The land of the Deep South is filled with a variety of signature dishes, from famous fried chicken to Mississippi mud pie. More than just another meal to feast upon, these must-try foods from the southernmost region of the United States are also tastes of the long history of this area. Be sure to put these spots on your next itinerary for a true Deep South culinary experience.
Louisiana’s Cajun Cuisine
While the Pelican State is a melting pot of cultures, one influence that seems to stand out in its cuisine is that of the Cajuns. Referring to the French-speaking people from eastern Canada who settled in the southern part of Louisiana, the Cajuns adapted their French specialties to the native ingredients they found in their swampy new home.
One such dish is crawfish étouffée. A spicy seafood stew usually served over rice, etouffee, which means “to smother,” has grown to be a staple on Cajun menus and is available not just during crawfish season but year-round. Check out Bon Ton Café in New Orleans or Prejean’s in Lafayette for a first-class serving of étouffée.
Another must-try dish from Louisiana is jambalaya. The perfect example of the region’s mixed cultures, this spicy rice dish is a mix of Spanish and French, with Acadian and African influences. Similar to paella, jambalaya also has rice, meat and vegetables cooked in one pot. Finding a Louisiana restaurant serving jambalaya may not be a problem, but for the best results, start your taste test at K-Paul’s Louisiana Kitchen or Coop’s Place in New Orleans. Moreover, the state capital of Baton Rouge is the home of The Jambalaya Shoppe franchise.
Mississippi Delta Dishes
Mississippi has been the country’s leading state in catfish farming with close to 300 farms and turning the largest revenue in this industry than any other state. It’s no wonder that Mississippi has earned the title “Catfish Capital of the World.”
Foodies flock here to check out local eateries and try catfish dishes. One of the state’s oldest spots is Jerry’s Catfish in Florence. Rave reviews continuously pour in about its good food, especially the fried catfish. Other local gems for your catfish cravings include Rocky Creek Catfish Cottage in Lucedale, Moss Creek Fish House and Aunt Jenny’s Catfish Restaurant in Ocean Springs.
Aside from catfish, another culinary term thrown around a lot in Mississippi is soul food. Jackson has a long list of joints and eateries catering to those looking for authentic cuisine. The Mayflower Café, founded in 1935, is more than a downtown stopover. Patrons have and will always recommend the broiled redfish and the Greek salad.
Of course, no must-try foodie list involving Mississippi would be complete without the state’s signature Mississippi Mud Pie. While the exact recipe varies from household to household, this pie almost always consists of a gooey chocolate sauce glazed over a crusty brownie-like base. In Gulfport, The Chimneys is known for their mud pie or, as they like to call it, Mississippi Mud Cake.
Alabama-Style Barbecue & Fried Green Tomatoes
While Alabama has its share of signature dishes, the state also has a variety of restaurants to cater to almost every type of food lover. From the coast to the highlands, the range of tastes to enjoy in Alabama is vast.
For most Americans, mentioning Alabama brings to mind two things: college football and barbecue. And sure enough, the Alabamians deliver on their claim of being the best. Nowadays, Alabama-style barbecue is almost synonymous with Big Bob Gibson’s Bar-B-Q restaurant in Decatur. Local lore has it that Robert Gibson, the original owner, created the legendary barbecue sauce in 1925 for a friend who was not a fan of the standard tomato-based sauces. Other noteworthy barbecue joints in the state are Bob Sykes Barbecue Inc. in Bessemer and Miss Myra’s Pit BarBQ in Birmingham.
A seemingly simple side dish, the fried green tomatoes in Alabama are a treat. For your first try, start with Irondale Café in Irondale, Vintage Year in Montgomery, Cypress in Tuscaloosa or Johnny’s Restaurant in Homewood.
