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Snack Nation

From coast to coast, 20 bites to devour that offer a taste of their region.

Forget Einstein’s theory of relativity. The world’s greatest, most comprehensive equation is this: snacks = happiness. It’s that simple (and legend has it that it was discovered after devouring an entire bag of Cheetos). Inspired by that ultimate food pairing, we set out to tell you about irresistible salty, sweet, crunchy, creamy nibbles across the country that are worth their weight in glee. What’s not simple? Starting with a list of possibilities that numbers, roughly, infinity. 

So we applied some criteria. We focused on snacks that are freshly made, not mass-produced. (For the record, though, Ho Hos rule.) We left out items that could be thought of as a full meal. (Appetizers? In. Pizza? Sadly, out.) And we favored food you could eat with your hands. (Sorry, pies.) 

More than anything, though, we wanted our picks to reflect another undeniable truth: that when we travel, snacks are truly special when they speak to the flavors or traditions of their region, evoking a sense of place. That led us to sublime seafood in the Northeast, greasy goodness in the South, and nachos you could only get in New Mexico. Happy munching.

Southeast

Boudin Balls

/ New Orleans

Cajun perfection? Look no further than these beloved fried orbs of pork sausage, onions, and rice. Grab a few at Toups’ Meatery in New Orleans. 

Chicken Wings

/ Nashville, Tennessee

At Lockeland Table, General Hal’s wings fall off the bone in one saucy bite that marries sweet and heat. But get there early: Chef Hal Holden-Bache’s take on General Tso’s chicken is available only 4–6 p.m., Monday to Saturday.  

Hushpuppies 

/ Chapel Hill, North Carolina

Chef Bill Smith makes this Southern classic shine at Crook’s Corner, where his jalapeno-cheddar version comes with a kick and homemade cocktail sauce. 

Plantains

/ Miami Beach, Florida

At Havana 1957, expertly salted plantain chips come with your meal. Take it up a notch with the tostones re­llenos—thick-cut green plantains stuffed with different fillings such as ropa vieja, a Cuban-style stewed beef.

Southwest

Nachos 

/ Albuquerque, New Mexico

Red or green? At Nexus Brewery, the nachos arrive smothered with your choice of chile and are served with ground beef, chicken, or pulled pork. Pro tip: If you can’t pick a type of chile, spring for “Christmas style”— a mix of both.

Cactus Fries

/ Sedona, Arizona

The plant that’s synonymous with the Southwest is also a staple in desert cuisine. At Sedona’s Cowboy Club, the spiky shrub is sliced, flash-fried, and served with a fuchsia prickly pear dipping sauce.

Fruit Cup

/ San Antonio

After exploring the historic San Antonio missions, head to Fruteria La Mission. At the walk-up window, order a mix of freshly cut favorites—from mango and pineapple to coconut and cucumber—and then douse them with chile salt, lime juice, or chamoy, a sweet and spicy condiment made from pickled fruit.

Chicharróns

/ El Paso, Texas

Cracklins, pork rinds, chicharróns. Whatever you call them, deep-fried pig skins are a must in the South. For three generations, the folks at Martinez Brand Cracklings have been selling the crunchy treat, as well as carnitas and a fiery salsa, at their shop north of the Rio Grande.

peanuts

Here’s to …
Boiled peanuts

It’s the texture that freaks some people out. But to understand—and ultimately love—the boiled peanut, divorce yourself from the crumbly favorite at baseball games and embrace it as a soft legume, caressed by wood-fired flame and educated with salt and time. Jason Clemmon is the owner of Sunrise Grocery, a general store in the North Georgia mountains that’s been around since the 1920s. He keeps a cauldron of boiled peanuts over a fire out front. The nuts cook in brine an entire day. This can’t be rushed. At Nashville’s Black Rabbit, chef Trey Cioccia serves a swankier version, cooked with a fermented variation of his grandfather’s barbecue sauce, and you can pop the entire thing in your mouth, soft shell and all. Both methods evoke a slower place and time, when I can practically hear the crunch of gravel under tires as my dad and I pull over for a bag, drawn by aromas of fire, earth, and fresh mountain air.
—Jennifer Justus

Northeast

Oysters

/ Boston

Located in the once-industrial Fort Point district, Row 34 adds color to its fried oysters by serving them on lettuce cups with pickled veggies. After breaking for bivalves, make the 10-minute walk to Fan Pier Park—the water views are waiting.

Pretzel Bites 

/ Philadelphia 

Knots, twists, sticks, rolls—in all their forms, pretzels have been delighting diners since 600 A.D.—or so the story goes. In the City of Brotherly Love, Strangelove’s adds toasted anise seed and brown butter to its soft bites, and then pairs them with house-made mustard.

