The Ultimate Cross-Country Road Trip Itinerary: 6 Days of the Best Food in America
After driving across the country too many times, I think I've found the absolute best, most delicious road trip ever. Pennsylvania Dutch classics, a crawfish boil along the Gulf Coast, and the best tacos in San Diego—this one has it all.
So you’re driving cross-country, or thinking about it—congratulations. Now, which route to take? The country is enormous, there is so much to see, and there are so many ways to accomplish one of the most memorable domestic adventures you will ever embark upon, there is just enough choice to spoil you—selecting the right path can be a challenge. The most popular routes may appear to be quite similar to one another, in terms of time and mileage, and yet each of these epic road trips offers a wholly unique experience.
Boston to the Bay Area, Los Angeles to Philadelphia—you may begin anywhere, and chances are it’s all going to be great. After making the trip enough times during the last twenty years that I’ve lost count, my personal preference would easily be somewhere in northern Florida to anywhere in Southern California, hugging the Gulf Coast, taking in the whole of Texas, and a great deal of the Southwest. The trip is somewhat shorter than you might expect, a reasonable 34 hours, and the food along the way is, for the most part, excellent.
Many more travelers are likely to choose a route beginning in the Northeast, however, and that’s perfectly fine—the drive between the New York City area and Southern California can be accomplished in just 41 hours if you don’t dawdle, and it is generally agreed that you can do this in five days time, with a little more than eight hours on the road, each day. I’ve done the trip in four days, and I don’t recommend it, not that five could be called leisurely; if you’re making trip for fun reasons, six days is the sensible move. Not long enough to take up more than a week of your time, but with just enough extra padding in the itinerary to give you a better feel for all that ground you’re covering.
Following a great deal of trial and error, my ideal New York-California adventure begins in or around New York City, and takes me to San Diego, but with a considerable twist on the usual endurance drive across the Midwest, no offense to any of the states along I-80 intended. By adding just four hours to the base total of 41, I can turn my itinerary into a movable feast, sampling some of the country’s most spectacular regional cooking. Those with time to spare might spend weeks covering the highlights; for the rest of us, I’ve mapped out a six-day, five-night adventure you won’t soon forget, with as much good food as possible along a relatively efficient route. Safe travels.
45 hours of driving
Approximately 520 miles (8.5 hours) per day
Day 1: New York to Bristol, TN (596 miles)
In a perfect world, you’d have all the time you needed to wind your way through the Mid-Atlantic, home to one of the country’s strongest regional food cultures, and it all kicks off pretty soon after the New York City skyline disappears from view. But you’ve got an entire country to get across, so you’ll likely leave Philadelphia, or the smorgasbords and farms of Lancaster County for another, more targeted adventure, instead heading straight for Pennsylvania’s state capital, Harrisburg. Less than three hours from your chosen Hudson River crossing, and you’ll be walking the aisles of the historic Broad Street Market, one of many historic public market halls still serving so many communities around the region, offering up an array of fresh produce, a selection of food as diverse as the city itself, plus all of those Amish Country favorites, like whoopie pies, shoo-fly pies, and extremely buttery soft pretzels, straight from the oven.
Stock the car with enough snacks to power you well into Virginia on I-81, where each town and city along the way offers at least one powerful lure from the highway, from the sensational house hams at the vintage Fulks Run Grocery, fifteen minutes from Exit 257, to the accessible, Jewish-influenced Southern cooking at The Shack in handsome old Staunton, to the port-in-a-storm Lexington Coffee Roasters, found next to a still-operating drive-in movie theatre near Exit 195. You’ll need the jolt by then, to power you through to today’s finish, the fast-growing Tri-Cities region, located along the Virginia-Tennessee line; this is the proud home of one of the more unique regional fast food finds you’ll come across on your journey, the quirky-delicious Pal’s Sudden Service. It’s the best burger joint you’ve probably never heard of.
Day 2: Bristol, TN to Mobile, AL (620 miles)
Today is all about compromise—you’ll need to make tracks for the Gulf Coast, but there’s temptation aplenty along the way, and you’ll have to make choices, difficult choices, and you’ll also need to make sure to conserve some energy for the days ahead. Will it be a morning walk in the lower regions of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the worthiest of detours, or a leisurely buffet breakfast with all the trimmings at Dollywood’s DreamMore Resort in nearby Pigeon Forge, or even a coaster or three (and those terrific beans and greens, accompanied with perfect skillet cornbread) next door at Dollywood proper? Then of course there’s everything to eat in Knoxville, right along the highway, or memorable lunches around the lazy susan at Bea’s Restaurant, a vintage treasure buried in a part of Chattanooga they don’t typically tend to tell visitors about, and Birmingham, home to one of the South’s most satisfying food scenes, even if it all feels something like a well-kept secret.
