After two years of agonizing limbo, state fair season came roaring back in 2022, and just in time for those of us suffering from dangerously low levels of food-on-a-stick in our diets.
From Minnesota’s iconic corn dogs to the list of edible exotica at the Iowa State Fair so lengthy, you needed an app (the non-edible kind) to find everything onsite, this has been a phenomenal summer for one of America’s favorite pastimes that isn’t baseball — hanging around (and consuming) delicious fried foods.
Face it, it’s what we’re known for, even if equating America with snacks cooked in bubbling fat is really just one of those weird branding flukes. Frying food goes back as far as the existence of fire and oil and ceramic pots. Somewhere along the line, however, between the doughnut shops and the fried Coke (see you soon, Texas State Fair!), the label stuck, and now we can’t get it unstuck. But, honestly, why would we? From platters of calamari on the New England coastline to cheese curds at nearly every brewery in the upper Midwest, we have it all.
As with each of Food & Wine’s Best-Of lists, whether it’s pizza or bagels or snack foods, this one is backed by almost 25 years of on-the-ground reporting, in every single one of the 50 states —enough time, and enough ground coverage, to get a great sense of what’s essential.
Alabama: Fried Catfish
Long before sweet tea and ‘Bama football, before the south became The South, catfishall but inhabited every conceivable body of water in this part of the world, from the humblest mud pond to the mighty Mississippi, with relatively little human interference. Today, the bottom feeders, carrying enough baggage to fill a book, are ubiquitous in Southern cuisine. Alabama plays two important roles — as the second largest producer in the country, and as one of the top consumers, thanks in part to a deep bench of destination-worthy restaurants, from the Gulf Coast all the way up into the Appalachian foothills.
Don’t dawdle on your way to lunch at Johnny’s in Homewood, the state’s most critically acclaimed meat-and-three joint, and there are more than a few to choose from, unless you like waiting in lines. Chances are a good many of the people in front of you are here for chef Tim Hontzas’ classically prepared, well-sourced fried catfish.
Alaska: Halibut and Chips
Perfectly white and firm and buttery in flavor, the mighty, clean-tasting halibut is too special in most places to be an everyday type of fish, but the rules are different in a state where you’re lucky enough to be pulling everything from king crab to king salmon out of the water. Which is why one of the most iconic — and easily found — meals in the state is a plate of fried halibut and chips, located absolutely everywhere in possession of a fryer. In Anchorage, opt for the classic platter with fresh-cut fries at the White Spot Cafe, in business since the 1950s. More modern options like the Spenard Roadhouse, and sister joint South Restaurant and Coffeehouse, are more than fine as well.
Who exactly first dropped a flour tortilla-wrapped burrito into a deep fryer, accidentally or otherwise, is for the food historians to fight over. We’re just happy that the chimichangaexists, and has for generations, dating back to when somebody in Tucson turned one of America’s finest portable meals into a state fair food. No wait, something better than that — a state fair food you can eat all year round. Typically stuffed with your choice of meats, from carnitas to carne asada, the budget-friendly combo of beans, rice, and cheese is also typical; lots of people take theirs smothered in anything from enchilada sauce to rivers of queso. Whether or not El Charro, a historic spot in downtown Tucson was the actual inventor, and they’re totally confident that they were, there’s a good reason theirs remains one of the most popular in the state.
Arkansas: Fried Pickle
Beware of false prophets in other states claiming credit for the creation of the fried pickle. You have an entire army of loyalists here in Arkansas, ready to assert that one of the South’s finest snacks was invented right here in the town of Atkins at the Duchess Drive-In, by owner Bernell “Fatman” Austin, back in 1963, before they appeared on menus anywhere else. Regional food historian Kat Robinson points out just how well the stage was set for this sort of magic to take place — the Duchess, it turns out, was practically sitting in the lap of the Goldsmith Pickle Factory. An experiment with some catfish batter, a trip to the fryer, and one of Arkansas’ favorite apps was born.
The first tacos found north of the border, it is said, were the deep-fried beef taquitos, or tacos dorados, served with a pale green, avocado-based salsa at Cielito Lindo, a stand established in the early 1930s in Los Angeles. To this day they’re a fixture on Olvera Street, the World’s Fair pavilion-vibes district designed almost a century ago to preserve the city’s oldest modern structures. Nowadays, Angelenos have plenty of choice when it comes to tacos, but some of the finest — like the tacos dorados stuffed with plump shrimp at Mariscos Jalisco — take that all-important trip to the fryer on the way to your paper plate. Don’t sleep on the Ensenada-style beauties sold practically everywhere between the San Gabriels and the southern border, nowadays. The classic Tacos Baja, way out on Whittier Boulevard, was a standard bearer long before fish tacos achieved global fame.
