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Dishes that Define Culinary Destinations

Every great restaurant has its signature dish. Many great cities have them too.

Though much of America’s culinary landscape has blended into a melting pot of national staples, many destinations around the country maintain a food culture that is local, distinctive and exciting. These are places that have made a name for themselves in the creation and execution of a signature food so memorable that visitors will travel to town just to chow down.

For groups that love food and culinary experiences, tasting one — or several — of these signature foods is a compulsory part of travel. You wouldn’t visit Baltimore without eating crab cakes or Philadelphia without indulging in a cheesesteak. From green chili in Albuquerque to bison burgers in South Dakota and South Carolina shrimp and grits, here are five signature food destinations that should be on your travel radar.

Green or Red Chile

Albuquerque, New Mexico

Few places in America have an official state question. But in New Mexico, residents are constantly asking each other: “Green or red?”

What they’re talking about is green and red chile, flavorful sauces that serve as the cornerstone of New Mexican cuisine. Though they all share some similarities, this culinary culture is distinct from Texan or traditional Mexican food.

“It’s a surprise to many people that New Mexican cuisine is a very unique food,” said Tania Armenta, CEO of the Albuquerque Convention and Visitors Bureau. “That comes from the Native American and Hispanic influences — it’s a blend of those influences that creates New Mexican food.”

Many New Mexican dishes are based on “the three sisters” — beans, squash and corn — that Native Americans grew together. Those ingredients, along with the green and red chile sauces, come together to form the basis for a variety of dishes, such as enchiladas, tamales, chiles rellenos and chile-rubbed ribs.

“My ultimate New Mexican dish is blue corn enchiladas, served flat, with a mixture of red and green chile that we call Christmas,” Armenta said. “It’s served with an egg over easy on top, with a side of squash, zucchini and green chile.”

Albuquerque offers groups numerous opportunities to try these New Mexican classics. El Pinto is an expansive hacienda in the North Valley that can seat more than 1,000 guests. The restaurant jars its own salsa and collects fresh eggs from more than 200 free-range chickens on-site. Sadie’s of New Mexico is another popular restaurant choice in the area.

Groups can also have culinary tours and experiences at the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center and the National Hispanic Cultural Center, which celebrate the two main influences on New Mexico’s food traditions.

Shrimp, Grits and More

Charleston, South Carolina

“Shrimp and grits — you can have it breakfast, lunch and dinner.”

Jennifer Aiken, sales manager for the Charleston Convention and Visitors Bureau, said that this famous dish is ubiquitous in Charleston, thanks to its supply of fresh seafood and Southern culinary heritage.

“Everybody has their own way of doing it, and everyone thinks theirs is the best,” she said.

It’s difficult to go wrong with shrimp and grits, no matter what variety of the dish you’re sampling. But Charleston and the low country that surrounds it have a compelling food tradition that encompasses numerous signature foods. Many of these are based on socializing and celebrating, which make them great group experiences.

“A low country boil is a very casual, fun thing that people do on holidays or special events,” Aiken said. “It’s basically shrimp, corn, potatoes and sausage, all boiled in a big pot. They dump it on the table, and you eat from that.”

Another similar South Carolina tradition, the oyster roast, involves steamed oysters, shrimp and other local seafood eaten off newspaper in an outdoor setting.

Groups can have these experiences at numerous restaurants around Charleston, such as Virginia’s on King Street and 82 Queen, or by taking excursions with local tour companies.

“Some of our companies take groups out to our barrier islands,” Aiken said. “You see the nature and walk around discovering things, and then have an oyster roast or low country boil at the end of the day with beer.”

Culinary-themed tours are also popular for groups. Bulldog Tours’ Charleston Culinary tour highlights local grits and praline purveyors, along with numerous restaurants, and always ends with a shrimp-and-grits dish at lunchtime.

Brian Jewell

Brian Jewell is the executive editor of The Group Travel Leader. In more than a decade of travel journalism he has visited 48 states and 25 foreign countries.