From famed Greek-influenced meat-and-three restaurants like Bright Star and Johnny’s, to Alabama barbecue (with all the white sauce you can handle) at Saw’s, to standout coffees at Domestique, and even Nashville hot chicken at Hattie B’s and Carolina-style whole hog at Rodney Scott’s BBQ, there’s a little bit of everything here for you to try, before you power through your last long stretch of the day. If they’re still open by the time you pass through, pay tribute to Alabama’s favorite sausage, the smoky, delicious Conecuh, at the very highway-adjacent factory store in Evergreen, but make sure to save room for your first bites of Gulf seafood in Mobile. Opt for the new South cooking at The Noble South, or Southern National, or go with the crowd-pleasing, waterfront Felix’s Fish Camp for baked oysters and crab soup. Either way, you’ll not go hungry, and if you can, get your hands on some of the region’s sweetly delicious royal red shrimp, a well-earned reward for making it here from New York in just two days.
Day 3: Mobile, AL to Houston (493 miles)
Alabama and Mississippi certainly have their selling points, chief among them their respective Gulf Coast frontages—diminutive, certainly, but packed with interest, and depending on how fast you’d like to get to New Orleans, which is absolutely something you’ll want to think about, you might hop off of I-10 at artistically-inclined (and very charming) Ocean Springs for a look around, for barbecue at The Shed, for delicate savory biscuits, pimento cheese, and terrific coffees at the Green House on Porter, or a melt-on-the-tongue twist at the long-running TatoNut, where they famously use potato flour in their donuts. You’re this close to one of the highlights of the trip, however, so don’t eat too much—less than two hours away in New Orleans, you’ll have to make some very difficult choices regarding what to eat. And while you could certainly go for the classics—turns out, the muffuletta at Central Grocery in the French Quarter might be even better a few hours after you buy it—the more road-trip friendly Mid-City section of town is packed with worthy stops.
There’s Food & Wine Best New Restaurant 2019 Piece of Meat, a carnivore’s dream for charcuterie plates and boudin egg rolls and ribs and so much more, all in a casual setting in the middle of a working butcher shop; across the street, there’s the come-as-you-are Neyow’s, one of the city’s best Creole restaurants right now, with chargrilled oysters and red beans and rice and all the barbecued shrimp you can eat. Hungry for a crawfish boil? Around the way, there’s the excellent, very casual Bevi’s Seafood, a couple of doors down from Angelo Brocato’s, one of the country’s finest historic Italian bakeries, where the gelato (try the zuppa inglese) is just about as good as it gets, in these parts. But you’re not done with Louisiana, not—in Baton Rouge, hop off the highway for sticky and strong cafe au lait, and those delicate beignet fingers (why isn't everybody doing this?) at the old school Coffee Call, and make sure to find room in your heart (and your stomach) for the delicious smoked boudin at Johnson’s Boucaniere in Lafayette, just one highly-recommended stop in a region where the streets are nearly paved with the stuff. Once you cross into Texas, everything changes; austere Beaumont isn’t typically known as a barbecue capital, but it’s home to one of the state’s most unique smoked meat traditions—the beef link. Today, you’ll try one at the deceptively humble Patillo’s Bar-B-Q, one of the oldest barbecue restaurants in the entire state—the hot link, redolent with garlic, is the very definition of #uglydelicious, but be careful—besides the fact that cutting into one can be messy business, you’ll also likely start craving the things, and trying to figure out ways to get back to Beaumont for another hit. For now, you’ve got more important things on your mind, such as how to make the most of a too-short visit to Houston, now the fourth largest city in the country and home to one of the country’s most dynamic food cultures this side of Southern California.
There are so many ways you can play this—barbecue fans should dive straight into the city’s suddenly explosive scene, from the melting-pot vibes at Blood Brothers to stellar brisket at Pinkerton’s; then there are Houston’s favorite chefs, like Chris Shepherd, whose Georgia James is one of the country’s most exciting steakhouses right now, or his neighborhood bistro-like UB Preserv, where Momofuku alum Nick Wong is at the helm and doing some very interesting things. There’s Hugo Ortega, whose Xochi celebrates Oaxaca, there are worth-a-journey bars like Nancy’s Hustle and Goodnight Charlie’s, Vietnamese-Cajun feasts at Crawfish & Noodles, spicy fried chicken with a South Asian-twist at the idiosyncratic Himalaya Restaurant, or the most glamorous dim sum in the country, perhaps, at London-transplant Yauatcha, at the Galleria. Think of this more as a fact-finding mission, because you will be back.