Colorado: Rocky Mountain Oysters
On a busy week, the Buckhorn Exchange, which is Denver’s oldest restaurant, will sell something like five hundred pounds of deep-fried bull testicles, batter-dipped and served with a creamy horseradish sauce. (And there you were, assuming that the West had forgotten how to be wild.) Dating to 1893, and home to a rather marvelous arsenal of antique weaponry and a world-class taxidermy collection — the restaurant remains one of the region’s favorite places for the traditional consuming of an animal’s manhood, a practice that dates further back than the Exchange itself, when pioneering cowboys would clamor for a taste of what was considered at the time to be a delicacy. A rather, well, ballsy rebrand — no need to be awkward, just ask for a plate of the Rocky Mountain oysters — couldn’t have hurt.
The delicious idea for fried dough dates back to ancient times, but it wasn’t until just a century ago that a European immigrant in New York City invented that extremely American thing: the actual doughnutmachine. These little fried rings of joy would soon be mass-produced in pretty much every town and city across the country. Today, there are a handful of doughnut heartlands, and New England is one of them, with the New York-adjacent Fairfield County, Connecticut, being an essential part the conversation. It’s a high-rent district with a passion for classic makers like Coffee ‘An Donuts and the Lakeside Diner, just off the fast-moving Merritt Parkway. Farther east, Mystic is one of those places doing the modern thing very well at Young Buns, a donut-centered spinoff of a popular local bakery, and Nana’s, an all-day cafe, bakery, and pizzeria where the sourdough beauties are made to order.
Delaware: Soft-Shell Crab Sandwich
You’ve had the vinegar-splashed, hand-cut boardwalk fries, and the competing pizzas, and everything else that makes a trip down one of the country’s smaller, but ever punching-above-its-weight shorelines so deliciously memorable. But have you tried that other regional coastal tradition, the soft-shell crab sandwich? A seasonal (early summer is best) tradition in Rehoboth Beach and elsewhere in the state, this is a a wet-battered soft-shell crab, perfectly fried, served up as a sandwich. Get yours BLT-style at Matt’s Fish Camp in picturesque Lewes, or the peanut oil-bathed classic at Gus & Gus, a rustic takeout spot in Rehoboth.
What is a classic American supermarket deli without a case of fried food in repose under heat lamps? Here in the Sunshine State, particularly as you head ever-closer toward the terminus of Highway 1, along with the various fried chicken parts, you will often notice a rack of croquetas, fried to a crisp and oozing ham-studded bechamel. While it’s fun to stand in line at the Publix thinking about how far your afternoon snack had to travel (originating in France and migrating via Spain and Cuba before hitting places like Hialeah or Kendall or West Tampa) you’ll run out of room well before you run out of great croquetas to sample, from the pioneering Islas Canarias coffee shop in Miami, which opened up shop all the way back in 1977, to new South Florida classics like Sanguich and Dos Croquetas.
Georgia: Chicken Biscuit
Centuries before you found them on brunch menus everywhere from Portland (Maine) to Portland (Oregon), many a Southerner started their day with a chicken biscuit.Often served with little more than a drizzle of honey or a pat of butter, or perhaps both, the breakfast staple is taken for granted here, the way New Yorkers believe that a good BEC is a right, not a privilege, or Texans the breakfast taco. Made wildly popular in modern times by a gaggle of competing fast-food chains, the chicken biscuit is a tradition that goes further back than pretty much any other American breakfast sandwich, one as old as fried chicken and biscuits, which is to say, older than a vast majority of American states. Atlanta is awash in artisanal takes these days, but some of the closest to the classic ideal are found in relatively humble surroundings out on the rural fringe of the metropolitan sprawl, in small towns like Lithonia, home to Mamie’s Kitchen Biscuits since the 1960s.
Brought to the islands by Portuguese laborers back in the late 1800s, malasadasfor breakfast, ideally with a cup of strong, local coffee, are yet another Hawaiian tradition that reminds us of the superior status of the food culture here. On pretty much any day, often well before sun-up, you’ll find yourself at the back of a long line outside classic haunts like Leonard’s in Honolulu, or Tex Drive In on the Big Island, everyone waiting, and typically fairly patiently, for the cinnamon sugar-dusted hunks of fried dough that in most shops bear little resemblance to the ones served in Portugal. Not that it matters, and besides, the ones in Portugal don’t come filled with haupia (coconut) dobash (chocolate), or lilikoi (Hawaiian passion fruit) cream.
