What US food has this Brit never tried?
August 29, 2009 12:49 AM   Subscribe

My first trip to the US is coming up; having been brought up with American films and American TV shows, I am compiling a list of all the things we just don't have in the UK (mostly food) to try. Only my list isn't too long at the moment. Can any MeFites help?

Examples of what I am talking about:

Eating a Chinese takeaway from a square white box with a folding lid (al la Roseanne's intro sequence)
Peeps (Not even sure what these are, but they have been mentioned in a lot of American TV shows over the past couple of years)
Twinkies (No idea again)

If it helps, I will be spending a week in Las Vegas and a week in San Francisco.
posted by Nufkin to Travel & Transportation (121 answers total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
It will probably be hard to find Peeps as these are a kind of Easter candy not available right now. Twinkies will be in any grocery store.

My suggestion would be Tex-Mex food; you can probably find it in Las Vegas.
posted by tamitang at 1:05 AM on August 29, 2009

In the US, which I have not seen in the UK, they have dark chocolate M&M's, and M&M's with peanut butter. In Las Vegas try to visit the M&M store on the strip.
posted by alchemist at 1:07 AM on August 29, 2009

San Francisco has especially good Dim Sum restaurants in Chinatown.
posted by Amethyst, Princess of Gemworld at 1:08 AM on August 29, 2009

just an addition, when i'm in a foreign country I like to wander around in supermarkets. In Las Vegas down the strip from the Mandalay Bay hotel there is a Whole Foods supermarket (you can get there easily by taking the bus that goes down the strip), a quite large one. It has a great selection of all types of different food types. Go and take a look? Enjoy!
posted by alchemist at 1:09 AM on August 29, 2009

I don't know if this counts, but my relatives from the UK periodically have me send them the really terribly sugary breakfast cereals (Cocoa Crispies, Fruity Pebbles, Lucky Charms, etc.). Something about them not being able to get them because they're unfit for children to eat, apparently. Not totally sure what the story is, but if that's your thing you could either swing by any supermarket, or if you're looking for more of a sit-down experience (if admittedly one that is not really in any way typical), there are cereal restaurants, although apparently they are rapidly going out of business. (I went to the one in State College, PA, but it's no longer open. It was kinda fun, except for the "wow, I just got ripped off worse than going to the grocery store and buying cereal, which is already a ripoff" aspect.)

There are some US candies that aren't available in the UK, but nobody I've met has ever expressed that much interest in them.

New York style pizza is fairly famous, and justly so, although you can start a fairly serious argument over whether it's actually superior to other regional styles. But it's worth trying if you're going through NYC on your trip. (Where exactly you should go is the subject of its own question, but I think has been covered previously.)

There are lots of other regional cuisines specific to particular parts of the US that you just don't get (at least not authentically) in other parts of the country/world. E.g. various types of barbecue or various types of gumbo. If you're traveling to a place that's famous for a particular dish, it's almost always worth your while to at least try it.

Also, a lot of Chinese take-out places serve their food in two-part plastic containers; typically only the rice (steamed or fried) is served in those little cardboard boxes anymore.
posted by Kadin2048 at 1:11 AM on August 29, 2009

Dude...I'm an american. I have NEVER had peeps. The last time I had twinkies was when I went to tour the twinkie factories in 1st grade. Both are overrated and will kill you sooner.

The chinese food though...you're totally missing out. Be sure not to use a plate...and only chopsticks.
posted by hal_c_on at 1:13 AM on August 29, 2009 [1 favorite]

If you're going to be in Las Vegas, it would be a shame not to go see the Grand Canyon only a few hours away. I'm pretty sure you don't have one of those in the UK :)
posted by dacoit at 1:14 AM on August 29, 2009 [2 favorites]

We do have peeps but they might be called something else here (and a different shape).

Things that I always remember mentioned in american tv are twinkies and tootsie rolls - they get mentioned a lot but I have no idea what they are.

The chinese food though...you're totally missing out.

We do have chinese food ;) Just not the square boxes. I don't know if lucky charms were discontinued here but we definitely had those when I was a kid.
posted by missmagenta at 1:22 AM on August 29, 2009

oh and cocoa krispies appear to be cocoa pops.... I don't think we have fruity pebbles though
posted by missmagenta at 1:26 AM on August 29, 2009

You should try some good southern fried chicken. There's bound to be some where you're going, try looking it up on yelp. Any kind of southern, or soul food period may be right up your alley. In Las Vegas: M & M Soul Food Cafe.

Also, when will you be in Vegas? Mefi mail me.
posted by Gonestarfishing at 1:26 AM on August 29, 2009

Tootsie Rolls are a kind of gooey chocolate candy. Dude, do you have Google? Just kidding.
posted by tamitang at 1:28 AM on August 29, 2009

Best answer: In San Francisco you have to eat a Mission-style burrito from a taqueria. It's a giant tortilla (a wrap in the UK) filled with your choice of rice, beans, meat (have the pork or the carne asada), salsa, guacamole, lettuce, sour cream, jalapenos, cheese ... absolutely delicious. You'll find that even a 'baby' burrito is a huge meal.

Peeps are disgusting - little marshmallow things with a sugar coating. It's like eating a mouthful of shaving foam covered in grit and will leave the inside of your mouth with a horrible-tasting coating that no amount of brushing or rinsing will remove.

Twinkies are little 'cakes' with a 'cream' filling. I use quote marks because they are probably made of chemicals, not actual ingredients that would normally go into a real cake. If you ate enough Twinkies, I would guess that your body would never need embalming because it'd already be full of preservatives.

In the US, what we call a Mars Bar is a Milky Way. What we call a Milky Way is a Three Musketeers. But it's like the Milky Way of my youth, before they replaced the chocolate moussy filling with a white one. I always have a Three Musketeers (or six) when I'm in the US for nostalgia value.
posted by essexjan at 1:29 AM on August 29, 2009 [3 favorites]

Pabst Blue Ribbon!
posted by K.P. at 1:31 AM on August 29, 2009 [3 favorites]

I'm not sure what foods you do or don't have in the UK, but some thoughts:
Barbecue - There are actually regional varieties, Chicago, Texas, Carolina
Diner Food - Chicken Fried Steak Covered in Gravy, Meatloaf, that kind of thing
Pizza - Again, several varieties, New York, Chicago Deep Dish
Soul Food
posted by willnot at 1:31 AM on August 29, 2009

American-style barbecue and Mexican food, to include a burrito as big around as your forearm.
posted by ambient2 at 1:31 AM on August 29, 2009

get your burrito in SF, not Vegas. also, if they try to put avocado or mango on it, flee. find a place with more latinos or hipsters.

any shitty american beer will do, but while all the kids love PBR, if you want to go iconic, go for budweiser.
posted by nadawi at 1:35 AM on August 29, 2009

Also, a lot of Chinese take-out places serve their food in two-part plastic containers; typically only the rice (steamed or fried) is served in those little cardboard boxes anymore.

Not the case here in the Bay Area. Fold-Paks are still the norm.

Probably the most distinctive SF foods are sourdough bread and burritos. Other highlights include the It's-It and Anchor Steam. Don't miss out.
posted by clorox at 1:37 AM on August 29, 2009

Well, not sure if you can get an equivalent in the UK, but as long as you're coming to SF make sure to go to Arizmendi Bakery for a slice of pizza. Yum, I really wish they were open right now.
posted by JenMarie at 1:46 AM on August 29, 2009

Best answer: P.S. Even though it's usually an extra 75 cents or so, make sure you get guacamole in your burrito. And guacamole for your chips. And avocado slices in your sandwiches. Pick up a couple avocados from the store and eat them back in your hotel room -- just you and the avocados in a private moment of sweet, cool, buttery passion. The avocado doesn't care who you are, what you look like; it doesn't care how you treat it, how you treat others, how you treat yourself. The avocado will always be there, just waiting to be sacrificed for your pleasure. And it asks nothing in return.
posted by clorox at 1:49 AM on August 29, 2009 [20 favorites]

I'm not sure what you all have in England, but for my continental girlfriend, the sheer number of delicious crackers and cookies in America was pretty delirious. I've never had a cracker in Europe that isn't weak sauce. Triscuits are great, wheat thins are nice too. Eat brownies and blondies. Also: corn bread.

Don't eat peeps, they're terrible.

If you know anyone with a Costco membership you should check it out, that's pretty American.
posted by creasy boy at 1:50 AM on August 29, 2009

San Francisco: Mission Style burrito, widely available throughout the Bay Area. Choice of meats, beans, salsa, condiments, etc. So many great tacquerias in San Francisco to choose from, you really can't go wrong. Damn...it's 1:45am and after typing that I want a burrito so badly right now, but I live in the 'burbs, so no midnight burrito for mosk :-(

Also, San Francisco sourdough French bread is a regional specialty that's hard to find elsewhere. Crusty and flavorful, it's heaven when it's warm from the oven.