Day 4: Houston to Fort Stockton, TX (506 miles)
Breakfast in Houston could take you anywhere on the planet, really, but after last night, a restorative bowl of something delicious could be just the thing—head down to Bellaire for Pho Dien, before waving goodbye to the green east and hello to San Antonio, just a couple of hours and a world away—come hungry, because you’ve got an incredible amount to eat, and if timing allows, you should begin at one of the best barbecue joints in Texas right now, 2M Smokehouse. Try the unusual and delicious house sausages, the typically exemplary brisket, sides of cactus salad, or macaroni and cheese with chicharrones, but save a small amount of room for a portion of the house specialty at the equally worthy Carnitas Lonja, and if you can eat anymore, anything at all, a stop at Tex-Mex legend Garcia’s Mexican Food, though most reasonable people will by then be ready for a coffee and one of the most delicate conchas of all time at the modern La Panaderia, with two locations to serve you on your way out of town.
If you’re on schedule, detour through the Hill Country, one of the country’s most underrated wine regions, dotted with charming towns and villages, most notably Fredericksburg, which trades heavily on its German heritage; head due west and eventually you’ll end up at I-10, on the doorstep of wild and woolly West Texas, for the last leg of your day. Bed down in surprisingly charming Fort Stockton, or go the extra mile for the Marfa experience (though Alpine is equally memorable, just with a very different, more comfortable feel, and one of the only great barbecue joints in West Texas, the new and promising Smokehouse BBQ).
Day 5: Fort Stockton, TX to Tucson (558 miles)
For those who’ve been waiting for wide open spaces, this is your big day—nearly eight hours of nothingness, or something close to it, with one very big city, right in the middle. El Paso’s remote setting—a space shared with the equally mighty Juarez, just across the Rio Grande—has helped to create one of the most unique cultures in the already fascinatingly different border region. Sitting down to eat is the best way to acclimate, preferably at the vintage-as-they-come H&H Car Wash, founded half a century ago by a Syrian immigrant family, serving up everything from huevos rancheros to Chile rellenos in a no-fuss environment (yes, it’s actually a car wash, as well). There’s no place quite like it, and it should be experienced at least once, but so should the slightly more genteel L&J Cafe, serving up exemplary enchiladas, sizzling fajita platters, worthy chile con queso and some great soups, too. Known as the “old place by the cemetery,” they’ve been at it since the 1920s, so they’ve had plenty of practice. Hungry for one last bite of barbecue? You used to take your chances around here, on that front—with the opening of Desert Oak BBQ not very long ago, El Paso is now making a name for itself (finally!) as a home to quality brisket. (Helpfully, it’s right on your way into town.) On the other side of things, as you head north into New Mexico, skip the freeway and make your way toward Las Cruces on the very scenic back roads that parallel the Rio Grande, all the way up to historic Mesilla—along the way, Chope’s Cafe in tiny La Mesa is a solid bet for a New Mexican meal; enchiladas in red chile (though feel free to ask to try the green, as well), chips and their fiery, fresh house salsa, plus puffy sopapillas for dessert.
Day 6: Tucson to San Diego (407 miles)
The crusty birote is a humble thing, by all appearances, it is a traditional, Guadalajara-style roll made with beer malt and lemon, and when you eat one fresh out of the oven at Tucson’s Barrio Bread, there’s nothing quite so delicious—that is, unless, we’re talking about the city’s famed flour tortillas, perhaps still the best you will find north of the border, so tasty you could just eat them on their own, but you don’t have to—at the classic Anita Street Market, it’s said that they’re made extra soft with the addition of cottage cheese, and even though the house breakfast burrito may contain an abundance of meat (chorizo, for starters), nothing is allowed to overshadow the tortilla itself—nothing ever could. Even though this is your final day on the road, and you’ve got the smallest amount of ground to cover, relatively speaking, you’ll still need coffee—stop by Presta Coffee Roasters inside the appealing Mercado San Agustin for something strong, and maybe a bit of pan dulce for the road at La Estrella Bakery, just next door.
With that, it’s goodbye Arizona—a little more than three uneventful hours later, you’ll cross into California on Interstate 8, making your way through the picturesque Imperial Sand Dunes (the largest in California), the heavily agricultural Imperial Valley, and over the pine-covered Cuyamaca Mountains, finally breathing that Pacific Ocean air as you wind your way down into San Diego. Let the beaches wait, only for a moment—head into the South Bay region, where you’ll find some of the country’s absolute best Mexican food. From juicy, rich birria and bone marrow tacos at Tuetano Taqueria in San Ysidro to the aguachile (raw shrimp cured in lime juice) en molcajete at the impossibly tiny and also perfect TJ Oyster Bar up on Bonita Road, if it’s a thing in just-next-door Tijuana, chances are, it’s a thing here too, and you could spend days down here, eating extremely well.
But it’s the ocean for you, finally, the cherry on top of a remarkable journey—head up into the city, stopping in the historic (and recently, very happening) Barrio Logan for an exemplary Mexican mocha at Por Vida, fueling your final journey out to the Cabrillo National Monument lands, where Spanish explorers first landed in what we know today as California. The preserved coastline, with its dramatic tidepools, is easily one of the most photogenic places in one of the country’s most attractive cities.