Forget politics. If you really want to pick a fight with someone, ask them which is better: New York-style pizza or Chicago-style pizza? (#SorryNotSorry New Haven) Or look at the reaction to "Brooklyn Barbecue." We all have our opinions on which region in America does a particular kind of food best and beware anyone who tells us another region does it better. But the most popular food in each state might surprise you, at least according to Google searches.
Most states or regions have traditional favorite foods that come from what is grown or made there. For example, Idaho and potatoes go together like Buffalo and wings. If you want a po'boy, you go to Louisiana, for clam chowder you go to New England, and in Kentucky you order the hot brown. You can find amazing dishes with green chile in New Mexico, cheese curds in Wisconsin, and maple syrup in Vermont. Some regional favorites are foods that aren't made in the state, but have gained beloved status over the years, like Spam in Hawaii. And some regional favorites you can trace back to popular restaurants. Nathan's hot dogs in New York or Dunkin' Donuts coffee in Massachusetts, for example.
It's interesting to see some food map and search data from Google that lays out boundary lines for regional food, and some of the most popular foods in each state is probably not what you'd expect. Let's take a look at some fun food maps (and an explanation of why each food map should be taken with a grain of pink sea salt).
First up, this fascinating look at Google searches for tacos versus searches for Chinese food. See the full search data here and add your own food search term if you want to see how it stacks up in comparison.
To dig in a bit deeper, The Pudding asked the Google News Lab to put together some visualizations of data to show food trends across the country. Instead of using specific search data, they used location data for restaurant visitors. From Google: "Based on aggregated, anonymized, and differentially private data from users who have opted in to Google Location History, we ranked cities and counties by their most popular cuisine." We should note that cuisine here is a pretty big bucket and doesn't account for specific dishes or regional variations, which is why pizza is all lumped together regardless of whether the crust is thin and crispy or deep dish, or seafood is all considered one cuisine without considering how a lobster roll in Connecticut differs from shrimp and grits in North Carolina or from grilled tuna in Hawaii.
In other words, this data for popular foods in each state comes from people who have switched on a location finder, meaning that when a user searches for something, gets directions, posts a photo, or tags someone else, Google knows where they are. We'll get to that caveat more below, but first, here's the comparison map of the top restaurant cuisine across the country.
Generally speaking, there are not a whole lot of big surprises in this map. Barbecue is popular in the South, seafood is king along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts, and Mexican tops in Texas, California, and the Southwest. And given the number of pizza joints and Mexican restaurants across the country, including in Alaska, of course those turn out to be the two most popular restaurant cuisines nationwide. However, it is definitely interesting to see just how often folks in Iowa, Kansas and the eastern half of Nebraska order pizza.
Let's take a look at what Google calls the Cuisine Capitals of the U.S. Fair warning, some of the cities on the list may surprise you.
I don't think we need to argue much on Memphis being the barbecue restaurant "cuisine capital," right? After all, this isn't about the best barbecue, only the number of restaurant visits and plenty of people visit Memphis for the barbecue.
These maps are interesting, especially since you might not consider some of the cities listed as being centers of a particular type of cuisine. For example, Cleveland may rock, but you normally don't think of Ohio as being a barbecue capital, certainly not over any city in Texas. And it's a little surprising to find Philadelphia coming in at #5 on the sandwich list given the love this Pennsylvania city has for Philly cheesesteaks.
And when you look at the map of bbq restaurant visits across the country, indeed, most of them happen below a clear line stretching across North Carolina, Tennessee, Arkansas and Oklahoma.
A couple of things to note. This data focuses on restaurant cuisine, not what people are cooking at home. So what it means is that Cleveland being #7 on the barbecue list simply means that people in Ohio are smart enough to eat out at barbecue restaurants. This map also shows you where you might find interesting and unusual restaurants serving popular food in each state. You might expect to find great steakhouses in Colorado or Montana, but barbecue?
Given that the data is coming from restaurant visits, the results from locations with fewer restaurants are naturally going to skew in the direction of whatever type of cuisine those restaurants serve, not what kind of food is generally popular in that area. (For example, when they break it down by neighborhood, the data shows that American cuisine is the most popular in the East Potomac Park neighborhood of Washington, DC, which is misleading, because there's only one restaurant in East Potomac Park and it's part of a golf club.)
The data also depends on people having their location turned on for Google to track and for them to be in a part of the country where there's adequate cell phone service for that data to be picked up. In the map, you see large swaths of missing data, like in the Texas panhandle and chunks of North Dakota, South Dakota and Nevada. It's not clear if the lack of data is due to there being no cell service or people turning off location trackers on their phones.
In spite of those caveats, it's easy to understand why seafood restaurants are popular along the Gulf Coast of Alabama, Mississippi and Florida, and the Atlantic coast of Florida, Georgia and South Carolina.
And it's easy to understand why Mexican restaurants are popular in California, New Mexico, Arizona and Texas, and interesting to see the growing popularity across other parts of the South as in Arkansas.
One of the fun things about these maps is finding seemingly random locations for a certain cuisine. If you're planning a food-based road trip, why not go see why North Dakota has a hot spot for Mexican food or what barbecue in Maine is like? Maybe you'll find an expat Texan in one of those locations, spreading the good word.
This article was originally published on May 14, 2018.