Inside the Rapid Rise of Regional American Cuisine

Denver’s Tocabe serves traditional Native American dishes, including this Posu Bowl with wild rice.
Denver’s Tocabe serves traditional Native American dishes, including this Posu Bowl with wild rice.
TOCABE / Adam Larkey

The diversity of cuisine is often perceived in terms of nationalities and ethnicities, but America has always featured a wealth of distinct culinary styles based on the ingredients and cultures of its varied regions.

Whether it’s Southern fried chicken, Tex-Mex tacos, the Pacific Northwest’s salmon, or Hawaiian poke, restaurant operators have numerous options when seeking to feature different flavors of the U.S.

“A lot of the magic in this country lives is our own backyards,” says Tom Ryan, chief executive of Smashburger, which features a locally or regionally relevant burger in each of its 45 markets. “There’s a rich culture of regional tastes.”

For instance, many diners nationwide may not know about the New Mexico green chile, Ryan says, but it’s very popular in the Mountain West, in and around Smashburger’s Denver headquarters. So it’s featured on the local Colorado Smashburger.

Leveraging regional cuisine, including fresh ingredients and local flavors, “gives operators a chance to connect more with consumers,” says Diana Kelter, foodservice analyst at market research firm Mintel. “It gives a halo of fresher, more premium, and less mass-produced food, and that has become increasingly important.”

Regional foods often lean on natural ingredients, such as clams for chowder in New England or salmon in the Northwest. Others rely on ingredients invented by man, like cheese curds in Wisconsin.

The popularity of local cuisines ebbs and flows. For instance, menu mentions of Cajun items dropped 6 percent during last year’s fourth quarter versus the same period in 2015, according to Mintel’s Menu Insights, which tracks thousands of menus nationwide. At the same time, poke mentions rose 7 percent.

There’s little doubt about poke’s gains. Fast casuals featuring the Hawaiian dish have proliferated nationwide. But the Cajun figure can be deceiving, Kelter says, since mentions of an item like po’ boys, a traditional Louisiana sandwich, are up 25 percent.

Additionally, the entire notion of regional American cuisine is changing. “It’s getting more granular, using a specific city or state versus a cuisine type,” she says.

This has long existed in pizza, notably with New York and Chicago styles, which have different crusts, topping layers, ingredients, and baking techniques. Recently, interest has grown for Detroit style’s square, medium-thick crust and tomato sauce ladled on last.

Barbecue also has diverse styles, featuring various smoked meats and distinctive rubs and sauces influenced by regions such as eastern North Carolina and central Texas, as well as cities like Memphis and Kansas City.

Southern cooking is known for dishes like fried chicken, buttermilk biscuits, grits, cornbread, and pecan pie. And don’t forget sweet tea.

“It’s interesting how people consider certain things Southern or not,” says Kathie Niven, chief brand officer at Biscuitville Fresh Southern, based in Greensboro, North Carolina. “I think for many people, having something on a biscuit qualifies it as being Southern.”

The breakfast-and-lunch chain’s menu has numerous biscuit sandwiches, including some with South-centric ingredients like a fried chicken fillet, country ham, pimento cheese, and sausage and gravy. Grits and fried okra are among the sides. Featuring traditional Southern ingredients is important, Niven says, but it’s also necessary to keep up with changing tastes. That’s why the company, which operates stores in North Carolina and Virginia, developed a Spicy Chicken and Honey biscuit sandwich.

Biscuitville’s branding as “Fresh Southern” allows it to preserve its Southern roots—“warm, inclusive, and family-oriented,” Niven says—and to try new options while focusing on freshness of its house-made biscuits and locally sourced ingredients.

KFC helped popularize Southern fried chicken nationwide. Although the quick serve discarded its original, region-identifying name (Kentucky Fried Chicken), it has begun to home in on other Southern influences.

The first, Nashville Hot Chicken, was the result of KFC’s challenge to its culinary team to find a spicy chicken that would appeal to younger consumers who “want bolder flavors,” says Bob Das, corporate chef at the Louisville, Kentucky–based brand.

“We were aware of Nashville’s hot chicken, and it was bubbling up on food-truck menus,” he says. The team did a research trip to the Music City to visit different spots serving it. “When we came back, we knew we had something.”

KFC tested dozens of versions before rolling out its limited-time offer last year. It was so popular that it’s been brought back twice. That success led KFC “to keep the regional flavor idea going” by seeking other flavors, Das says. This year, the company launched Georgia Gold Chicken using a honey mustard barbecue sauce patterned after a style popular in northern Georgia and South Carolina.

At the other end of the country, Pacific Northwest cuisine has developed a locavore ethos, not just with native ingredients like seafood and berries, but also with products that come from the region’s farmers and ranchers.

At Vancouver, Washington–based Burgerville, “it’s all about fresh and local,” says company chef Becky McGrath. The company’s roots are in a dairy business that worked closely with local producers, so the chain has “cultivated that in our restaurants,” she says.

Burgers are obviously a big part of the menu, and the chain employs beef from cattle raised sustainably by family ranches in the region. Other proteins are also humanely sourced and antibiotic-free. Of course, the region is recognized for its salmon, and Burgerville’s “is caught just up the road” using safe fishing techniques, McGrath says. The fish is in the Wild Smoked Salmon and Hazelnut Salad, which includes locally grown hazelnuts and aged white cheddar from Tillamook, the Oregon farmer-owned dairy cooperative.