Picking Peaches From Georgia
Georgia isn’t called the Peach State for nothing. From cocktails to main courses and desserts, Georgians have made the most of their state fruit as a star ingredient. In fried peach pie, the peaches are glazed with cinnamon sugar and packed into a deep-fried pie dough pocket. The Optimist restaurant in Atlanta, sourcing its main ingredient from Pearson Farm, is perhaps the best spot for these sweet treats. Peach doughnuts, on the other hand, are pretty decadent. Chunks mixed into a fritter batter, deep-fried, glazed and white chocolate-drizzled—a specialty of Sublime Doughnuts in Atlanta.
Aside from sweet treats and doughnuts, peaches have found their way into an amicable partnership with meat. Farm Burger, a burger joint with branches in Atlanta, Decatur and Dunwoody, offers the Number 5 on their menu: local peach chutney over your burger, may it be made of vegetable quinoa, chicken or beef, topped with local goat cheese and arugula.
Peaches aren’t the only treat Georgia has to offer. As a part of the Deep South, there’s also quite the selection of regional cuisine made famous all over the region. Try stopping by Mary Mac’s Tea Room for Southern ambiance and good food. Their signature Pot Likker—collards with bacon—is a great appetizer. While the main courses represent authentic Southern fare, it’s the side dishes like fried okra and mac and cheese that are the must-haves.
South Carolina’s Seafood & Soul
Dining in the Palmetto State will always be a strong recommendation. South Carolina has its bid on some of the best regional dishes, from barbecue to pimento cheese, shrimp and grits and fresh seafood. Contending strongly with Alabama, South Carolina is also a stronghold for barbecue aficionados. Regardless of your preferred grilled cuts, there’s a spot just for your liking. For hearty servings of whole pork, Rodney Scott’s BBQ in Charleston and Scott’s Bar-B-Que in Hemingway are in the lead. For pork butts, it has been said that the Carolina Bar-B-Que in New Ellenton has come a long smoking way since 1968. Visitors can also satisfy their barbecue cravings both in quality and quantity by following the South Carolina Barbecue Trail.
In a state known for its seafood, a basic starter would be the She-Crab soup—quite similar to bisque and a traditional blend of cream, crab roe, fresh crab meat and a dash of sherry. A classic recipe can be found at Soby’s in Greenville. Another icon and one of the best seafood restaurants in the US is the Sea Captain’s House in Myrtle Beach. This 55-year old beacon is known for most of its seafood dishes, but the She-Crab soup is a favorite.
Taste Testing Two Styles of Barbecue in North Carolina
People say that describing the food in North Carolina is no different than describing its landscape: rich and diverse. From the coasts of the Atlantic to the heart that is the Piedmont and right up to the peaks of the Appalachians, the Tar Heel State has drawn up a menu with a wide range of flavors.
In the Southern barbecue race, North Carolina takes its business seriously. In fact, they have two distinct recipes for barbecue: Lexington or Western style and Eastern style. The Lexington style of barbecue is defined by its red sauce containing vinegar, ketchup and red pepper flakes. As for the meat, it usually only uses the pork shoulder section for grilling. On the other hand, the Eastern style uses the whole hog or, as locals say, “every part of the hog except the squeal.” Also, Eastern sauce mainly differs from the absence of tomato in the mix. For your next Lexington-style barbecue hunt, make sure to visit Lexington’s iconic Barbecue Center, which has been around since the 1950s. For Eastern style, check out the Skylight Inn in Ayden or Grady’s Barbecue in Dudley.
Tex-Mex in the Lone Star State
While other states have a distinctly Southern flavor and style of dishes, Texas foods stand at the crossroads of Mexican, Western and Southern tastes. One food that exemplifies this cultural fusion is the cheese enchilada. Often filled with cheese and chopped onions, it is also paired with a traditional gravy that is a blend between standard brown gravy and Mexican chili sauce. For a slice of this perfected tradition, visit Matt’s Rancho Martines in Dallas.