Idaho: French fries
Given the country’s massive, highly commercialized potato industry, you’d expect to find fantastic French fries just about everywhere. Sadly, very often, you’re faced with baskets of the same, frozen frankenspuds served in the kind of restaurants that would have to close up shop if the Sysco drivers ever went on strike. But then, you wade past so many piles of food starch-dusted frozen potatoes, and find that there is magic happening in Idaho, at places that really care, like the very-Basque-American Bar Gernika in Boise, where it’s always fresh Idaho spuds, and nicely seasoned ones at that.
Illinois: Pizza puff
You know how Italy has the panzerotti, that deep-fried pillow of pizza deliciousness? We’re really happy for them, but have they ever had a Chicago-style pizza puff, which is sort of the same thing, except not at all? Popularized in the 1970s by a family of Middle Eastern immigrants who started out making Mexican-style tamales, a pizza puff is wrapped in a tortilla, which makes it more like a pizza chimichanga, come to think of it. Whatever you call these, they’re served all over town, often in casual takeout spots and gyro joints and hot dog parlors (look for the Vienna Beef logo) in the parts of the city where people don’t spend a lot of time surfing social media for the latest food trends.
Today, the same, still-family-owned company Iltaco Foods creates most of the pizza puffs you will see around town. Occasionally, you’ll spot a great homemade version, like at Albano’s Pizzeria in Cicero, or the messy giant served at Terry’s Place, a few steps shy of the city line, out where Chicago’s West Side gives way to Oak Park.
Indiana: Pork Tenderloin Sandwich
Nowadays, we know for a fact that you can order a Wiener schnitzel and a side of fries delivered to your door in Vienna, but over a century ago, when an entrepreneurial Nick Frienstein was getting his Huntingdon business off the ground, the idea of taking the schnitzel off of the traditional table and putting in it in your hands was downright revolutionary. Well, he did it, creating the pork tenderloinsandwich, which is why we’re still talking about him today. Hoosiers figured Frienstein’s idea to be a really good one, good enough to steal for themselves. Today you’ll find the pounded-thin, breaded and fried cutlets hanging off of typically less-than-remarkable buns at unpretentious restaurants all over the state. Places like Nick’s Kitchen, come to think of it, still a fixture in Huntington one hundred years later.
Iowa: Pork Tenderloin Sandwich
Separated by Illinois, we assume to keep them from fighting over who has the best pork tenderloinsandwich, Iowa and Indiana have actually managed to keep the rivalry friendly over the years, not that either can be spotted ceding an inch of ground to the other. But facts are facts, and while the tenderloin is widely accepted as dating back further in that other state east of the Mississippi, there is also a very plausible origin story told here as well, involving Czech immigrants who settled in the Cedar Rapids area generations ago. (There’s still a unique Little Bohemia neighborhood there.) One thing’s for certain — finding a tenderloin sandwich made with great, local pork is as easy as, well, finding a tenderloin sandwich. Iowa is the country’s top pork producer, with over 23 million pigs and hogs counted in 2022. There are, for reference purposes, just 3 million people living in the state. It’s a lot of pigs.
Kansas: Chicken-Fried Steak
Put your average chicken-fried steaknext to your typical pork tenderloin, and you’ll immediately see the family resemblance. The tenderloin’s indelicate, all-American cousin belongs entirely to the hardscrabble Great Plains, popping up in places like Kansas and Colorado over a century ago as a way to make a tough, run-of-the-mill steak more palatable. Early recipes called for cracker crumbs and a gravy made from pan drippings, and little has changed today, except the varied methods of breading, and how much of the gravy is flour and flavoring versus the real thing. As long as the steak is properly tenderized, it’s nearly always highly edible.
In modern times, other states have become more quickly associated with the cowboy-grade breakfast standard, but there’s a paper trail as long as I-70, tying Kansas back to its origins, at least a couple of generations before it really took off in places like Texas. Go for the pan-fried steaks served family style at Stroud’s, a Kansas City fried chicken institution with a bustling Overland Park branch, or the crunchy specimens that land on your plate with mashed potatoes, green beans and a roll at The Barn restaurant in Burrton.
Kentucky: Fried Chicken
Life wasn’t easy in Corbin, Kentucky during the Great Depression, but the Eastern Coalfields town had at least one thing to crow about, throughout the 1930s: the fried chicken Harlan Sanders was selling at his gas station, with its secret blend of eleven herbs and spices. So popular was this chicken that in 1935, the governor of Kentucky dubbed Sanders the Colonel of Kentucky, which sounds sort of like the Appalachian version of the Queen doling out an Order of the British Empire, although it could be successfully argued that the Kentucky-fried honor carries a hell of a lot more weight. Go ahead — mention The Colonel in one of the 145 countries with a KFC franchise, and pretty much everyone will know exactly who you are talking about. Of course, fried chicken predates Mr. Sanders, and Kentucky, and even America, but to this day, the Bluegrass State takes its role in the history of the American staple very seriously.