Las Vegas: I was going to suggest barbequeue (BBQ), but a quick perusal of Yelp doesn't bring up anything too promising. Maybe some Las Vegas MeFites can recommend a BBQ joint in Vegas?

Anyway, I think all of the above are tasty, mentioned in film, TV, and media, and probably hard to find in the U.K.
posted by mosk at 1:51 AM on August 29, 2009

I'm American, I live in London, but rarely go back. There really only seems to be two food groups that you can't get here - pizza and Mexican.

We were out in Vegas a couple of years ago, and you can certainly get good pie there.

Mexican food is non existent here so definitely give that a try (I attribute poor Mexican food here to the relative proximity of Spain, and London's ubiquitous tapas restaurants.

Food wise everything else in London is at least as good if not better than food in America.

Best part about food here is the portions are rational, and will feed a single human a single meal in a single sitting. You'll see what I mean, especially in Vegas.

Have a great trip!
posted by Mutant at 1:52 AM on August 29, 2009

Where are you going while you're there? Check out the Man Vs Food website for suggestions about where and what to eat.
posted by obiwanwasabi at 2:02 AM on August 29, 2009

Best answer: My friends from England were surprised by a couple very common things: meatloaf, with cranberry sauce, and going out for ice cream at a roadside stand. I think they liked both.

Also, no matter how curious you are about its smell, do not try to set off a skunk if you see one while you're going out for that ice cream. Little tip from me to you.
posted by theredpen at 2:03 AM on August 29, 2009 [3 favorites]

Ok. San Franciscan here who now lives in the UK.

- Yes, the UK has Chinese food but, seriously, San Francisco has some of the best Chinese food in the Universe, thanks to its being an epicenter of Chinese immigration to the US. In that sense, no, you probably haven't had Chinese food like this.
Many, but not all, still use the paper boxes.

-Also visit a Fortune cookie factory.

- Burritos in San Franciso's Mission district. Again, nothing like them anywhere. If you can go to only one, go to El Farolito on 24th/Mission.

- BBQ/Soul food. You can get this in San Francisco too or Oakland. Try it. You've had nothing like this in the UK.

- Chicken and Waffles. Also available in Oakland.

- Supermarkets. Do not go to Whole Foods, as suggested above. They are not aware there is Whole Foods in the UK. If you want real Americana, go to a Safeway when you are in San Francisco. Wander up and down the cereal aisle, the snack aisle, the candy aisle...

- An American breakfast. With buttermilk pancakes and maple syrup. Try Dottie's in San Francisco. Or the St. Francis Diner on 24th st which is an actual diner from the 1920's (vs. one of many reconstructions of them around the world)

- San Francisco and Las Vegas have In-n-Out burgers.

- Have you had Latin American food? If you wander down Mission St. in SF, particularly south of 25th, there are lots of great Salvadorean restaurants, Peruvian, Nicaraguan, restaurants. Try a pupusa.
posted by vacapinta at 2:04 AM on August 29, 2009 [10 favorites]

Go to a shooting range and shoot a handgun (or a fully automatic weapon (which are regulated to the point of de facto proscription for private ownership, lest you get the wrong impression)). Nevada has great gun laws, and I'm certain Las Vegas will have at least one really well-stocked shooting range. California has really terrible gun laws; so, don't wait for San Francisco.

Somebody mentioned the Grand Canyon. It's breathtaking to see. And many (most?) Americans haven't even seen it. Although, frankly, I don't think there's any need to do more than drive around the rim and stop a few times to look--hiking and camping there is overrated.
posted by Netzapper at 2:05 AM on August 29, 2009 [3 favorites]

/me learns to read all of the question first

Here are the Man Vs Food pages for San Francisco and Vegas.
posted by obiwanwasabi at 2:06 AM on August 29, 2009

Best answer: I came in here to recommend Gilley's (warning: flash), the country-western bar of 70s and 80s Houston and the oil boom. It was central to the story of Urban Cowboy. The LV incarnation did a good job of recreating not only the honkey-tonk atmosphere, but also BBQ and other Texas foods. Sadly it looks like it closed down. The link does mention another honky-tonk nearby, close to the "South Point Hotel & Casino."

Do check out the older Western-themed casinos in addition to the sleek new ones to get a sense of the kind of foods and atmosphere considered "American" and certainly "Western." The live-music bar at the entrance of Harrah's is great fun. (What can I say, I like trashy country music.)

Looking at its site, Harrah's now boasts a Toby Keith's I Love This Bar and Grill. You'd definitely get a one-of-a-kind experience there.

The Orleans Casino has an all-you-can-eat buffet that never ends with every food imaginable and people sized accordingly. It is a few minutes from the strip and I was told the most popular buffet with the locals. It's worth checking out just to see so...much...food...and so many people eating so much of it. The Orleans also has a big movie theater so you can rest and digest after pigging out.

Between UNLV and the Strip, you will find tucked away some good Asian (Korean and Vietnamese lunch specials, "authentic" Japanese, i.e. the kind that doesn't skimp on mayonnaise). None is readily available on the East Coast and perhaps also new to you.

It sounds like you would enjoy a trip to a grocery store to look at the candy aisle. Whole Foods is on the high-end of grocery stores and won't have a typical candy aisle that stocks, say, Tootsie Rolls. But you should have no problem finding a mid-level grocery store (aka "supermarket) for ogling candy using Google Maps, asking at the Front Desk, or asking the Concierge to tell the cab driver to take you to the closest one.

Standalone convenience stores on the Strip will have mini candy aisles that sell the candies you mentioned, except for seasonal ones like Peeps.

Finally I recommend the food court at Fashion Show Mall (more Flash). It is more like a regular mall than the other shopping centers on the strip, and its food court is chock-full of American fast-food chains. Looking for a link to it, I found this picture of candy apples sold at the mall (lower left). Are they American?

I hope you enjoy your trip. One thing is for sure: whatever your budget, you won't go hungry.
posted by vincele at 2:10 AM on August 29, 2009

(Sorry. Your question made it sound like you'd only thought of food so far but wanted to hear other things. I do apologize for my non-food suggestions.)
posted by Netzapper at 2:13 AM on August 29, 2009

I meant to link to this recent NYTimes article. San Francisco may just be the best place in the Northern Hemisphere for Peruvian food right now.

Also, on non-preview, strongly disagree with Mutant. You're going to San Francisco which is a big world culinary capital. Some food will just taste different - mostly better, sometimes worse - than the same food in the UK.

In Las Vegas, all the excess people associate with Americans will be on display. Go to a buffet there (there are many and widely advertised) and you'll see what I mean. You can also try a Tex-Mex place there and gape at the portions. If you dont make it to one, there's also places like Chevy's in San Francisco.
posted by vacapinta at 2:16 AM on August 29, 2009

Oh, and peeps.

This isn't widely known but the secret to eating Peeps is not to eat them straight from the box. You have to dry-age them. Then they develop a nice crust and are much more edible:

Recipe: Open package of peeps. Leave peeps on counter for at least 2-3 days. They should develop a crusty, leathery texture. One friend of mine would leave them out for a week. When ready, consume.
posted by vacapinta at 2:32 AM on August 29, 2009 [1 favorite]

Bring be back a load of cinnamon- and wintergreen-flavoured stuff, will you? These seem to be two confectionery trends we just don't have in the UK.
posted by le morte de bea arthur at 2:35 AM on August 29, 2009

Peeps - they are definitely an Easter food, but don't forget that there are Halloween Peeps in ghosty and pumpkiny shapes.
posted by whatzit at 2:40 AM on August 29, 2009

Ditto what Mutant says about Mexican food (arrgh, I miss it so much).
What Kadin2048 says about regional.
US pancakes / hotcakes are generally different than pancakes here, so may be fun to try for breakfast (though I prefer the latter by far).
posted by spandex at 2:47 AM on August 29, 2009

Response by poster: For those who have questioned, food and non-food suggestions are welcome. We have our trip mainly planned out, but some suggestions here are being added to our schedule.

The suggestions on where to eat out are really good!

On the aspect of not Googling: I was looking for personal experience with this. I think, from all of the above, that I will not try Peeps even if I can find them; I may bring some home to get my own back on some work colleagues after they got me to try some Hershey's chocolate once. Blagh!
posted by Nufkin at 2:51 AM on August 29, 2009

Go to a Trader Joes, they're like a health food shop/supermarket mix. Good food, very cheap wine. Lots of random things we never get in the UK. I stood in the middle of one trying to work out why we don't have Trader Joes in the UK yet, and whether I could make my fortune by bringing them to Britain.

If you like avocados, eat them, there is nothing like eating avocados in the region where they are grown. Not the tasteless imported ones we have here.

