By Alex Perdikis
Sandwiched between New England and the South, the Mid-Atlantic dining scene gets a bit of a short shrift. That’s a shame, because there are definitely some local eats that visitors from other parts of the U.S. need to try, pronto. In no particular order, here are ten great dishes popular in the Mid-Atlantic that you should try on your next visit to this part of the world. Get ready to get hungry!
You may have seen them on menus across the country, but disco fries started here. This mix of French fries topped with Cheese Whiz or brown gravy and bacon bits got its name because it was popular with dancers in the 1970s. Bar food at its finest. Disco fries are best experienced in New Jersey. Find them at Windmill Hot Dogs, or practically any New Jersey diner.
Scrapple is a bit like pork meatloaf, but made up of things most people would just toss in the trash. In fact, the Pennsylvania delicacy gets its name from the scraps of pigs that were usually left behind. But Pennsylvania culture is very much waste-not-want-not, hence scrapple. It’s still a common breakfast item in the region.
Deciding who has the best scrapple in the Mid-Atlantic is like trying to decide on the best barbecue place in the South. If you want a unique take, go to Oyster House in Philadelphia and try their Oyster Scrapple.
West Coasties, forget your frozen yogurt West Coasties. Frozen custard is where it’s at in the Mid-Atlantic. Popular throughout New England and Michigan as well, this dessert got its start in Delaware when an ice cream maker found that adding egg yolk made for a tastier dessert that stayed cold longer in the Mid-Atlantic heat. We have to say that we’re fond of The Dairy Godmother in Washington D.C. They have a very velvety custard that goes down smooth on a hot day.
Of course we can’t forget cheesesteak, that famous concoction of sliced meat, bread and Cheese Whiz (or provolone for traditionalists) known throughout the U.S. You can get it all over Philadelphia, but if you want the original recipe(s), you’ve got your choice between Pat’s King of Steaks and Geno’s Steaks. They’re across the street from each other, so you can make your own comparison.
Pepper Pot Soup
This is becoming a bit of a rarity. The story goes that this is the soup that an inventive cook made for General Washington during his stay at Valley Forge. It’s made with tripe, vegetables, and a lot of pepper. It used to be very popular. Even Campbell’s made a version of it. Now it’s rarely found, at least the authentic kind with tripe. You can find a non-authentic version made with beef at City Tavern in Philadelphia. Fair warning though, they make it hot!
Smith Island Cake
This delicacy is a real treat if you love chocolate icing. Named after a tiny island in Maryland, this dish is made up of pancake-thin layers of cake slathered with chocolate icing between each thin layer. Other flavors exist, but chocolate icing and yellow cake is traditional. Most bakers bake all the layers at once in separate pans and then assemble them fast so the icing stays extra-gooey.
If you’re going to get it, you might as well go straight to the island to get to the source. Head to Smith Island Baking Company in Crisfield, Maryland to give it a try.
If you’re in the region between September and October, you’re in luck. It’s pawpaw season. Pawpaw is a bit like a mango and a bit like a banana, and used in much the same way. You can eat them fresh or bake them into a variety of goods. However, they don’t stay fresh very long so if you want to try one you’ll need to come to the Mid-Atlantic.
It’s hard to choose a restaurant that serves it best because its peak season is only for two weeks out of the year. Try Woodberry Kitchen in Baltimore to try their pawpaw ice cream, but call in advance to see if it’s ready!
This is the Mid-Atlantic’s answer to bratwurst and is one of the few foods that’s native to the D.C. area. Half-smokes are half-beef and half-pork sausages which are mixed with red pepper and smoked over a grill before serving. Natives cover their half-smokes with whatever they like. No mustard/ketchup debate like in Chicago! If you’re new to the dish, go to Ben’s Chili Bowl in Washington D.C. to try them out, then talk with the locals to find out their favorite spots.
Chesapeake Bay’s rivers are the natural spawning grounds for the rockfish. They’re a great fighting fish for anglers and go great on the grill. If you want to fish for them on your own and not go out into the ocean, you’ll have to come around during spawning season. But if you don’t feel like dressing up in waders and you’re heading down to Virginia, try the Rockfish and Barcat oyster stew at Rappahannock Oyster Co.
Finally, in what may be the weirdest dessert you’ve heard of, we have pretzel salad. Crush together pretzels, sugar, and butter to make a crust. Top it with a mix of cream cheese, sugar, and Cool Whip. Then top it with strawberry jello with sliced strawberries inside it. Strange, but a local delicacy! Georgia House in Millsboro, Delaware (and three other locations) has this strange and tasty treat for you.
If you’re in the area and you really want to try something unique to the Mid-Atlantic area, try looking around for one of these ten delicacies on your trip. Who knows, you might even end up liking pretzel salad or disco fries!