Sanders’ old Harlan Cafe, built in 1940 after a fire, and nowadays on the National Register of Historic Places, remains a KFC, complete with drive-thru. After an extensive renovation that took place during the pandemic, the original restaurant space, right down to the open kitchen where Sanders developed his globally-famous recipe for pressure-fried chicken, looks better than it has in years. For a road trip to remember, grab a map of Kentucky’s Fried Chicken Trail, which includes at least a dozen excellent restaurants, and get eating.
Louisiana: Fried Gulf Oysters
September might be peak hurricane season in New Orleans, but there’s also cause for celebration— that’s the month when Casamento’s, the century-old Magazine Street café known for serving the very best fried Gulf oysters, unlocks its shutters and opens for oyster season, after a months-long annual break. Here, a small mountain of local oysters (or ersters, if you’ve been around here for a very long time) are dredged in a flour mixture and fried, before being piled on to toasted and buttered Pullman loaf bread. The result? One of the city’s simplest, most important sandwiches. (A spritz of Louisiana brand hot sauce or lemon is all that’s left to add, really.) The stripped-down lunchtime favorite makes your classic po’ boy seem positively over the top, not that there’s anything wrong with a fully-dressed oyster po’ boy from any number of places in the city. You might start just up the street at Domilise’s, another very old establishment with an equally fierce following.
Maine: Fried Haddock
Never mind whether or not they’ve ever crossed the Piscataqua River Bridge, most Americans can tell you exactly what summer in Maine means, which is lobster rolls. And yet, Mainers aren’t actually sitting around eating lobster rolls all day long. Sometimes, attention must be paid to the other seafoods being pulled out of the Gulf of Maine, starting with haddock, very often fried and served in a sandwich. As halibut is to Alaska, the crowd-pleasing, flaky white fish is to this side of the country’s version of the Far North — fresh-tasting, slightly sweet, and marvelous in a fish and chips basket. You’ll find great fried haddock hiding everywhere in plain sight, and like lobster, the more the place looks like a shack, chances are you’re in for a good time. Start at the outwardly humble Susan’s in Portland, where the fish is as fresh and delicious as it is (relatively) affordable, or venture out to the quietly magnificent Bet’s Fish Fry on the common in coastal Boothbay, where the hand-cut french fries are nearly as good as the main event.
Maryland: Crab Cakes
By now, there are morecrab cake recipes floating around than there are crabs wintering in the Chesapeake. After all this time, the one recipe you really need remains one of the simplest; it is also one of the older ones still in use on a daily basis, down at Faidley’s Seafood, a fixture at Baltimore’s historic Lexington Market since the late 1800s. The family-owned spot achieved national fame toward the latter part of the 20th century for their straightforward, baseball-shaped jumbo lump cakes, sprinkled with Old Bay seasoning and gently rolled together with broken saltine crackers and a simple, mustard-based sauce. Then comes the most important part — the cakes are fried, not broiled, which is where too many modern recipes go entirely wrong. (You can certainly choose to bake yours, but frying is better.) While it’s now a poorly-kept secret that most Maryland crab cakes are made with imported meat, during the season, Faidley’s, unlike most casual spots in Baltimore, will still source theirs right here, but there are others, all members of the state’s True Blue certification program, like special occasion favorite Cantler’s Riverside Inn down in Annapolis, sticking to the local supply year-round.
Massachusetts: Fried Clams
Even if Ipswich had never done a thing like invent the fried clam, said to have happened here just over a century ago, when a fellow named Woodman accepted a dare to see what the local steamers would taste like if thrown into the fryer, the town would still be one of the most magnificent places in New England. It’s a quaint burg on the coastal flats, adjacent to the region’s largest salt marsh and rife with piney bogs, possessing one of the state’s finest beaches and one of the country’s most impressive historic estates. Nowadays, however, it’s likely there’s nobody left who remembers Ipswich without its classic clam shacks, starting with Woodman’s of Essex, of course, but also including The Clam Box, on the other side of town. Chances are good in modern times that your Ipswich clams come from Maine, not that there’s anything wrong with that. Whatever the source, a basket of briny, creamy-bellied clams, dipped in flour and gently fried, consumed anywhere in this neck of the woods remains one of America’s finest road food traditions.
