Photo: Little Outdoor Giants

1 of 12
Chatting with sweet-as-pie Rhoda Adams makes the wait at her Arkansas restaurant, Rhoda's Famous Hot Tamales, almost as enjoyable as her unutterably good desserts.

With its wood-paneled walls and daily specials, City Cafe in Northport offers soothing Southern-style mains, like chicken-fried steak and fried chicken livers, partnered with three or four comfort sides, including fried green tomatoes and stewed squash.... On most menus here, you'll find tangy West Indies salad—a cold seafood affair starring lump crabmeat, chopped yellow onion and a liberal dose of vinegar. Mobile's 75-plus-year-old Wintzell’s Oyster House marinates theirs for a thorough 24 hours, resulting in a sweet-sour dish as refreshing as an afternoon on a porch swing.

In tiny Craig, on the western coast of Prince of Wales Island, Shelter Cove Lodge is a rustic landing for sports folk looking to reel in halibut taller than they are. But the real catch is the lodge's restaurant, Latitude 55°North. With an imposing stone hearth and wide windows looking out on the ocean, it serves unspeakably fresh salmon lacquered with a birch syrup glaze and a meaty mac and cheese studded with reindeer sausage.

Don't call sibling chefs Sandra and Suzana Davila rivals: Even though both manage Mexican restaurants in Tucson, the pair couldn't be more different. Like her upscale bistro Café Poca Cosa, Suzana is "classic and elegant," says Sandra, and creates an ever-changing menu of fresh takes on traditional dishes, including mole verde. "I love the nutty texture," says Sandra, "and that you can taste all the ingredients, from roasted peppers to sesame seeds." Two blocks over, Sandra, who describes herself as "loud and casual," runs (with their other sister, Marcela) the tiny, festive, cash-only The Little One, where the speakers blare everything from reggae to rock and plates are piled with Mexican breakfast and lunch classics, as well as vegetarian options that go far beyond rice and beans. Her secret to main-dish-worthy veggies: fire roasting, as in the vegan taco made with dried Jamaican flowers and anchored by roasted fresh beets. "I also love Sandra's cream soups," says Suzana, "like fire-roasted poblano chili with butter-roasted pecans. They're velvety, rich and so delicious!"

At Phoenix's plastic-chair-chic Chicago Hamburger Co., owner and former Chicagoan Bob Pappanduros brings a taste of the Midwest to the Southwest. His gloriously greasy sliders (many of which he flips himself) can come oozing with cheese, are coated with grilled onions and practically beg for German mustard; his hot dogs hail from his hometown and, by request, bear the Windy City's customary sprinkle of celery salt and pile of hot-sour peppers.

After Rhoda Adams began successfully selling her sweet potato and pecan pies 40-plus years ago to raise money for her congregation, she was inspired to open Rhoda’s Famous Hot Tamales, the modest Lake Village spot where she's sold savory and sweet treats ever since. Adams keeps her recipe cards close to the vest, but you don't need an ingredients list to know her moist but firm spicy chicken and beef tamales are exquisite. And her pies come in so many flavors, only a masochist would choose just one—luckily, she sells a pecan-on-one-side, sweet-potato-on-the-other circle of heaven. "Folks come from everywhere, and I'm very thankful," says Adams. "I love people, and when they come, they treat me with love."