Also as everyone else has said, burritos in San Francisco and also try the sushi, much better than what we get over here.
posted by Helga-woo at 2:51 AM on August 29, 2009

Best answer: From a similar "never been to the US but read about it in books" perspective, I'd want to at least try just out of curiosity: grits, "biscuit", Hershey bars, bologna, proper bagels, mint juleps, red velvet cupcakes, oreos, jerky, clam chowder, missisippi mud pie, tootsie rolls, Reeses cups, koolaid, mountain dew, grape jelly, different kinds of pretzels, bubble tea, street food everywhere, soda fountains, diners, stuff you get to eat at a ball game, at a drive in, etc...
posted by runincircles at 2:54 AM on August 29, 2009 [4 favorites]

Best answer: Oh, and all those people saying skip the peeps and twinkies because they are crap food - ignore those people - they have no idea what it's like growing up immersed in SATs, proms, homerooms, fraternities, corndogs, peeps, fortune cookies, twinkies and hall passes but having no way to touch those things. American is real, it exists, and it's not some made up place on the TV!
posted by Helga-woo at 2:58 AM on August 29, 2009 [5 favorites]

I don't exactly think PBR when I hear San Fransisco.

Try Anchor Steam Beer or Prohibition Ale. Or hell, any one of thousands of craft brews from that region of the US.
posted by furiousxgeorge at 3:18 AM on August 29, 2009 [3 favorites]

You must try buffalo wings at least once while in the US. You have not had them in the UK, no matter what the restaurant may have called them. Not all wings are created equal but you will find some decent ones at any Hooters.

Also, people in the UK always like it when I bring back Jolly Ranchers, Cinnamon Tic Tacs or Cinnamon gum and Butterfinger candy bars. Also, make sure you try Mountain Dew if you like soda. Yum.
posted by triggerfinger at 3:56 AM on August 29, 2009

When my son made friends on vacation with a British boy, his new friend completely fell in love with....


Never had it before.
posted by dzaz at 4:26 AM on August 29, 2009 [2 favorites]

Peeps are available all year round now. The traditional peeps are the yellow, chick shaped ones. However, they've expanded the collection to have Easter rabbits in insane psychedelic colors and black cats, orange pumpkins and ghosts for Halloween There are peeps for Valentines Day and peeps for Christmas. At Christmas, we like to get the peppermint flavored star peeps to float on top of a cup of hot chocolate.

The trick to finding peeps all year is to go to a drug store; not a supermarket. The supermarkets typically carry just the Easter ones. So, in San Francisco, for example, you'll want to look for a Walgreens or a Rite Aid. Generally, the drug stores have a larger candy selection than the supermarket.

Oh, all the peeps taste the same except for the peppermint ones available at Christmas.

Have a great trip!
posted by onhazier at 4:59 AM on August 29, 2009

As a meta-suggestion, check out Yelp for customer-written reviews of food in both places; you'll find far more off-the-beaten-path-for-tourists/local-knowledge places there.

SF link here, Las Vegas link here. Scroll down each page to see the best in each category. You may find some categories that you've never tried before, especially Asian food: Filipino, Burmese, and Cambodian are all well represented in San Francisco.

Mexican food is also incredibly regional - try to find at least one place (I have a feeling you'll be eating Mexican more than once!) that specializes in cuisine from one of Mexico's 33 states. Check out this bakery/restaurant specializing in the food of Oaxaca.

Other cool things to see that your corner of Britain may not have in spades:

The Pacific Ocean

North of San Francisco, heading along Highway 1, you'll see some incredibly coastal scenery and great views of the ocean; if you live in a part of the UK where the ocean is less, uh, dramatic, be sure to check it out. All beaches in California are public up to the high-tide line, and many north of SF are part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area.

A bit further up the road is the Sonoma Coast State Park, which is probably a bit less crowded. If it's hot inland, expect it to be foggy and cool (often well under 20°C/70°F), but milder temperatures inland can mean stunningly clear views out to sea and along the coast. Local weather forecasts are usually really detailed given the area's microclimates.

There's also a redwood forest in Muir Woods, part of the GGNRA. Home to some of the tallest trees you will probably ever see!

And within the city itself, check out the hang gliders at Fort Funston, way in the southwest corner of SF.

A small aside: the geology and incredible topography you enjoy, and the history of San Francisco, are amazingly laid out in Simon Winchester's
A Crack in the Edge of the World.

The Canyons of the Southwest

About an hour or so outside Las Vegas, check out Valley of Fire State Park. You'll need a car for the day. It's Mars, pretty much, and if you don't have the time, money, or energy to get to get to the Grand Canyon - which is 5 hours each way from Las Vegas! - this could fulfill your awesome-rock-formations-in-the-Southwest requirement.

It will be BLINDINGLY hot, hotter than anywhere in Europe, perhaps 48°C/120°F if you're going during the hottest part of the day any time in the next month or so. Later in the fall it will be only VERY hot. Sunset, I'd say, would be best, and the light would be AMAZING judging by the photos in the Flickr pool. Bring a LOT of water; one 500-ml/16-oz bottle is NOT enough. Gallon jugs of normal drinking water cost very little in most supermarkets, well under $1 a piece. Air conditioning and shade are your friends, too - bring hats and stay well-protected from the sun.

If you can get out to Zion NP, GO - it's about 150 miles from Las Vegas - a three hour drive one way; you'd want to stay overnight, perhaps. Map.

Finally (I promise!), Sunset Magazine's Travel section has a lot of focus on both destinations: here's their Zion page; here are 20 daytrips from SF and a guide to Las Vegas beyond the Strip.

Have an awesome trip!
posted by mdonley at 5:15 AM on August 29, 2009 [2 favorites]

I can't believe nobody has said ranch dressing. (Tip: Make sure it's "homemade" and not from a bottle. "Homemade" will still be from a mix, but it's WAY better.)
posted by Stewriffic at 5:17 AM on August 29, 2009 [1 favorite]

"I'm American, I live in London, but rarely go back. There really only seems to be two food groups that you can't get here - pizza and Mexican."

Eh, London had tons of those Pizza Express restaurants last autumn when I was there. (We ate at one, and the food was reasonably tasty.) Mexican, though... I think I might have actually seen one Mexican restaurant. Maybe. Possibly.

Anyone recommending you try PBR or Budweiser is smoking crack, or so says my beer snob spouse. furiousxgeorge has a better selection. Craft beers are a big deal on the West Coast these days, and you should try them, at least when you are in SF. Vegas, I don't know. But in San Francisco you should find many good beers.
posted by litlnemo at 5:17 AM on August 29, 2009 [1 favorite]


and go to a supermarket for a deli sandwich
posted by mefiskiing at 5:38 AM on August 29, 2009

I don't know if they have these where you're visiting, but you should try seasoned fries. They're like a cross between chips and potato wedges. Delicious. I'd also say you should go to a diner at least once; they have the most quintessentially American food, in my opinion.
posted by bibliophibianj at 5:50 AM on August 29, 2009

Yes, Brits live off pizza of one form or another -- including Italian-style (not Italian-American style) pizza which is perfectly good. I haven't been to Italy but plenty of people I know who have -- and even Italians -- are happy with the pizza situation in the UK.

The thing you have to realise is Americans don't claim to have invented pizza, but they think they have perfected it. (I think I'm stealing a line from a recent magazine article that caused some fuss on Chowhound, a site which incidentally has a forum for SF that will help you find the best actual places to visit.)

But even then, amongst American pizza nerds, you must go to either NYC, or even New Haven, Connecticut to eat what they consider real pizza. Some will tell you about Chicago style and if you could go to Chicago I'd strongly recommend trying it, but otherwise, probably not.

Go to a bar or restaurant for a burger. At least here in Boston, almost every hip bar does a burger that is miles better than what passes for a burger in the UK. You will need to know where you want it on the scale of steak-ordering "doneness". In fact Americans have invented a step called "medium well" to sit between medium and well done. In practice this means if you want it pink in the middle, around here I say "medium".

Again you may be on the wrong coast but Italian-American food (i.e., Italian) is well worth it. American food snobs will look down on what they call "red sauce" restaurants (places which serve mainly pasta dishes covered in tomato sauce and cheese) but for us this is real exotica, where you can have that stereotypical mountain of spaghetti and meatballs if you want it.

Great Italian-American sandwiches that you can find at old-school delis and corner pizza joints, at least if they have them out west: an "Italian" (soft bread "submarine" roll filled with cold cuts of processed ham, bologna, salami, etc. -- with pickled peppers and drizzled with olive oil, salt and pepper. Also an eggplant or chicken parmigiana sub -- breaded and fried/baked aubergine slices / chicken breast again in a soft roll, topped with pizza/marinara sauce and Italian cheese like provolone, if possible thrown into the pizza oven for a couple of minutes. Amazing when done right, though awful when (like so many UK takeaways do) they get something out of the freezer and throw it in a deep fat fryer. To minimise the risk of that, look for old-school delis where they've been making things the same way for decades.
posted by galaksit at 5:51 AM on August 29, 2009

It takes 30 seconds to eat a Peep. Better to regret what you have done than what you haven't. They come 3-4 to a package, eat two fresh and let two get stale, because they do improve with age.