Michigan: Fish Fries
Boasting pristine freshwater coastline as far as the eye can see is one thing, but add a heck of a lot of Catholics living on land, and you come to understand just why Fridays in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula mean fish fries. From classic cafés to barebones VFW posts to local homes, the last workday of the week means TGIF for plates of fried whitefish or walleye or perch or smelt, a tradition adhered to with particular fervor during Lent, when churches and other local institutions will get in on the action. There’s nothing particularly sacred about the Long Branch Saloon in Faithorn, except maybe the family recipe for the beer-battered fish that comes out of the fryer, hundreds of baskets of the stuff every Friday night, year round. At Moofinfries in Naubinway, right at the very top of Lake Michigan, fresh-caught whitefish is always worth a drive. Not that you have to head above the bridge for your meatless fix. All the way down in Metro Detroit, you’re never far from a good piece of fried fish, from countless “you buy, we fry” sellers like the Redford Seafood & Fish Market, where you’ll wait in a long line most Lenten Fridays for Mississippi-raised catfish, to the nearby Scotty Simpson’s Fish & Chips, a survivor in the extremely depopulated Detroit neighborhood of Brightmoor.
Minnesota: Fried Walleye
In the land of 10,000 lakes, the plump, buttery walleye is king, or more specifically, the state fish; much of it will be reeled in along the southern end of the vast Lake of The Woods, where more than one town has been known to proclaim itself the Walleye Capital of the World. With commercial fishing all but banned, most local walleye you’ll eat in Minnesota is the walleye you catch yourself, though the Red Lake Band of Chippewa is permitted to sell to restaurants around the state, like the charming Minnesota Nice Cafe in Bemidji, where you can get a nice big fried filet served with wild rice for just over $15. Otherwise, chances are the walleye you’re eating in countless Twin Cities restaurants comes from just north of the border—most people will assure you, it’s just as good. Start your citywide explorings at St. Paul’s Tavern on Grand, serving up over 2,000 pounds of walleye every week—blackened, grilled, or fried.
Mississippi: Fried Gulf Shrimp
The last twenty years or so have heaped nearly every plague man and Mother Nature could dream up upon one relatively diminutive, 44-mile stretch of coastline. While the Magnolia State’s tiny window on the Gulf of Mexico might find itself time and again subjected to adverse conditions, the region’s historic shrimping business survives, and in some cases even thrives, even if there are fewer fisherman than there were a generation ago. From west to east, and pretty much anywhere in between south of I-10, you’re never far from a a basket brimming with (or a po’ boy stuffed with) fresh, fried Gulf shrimp. Start your search at Bozo’s Seafood Market, a legend in Pascagoula.
Missouri: Toasted Ravioli
There are a lot of stories about the foods floating around St. Louis, a very old town trafficking in edible nostalgia with a passion to rival a certain other rustic French settlement downriver. One of the more hotly contested origin stories centers on the toasted ravioli, which is really a deep-fried ravioli. Did a German fry cook at one restaurant in The Hill district, one of America’s last great Little Italy districts, really misunderstand the directive to “drop some raviolis” or not? However it happened, the rest is bar snack history. It’s one of the finest bar snacks this country has ever created, right alongside fried pickles. (See: Arkansas.) Sold everywhere from convenience stores in the suburbs to classic in-town restaurants like Charlie Gitto’s, a lot of locals feel that the best toasted ravioli around is served at the Lombardo’s family of restaurants, where they insist that their version, a fat thing stuffed with spinach and meat, came over from Sicily nearly 75 years ago, and that everyone else is wrong. Mangia, already.
Montana: Fried Pork Chop Sandwiches
Back in the 1920s, when booming Butte was one of the most happening places in the West, a guy named John Burklund used to roll up on the corner of Mercury and Main, a pile of his fried pork chop sandwichesin tow. These sandwiches were so popular that Burklund eventually opened his own restaurant Pork Chop John’s, right there on Mercury Street, which is where you’ll find it today. Cornmeal batter makes a crunchy cage for slices of boneless loin, classically topped with mustard, pickle, and onion. Only just shy of a century later, the sandwich remains a fast-food staple in Butte, and so does the restaurant, operated by another guy named John from the late 1960s up until his death just a few years ago. “I always wanted to be Pork Chop John,” John Orizotti once told a local newspaper. Dreams really do come true.
Nebraska: Cheese Frenchee
Who doesn’t love a good grilled cheese? Simple and satisfying, all ooze and crunch and dripping butter everywhere, at least when made correctly. Back in the 1950s, some enterprising Nebraskans were sitting around, pondering the beauty of that great American sandwich, and wondering how they might make it even better. The answer, it turned out, was to deep-fry it, and all this time later, you’ll still find the cheese frencheesold in restaurants like Don & Millie’s, a casual mini-chain serving Omaha and Lincoln. They weren’t the inventors of the deep-fried grilled cheese, but they got there as soon as they could. Said to have been named the Frenchee in homage to the Monte Cristo, making your own at home is actually quite simple. Instead of slathering the bread in butter and tossing it in a pan, give it a nice egg wash, drag it through some cracker crumbs or crushed corn flakes, and toss it in bubbling oil.
