more. So, I salute the memory of Hipp’s Bubble Room and its sister Little Hipps, and the late lamented Earl Abel’s on Broadway and Hildebrand.

    Oh, and a passing nod to the long-gone GW Juniors, a small chain that had a really tasty guacamole burger.

  25. I rather like Cincinnati chili. I spent a lot of time there once upon a time, and it was a decent meal.
    I preferred “The Precinct,” but there’s only one of those & I was on an expense account. ;) We could usually fly in, do our business, go down to the river, have a steak, make it to CVG, and fly home, all in one long day. If things got weird, chili 3-ways on the way to the airport worked.
    When Skyline tried to open in Revere, it did not go well. New England was not ready for the dish(es). The whole “n-ways” thing just didn’t mesh.

  26. As someone who grew up in an area without In n Out OR Culver’s, I find I much prefer the latter. Personal tastes definitely vary.

    But my dislike of In n Out may be an extension of the annoyance I feel about places having a “secret” menu (even though it’s easy to find) and needing to memorize the “secret” menu to get the most out of your taste experience. Just…no.

  27. It’s my contention that if you want to know where someone’s from, ask them to describe, very specifically, how they like their barbecue. You have to ask for specifics – as a Georgia girl, I thought ALL barbecue was pork, served chopped with bits of the crunchy rind attached, on a bun with tangy but slightly sweet sauce. Then I moved to South Carolina, ordered barbecue, and had it served to me with a thin sauce and COLE SLAW! Geez. Then I moved to Texas and found that barbecue means beef. Who woulda thunk it? (And the best barbecue was from the Hickory House, which no longer exists, but Ralph’s in south Atlanta comes really close.)

  28. timeliebe – Central NY – Dreaded Spouse-Creature to bestselling fantasy author Tamora Pierce (SONG OF THE LIONESS, THE CIRCLE OPENS, BEKA COOPER: A TORTALL LEGEND series), a co-author of TORTALL: A SPY'S GUIDE, Co-author with Tamora Pierce of Marvel's WHITE TIGER: A HERO'S OBSESSION for Marvel Comics. Contributing Editor for VIDEO Magazine during the 1990s, Columnist for C/Net 1999 - 2002.
    timeliebe

    Wow, I’ve made THREE comments! I strongly suspect I might have more passionate opinions on favorite local foods than I do on politics…which is really saying something.

    On the other hand, I remember ordering a steak sandwich on my first trip to California when I was about 15 and being surprised to receive a piece of ribeye on toast. Don’t ever order a specialty dish outside of its native habitat.

    ROTFL, Todd Dashoff! I think I’ve gone to that place once — or its twin. There’s also a local “Healthy Mexican” place near us that serves fish tacos…with cheese. ::ew!::

    OTOH, sometimes a misunderstanding can lead to greatness: The genesis of “Cincinnati Chili” was when Greek immigrant Tom Kiradjieff opened The Empress restaurant in Cincinnati, which struggled until reportedly a customer asked why “chili” wasn’t on the menu. Kiradjieff, the story goes, heard this customer’s description of it, and made what he thought the customer meant by tossing ground beef and tomato paste into pot of water, and boiled them together with flavorings including cinnamon, cocoa, allspice and Worcestershire Sauce, served atop a plate of spaghetti! I have no idea what the apocryphal customer thought of the result, but plenty of other people clearly loved it. (The Empress, now called “Empress Chili”, is still in business.)

  29. Richard and Todd:

    My family spent summers in Atlantic City for most of my young life, even after we moved from Philly to Florida, and I can say with absolute confidence that the best hoagies in the world were from the White House in Atlantic City (Frank Sinatra used to send his private plane to bring some back to Las Vegas).

    Much ink has been spilled on what made them so special, but no one has ever been able to duplicate their magic.

    Jaws: If you’re talking about Seattle’s Dick’s Burgers than you are a blasphemer. They’re no one’s idea of Haut Burger, but they’re perfectly fine.