And, really, it's not just the Peep but the drugstore you'll buy it from; they're as interesting as supermarkets. And it's nearly September, which means the Halloween aisle will be going up soon, which is an experience all its own (and just about any candy you might want will be there for the acquisition).

I have no idea if you can get a decent chicken fried steak along your planned route, but it's something to keep an eye out for.
posted by Lyn Never at 5:53 AM on August 29, 2009

In Las Vegas: The Last Great Hamburger Stand- Fatburger
Anywhere: a big, icy cold Coke. Or any soft drink with lots of ice.
Nthing sourdough bread in SF and buffalo wings (with blue cheese & celery and a cold beer.)
posted by Ochre,Hugh at 5:56 AM on August 29, 2009

I'm an American, and I live in Europe.

Things that are good to great in San Francisco have been mentioned above, but I just skimmed through. Mexican and Tex-Mex (to a lesser extent) are way better than you can ever get in London. While Chinese food in London is pretty good, Chinese food is really great in SF, arguably the best you can get outside of Asia (though NY is about even) - though of course you'd have to order takeout (takeaway) to get the paper carton experience. Also: Vietnamese, Thai, and (though there are clunkers) Japanese are all mostly better and/or cheaper in SF than London. (Though do remember that you have to add on sales tax and tip to your bill in the States.)

I'm not personally a big fan of San Franciso sourdough but it's something everyone has to try at least once. Also the Dungeness crab and all those touristy-seafood things you will find at Fisherman's Wharf.

Going to a regular supermarket in any country is a lot of fun, and the U.S. is no exception. Whole Foods is not a regular supermarket and does not really give you the full on cultural experience. It's basically like Waitrose but less fun and even more expensive. Safeway is fine. Twinkies and their cousins can be found there and more. (Twinkies are truly gross imo, but you need to try for yourself probably.)

Snack foods in general in America are mind-bogglingly varied and tasty, especially potato chips (crisps to you).

One very American experience is the humongous cup of soda with ice you get at fast food places and the like, or the bottomless (free refills) glass of ice tea/soft drink you get at most casual restaurants. And of course the huge, huge portions.

Now, Las Vegas: With just a week to spare I assume you're going to be spending it mostly on the Strip. An all-you-can-eat buffet is where you are going to have the most fun people-watching and grazing on mediocre food that caters to Middle America tastes. You should also experience a breakfast buffet, where you're most likely to encounter stuff like grits. The point really is not the food, but the whole experience. It's so very American, and I mean that in the most affectionate way. Also don't miss the cocktail lounges. Any Vegas guide you'll find online can give you pointers as to where to go.
posted by thread_makimaki at 6:04 AM on August 29, 2009

mefiskiing means Goldfish crackers, not live goldfish. I hope.
posted by runningwithscissors at 6:05 AM on August 29, 2009

I'm not sure why there's so much hate on the Peeps. They are popular enough that the company went from making them a seasonal treat to being produced all year round. They've become somewhat of a quintessential American Easter treat. They are good, so if you were going to take them home to "Get back" at coworkers and friends, they'll likely thank you for the effort.

Eat a peep. Unless you have an aversion to super sugar sweetness, you'll like 'em. Same goes for a twinkie, they're tasty, too.

I join the others in suggesting some good soul food, as that's one of the only ways to get Southern food outside of the South. If you order grits, for goodness sakes, don't put cheese on them. If you like, add a little salt or pepper, or even some butter, but no cheese.

In terms of BBQ, as people have noted, it's regional. Generally, where you're going isn't considered prime geography for BBQ. You may be able to find a decent restaurant, though, by someone from one of those regions. If you do find your way to a BBQ restaurant, order a sampler, so you can try brisket, ribs, and pulled pork, etc.

I'd recommend going to a supermarket (not Whole Foods), and grabbing random things off the shelves to sample. Make a rule not to eat at any fast food restaurant that you can find back home, it'll open up other options.
posted by Atreides at 6:39 AM on August 29, 2009

When tv fans from foreign countries stay with me they often ask to eat out of the white Chinese containers. I have never done this before and always thought it was weird when I saw it on TV. Anyway, most Chinese places near me have switched to wide plastic containers for most of the food and only use the white paper containers for rice. You might want to ask for all of your food in the white containers. Beware of staples! Sometimes they staple the top of the paper container and they fall into the food.

There's plenty of weird junk food here so I suggest wandering a grocery store. Whole Foods and Trader Joe's are great but do not represent the typical America you've seen on TV and won't have, for instance, corn dogs wrapped in chocolate chip pancakes in the frozen section. Sure, its crap food but maybe you'd want to try it.

Super chunky peanut butter.

Big Gulp drinks from 7-11 which are just massive fountain drinks like 32 ounces. You could try for old fashioned soda fountain type drinks at a retro diner (malted, root beer float, green river) even though they aren't so common these days.


Triscuits and spray cheese.

I was never a Twinkie fan but love me a good ho-ho, which is in the same family.

When I come back to the US from England the airline people always laugh at me when they check my bags because I fill them full of Picnic bars and my bags smell like chocolate. You will find hershey chocolate much more chalky than the Cadberry's you're used to. Other candy: hershey kisses, twizzlers (use one as a straw in pop), nerds, pop rocks, smartees... I would suggest those candy hearts from Valentines day but those, like peeps, are hard to find out of season.
posted by Bunglegirl at 6:42 AM on August 29, 2009

Best answer: What about grape soda? Yum. Please beware that you will gain some weight on this trip if you take our advice.
posted by Bunglegirl at 6:45 AM on August 29, 2009 [1 favorite]

I just had my first trip to the states and I will say, with much gusto - In and Out Burger. Animal style. Hunt that shit out and gobble it down. Order animal style with well done fries. I'm not a big fast food eater but I have craved that shit periodically since getting back.
posted by AzzaMcKazza at 7:09 AM on August 29, 2009

After you have had the first unadorned Peep, I recommend the following: Get a nice big steaming bowl of chocolate and cast a few onto the firey lake of chocolate. Enjoy the show.

You also might find it funny to see some Americanized English food like English muffins or visit a pretend English pub like The King's Head in Santa Monica. It's pretty comic tragic if you know the real deal.

Good luck finding decent tea in a regular American restaurant.
posted by effluvia at 7:21 AM on August 29, 2009

Best answer: Re: ice cream stands, go to Bi-Rite in San Francisco. This is serious ice cream. Preferably enjoyed after a burrito at El Farolito in the Mission, as previously mentioned.
posted by avianism at 7:28 AM on August 29, 2009 [1 favorite]

Don't let the haters turn you away from your dream. Try the Peeps.
posted by notyou at 7:38 AM on August 29, 2009 [2 favorites]

People seem to be missing the point - the OP asked for things you can't get in the UK, not things that are just good in the States. Skip the the pizza unless you can get to New York or Chicago and the dim sum. We already have pizza, sourdough, Chinese, Nerds, Lucky Charms, Pop Rocks and cinnamon gum. Avocados aren't that different but it is worth trying Tex-Mex in the States.

My list would include:

Kraft Mac n Cheese (sooo cheeeesy in an American cheese = plastic way)
Swedish Fish
Girl Scout Cookies
Reese's Pieces
Cholula hot sauce
Tootsie Rolls
posted by turkeyphant at 8:00 AM on August 29, 2009 [1 favorite]

Best answer: there are two places i have always promised myself i will visit when i get to san fancisco, city lights bookstore and ghirardelli square. if you'll be in SF sept. 12-13, you can attend ghirardelli square's annual chocolate festival. hooray for engorging yourself with velvety confections!
posted by ashabanapal at 8:09 AM on August 29, 2009

If you have some time and a car while you are in Las Vegas, do try to get out to see the Hoover Dam. It's a dramatically large structure.

How are you getting from Las Vegas to San Francisco? If you are driving, the usual route is Interstate 15 -> California 58 -> Interstate 5, which seems like a very indirect route, but is necessary to get around the Sierra Nevada mountains. That way takes you through the Tehachapi Pass, and past the Mojave National Preserve and the southern edge of Death Valley. It's very impressive scenery for most of the way.

San Francisco is the closest large city to the winemaking regions of Napa Valley, Sonoma Valley, and Anderson Valley. The quality ranges from inexpensive, decent table wine right up to gourmet connoisseur stuff. Several wineries produce world class méthode champenoise along Highway 128 in Anderson Valley, especially Scharffenberger, Schramsberg, and Roederer. You can buy very good local wines in the grocery stores and liquor stores in SF. But if you can travel north to wine country, the scenery is lovely, and a lot of the wineries conduct tours and wine tastings. It is a 1-2 hour drive to the Napa Valley, and several companies conduct tours by bus, limo, or train. Be really careful to not drink and drive - the penalties can be pretty severe.