Cider Doughnuts

/ Guilford, Connecticut

Once you’re done picking your own apples, treat yourself to one (or, let’s be realistic, a few) of Bishop’s Orchards’ doughnuts, made with cider from the orchards. Don’t fret if picking season is over; the market is open year-round.

Brown Butter Lobster Roll 

/ Portland, Maine 

Raw bar Eventide forgoes tradition in favor of a more innovative approach—warm lobster meat is dressed in a lemony brown butter vinaigrette and served atop an Asian-style steamed bun. An added bonus: The smaller-than-usual size makes it ideal to enjoy between meals. 

waterice

Here’s to …
Water ice

All ice is water, not all water is ice, and neither one is water ice, the weirdly named treat indigenous to greater Philadelphia. Water ice is a cousin to Italian ice, but while both originated with early 20th-century Italian immigrants, water ice’s semi-frozen consistency sets it apart. Too slushy to hold a scoop and too solid to drink with a straw, it’s served in waxed cups with spoons (though locals cut out the middleman by creasing their cup like a milk carton). Many a Philly kid, careless with a black cherry or chocolate, has ruined a pair of fresh Reebok Classics this way. Get it at independent stands like 73-year-old John’s, O.G. and maker of a superior pineapple, and Bucks County’s Yardley Ice House. Every Philadelphian has their favorite stand. Mine is inside L. Mancuso & Son cheese shop, where owner Phil Mancuso shovels bittersweet lemon from a seasonal sidewalk window, same as when I was a kid. —Adam Erace

Midwest

Tater tots 

/ Milwaukee, Wisconsin

By adding caviar, a dollop of sour cream, and a handful of chives, Snack Boys has engineered an elevated take on tots. You can order them with a fried bologna slider.

Toasted ravioli 

/ St. Louis 

Don’t let the name fool you: These tasty squares, which date as far back as the 1930s, are fried, not toasted. Salt + Smoke takes them to the next level, stuffing the crispy “ravs” with burnt ends—flavorful pieces of brisket.  

Buckeyes 

/ Columbus, Ohio

Located in Columbus’ historic German Village, Schmidt’s Fudge Haus has been a neighborhood staple since 1960. To make its signature buckeye candy, this confectionery hand-dips creamy peanut butter balls in Belgian chocolate.

Pasties 

/ Detroit

First brought to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula by Cornish miners, the pasty (pronounced PASS-tee) served as easy-to-carry sustenance on the job. The hearty treat—a pocket of meat, potatoes, and veggies wrapped in a flaky pastry crust—made it down to Detroit by way of food truck, thanks to Motor City Pasty Company.

Here’s to …
Cheese curds

Ask a Wisconsinite about cheese curds and you’ll get an earful, if not a mouthful. Everyone’s got a story, a tradition, or an almost religious preference. Fresh cheese curds—solid pieces of curdled milk—are small, salty, and chewy, so texturally satisfying that, while your teeth are still working, your hand instinctively reaches for another. In a state that produces more than 3 billion pounds of cheese annually, the choices on how to consume cheese curds never end. Some dip them in marinara at roadside drive-ins. Others get a bag at a farmers market or munch samples at cheese factories. You’ll find them at restaurants, fairs, cookouts. But the fried variation marries two great traditions: agriculture and deep frying. “The real Wisconsin play,” one friend told me, “is to get a burger and, in lieu of fries, get cheese curds.” And really, what could be more American than that? —Jeff Ruby

West

Huckleberry ice cream

/ Coeur d’Alene, Idaho

In the summer, huckleberries blanket the Northern Rockies and locals search for the treat that’s sweeter than a blueberry. Can’t forage? Abi’s Artisan Ice Cream serves fruit-filled scoops, along with sundaes drizzled with a huckleberry glaze.

Deviled eggs

/ San Francisco

No, your eyes aren’t deceiving you. The deviled eggs at Biergarten really are hot pink—and they’re as flavorful as they are colorful. This pickled take on the hard-boiled bites is best enjoyed with a Bavarian beer on the spacious patio.

Mixed nuts 

/ Seattle

Canon lures in patrons with its world-class selection of spirits—the collection currently tops 4,000 labels—but the whiskey bar’s food menu is just as impressive in its own right. The Angostura-bourbon nuts include cashews, pretzels, and caramel corn, which combine for an enviable mix of sweet and salty.

Jerky 

/ Denver

Thanks to its shelf life and light weight, jerky has long held a special place in the rough-and-tumble American West. Located in the city’s trendy River North Art District, Rebel Restaurant sells its homemade jerky by the ounce. 

Light Bites

From kitchen experts, here are five easy recipes for healthier snacking.