Nevada: Chicken and Waffles
The written history of chicken and wafflesin this country calls to mind your typical family squabble, with everyone absolutely certain that they’re right. When you think about it, however, in the rush to claim or assign credit, the larger point is being mostly ignored, which is that a lot of people wanted this perfect pairing to exist, and worked really hard — for centuries, actually — to make it a thing. Las Vegas, for example, has absolutely nothing to do with the creation of chicken and waffles, but you’d never know; the city, influenced heavily by the combo-loving cities of Los Angeles and more recently Phoenix, both having rather successfully staked their own claims as capitals of the genre, has risen to the challenge in recent years.
You’ll find great examples of the genre pretty much any day of the week, from the Flintstone-sized rendition at Hash-House-A-Go-Go, a San Diego original that has absolutely thrived here, to the Bacchanal buffet at Caesars Palace, to Phoenix transplant Lo-Lo’s Chicken & Waffles, and Orange County’s Bruxie, inventor of the walking chicken and waffle taco. Don’t miss the rendition at the homegrown Gritz Cafe, a Las Vegas soul food original, or at the modest Blueberry Hill Family Restaurant, a local institution with four locations where you’ll often encounter lines right up to the door.
New Hampshire: Cider Donuts
In an age when everything has become so visual, so slavishly trendy, the staying power of something so simple as a spiced cake donut, one tasting faintly of apple cider, offers quiet reassurance that somewhere deep inside, we’re all still longing for simplicity, for tradition, and also for sweater weather. Of course, it helps that when made correctly, these are some of the most memorable donuts you’ll ever eat. You won’t drive far around here without finding good ones, but places like Moulton Farm in Meredith, where their Cider Bellies Donuts are so popular, they had to put a limit of two dozen per order, are a sure thing.
New Jersey: Hot Dogs
From the over-the-top Italian dogs with peppers and onions at Tommy’s Italian Sausage in Elizabeth, to the simply delicious, relish-slicked rippers at Rutt’s Hut in Clifton, to the Hot Texas Weiners with mustard, chili, and onions popularized in Paterson, the Garden State may be relatively small, but their hot dog culture is mighty, and mighty diverse. The tie that binds: No matter what kind of dog you go for in the Garden State, chances are it’s a deep-fried one, because that’s just what they’re into. Try one, try them all, but if we had to choose one, it’s got to be the relatively obscure Italian variety, popularized in and around the cities of Newark and Elizabeth at a very different time for American food.
At the nearly fossilized Tommy’s, practically in the shadow of the Goethals Bridge, one dog is essentially a whole dinner, stuffed inside half a loaf of specially baked bread with peppers, onions, and a mountain of thinly-sliced, beautifully fried potatoes that could actually be a meal on their own. If you’re really hungry, opt for a fried Italian sausage link as well.
New Mexico: Sopaipilla
From the doughnut shops of Southern California to the Navajo Nation, we are essentially a collection of fried dough lovers, but just for the moment, never mind the apple fritters and fry bread and beignets and zeppoles, take a moment to consider the flawlessness of the sopaipilla. Those puffs of almost pre-historic magic are very often kissed with a little honey on their way to your table, ideally at the end of a chile-centered meal. (Unless, of course, a batch of the mini-hot air balloons lands on your table as an accompaniment while you eat, the better to mop up all that sauce.) We’ll take it both ways, early and often. Happily, this tasty, tortilla-like manifestation of the state’s rich and complex history can be found everywhere. At Tomasita’s in Santa Fe, they’re served with raw, local honey.
New York: Buffalo Wings
In these whirlwind inflation times, when your favorite local wing joint has to keep raising prices in order to stay in business, it’s difficult to imagine a day and age, not too long ago, when restaurants would throw the wing away. (Or, if they couldn’t stand to waste, they’d save them to make chicken stock.) Then, for whatever reason, back in the mid 1960s, the owner of a certain bar in a certain Western New York city decided to fry up a batch, tossing the crispy wings in a mixture of Frank’s Red Hot Sauce and melted butter. Faster than you can say salt, fat, acid, and heat, here we are now, today, taking the Buffalo wingfor granted as one of the greatest American appetizers of all time. The best ones are still up in Buffalo, at comfortable old shoe hangouts like Gabriel’s Gate, but if you’ve never been, a trip up the street to the Anchor Bar, where co-owner Theresa Bellissimo is said to have first made the magic happen back in 1964, remains an integral part of any appreciation tour.