Try Budweiser and Pabst Blue Ribbon because everyone makes a fuss about them, but, really, they are not very good beer. Try some of the local microbreweries, instead.

If you are at all interested, the flagship store of Fry's Electronics in Silicon Valley is home electronics retailing at its most excessive.

Also, I second the recommendations for:
- visit a Las Vegas gun store for the sheer weirdness
- the food buffets at the large Las Vegas casinos. (Caesar's Palace is the one I'm most familiar with. How do they get fresh salmon in the middle of the desert?)
- Trader Joes is a chain of inexpensive, cheerful gourmet food stores with a good selection of wine and microbrew.
- Whole Foods Market is a chain of expensive snooty gourmet food stores, but I always learn something there. The selection of fresh vegetables is outstanding. And they are very good about carrying local cheeses. Try the Humboldt Fog Cheese.

If you have some time to do some reading before you go, the San Francisco Chronicle is (arguably!) a good local paper, and a lot of the cultural identity of San Francisco was defined by the newspaper columns written by the late Herb Caen.

Be careful about the weather. Las Vegas is usually desert hot and dry. Most buildings run the air conditioning full blast all the time. (The "too hot outside/too cold inside" dynamic can make people sick if they are not used to it.) San Francisco can be chilly and damp, even in the summer. A lot of people travel there expecting "sunny California" and find that it's cooler than they expected. So they end up buying an overpriced sweat shirt with a picture of a cable car embossed on the front. Do not be these people!

Have a great time - LV and SF are both amazing cities, and I'm sure you will see a lot.
posted by Multicellular Exothermic at 8:17 AM on August 29, 2009

Someone upthread mentioned clam chowder. New England clam chowder is absolutely fucking delicious. I hadn't mentioned it because you're not gonna be in New England, but maybe you could find a can in a store somewhere. Oh yeah and don't confuse it with Manhattan Clam Chowder.
posted by creasy boy at 8:18 AM on August 29, 2009 [2 favorites]

If I go to the US at some point, I'm heading straight for wherever I find the good beer. You can obviously get excellent beer in Britain, but I'd love to discover how proper US beer compares. And also I'd love to empirically prove to myself that not all American beer is shite like Miller/Budweiser etc.
posted by knapah at 8:21 AM on August 29, 2009

- Buffalo stew at Tommy's Joynt
- Tu Lan is a scruffy Vietnamese restaurant in a scruffy SF neighborhood, but the food is great. Julia Child raved about it.
- The Red Flannel Hash at Rick and Anne's in Berkeley is great.
posted by Multicellular Exothermic at 8:35 AM on August 29, 2009

For a sense of the grand sweep of American food product, just go to a regular supermarket -- a Safeway in SF will do you fine. To eat things you won't get back home, you want Mexican in the Mission, Chinese in Chinatown, In and Out, a gargantuan deli sandwich from somewhere. (Vegas is good at a certain Americana gone crazy; SF is its own kind of place.)

If you're wanting to eat "American culture as it permeates Britain", then the Vegas buffet is a start, and there are a couple of chrome-and-laminate diners there too.
posted by holgate at 8:36 AM on August 29, 2009

I'm American but live on the East Coast and when I went over to the West Coast to SF, even I was amazed by:

Muir Woods--You must must must see the redwoods!

Trader Joe's--We don't have them here and it nearly makes me cry. Fresh produce, decent prices.

In and Out Burgers--surprisingly good for a hamburger joint.

See's Chocolates--UK chocolates are, in general, much better than the waxy stuff you get here, but See's are pretty awesome. Try them and compare to what you are used to.


As far as pizza goes, doesn't matter what kind you get, but you have to order it DELIVERED to your place. Seriously.


in NY, go to Times Square. Just hang out there; something is always happening. Go to the half-price ticket booth. Yes, I know you have great plays and shows in the UK. But if you are enthusiastic and obviously a tourist, you will frequently be able to free tickets to sit in the audience for a TV show taping--I tried to get Letterman tickets online and couldn't but hung out at the half-price ticket booth in Times Square and was approached TWICE to be in the audience in one week in NY. (We also sat in the audience for the Carson Daly show, which sucked rocks).

Take a ferry to see the Statue of Liberty. It's really the best way to view it.


Hot dog from a hot dog stand. You have to go back home and said you did this. It's like having Cut Me Own Throat Dibbler's Sausage onna Stick in the Discworld.

Tootsie rolls are not really chocolate, they're more...well, get some tootsie rolls. Any candy counter in a grocery store should have them. They're indescribably yet surprisingly appealing.

Peeps are awful. They're bright and cheerful looking and people buy them at Easter time because that's the only time they're sold and so they feel like they should be in Easter baskets, along with jelly beans. Basically they are marshmallow fluff with huge amounts of high fructose corn syrup and garishly bright food coloring. You can take a pass at Peeps without missing anything, I swear.

Also, Twinkies are the worst. They're nothing like cakes, and the creme in them is nothing like cream. I've had, maybe, one in my life.
posted by misha at 8:41 AM on August 29, 2009

Holy crap, I have no idea how I got NY out of Las Vegas. Scratch the NY suggestions, sheesh!
posted by misha at 8:42 AM on August 29, 2009

Oh, and the worst food I ever had in SF was a fish taco. Ugh, ugh, ugh. But apparently some places are known for them, as was the place I went to. And yet it was completely disgusting. You've been warned.
posted by misha at 8:43 AM on August 29, 2009

litlnemo: ""

Anyone recommending you try PBR or Budweiser is smoking crack, or so says my beer snob spouse. furiousxgeorge has a better selection. Craft beers are a big deal on the West Coast these days, and you should try them, at least when you are in SF. Vegas, I don't know. But in San Francisco you should find many good beers.

PBR is classic Americana. Yea it's not the best, there are better and you will probably vomit after you down a 30 pack of it. That said I have a few in my fridge for when I am feeling exceptionally frisky.

I recommend that all beers are given a try. Perhaps a world tour ala Old Chicago. One night drink tasty micro brews, next night cheap factory swill like PBR, Coors, Bud, Hi life, etc... The last night go straight nasty and partake in Old English with shots of MD 20/20 Banana Red.

Soak all this up with some tacos or burritos and you will be living the quintessential American dream, at least the way some folks in Denver do it. Which has the best Mexican food in the country, btw.
posted by Gravitus at 9:13 AM on August 29, 2009

On the non-food front, because the food part has been well covered already, while you're in Las Vegas go shoot a gun. From what I understand most people in the UK don't have the ability to do this, and you can pretend to be an American cowboy for an hour. I always overhear guys from the UK who have a great time going to one of the many gun ranges just off the strip. Go try it once for the experience!
posted by falconred at 9:58 AM on August 29, 2009

As far as pizza goes, doesn't matter what kind you get, but you have to order it DELIVERED to your place. Seriously.

Is this supposed to be quintessentially American? We do have pizza delivery here you know.
posted by knapah at 10:21 AM on August 29, 2009

That sounded grumpier than I meant it to, sorry.
posted by knapah at 10:25 AM on August 29, 2009

Best answer: American ice cream often surprises European visitors; it's usually quite good. (I'm talking about real ice cream, scooped out of a huge container in a freezer case and packed into a cone, not the pre-wrapped snacks sold individually.) Of course you have ice cream in the UK but you should give our rich, creamy version a try. (Parenthetically I should note that some of the best US food is a result of our miserably hot and humid summers - ice cream, lemonade, barbecue, iced tea, grilled hamburgers, etc are all outdoor summertime concoctions that suit a sweltering climate. So you're coming at the right time of year to try these foods in their "native element".)

In San Francisco the best local brand is Mitchell's. I mean local like "made in the back of the store" local. (The store is actually the ground floor of a small apartment building, oddly enough.) Although it's usually cool and often foggy here, we have some of the best ice cream in the USA thanks to this mom-and-pop operation. It can be a little hard to find, although it is sold at various restaurants around town. There will be a sign in the window advertising it - keep your eyes open.
posted by Quietgal at 10:28 AM on August 29, 2009 [1 favorite]

If you're going to be in Las Vegas, it would be a shame not to go see the Grand Canyon only a few hours away.

To reiterate: You should go see the desert while you're in the States. There are a number of options for this. In Vegas it is easy to drive out 30-60 minutes and be in desert, so even if you have a tight schedule you should still be able to at least take a gander. Try Red Rocks park, just on the outskirts of Vegas.

Along the same lines, go see the redwoods (outside SF) if you can. Otherwordly.

A lot of the weird foods you're interested in will be sold in gas station convenience stores - Twinkies and similar packaged cupcake/eclair products; unfamiliar candy; pork rinds, slim jims (a brand name of beef jerky), etc.