  30. When I lived in San Diego, I did not get the appeal of In-N-Out. Would pick Carl’s Jr. over them any day.

  31. I didn’t have a Double Double, but I ordered a basic In N Out burger when the chain arrived here with much hoopla, and my reaction was, “This is the burger that the Wendy’s ‘where’s the beef?’ commercial was made to criticize.” Tiny dried-out piece of tasteless meat inside a huge stack of tomato, lettuce, etc. Tried it twice more at other outlets, because fans kept insisting it was better than that. It wasn’t.

    Another highly-praised food which turned out to be utterly gawdawful: Krispy Kreme.

    Cincinnati chili isn’t chili by anybody else’s definition. Perceive it as cinnamon-spiced spaghetti sauce, however, and it’s pretty good. It is also the only dish in the world that comes with multiple options (the “five-way” deal) of which I like all the options.

  32. Michael R. Johnston – Sacramento, CA – Father of an eighth grader, high school English teacher, writer. Forty-nine years old and feeling almost every bit of it on some days, and not a bit of it on others. Based in Sacramento, California, USA
    Michael R. Johnston

    I have that “It’s fine, but” reaction to In-N-Out. I never had one until I was in my late 20s. They’re okay.

    The epitome of burgers, though, is from a place in my hometown of Napa, CA, and it’s not a chain. So I drive the 65 miles to get it every once in a while, with my daughter, who has inherited my love of the place. I’ll be said if they ever go away.

  33. When I Was A Little Girl there was a local burger place down the street that made fabulous hamburgers and incredible malts. One of the very first McD’s in the state moved in across the street and put them out of business. That was, like, 65 years ago and I’m still pissed off about it. Haven’t had a burger that good since, grump, gripe…

  34. I think the appeal of some of these local/regional places may stem from either being better in the past or simply not having had much competition for years. One of the local legends in Williamsburg, VA is Pierce’s Pitt Bar-B-Que. Pierce’s sits on a road that parallels I-64; Locals will tell you that truckers used to pull over on the interstate shoulder to go to Pierce’s in such numbers that they had to build a fence between I-64 and Rochambeau to stop them. I’ve been there half a dozen times over the last 20 years and it’s . . . OK. Portions are fairly small (but not cheap) and the interior ambiance is somewhere between 50’s diner and a McDonald’s in need of maintenance. There are now a good half-dozen barbecue places in and around Williamsburg, and IMO Pierce’s doesn’t rate in the top half–but that’s still who everybody raves about.

  35. It’s sort of like Dim Sum. Everybody seems to have their favorites, and I’ve found some that have actually good tasting varieties of items, but I’ve never found them as fantastic as some claim. The experience with my friends, however, and the communal style of the meal are what make it excellent (at least to me).

    Although I do miss hoagies and kosher pickles of the Philly area. They probably weren’t as fantastic as I remember them, but I haven’t found anything like them here in Ohio.

  36. Massachusetts resident here, Local food is essential.
    The junk at ‘dunks is not a local favorite, more like a bad habit.
    On the other hand, a Fribble is wonderful.
    Would a Vermonter use non-Vermont maple syrup? No, they might be banned from the State.
    Residents of Maine will only eat Maine lobsters, they taste better.
    In Connecticut Shady Glen cheese burgers are incredible. When you search for the image, and see the burger, the stuff hanging out of the side of the cheese burger is the CHEESE!

  37. I have maintained for many years that Cincinnati Chili is a longstanding practical joke that locals play on tourists. Graeter’s, however, is legit. Black Raspberry Chocolate Chip for the win!

  38. @DB: the Double-Double is the best thing from In-N-Out. The single burgers have too much bun for the amount of meat; putting in two fixes that.

    I didn’t grow up on In-N-Out and don’t live even remotely close to one, so for me they’re merely fine. But what they are for certain is a value. Here in Boston we have a small local chain, Tasty Burger, which is rather nice, but a burger there (just one patty but it’s a larger one) costs at least half again as much as a Double-Double. That’s also true for the now-national Shake Shack and Five Guys.