Another famous food from the Lone Star State is pecan pie. This one definitely speaks volumes since Texans have voted it their official state pie. While pecan pie is available almost everywhere, try narrowing your next taste the Goode Company in Houston, Blue Bonnet Café in Marble Falls or the Salt Lick at Driftwood.
Seafood & Citrus in the Sunshine State
Florida is designated as the southernmost contiguous state of the United States. Surrounded by the Atlantic Ocean to the east and the Straits of Florida to the south, oceans and beaches have certainly made an impact on the life and, by extension, the dishes, in the Sunshine State.
While Florida has now grown to be a hotspot for foodies with its mix of Southern and island tastes, its signature dishes still lie in the seafood and citrus categories. Ceviche, a mix of raw fish slices cured in citrus juice and seasoned with onions and peppers, is originally a Peruvian dish that has risen through the ranks in the kitchens of Florida. CVI.CHE 105 in Miami offers a relaxing ambiance that perfectly matches their chilled ceviche. For a more Peruvian feel, see Best Ceviche Ever in Boynton Beach.
Another distinct part of Florida is the Cuban population, which has its fair share of the state’s history and culture. The food that best exemplifies this shared history is the Cuban sandwich, which traces its roots back to 1915 at Columbia Restaurant, now one of Florida’s oldest eateries. This is a cultural and culinary melting pot with the inclusion of Genoan salami, Spanish ham, Swiss cheese and German pickles meeting together inside fluffy Cuban bread.
Meat & Three in Tennessee
Tennessee offers most regional dishes characteristic of the Deep South, along with many other specialties. When crossing from one state to another, travelers will definitely find their fill in Tennessee.
A signature Southern meal is known as the “meat and three,” where you choose one type of meat and three side dishes, mostly vegetables, from a long list of items. This usually goes with other Southern staples such as cornbread and sweet tea. Both locals and tourists will agree that the best place to try this concept out is Arnold’s Country Kitchen in Nashville, boasting 30 years of good food and an even better selection of side dishes, including mac and cheese and jello.
For lighter fare, check out Biscuit Love in Nashville. They specialize in small buttery biscuits smothered in creamy sawmill gravy. For capping off a long day of travel or work, Tennessee whiskey is a drink known around the world.
Burgoos & Bourbons of Kentucky
We’ll just say that this state is the birthplace of world-famous Kentucky Fried Chicken, courtesy of Harland Sanders in North Corbin back in 1930. More than just the “K” in KFC, Kentucky has quite a few more regional dishes to offer.
Burgoo is a Kentucky staple often defined as a cross between a soup and a stew. This usually spicy dish may either include chicken, pork or mutton. It was meant to serve large groups of people and has become a staple in gatherings. However, you can find a bowl or two of burgoo at the Firehouse Sandwich Stop in Frankfort or at Dave’s Sticky Pig in Madisonville.
Famous for its bourbon, the local distillers’ association in Kentucky has created the Kentucky Bourbon Trail, a tourist attraction that allows visitors to pass through and try out products from most of the state’s bourbon distilleries. Further capitalizing on the distinct flavor, bourbon balls are bite-sized treats made from cookies, pecans and bourbon aged for a week and then glazed with confectioner’s sugar. Rebecca Ruth Candy Tours and Museum offers a simple tour and excellent samplings of bourbon balls.
Photo credits, from top: Etouffee by jeffreyw from Wikimedia Commons; Mississippi Mud Cake courtesy of Linkie Marais; Alabama BBQ sandwich courtesy of Pitmaster Carey Bringle and Peg Leg Porker; peach pie by David Vispoli from Flickr Creative Commons; shrimp and grits courtesy of Discover South Carolina; North Carolina barbecue by Allison H. from Flickr Creative Commons; pecan pie by leah1201l from Flickr Creative Commons; ceviche by jemather from Flickr Creative Commons; Nashville biscuit by Megg from Flickr Creative Commons; glass of bourbon from Visit Louisville Facebook page.