Do you have root beer? This is not beer, it's a soda, non-alcoholic, but tasty. Try a fancy kind like Virgil's, the characteristic flavor is stronger.

If you go to a baseball game in SF you'll have plenty of chance to enjoy cheapo American beer in its best light. Ditto hot dogs, corn dogs, cracker jacks, shell peanuts, cotton candy, etc.
posted by LobsterMitten at 10:40 AM on August 29, 2009

Also if you go for diner food: you need to ask for real maple syrup. The more common cheap syrup is just corn syrup with coloring, you don't want this. A fancier place will have the option for real maple syrup and that's what you want.
posted by LobsterMitten at 10:43 AM on August 29, 2009

Best answer: I visited London very briefly and it seemed the only donuts available were hideously-expensive kripsy kremes. Blergh. Maybe you have real donut shops hidden somewhere there, but if not you must experience the joys of a little non-chain hole-in-the-wall donut shop of deliciousness.

Here is a listing of donut shops for San Francisco.
posted by Solon and Thanks at 10:47 AM on August 29, 2009

Red Rock canyon park just outside Vegas.
posted by LobsterMitten at 10:49 AM on August 29, 2009

Oh! And I meant to add, a root-beer float is absolutely necessary. Vanilla ice cream. Get one at a diner.
posted by Solon and Thanks at 10:49 AM on August 29, 2009

Only read the first half of the comments, but -- the US in my opinion has the best pastries and baked goods on earth. In the Bay Area: Tartine on 18th & Guerrero; Cheese Board in Berkeley at Shattuck and Vine; Nabalom Bakery in Berkeley at Russell and College.
posted by ClaudiaCenter at 11:18 AM on August 29, 2009

Note on Root-beer, I've heard that it tastes like a quintessential childhood medicine. I know Brits who can't stand it. But it might be fun to find out!
posted by Gor-ella at 11:19 AM on August 29, 2009

One small thing I always miss about the U.S. when I travel in Europe is the free tap water at restaurants. You can get it alongside your big, big Coke if you want. But no one will look at you for being cheap when you ask for "just water" in the U.S., and you won't have to lie and say that you need it to take your medicine.
posted by joan cusack the second at 11:35 AM on August 29, 2009

By all means when in Las Vegas have an American breakfast at the famous Tropical Breeze Café in the Flamingo hotel. Their "egg men" are renowned.
posted by ericb at 11:45 AM on August 29, 2009

The Palms in Las Vegas has a Garduño's. Aside from the occasional use of cilantro (no doubt included as a sop to the Angelinos), Garduño's is straight-up honest-to-god New Mexican food, which (unlike Tex-Mex) is uncommon in Las Vegas, impossible to find in San Francisco, and likely unheard-of in the UK.

This is the best time of year for New Mexican food 'cause the chile harvest is coming in. If this is your first time I suggest building a combo plate, just be sure to include green chile chicken enchiladas (also a great choice for a standalone entree) and a cup of caldillo or posole. The honey on the table is for the sopapillas -- make sure your order includes them (they come with most entrees I think).

Hoover Dam is spectacular, and if you like Major Feats of Engineering the tours that take you inside the dam itself are well worth the time. Cross the dam on foot at a minimum though. They also just finished the arch on the new bypass bridge, which is probably pretty impressive in person.

If you do go to a baseball game (recommended) see the Giants in San Francisco rather than the A's in Oakland. AT&T Park is much, much nicer, and the atmosphere of the facility is particularly important if you've never been to a game. (If you can't follow what's happening on the field very well, it's nice to be somewhere that's kind of interesting for its own sake.) Given the choice I'll usually see a minor-league game rather than a major-league one, but the Las Vegas 51s' home season is wrapping up this weekend, and the Sacramento and San Jose clubs are a little far to go if you're going to be staying in San Francisco. If you're game for a drive, though, Raley Field in Sacramento is pretty nice too.
posted by Lazlo at 11:49 AM on August 29, 2009

Regarding buffets in Las Vegas, head over to the Wynn for their buffet. You can also experience a New York style deli at Zoozacrackers also at the Wynn.
posted by ericb at 11:49 AM on August 29, 2009

Also when in Vegas head out and take a factory tour at Ethel M Chocolates -- and, don't miss their Botanical Cactus Garden ("Nevada's largest and one of the world's largest collections of its kind.")
posted by ericb at 11:53 AM on August 29, 2009

The suggestions to try Whole Foods or Trader Joes are totally off track - an ordinary Tescos in London is twice as good as our top-tier supermarkets. Every time I visit the UK I'm jealous of the good quality, organic, vegetarian, and just plain tasty food you can find in the most ordinary supermarkets and chain stores there. It's like how their pubs serve real lagers, and here you have to go to some specialty bar to find something good, and it's often only half as good anyway...

So foodwise I'd guess you'll only want the experience of trying our nuclear war proof or psychedelically colored "foodstuffs", though perhaps the thing about Mexican is true (my english aunt makes great mexican so I never noticed... avocados are cheaper there)

My advice in terms of what to see is mostly about landscape. What's worth seeing is the great plains, the black hills, the grand canyon, the redwoods, the open skies and the wild horses. America is a fantastic series of landscapes, many quite different from what you have in england, and often less crowded or manicured than europe in general, so you can see that free, wild side of nature more palpably. Get to a national park if you can (there's some good day trips near SF).
posted by mdn at 11:54 AM on August 29, 2009

As an American who has lived in Europe: CHEESEBURGERS.

Ask a local which dive bar has the best burgers. Go there. Order a giant cheeseburger (with bacon, if you roll that way) medium rare. Watch it ooze on your fingers. Delicious.

The one thing I haven't seen anyone else mention: fried chicken. Oh man, I love me some fried chicken and I've never seen it in Europe. Even up north, southern style fried chicken isn't too hard to find - the deli at my Stop & Shop has it. I'm not talking KFC. I'm talking REAL fried chicken.

And yes, burritos. Again, even here in Providence, we have some amazing burrito joints due to the Latino population in the city. When I was in Portugal, I got a strong burrito craving, until I remembered how close to Mexico I wasn't.

If you're ever lucky enough to go to Torchy's in Austin, TX, they have a FRIED CHICKEN TACO which is just about the most perfect food ever.

(Yes, it is rather astounding I have not yet died of heart disease.)
posted by grapefruitmoon at 12:22 PM on August 29, 2009 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Almost everything has been covered, except - does the UK have those hideous deep-fried, glazed fruit pies? They are obscene, and yet amazing. I they're made by Hostess, the same company that makes Twinkies.
posted by lunasol at 12:24 PM on August 29, 2009 [2 favorites]

Every time I visit the UK I'm jealous of the good quality, organic, vegetarian, and just plain tasty food you can find in the most ordinary supermarkets and chain stores there.

This is true. But the US supermarket has 47 different types of Wheat Thins that cost about as much per box as a head of cabbage. And that's part of the American food experience, for better or worse.
posted by holgate at 1:52 PM on August 29, 2009

"Oh, and the worst food I ever had in SF was a fish taco. Ugh, ugh, ugh. But apparently some places are known for them, as was the place I went to. And yet it was completely disgusting. You've been warned."

Your mileage may vary. I love those things, but it is true that some places serve ones that aren't very good. I can't suggest a good place in SF for them, though -- I've been to SF but haven't had the fish tacos there, just up here in Seattle. If you want to try them, the place is SF, not Vegas.

Basically it's just either fried fish or grilled fish in a tortilla with cabbage and salsa. If the fish and salsa are good, it's an excellent meal or snack (usually two of them are a meal -- they are pretty small). If either the fish or salsa suck, it can become inedible.

I think -- not sure about this -- that fish tacos are pretty much a West Coast thing. They are probably hard to get even in the rest of the US. But I could be wrong there.
posted by litlnemo at 2:13 PM on August 29, 2009

Hmmm....I would have said that my supermarket experience was better in the US than in the UK. BUT anyway, the thing that I missed while in the UK was Mexican from whatever province or district.

You MUST get Mexican food while in the US and if you can find a good BBQ joint that is the way to go too. A German friend who did her graduate degree in California lamented that she could not get Mexican in whatever European locale she was residing at that moment; had to ship her chiles one time because she was jonesing BAD for some chili colorado sauce.

Fried chicken. Oh yeah, get fried chicken but only from people who know what the hell they are doing. Also chili, lord, a good bowl of red is not to be dismissed.

Las Vegas, especially the strip, is American caricatures and stereotypes done large and fluorescent. Americans eat too much? The all you can eat buffets are HUGE and almost numbing in their variety and capacity. Any deadly sin can be satisfied in an over the type manner in Las Vegas. Sloth? Pride? Gluttony? Lust? Oh yeah, Vegas has you covered.

All the folks upthread have you covered on specific locations, but really stop by a COSTCO too for that full big box feel, if you can. Whole Foods and Trader Joe's are not standard throughout the US so do go to a chain grocery store like Safeway in the Bay Area or Vegas.