1

Black-eyed pea hummus

hummus dip

A Southern staple reinvents this spread, lending it a heartier texture and earthier flavor.

  • 4 cups cooked black-eyed peas
  • 4 tablespoons chopped garlic
  • ¼ cup tahini
  • 1 tablespoon cumin
  • 1 teaspoon cayenne pepper
  • Juice of 1 lime
  • 1½ cups olive oil

Directions: Place all ingredients, except oil, in a food processor. While adding the oil, pulse until the oil combines with other ingredients. Serve with carrots, sliced cucumbers, and pita chips. 

—Hal Holden-Bache, executive chef,
Lockeland Table, Nashville, Tennessee

Seasoned Fruit

fruit

The sweetness of basil plays against the acidity of these fruits, while chile powder adds a subtle warmth.

  • ½ cup sugar
  • 1 cup basil leaves
  • 1 big pinch salt
  • 1 small pinch chile powder
  • Juice of 1 lime
  • 8-12 cups of sliced fruit (1 pineapple, 1 watermelon, 4-6 peaches or mangoes) 

Directions: In a food processor, pulse the basil, sugar, salt, and chile powder until the mix takes on a green tint. Set aside. Toss the fruit in a bowl with the lime juice. Scatter mixture over top to taste.

—Adam Erace,
food writer and recipe developer

Frozen yogurt fruit pops

pops

Summer should be all about economizing your time, not fussing around in a hot kitchen. This treat is as quick as it is delicious. The color will vary depending on the fruit you use.

  • 4 cups unsweetened full-fat vanilla yogurt
  • 2 cups fresh or frozen fruit
  • 3 tablespoons honey

Directions: Place all ingredients in a blender. Pulse until smooth (or chunky for fruit pieces in pops). Pour equally into molds or small paper cups. Place craft stick in center and freeze until solid.

—Joshua Blackwell,
executive chef, Sweet Jon’s Cafe, Birmingham, Alabama

Baked mushroom chips

These dehydrated shiitakes are like thick potato chips with shades of vegetarian bacon.

  • 2 ounces dried shiitake mushrooms (about 20)
  • 1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
  • ½ teaspoon kosher salt
  • ¼ teaspoon red pepper flakes
  • ¼ teaspoon garlic powder

Directions: Soak mushrooms in hot water for 30 minutes, and then remove stems. With a rolling pin, roll over once to flatten and squeeze out water. Toss with oil, salt, red pepper, and garlic power, and then lay on pan, gill-side down, making sure none touch. Bake for 45 minutes at 375 F, turning over halfway through. Let cool before eating.

—Naomi Tomky,
food writer and recipe developer

Miso-oat travel bars

These bars pack a punch in flavor and energy and are perfect for a long flight or road trip.  Although they require a fair amount of toasting and chopping, the results are more than worth it.

  • ½ cup shredded unsweetened coconut
  • 1½ cups rolled oats
  • ½ cup almonds
  • ½ cup maple syrup
  • 2/3 cup nut butter or tahini
  • 2 tablespoons miso
  • ½ cup pumpkin seeds
  • 1 heaping cup medjool dates (about 14), pitted and chopped
  • ½ cup finely chopped bittersweet chocolate, or chocolate chips

Directions: Heat the oven to 325 F and spray or grease an 8-by-8-inch baking pan.

Spread the coconut on a rimmed baking sheet and toast for 5 minutes, or until lightly browned; keep a close eye on it because it will burn quickly. Set the coconut aside, let it cool completely, and then remove it from the baking sheet.

Turn the oven up to 350 F. Spread the oats and almonds on the baking sheet used for the coconut and on an additional rimmed sheet. Toast until they’re browned and fragrant, about 7 minutes.

While the oats and almonds are toasting, in a small saucepan over low heat, whisk together the maple syrup, nut butter, and miso until fully combined and there are no more lumps of miso. Remove the mixture from the heat and let it cool completely.

Once the almonds are cool enough to handle, chop them into bite-size pieces and put them in a large bowl with the oats, pumpkin seeds, coconut dates, and chocolate. Stir everything together with a spoon, or use hands to work the date pieces into the mixture. Pour the cooled syrup–nut butter mixture over the dry ingredients and stir together with a wooden spoon until everything is evenly coated.

Press the mixture evenly into the prepared pan; it helps to use something flat, like the bottom of a measuring cup. Refrigerate for at least a few hours and up to overnight to allow the mixture to firm up. Cut into even bars—this makes about 16—using a very sharp knife or pizza cutter. Store the bars in an airtight container in the refrigerator or at room temperature, or freeze them.

— Rebecca Flint Marx, food writer and recipe developer


Photography by Stephen DeVries; illustrations by Holly Wales

Originally Published July 2018