  39. I understand local, there are still a couple of local things around here. Most of them got eaten by the sprawl that has spread like maggots from the dropping of that particular mouse in Orlando.

    Franchise pizza is not local, unless it is the one that spawned the franchise.

    For a while we had half a dozen Skyline Chile locations around, maybe because half of our residents are refugees from Ohio, so I tried it. It is Midwestern recombinant food, it wasn’t spaghetti because it had beans in it, and it wasn’t Chili. It was an affront to both of those.

  40. My son and I prefer In-N-Out burgers to other fast-food/drive-through burgers, although I don’t think he’ll imprint on it as a platonic ideal. (I also like supporting them because they treat their employees well, but that’s a separate discussion.)

    I generally didn’t imprint on a lot of local favorites growing up – although I never have had wonton soup that I enjoyed quite as much as the Ann Arbor Forbidden City’s version – but I have Thoughts and Feelings about ice cream (Toscanini’s Vienna Finger Cookie, Rick’s Rather Rich Computer Chip and The Peninsula Creamery’s Orange Sherbet and French Vanilla are all wonderful).

  41. Howard’s Pizza in Great Falls, Montana. The locals rave and visitors scratch their heads. For me it is like taking a time machine back to a bowling alley in 1955.

  42. As above. From Philly. Cheesesteaks and hoagies. The thing about Philly is that there are no chains. Everybody has their own little neighborhood deli, or 2 because you go to one for cheesesteaks and another one for hoagies. And for that matter another for pizza.

  43. I had a moment of cognitive dissonance here, because my personal burger icon comes from Skyline – just not the Ohio incarnation. Here in Portland, Skyline (sometimes referred to as Skyline Drive-In, sometimes as Skyline Famous Hamburgers) has been around for something better than half a century, and is known for thin-school burgers that won the James Beard seal of approval many years past.

    Our other formative burger joint – and I am not certain whether that one actually is still there, as it has been years since I’ve been through Cascade Locks in the Columbia Gorge – was the Charburger, which was located smack dab under the southern end of the Bridge of the Gods on the south side of the Columbia River.

    Nowadays, Skyline’s West Hills location being largely inaccessible to the non-driver I’ve become, my tastes in burgers have shifted a bit. Out of the major chains I will gravitate toward Five Guys, but here on Portland’s west side I’ve found excellent bar burgers at the various McMenamin’s brewpubs and at a local spot called Ickabod’s in Beaverton.

    Shifting to pizza: I will distinguish here between what I’d characterize as “gourmet” pies (running on average to fewer toppings, slightly lighter topping density, and crust that’s neither cracker-thin nor focaccia-thick) and “family-class” pizza, of the kind you either order for take-out or bring the baseball team/Cub Scout den to share. For the former, the Portland-area favorite is arguably Pizzicato; for the latter, I’d look to any of about half a dozen restaurants which trace their ownership back to two Italian families (in Portland proper, DeNicola’s; here in the suburbs, any of Giovanni’s, Ernesto’s, or Nonna Emilia’s). Also in the mix in the latter category is Flying Pie, which offers several crust options and has a couple of locations.

  44. In-N-Out Burger? Meh. We were in Arizona for my mother’s funeral and my cousins from California were raving about In-N-Out and insisted we go with them. We did. As I said, meh. They were very nice and the food was…fine. I must add that other than that, the last time I ate a fast food burger was never. No, not true. Another friend took us to a Five Guys in Baltimore, which I liked better, I must admit, especially the fries.

    My favorite, if I had to choose one, was where we ate when visiting my family in L.A. back in the ’70s and that was the amazing, greasy but yummy, double chili cheese burger from Original Tommy’s. Yum. Years later my sister visited me in New York and brought one on the plane for me. Yum.

    As for pizza, I freely admit it isn’t to all tastes, but if you come to Brooklyn you need to at least try the square (Sicilian) pies at L & B Spumoni Gardens in Bensonhurst.

