Food is an interesting and underrated form of communication and an essential part of travel. Even if we are cooking for ourselves, regional differences can be spotted in grocery stores from place to place. Things you may have never seen or heard of are piled high and the locals are all grabbing some. Every state has its culinary specialties and must-try delicacies and ideally when you try them they will help you understand the State or region better. Hopefully they’ll be made with local ingredients and you can get a taste for what grows in the area, and there will probably be hints of where the people who make them came from as well. America is and always has been a great melting pot of flavors from around the world and our culinary traditions are ever-shifting. I encourage everyone to be bold when travelling to new places and eat as locally as you can. You know those big national chains will be mediocre at best. Even if you want fast-food, the local option it bound to be better. Use Yelp to sift through them (with a grain of salt obviously, but a 1 or 2 star place is probably that for good reason), or better yet, ask the locals. Here are seven of my favorite meals from the month I spent in West Virginia.
The Pepperoni Roll – The Pepperoni Roll is one of the foods most often associated with West Virginia. We can trace its origin in the state back to Giuseppe Argiro who made them starting in 1927 at the Country Club Bakery in Fairmont. Baking the pepperoni into a bread roll made for a one-handed lunch for a coal miner and with a ton of Italian miners in this region, this was a hit. You can now find them, of varying quality, throughout the state. The Country Club Bakery is still there, and their pepperoni rolls are good, but my pick for the best I tried goes to Vito’s in Clarksburg.
The West Virginia Dog – The West Virginia Dog is its own magical kind of hot dog, and done right is one of my favorite kinds of hot dogs in the country. The traditional West Virginia Dog comes in a steamed bun with mustard, onions, chili (which is really a meat sauce with no beans) and cole slaw. They can be found in many parts of the state and are usually just a few dollars, making them a great snack. I have had a lot of West Virginia Dogs in my day, and different places have different strengths and weaknesses. My favorite would have to go to Hillbilly Hot Dogs in Lesage. While this is in strong disagreement with the revered experts over at the West Virginia Hot Dog Blog, what they disliked about Hillbilly Hot Dogs was what sold it for me – the slaw. To me, their slaw tasted homemade, not from a tub somewhere, and it wasn’t as sweet as many I had. For me, this was the winner.
Ramps – ramps are little wild onions which grow in many places in West Virginia. I don’t think you can buy them in any stores, so you either need to pick them yourself or you need to know a guy. Thankfully I know a lady who knows a guy and also happens to be an excellent cook and a ramp specialist. She cooked me a wonderful meal featuring ramps in every dish. I don’t know where you’re going to get your ramp meal in West Virginia, but you’re probably going to have to make friends to do it.
The Hutte – Helvetia – If you’ve read my blog post about Helvetia, then you already know how much I enjoyed my Sunday brunch or “Bernerplatte" here. A home-cooked meal, in a comfortable setting with a delicious array of different dishes makes the trip deep into the mountains of West Virginia more than worth the ride. It’s pretty great to find this little taste of Switzerland in the heart of West Virginia.
Muriale’s – Fairmont – Simply put, the single best Italian meal I’ve ever had in the United States. The three massive parking lots here should be a hint that there is something special going on behind the generic looking façade. Handmade pasta, heavenly sauce, incredible salad, great service – even the bread was good. If you ever find yourself anywhere near Fairmont, make time to stop here. You won’t be disappointed. See my full review of Muriale's HERE
Atomic Grill – Morgantown – I generally have rules when it comes to where I will eat certain items, and barbecue is one where I generally stick to them hard and fast. I will eat barbecue from Texas east to the coast and from Georgia north to Southern Virginia. Around St. Louis or Kansas City I’ll make an exception. I heard so many people rave about Atomic Grill, though, that I had to give it a try and I’m glad I did. The meat here is locally sourced and the quality is abundantly clear in the taste. Slow cooked, the meat was tender but not soft, flavorful, well portioned and so good. The “West Virginia Sauce” was not great, and at a minimum should be served warm, and my personal preference is for my mac and cheese to not be soupy, but the meat! Oh, the meat! The fried green tomatoes were pretty amazing and the other sides I had were great, but the meat was definitely the highlight. Barbecue in West Virginia – not ordinarily, but I will make an exception for Atomic every time I am in Morgantown. You should too.
Tamarack - Don't miss the restaurant in this wonderful craft shop in Beckley. It is a hidden gem and shouldn't be overlooked. Open for breakfast, lunch and dinner it can be enjoyed any time of day. See my full post on Tamarack HERE.
West Virginia has so many surprises to offer the traveler, and food is definitely one of them. While it seems the big chains encroach a little more every year, some of these local institutions are so ingrained in their communities it is unlikely they are going anywhere anytime soon. Which is good news for this traveler as I plan on visiting these places anytime I'm in the neighborhood. What's your favorite West Virginia food or restaurant? Comment below. Bon Appetit.