If you could, I would have suggested a state fair in the midwest for a fun feel for the country and all the regional foods like Minnesota's walleye on a stick (I'm a pork chop woman myself)

Asian is WAY better in San Francisco and the surrounding Bay Area though London is great for Indian food, I found London was WEAK when it came to Vietnamese and Chinese.

Have fun, you will gain weight.
posted by jadepearl at 2:15 PM on August 29, 2009

Someone mentioned bubble tea -- that's not quintessentially American, so much, but I imagine it might be hard to find in the UK. If so, that's interesting stuff to try. It's flavored "tea" (sweet, not really like real tea at all -- often in flavors like strawberry or honeydew melon, without any noticeable presence of actual tea), often milky, and served with big chewy tapioca pearls. And a giant straw, so the tapioca pearls will go through. This is something that came from Asia, so you should find it in San Francisco (and in the other big West Coast cities). I like it, but it is very sweet, so once again, your mileage may vary.
posted by litlnemo at 2:17 PM on August 29, 2009

Find a place to rent and drive an old (60's, 70's) muscle car. Be happy to loan you mine if I had a transmission pan on it...

Stand around and complain about smog.

Eat some real Mexican food. Try a local indie place. (mefimail me if you want recommendations on a few places when you're in Vegas - assuming you have a rental car.)

Drive out to a desert, up a hill (or mountain), and realize just how freakin' big it is here, and how much of it has no people. If you rent a Jeep while in Vegas I can give you some good places to go.

Be afraid to see breasts. Read the bible and preach a lot.

Eat fish'n chips that don't suck. :)
posted by krisak at 2:53 PM on August 29, 2009

Someone upthread mentioned clam chowder. New England clam chowder is absolutely fucking delicious. I hadn't mentioned it because you're not gonna be in New England, but maybe you could find a can in a store somewhere. Oh yeah and don't confuse it with Manhattan Clam Chowder.

If this interests you, you can go to Fisherman's Warf in San Francisco and get some clam chowder in a bread bowl. A delicious tourist experience!
posted by Solon and Thanks at 2:56 PM on August 29, 2009

Best answer: To hell with the twinkies, go for chocodiles, only available on the west coast in the US. An individual twinkie, dipped in chocolate. Vastly superior.

Also, mission burritos are a good choice, but so is In N Out burger (also exclusive to west coast, dammit). You get the doubly American experience of having a (damned fine) cheeseburger served to you with bible quotes on the packaging, and you could overfeed both of you for less than the cost of a single ride on the Underground back home.

And you mentioned your trip is already laid out, but if you want a literally awesome experience, rent a car (convertible, even) and drive up the west coast to San Fran on 101. Talk about unforgettable.

Great, now I want to go back west. thanks.

posted by Busithoth at 4:16 PM on August 29, 2009

Best answer: Eat fish'n chips that don't suck. :)

posted by knapah at 4:18 PM on August 29, 2009

1. You must go to In n Out. Best burgers in the world. Gordon Ramsey tells a story of going there for the first time and then returning an hour later because the Double-Double was so amazing. I have personally driven over two hours just for a burger from there.

2. Go to a gas station/convenience store. Get a Choco Taco. You can thank me later.
posted by nestor_makhno at 6:33 PM on August 29, 2009

Girl Scouts Cookies, if you can find them.
posted by handabear at 7:08 PM on August 29, 2009

Peeps are the same texture and concept as Flumps (can you still get those? I ate tons of them when I was a kid in London). So I promise you that you aren't missing much there.
posted by vickyverky at 7:29 PM on August 29, 2009

Best answer: Eating out for breakfast.

Eating at home, then going out just for pudding, especially if it's ice cream.

Marshmallow fluff. (In a peanut butter sandwich for full effect.)


Maple candy.

Ranch dressing.

Pumpkin pie. It's not quite the season yet, but try and find some anyway because that shit is awesome!

Pops which have been unavailable over here for decades, like Tab or Mountain Dew.

Anything purple, because it will be grape flavoured instead of blackcurrant flavoured like your tastebuds are expecting and will therefore taste CRAZY FOREIGN!

Anything root-beer flavoured; it will taste of TCP and you can discuss this with the locals leading to the inevitable comment of "NHS hospitals smell of root beer? Maybe there's something to this government run medicine after all!"

Make sure to bring back some maple syrup, because the prices they charge for the real stuff over here are ridiculous.

And towards the end of your trip, eat a Hershey Bar. Not because they're any good, (they're not, American chocolate tastes like brown lard) but because they're iconic. And because they'll give you a whole new appreciation for Cadburys on your return.
posted by the latin mouse at 7:59 PM on August 29, 2009

-Twinkies are only good frozen. Trust me.
-there is a really fabulous burger place in the mall attached to Mandalay Bay. Recommended by locals and chowhound alike.
posted by purenitrous at 8:59 PM on August 29, 2009

Twinkies are also good deep-fried.
posted by LobsterMitten at 10:18 PM on August 29, 2009

See a rodeo, something you cannot do at home.
posted by Iron Rat at 10:44 PM on August 29, 2009

PBR is classic Americana. Yea it's not the best, there are better and you will probably vomit after you down a 30 pack of it. That said I have a few in my fridge for when I am feeling exceptionally frisky.

Please do not take this advice. I'm drinking PBR right now. Why? Because it is the cheapest beer in the store, and it shows. It is not classic Americana, it is the same cheap ass lager you can get anywhere in the world.

You are on vacation, skip that crap and enjoy the good stuff. The west coast of the US has some of the best beer on the planet, in abundance. It won't be hard to find, especially in San Fran. The Anchor Steam Beer I recommended above definitely fits the "unique" criteria. It is a style developed for brewing in California's temperatures by using lager yeast at ale temperatures. And it tastes awesome.

You can get an American style macro lager like PBR anywhere on the planet, but American craft breweries don't even distribute across the entire country.

Make stuff like that your focus for SF, and in Vegas just drink and eat whatever you like. It's an international city of vice, you will find whatever you want. Just revel in it.
posted by furiousxgeorge at 4:14 AM on August 30, 2009

American, lived in the UK for 10 years, now Ireland for five. Classic Americana you want to at least try, in no particular order:

- Chinese. The vast honking majority of Chinese food in most regions of the UK is Cantonese. It is vile. You want Szechuan, and yes I totally get that you want it out of a take-away container.

- Microbrew - Or at least a beer that started out as a microbrew. Anchorsteam is excellent. Sierra Nevada is excellent.

- American softdrinks - You can get some of these in some regions of the UK but not universally: A&W Root Beer, Tab, Dr Pepper.

- Ice cream parlour - Seriously, go. Try something - a sundae, a root beer float, whatever. It's an experience.

- Kosher food - Or if not kosher, Jewish food. Because while this is best done on a trip to New York, there are only two places to get matzoh ball soup in the UK and I'm pretty sure SF must have a deli of repute. You will like matzoh ball soup because it is impossible not to like. Also have a pickle; they are cured differently and have a different texture than the jarred ones in the UK.

- Hotdogs - Not the same. Not at all the same.

- Southern Cuisine - May God strike me down, but there is nothing on the planet better than Southern Fried Steak with biscuits smothered in whatever the hell that gravy is. You must, must, must find a chain in Vegas (Waffle House?) that does this.

- Junk food - I'm really rusty on this and some of this is probably out of date. Also, the chocolate is different and may not appeal but if you like Cadbury's you'll be fine: Hershey bar, Nutter Butters (biscuits), Reeses Peanut Butter Cups, Mike & Ike.
posted by DarlingBri at 5:11 AM on August 30, 2009 [1 favorite]

As for Southern delicacies like grits, okra and fried chicken, there's a place in SF called Farmerbrowns you might try. Haven't been there myself, but since you're not actually visiting the south it might be worth the experience.
posted by shopefowler at 5:12 AM on August 30, 2009

Oh, right. DarlingBri reminds me. When you're in San Francisco go get a Chili Cheese Dog at someplace like this.

They do serve "hot dogs" in the UK but they're made with british or german sausages. Not bad but not the same at all...at all.
posted by vacapinta at 5:18 AM on August 30, 2009

Almost all ethnic food in America is better and more authentic than what is available in the UK (except South Asian curry). Living in the UK for the past five years what I miss most of all, other than actual summers, is the diversity of good ethnic food options that were available in every city I lived in in Canada. I suspect this is because North America has more diversity and greater distribution in its immigrant populations than the UK where they tend to cluster and come from just a few locations (Of course this doesn't apply to the city-state of London that is loosely affiliated with the UK). So try all the foods of the world. Great Italian, elusive in Brum, is easy to find in the US.

Try out some desserts for sure but be forewarned that the English sweet tooth is very different from the north American - our desserts are usually far less sweet. Try some smarties and you will notice they taste different in N. America from England. The candy coating is practically neutral compared to the sweetness of the original UK version.