  45. I grew up in Cincy ( it’s a good place to be from). Chili Spaghetti meh. However, Cheese Coneys are awesome. I don’t get back often but when I do I hit a Skyline and still love them. ‘Course I used to couple them with Little Kings Cream Ale and that’s a taste of my youth that did not stand the test of time.

  46. The fast food burgers I grew up with were McDonald’s and Burger King. Neither was ever all that great, and they certainly do not form my ideal of a burger. It wasn’t until I was in my early 30s that I encountered Fudruckers, which I think are the best chain burgers I have ever had, although the ones at Big Boy were not at all bad. Unfortunately the branch near me closed almost 2 years ago, and I think the whole chain is in trouble.

    Anyway many classic diner burgers are in my view, even better. I find that I much prefer a thick or very thick burger. The best I ever had was at an officer’s club, of all places, where I was taken between sessions of a bridge tourney.

    My ideal of Chinese food is not what I grew up with, but what I encounters in my 20s and 30s. Brazilian Chicken I first encountered in my 50s but I am quite fond of now. So it is not, by any means, just what I grew up with.

  47. Frisch’s Big Boy in Cincinnati with its secret tarter sauce recipe. Our mom was outraged when my brother stopped there first on his way home from leave in Panama before coming to the house from the airport. But he really missed his Big Boy!

  48. While I agree that the word “chili” in Skyline is a misnomer, it is not an abomination. Try some in one of your “burritos” (talk about an abomination!) and you’d probably like it.

  49. Grew up near Philly, and yes, hoagies are great, and the bread’s part of what makes them great (Subway goes out of their way to special-in-house-bake theirs, and it’s terrible :-)

    But just as Chicago Pizza may not be real pizza, but is a perfectly good tomato casserole, I think of Cincy Chili as being a reasonable Lebanese or Greek meat dish. It’s not chili, even when dressed up like it, but it’s not bad.

    For me the canonical perfect hamburger was made at Ralph’s Exxon in Holmdel NJ, later expanded into Ralph’s Tavern, a 10-oz burger on a kaiser roll. They went out of business about when I stopped eating meat, so I can’t send you there. Otherwise, a Burger King Whopper will do (sorry, In-n-Out), plus they now have veggie burgers of random quality depending on the year.

  50. timeliebe – Central NY – Dreaded Spouse-Creature to bestselling fantasy author Tamora Pierce (SONG OF THE LIONESS, THE CIRCLE OPENS, BEKA COOPER: A TORTALL LEGEND series), a co-author of TORTALL: A SPY'S GUIDE, Co-author with Tamora Pierce of Marvel's WHITE TIGER: A HERO'S OBSESSION for Marvel Comics. Contributing Editor for VIDEO Magazine during the 1990s, Columnist for C/Net 1999 - 2002.
    timeliebe

    Dim Sum — Nom Wah Tea Parlor in New York City’s Chinatown. Tammy took me there about a month after we started going together, and we’d go for there with friends on special occasions during the 35 years we lived there.

    It’s still open (curbside pickup, delivery or shipped to you frozen), and I hope it’s still there and open for business again when we can finally go out and eat in public again without masks or shields….

  51. Interesting to read the American slant (pun!) on burgers, pizzas etc. Living in South Australia and having travelled reasonably extensively in Italy and Croatia (and the rest) the notion of so many chain burger and pizza places is… well a bit foreign (pun!).

    In South Oz (and Australia more generally) chain burgers are Maccas and Hungry Jacks (Burger King I believe). I have started to see a few Carl’s Jnr places around as well. That is about it. We have local fish and chip shops that generally make very, very good hamburgers that are generally large with homemade beef patties, lettuce, fried onion, cheese, tomato, an optional fried egg and the killer ingredient – sliced beetroot.

    Also in the main cities (ours is Adelaide) there are ‘gourmet’ burger shops which are over priced, overblown, and “they put that in a burger????”.

    Also most pubs (public houses/hotels/bars) have hamburgers on their menus. Quality varies a lot as I suspect many are pre-prepared crap from food service companies.