North Carolina: Livermush
We’re talking about one of the top states in the country for barbecue, as well as the creator of pimento cheese, which is one of the finest dips (or sandwich spreads, or burger toppings, or things you eat with a spoon straight from the container) in existence. No wonder the humble, uglier-than-sin livermushcan hardly get a word in. Which is fine — we’ll gladly speak up for the primitive, nose-to-tail meat loaf, made with pork liver and everything else left over when all is said and done at the slaughterhouse. Like a sage-scented cousin to scrapple, a fried slab of livermush is the paté of the South: crispy and brown on the outside, soft and deliciously funky on the inside. It remains a preferred local breakfast meat in plenty of North Carolina households, unless, of course, they prefer to eat it for lunch — a fried slice on white bread, smeared with mustard and maybe a bit of Duke’s mayonnaise. Find this antique delicacy on menus in towns like Shelby, where they put on a Liver Mush Festival each October, or in Charlotte at classic cafes like the Circle G, where they make a fine livermush biscuit.
North Dakota: Fleischkuechle
Bearing the name of a Swabian-style deep fried meatball, the fleischkuechle as consumed on the northern reaches of the American Great Plains resembles much more closely the Crimean Chebureki, a pastry dough pocket stuffed with meat and sent to the deep fryer. The muddled origin thing makes a lot of sense, considering the Russian-German heritage of many a North Dakotan; a little from column Ja, a little from column Da, and you’ve got something like a Mitteleuropean empanada, served everywhere from the North Dakota State Fair to late-night favorite Kroll’s Diner in Fargo, where they sell thousands of fleischkuechle every week. Try the breakfast version, stuffed with pork sausage, scrambled eggs, and cheese.
Ohio: Barberton-Style Chicken
Pop quiz: Where exactly will you find the American town referring to itself as the Chicken Capital of The World? Well, it’s north of the Mason-Dixon, turns out. Barberton, a modest town adjacent to the modest city of Akron, is a place thickly settled by Serbian immigrants, who came to this country early in the 20th century, rather eager to remind everyone that that Americans aren’t the only people who know how to fry a bird. Floured up and tossed into hot lard, what came to be known as Barberton-style chicken was first served to receptive crowds at one, then two, then a whole handful of restaurants, some of them still in Barberton today. Belgrade Gardens is the original, open since 1933; your typical dinner begins with fresh, never frozen chicken, there is no seasoning, but you’ll get a side of the local hot sauce, a tomato and rice stew of sorts amped up with paprika.
Oklahoma: Calf Fries
Nostalgia chasers already know the town of Vinita fairly well. It’s here you will find Clanton’s Cafe, the oldest family-owned restaurant left on Route 66, serving up plates of chicken-fried steak, pancakes, and the other thing that makes Vinita famous: calf fries, which is just another name for beef testicles, a deep-fried snack favored in this part of the world since the cowboy days, when you consumed every part of the animal. Before the pandemic, Vinita used to host the World’s Largest Calf Fry each September, and you have to hope that it comes back — we’re talking at least 1,000 pounds-worth consumed over a day or two. Not that you have to wait for a special occasion, because you’ll find the local delicacy on menus pretty much all over the state. In Oklahoma City, the classic Cattlemen’s Steakhouse in the historic stockyards still serves up plate after plate of nicely-seasoned lamb fries, which are basically the same thing, except from lambs. Baa.
Back before Oregon became a lifestyle brand, there was a time when the height of excitement in some towns and cities was a plate of jojos, the local name for breaded and pressure-fried potato wedges often served with pressure-fried chicken, which is more commonly associated with the Midwest, home turf of The Broaster Co. Except that, and a lot of people don’t know this, unless they’ve been in Oregon longer than a minute, the ye olde version of Portland had its own pressure-frying machine scene, and a thriving one at that. Though it might feel as if everything has changed now, the city — and much of the rest of the state — still has a lot of room in its life for an order of chicken and jojos. For tradition, head to Portland’s Reel M Inn. For modern, head just a mile or so away to the terrific Jojo truck, which besides having the magic touch behind the fryer, pairs their potatoes with some mighty fine dipping sauces.
Pennsylvania: Smorgasbord Fried Chicken
There’s no Pennsylvania Dutch Country without the traditional, groaning smorgasbord, which is nothing without all-you-can-eat smorgasbord fried chicken: a simple but delicious entry into the pantheon, typically batter-dipped and only lightly seasoned. There might be more obviously thrilling chicken to be had elsewhere, but Lancaster County has a a trick up its sleeve that your average fried chicken purveyor in the country does not — these birds are often local, all-natural, and pressure-fried. Humble, yes. Memorably delicious, nearly always. Miller’s Smorgasbord in Ronks isn’t just good for chicken, it’s good period, and perhaps even better since the pandemic, but the nearby Hershey Farm Restaurant, where they also make some of the better whoopie pies in the county, is quite reliable as well.