Somethings you will need to know:

Table service is the norm for both food and drinks. Getting your own drinks from the bar is poor form when getting table service for food.
Tipping is expected (15%) if service is acceptable.
Introductions are expected very early in a social interaction.
Buying rounds is rare. People pay for there own drinks and maybe buy another person drink. There is no expectation that each person buys a round for the entire party. Likewise people do not get as shitfaced nor do they excuse it when others do.
Spilling beer is less acceptable - you pint glass will not be filled to the brim.
Eye contact is normal.
Wear sunscreen and bring lip balm if you are going to be near a desert or climb up a mountain.
Get health insurance.
posted by srboisvert at 9:16 AM on August 30, 2009

One of my favorite San Francisco foods is Indian pizza. I've only ever seen it there, and have eaten it at two places: Zante's on Mission (the alled orginator) and Golden Gate in the Outer Sunset neighborhood (the first I tried, and still my favorite.) It's basically a naan-like pizza crust with mozzarella, ghee/curry sauce and various Indian-style veggies and/or meats on top.
posted by contraption at 12:33 PM on August 30, 2009

er, "alled" == "alleged"
posted by contraption at 12:34 PM on August 30, 2009

Table service is the norm for both food and drinks. Getting your own drinks from the bar is poor form when getting table service for food.

In a bar, I don't know that table service is actually the norm. It's regional, and also depends on the "class" of the bar. But, it is true that if there is table service, you'll order both food and drinks from them.

If in doubt, just ask the barkeep if there's table service.

Tipping is expected (15%) if service is acceptable.

15% for table service. However, you tip $1 per drink at the bar, when you get your drink (even if you run a tab). Doesn't matter what the drink is.

Introductions are expected very early in a social interaction.

Immediately. Not introducing one friend the moment you run into another friend is viewed as a snub. Or at the very least an indication that you'd like to keep them apart for some reason.

Buying rounds is rare. People pay for there own drinks and maybe buy another person drink. There is no expectation that each person buys a round for the entire party.

That's mostly true. There's certainly absolutely no expectation that you'll each buy a round if you're drinking with strangers or recent acquaintances. So if a stranger buys you a drink, they're paying you a compliment or courtesy (or flirting with you). There is no tit-for-tat expected.

However, with pitchers of beer or buckets of bottles, usually one person will buy one with the expectation that somebody else will pick up the next one. Most of us will state this explicitly, "I'll get this pitcher if you wanna get the next one."

[I thought that both the gay population of the UK was inordinately high, and that everybody wanted me, when I was over there--everybody kept buying me drinks. And they kept getting mad for some reason I could never determine just after I got my next round.]

Likewise people do not get as shitfaced nor do they excuse it when others do.

People who get visibly drunk at a bar are pretty much universally looked down upon. At best, they're viewed as an embarrassment; at worst, a menace. There are some exceptions for birthday parties and other obvious special occasions. And it's slightly more acceptable in big, old, walkable cities like Philly, Boston, and NYC and in bars near college campuses than it is in most bars in most other locales.

I think this is, more than anything, because we're a country that drives. If you drove to the bar and got drunk, there's a pretty good chance you're going to try to drive home, putting everybody in danger. As a result, if you're visibly drunk, the barkeep often has a legal obligation to take your keys and arrange alternate transportation. Keep in mind that this is a burden, and so if you're acting the fool, the alternate transportation is likely to be a police car. But they'll do it... I've had barkeeps try to get my keys, even as I was explaining that I took the bus and didn't own a car.

Spilling beer is less acceptable - you pint glass will not be filled to the brim.

The US pint is also significantly smaller (~200mL less) than the UK pint. Some very few bars will have UK pints available at an additional cost--it's practically a gimmick.
posted by Netzapper at 2:26 PM on August 30, 2009

I lived in the US for 11 years, and the thing that I crave most from way over here in London is Pillsbury Crusty French Loaf. If you have access to an oven, I'd recommend making one for breakfast one day, and serving it piping hot with butter. Like all of the Pillsbury bread products, it has its own unique flavour - and it's quite an addictive one!
posted by sueinnyc at 2:35 PM on August 30, 2009

If you want to plumb the depths of awfulness in American food, my suggestions are:

Hot dogs: Truly disgusting, even if you don't think about what they're made of.
Non-microbrew beer: We call it "sex in a canoe", because it is fscking close to water.
Cheese: Dyed bright orange so it looks like plastic [matches the taste].
Supermarket bread: Like eating solidified air [with added sugar!]

And if you want an experience that will turn you into a vegetarian, visit a beef feedlot.

Don't get me wrong, there are lots of good things too, these are just some of my less pleasant memories.
posted by HiroProtagonist at 8:54 PM on August 30, 2009

About tipping in restaurants: servers' wages are adjusted to take into account tips, so for example your server may be making minimum wage MINUS whatever the restaurant expects servers to get in tips. So, tips are not "over and above" a full wage; they're needed to bring the server up to a full wage; they don't really mean "you did an exceptionally good job", they mean "you are fulfilling my basic expectations about restaurant service". Tipping less than 15% means you have a serious objection to something the server has done. Tipping 20% or more would mean "you did an exceptionally good job".
posted by LobsterMitten at 10:02 PM on August 30, 2009

Didn't read everything but:

- blueberry pancakes (pancake is not the same as in Europe, it's thicker and dryer in the US, hence the need for copious amounts of butter on a pancake stack, and some kind of syrup)
- huevos rancheros (TexMex scrambled eggs) for breakfast
- have some grits with those huevos, that's about the most quintessential US food I've ever tasted (and it's good, too)
- chili dog
- an honest to goodness Turkey sandwich (they have a good one at The Wynn in LV, but it's expensive: 18 $ or so)
posted by NekulturnY at 2:25 AM on August 31, 2009

Two corrections:

Trader Joe's--We don't have them here and it nearly makes me cry. Fresh produce, decent prices.

Yes, decent prices, especially for dairy, nuts and frozen food. But produce? Not at TJs (with a few exceptions, like the bananas). Trader Joes shrinkwraps their produce!

American chocolate tastes like brown lard

True for the mass-market stuff like Hersheys -- but you'll be in Sees country, and their products are as good as Godiva at half the price.
posted by Rash at 12:21 PM on August 31, 2009

Just in case no one said this yet - Apple Sauce. A friend of mine is from the UK and didn't even know what it was.
posted by jopreacher at 2:45 PM on September 3, 2009

jopreacher: "Just in case no one said this yet - Apple Sauce. A friend of mine is from the UK and didn't even know what it was."

Just because one individual hasn't heard of it doesn't mean it's unavailable in the UK or even specific to the US. Apple sauce is incredibly common in the UK and is a traditional part of a Sunday pork roast. Furthermore, it's incredible easy to make in either country.

joan cusack the second: "One small thing I always miss about the U.S. when I travel in Europe is the free tap water at restaurants. You can get it alongside your big, big Coke if you want. But no one will look at you for being cheap when you ask for "just water" in the U.S., and you won't have to lie and say that you need it to take your medicine."

I have no idea what you are talking about here either. Any restaurant in the UK will gladly give you tap water (for free) and they won't give you any bad looks. The same applies everywhere I've been to in Europe too.

Solon and Thanks: "I visited London very briefly and it seemed the only donuts available were hideously-expensive kripsy kremes. Blergh. Maybe you have real donut shops hidden somewhere there."

Yes, we have tons of proper doughnut stalls where they mix the batches and fry them up in front of you. They are more of a seaside/fete/funfair/festival foodstuff though - don't expect to find them on the high street.
posted by turkeyphant at 6:49 AM on September 4, 2009

I have no idea what you are talking about here either. Any restaurant in the UK will gladly give you tap water (for free) and they won't give you any bad looks. The same applies everywhere I've been to in Europe too.

I know what he means, as an American in London.

"Oh, and can I have some water please?"
Result: A few minutes later a tall glass of iced, tap water appears at your table. No further questions were ever asked.

"Oh, and can I have some water please?"
"Umm..water? Ok. Do you want Sparkling or Still?"
Result: A few minutes later a bottle of Name brand water appears at your table and £1 is added to your bill.

I have been to a few places where they say "Sparkling, Still or do you want tap water?" but the fact that its the cheapest option, well, makes you feel cheap as opposed to it being the ONLY option.
posted by vacapinta at 7:01 AM on September 4, 2009

Yes, we have tons of proper doughnut stalls where they mix the batches and fry them up in front of you. They are more of a seaside/fete/funfair/festival foodstuff though - don't expect to find them on the high street.

Okay, but a typical American doughnut place is still something unique that could be experienced. (We have that sort of fried-on-the-spot fair food too, but I enjoy the coffee-and-doughnut shops.)
posted by Solon and Thanks at 2:51 PM on September 4, 2009

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