    Best ones are from the little fish and chip shops where you buy and take-away, no or limited dining in generally.

    Now pizzas! We have Pizza Hut (gawd awful!), Dominoes (about the same) and couple of small local franchises) Marcellinos being a local example. These are better, but not by much.

    The absolute best bought pizzas are the ones that advertise ‘wood oven’, ‘Napoli’, ‘sour dough’ and the like. Generally local and one of a kind.The worst (to my taste) are the wanky upmarket ones that put pumpkin, artichokes, rocket etc etc on it.

    Thinnish crust, a little tomato sauce (crushed fresh tomatoes are excellent), a little buffalo mozzarella or similar, prosciutto, anchovies, black olives, parmesan and sprinkled with a bit of olive oil and cooked in less than 4 minutes in a wood oven. Bellissimo!

    Some charlatans also put pineapple on the pizza. We do not know such people, but some are family.

    One of the better ones is a restaurant called La Trattoria in King William St, Adelaide. Was there when I was driving taxis in the mid-1970’s. The Seafood pizza is remarkable – 16 large, locally caught prawns. Salivating.

  52. @pjcamp — I’d call a loose meat sandwich an incomplete sloppy joe myself, they’ve got “brown the hamburger” down but forgot to add the tomato sauce and other ingredients.

    @Greg Lane — the joke back in the 80s and 90s in local convention circles was that the “Dreaded Domino’s Death Disk” could be used to reshingle your house. I’m told they’ve improved the recipe since then, but there’s enough good pizza around here that I haven’t gotten around to trying them since they came back to the area.

  53. Since I grew up with no fast food whatever, that ideal has escaped me. I moved to Rochester NY 20 years ago, where the local claim to fame is the garbage plate. I never felt moved to try one, though I saw an equivalent once. It had beans, potato salad, a hot dog, some chili sauce, etc. I was still not moved to try it. I guess I’ll never fit in here.

  54. I grew up in McLean Va and the variety of “ethnic” foods, well, every time someone loses a war we get a new cuisine. Vietnamese, Cambodian, Ethiopian, there’s even a Laotian place in a local mall. A really good sushi place not too far away. Thai places all over.

    Can’t get really good Mexican though. Not like put west, anyway. Lots of great taco places, but just taco places. Well, and generic burritos and enchiladas too.

    Barbecue has really taken off here in the past couple of decades. It was just North Carolina style when I was a kid but now it’s all sorts.

    Lots of good pizza joints, too, with every style of pizza. Including Indian Pizza. Vindaloo Chicken Pizza is amazing.

    All that said. Two weeks after I get my Pfizer booster I’m going to Rocco’s in McLean for a thin crust pepperoni.

    And then a haircut. I’m looking like a damn hippy.

  55. Although my wife and I have travelled to California and Las Vegas a dozen times or so, we never had the pleasure of eating at in-and-Out. However, my wife has the recipe for the sauce and how to construct them and friends who’ve had the real deal say we do a pretty acceptable reproduction. And no waiting in line!

    I absolutely LOVE Skyline Chili, and living within 2 hours of Cincinnati we’ve been there for maybe 100 baseball games and concerts and trips to King’s Island for the kids when they were young, I always try to stop by for Skyline. My preferred choice is the chili cheese dogs upon which they pile what seems to be a half pound of very finely grated cheddar cheese. I’m drooling just thinking about it. Oh, and I agree with a previous commenter that Skyline Chili does not translate well to a can. The frozen variety is a bit better and we keep some on hand for a quick meal of chili cheese dogs when the mood strikes, like RIGHT NOW!

    Our medium-size Midwestern college town has always been a great food town, with dozens of locally owned restaurants – except for barbecue. For some reason barbecue was never very popular here and bbq places would disappear nearly as fast and they’d pop up. But in the past 20 years or so things have changed and we have a couple of pretty good rib joints as well as independent grill guys who show up at various places around town kind of like the food trucks. A couple of these guys are masters of their art and that’s a good thing after being starved of bbq for so many years.