Certain menu items are available only during local growing seasons, such as fried asparagus in the spring, Walla Walla sweet onion rings and milkshakes with Oregon raspberries and marionberries in the summer, and local mushrooms in the fall for Smokey Blue cheeseburgers. “Some of these can’t be found easily outside our area,” McGrath adds.

New England is known for seafood, too, and lobster rolls and clam chowder highlight the menu at Luke’s Lobster, which has 21 U.S. locations inspired by the Maine coast’s lobster shacks.

“The key to being authentic New England is seafood first,” says president Ben Conniff. “The cooking is really about simplicity and taking the ingredients and making them shine.”

That means lobster rolls should have the best Maine lobster meat—the brand owns its own lobster processing facility, Cape Seafood, in Saco, Maine—cooked to the correct time and temperature for each part of the shellfish. Sure, the split-top roll is important, as are the swipe of mayo on the roll and small amounts of lemon butter and secret seasoning, “but the star is the lobster,” Conniff says.

Similarly, great surf clams from the coast of Rhode Island and Massachusetts make the best chowder. “People tend to act as if all clams are the same as long as you put in the right amount of cream and herbs and spices [in the chowder],” Conniff says. “Ours is quite creamy, but the difference is you really get the flavor of the clams, not the cream.”

Southwest food has become one of the nation’s major culinary forces, encompassing a wide range of cooking styles. One of the most significant has been Tex-Mex, which originated with Tejanos—Texans of Mexican descent—and was augmented in the 20th century by American influences.

That style is still reflected on the menu at San Antonio–based Taco Cabana, which has more than 165 restaurants in three states.

“The original settlers from Mexico influenced Texas cuisine,” says company executive chef Andy Dismore. He says the heavy influences of beef and pork, beans, cumin from Berber culture (a North African culture that migrated to San Antonio hundreds of years ago), and shredded cheese can still be seen on the Taco Cabana menu.

The menu is rich in items found at many Mexican-American eateries: tacos, burritos, fajitas, nachos, queso, rice, and beans. But others, such as the rich stew carne guisada, are less known beyond south central Texas.

“We are not just embracing Tex-Mex, but we’re making sure that the Tex-Mex food is showing its roots,” Dismore says. Beans, tortillas, salsas, and more are made from scratch daily, and many cooks across the chain have more than 20 years of experience.

At the same time, Taco Cabana is looking to pull in influences from other parts of Mexico to keep its brand relevant and broaden its appeal. “We want to make sure we’re using the ingredients correctly and that they’re authentically rooted,” he says.

In Wisconsin, where dairy is king, there’s a tradition of eating curds, which are lumps of coagulated milk from the early stage of cheese making. They’re popular fresh or battered and deep-fried into crunchy, gooey delights. Fried curds have spread far beyond Wisconsin thanks in large part to Culver’s, which is known for butter burgers and frozen custard. Served as a side, they are made using un-aged yellow and white cheddar from La Grander’s Hillside Dairy in Stanley, Wisconsin.

“We like to think the quality of the cheese curd we source and our signature breading and seasoning and spices make it unique,” says executive chef Quinn Adkins. The curds have “much more flavor than mozzarella sticks.”

While curds sell best in the upper Great Lakes states, “we don’t have any parts of the country where they don’t sell well,” and they’ve nearly doubled in sales systemwide over the past five years, he says. “Even in our new markets, they’re selling like gangbusters.”

Operators may adopt some regional foods for a couple of menu items or limited-time offers, but Smashburger incorporated many of them to create its regional and local burgers. The Dixie Smashburger in Alabama? It uses white barbecue sauce and green fried onions as toppings, along with shredded lettuce and Swiss cheese on an egg bun. And in Las Vegas, the city that doesn’t sleep? How about the Sin City Burger, combining various dayparts with bacon, egg, and two kinds of onions as toppings.

“The next generation of burger lovers is looking for food with a story that makes them happy about what they are eating, so one of the planks of this story is to celebrate a local approach to the burger,” Ryan says. “We score points for being authentic and credible. It just halos very nicely.”

Some U.S. restaurateurs are taking regional American food to the next level by featuring Native American cuisine. For example, Ben Jacobs, founder of Denver’s two-unit Tocabe, is using some of his family’s Osage nation recipes, along with ingredients tied to various other tribes across the U.S., to create a menu that includes his take on tacos, nachos, frybread, and bowls.

“The majority of people don’t know Native American foods, so we’re showing off our cultures, what our ingredients are, how they intersect with each other, and where native food is going in the future,” he says. And best of all, “it’s got great flavor.”

Some of the native ingredients are from close by, such as the Indian corn and blue corn from the Ute Mountain Ute tribe’s Bow & Arrow Foods. Others are from farther away, like wild rice and pure maple syrup from Red Lake Nation Foods in northern Minnesota.

“We started with Osage recipes, but with traveling around the country and meeting with different producers, we try to draw inspiration from various people,” Jacobs says.

Bison, long associated with tribes, is a popular Tocabe ingredient. The Bison Ribs with blueberry and blackberry barbecue sauce are particularly popular, as are the tacos, stuffed frybread, and bowls with shredded bison.

This story originally appeared in QSR's June 2017 issue with the title "Territory Treats."