    I like all kinds of Asian food and there are no shortage of options here in town, but my favorite food is anything !Mexican¡ There are probably a dozen Mexican restaurants in town, some of which specialize in regional dishes you won’t find in most traditional (American) Mexican restaurants. Great to have so many options.

    We’ve eaten in some very, very nice restaurants all over the world, a few of which were pretty pricey, but my wife and I still agree that the number one best meal we’ve ever had was in a place called Lavios (at least that’s the name I remember although that translates to “lips” in English so I’m not sure – but I’m sure about the food!). This was 40 years ago so they’re probably long gone but at the time the place was word-of-mouth in Brownsville, Texas, and it was in a regular house that had a couple of big, round tables for eight in every room, even the bedrooms. They served early; be in line at 4:30 if you want a seat, and once you were in you sat with strangers around the big tables family style. Also, there was no menu; they cooked different dishes every day and started bringing food to the tables and kept bringing food to the tables for an hour. And this was some seriously good food! I remember one day (we ate there three times the week we were there) they grilled seasoned butterfly shrimps the size of your hand. Oh what I would give…

  56. Oh, I forgot to mention that the price of the meal was $10 per person. We always tipped at least twice that. Best food ever. Every single dish, every single day!

  57. That is a great point about the ‘platonic ideal’ of whatever it is you grew up with becoming your standard for whatever it is. Now, I don’t agree with it universally, but I can accept it as a generalization.

    I have a friend who is an absolute fiend for In & Out, and as far as I’m concerned, heretic that I am, they’re fine, but not extraordinary. And she can’t have grown up on them, because like I, she’s a native Phoenician and they were late coming to that area. If I’m out and about or doing certain things in certain places, I’m happy to grab one when I’m in town, otherwise, they’re not a destination for me.

    I have pretty high standards for food, and it sounds like I probably wouldn’t be too impressed with what floats the boats of the locals there, John. But I’m sure there’s some good stuff there. It’s like here, Southern New Mexico, there’s some Mexican food places that I just don’t understand how they’re open. Their food is terrible, yet they continue to thrive, at least in non-Covid times.

    To each their own, let’s risk food poisoning (literally!) and chance the consequences!

    (My wife is an astronomer, had a group of three visiting scientists come to her observatory and before they could be warned, ate at one of the dangerous places. Two were out of commission for at least two days afterwards.)

  58. The reason Stewart’s ice cream is so amazing is that it is actually a privately owned dairy company (1/3 held by employees, the remaining 2/3 family) who built gas stations as somewhere to sell their milk and then ice cream. The gas stations are secondary and the ice cream is amazing. I keep searching for ice cream as good wherever I am and can’t find any. Some flavors are ok, some are even better at other places, but no other brand is consistently as good across all their flavors. And well priced and local. I really miss them and so do my kids. Now we drive 20+ minutes to get an ice cream and it is gone by the time we get home, no stopping by while riding our bikes to the local trail.

  59. @timeliebe The exact genesis of Cincinnati chili is unclear at this point. What we KNOW is that it originated at the Empress and that it draws at least some inspiration from Greek style spaghetti sauce. Also that it’s the dish that made the Empress famous and probably saved their business. Why exactly it’s called chili will be a matter of eternal debate, but whether requested by a customer or slapped on by the Kiradjieff brothers after they noticed Americans liked chili, one can agree that it is definitely it’s own thing, quite distinct from any other chili.

    Not a huge fan but I’ve definitely had worse. Besides, it beats our local delicacy, deep fried sauerkraut balls.

  60. The company I retired from was based in Indiana, and one year they decided to compile a ‘company cookbook’ with recipes from employees. I was amazed at how many mid-westerners had a recipe for ‘baked spaghetti pie’ in some variation. And various ‘casseroles’ which read like horror stories. (Any of which would have made the Scalzi Burrito Hall Of Shame.)

    The Chicago plant at least had the decency to favor large quantities of prime meat.

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