Rhode Island: Calamari
Anointing calamari the official state appetizer wasn’t just a matter of good taste. The state’s small but hardworking fishing fleet lands more squid than any other seafood, and processes even more brought in from out of state, every year. What those other states do with the finished product is their own business, but anyone who has made a pig of themselves in front of a plate of the Rhode Island-style version, which was probably meant to be shared with the rest of the table, can tell you— lightly fried, tossed in garlic butter and showered with sliced cherry peppers, nobody does it better. Not even New York. With so much squid to go around, you’ll find all kinds of preparations, but but we’ll stick with the old ways at the likes of Andino’s, serving the Little Italy of Providence, otherwise known as Federal Hill, or the Hill, since the 1980s.
South Carolina: Hush Puppies
Served all over the South but loved a little more fervently around here, hush puppiesare a fixture at pretty much every fish dinner and barbecue feast in the state, which is to say, most meals. Maybe it’s South Carolina’s historic milling tradition, proudly carried on to this day, leaving local cooks with an abundance of fresh cornmeal, which is then be mixed with flour and tossed into the fryer, but however we got here, these simple, crispy bites, often served with honey butter, remain a staple of almost-daily life. Look for fresh-caught anything, and you’ll often locate the best pups at just-off-the-boat places like Flowers Seafood on Edisto Island. In the heart of food-loving Charleston, Hyman’s Seafood is as famous for their scraggly-delicious hush puppies as they are their fried shrimp.
South Dakota: Chislic
Meat cubes on sticks, fried in hot oil — the whole idea sounds a lot like fondue night, but that’s how chislic, one of the favorite local meals in some South Dakota towns and cities, begins. Dating back to the 19th century, when Crimean immigrants began settling in this part of the world, they adapted the shashlik tradition they brought with them. Think kabobs, basically, as they’re widely known today. Along the line, everyone just started calling it chislic, and somehow, the idea of throwing skewers on the grill turned into tossing them into the fryer. Not that the latter method is used exclusively, but it’s very common; the types of meat used will vary, but for maximum tradition-respecting, look for an establishment serving fried mutton, like Meridian Corner, a café in middle-of-nowhere Freeman that’s very much on the grid for the chislic crowd.
Tennessee: Hot Chicken
From bougie brunches to strip mall fast-casual chains, America is in love with — no, scratch that — the planet is head over heels for hot chicken, the greatest gift Nashville gave the rest of us since a 13-year-old Dolly Parton first took the stage at the Grand Ole Opry in 1959. Said to have been commonplace in local Black households for generations, the tradition of spicy fried chicken goes back a lot further than Dolly’s career, but it wasn’t until recently that the concept of an orange-red, hot pepper and lard paste being added to freshly-fried birds really started to flap its wings and fly. Try bringing it back down to earth now, and while you no longer have to travel to Tennessee to get your fix, you should definitely stop in and pay tribute to the original, Prince’s Hot Chicken, which dates back to the 1940s;the Nolansville Pike location is your best bet these days.
Texas: State Fair Food
There are more than a few states making fine arguments as to why their state fair foodis the best in the country, and then there is the State Fair of Texas, which takes the tradition of frying up everything in sigh and asks the question — how can we take things completely off the deep end? Think deep-fried Coke, a fried batter dessert invented at the 2006 fair by a computer nerd turned chef now known around town as Fried Jesus, or fried Rocky Road ice cream, battling it out with over-the-top twists on everyday local favorites like chicken-fried bacon, deep-fried kolaches packed with smoked brisket, and crispy chicken-fried steak flautas. For those that can’t make the fair this year, Fried Jesus, a.k.a. Abel Gonzales, now has his own restaurant, Texican, serving a rotating selection of the deep-fried miracles that made him such a beloved figure.
How the giant puffs of fry bread served throughout the Beehive State came to be known as sconesis unclear, and how Mormons ended up becoming committed fry bread enthusiasts in the first place is nearly as murky, except for the fact that much of Utah is firmly within the boundaries of the Southwest, which is, of course, fry bread’s spiritual home, at least in this country. Served fat and best consumed piping hot with honey butter, the Utah-style scone, or Mormon scone, might not be quite so widely available as it once was — the days of obtaining them on demand from the 24-hour drive-thru at the defunct Sconecutter mini-chain are sadly over — but the local quirk continues to take pride of place on menus here, particularly in small towns like Layton, where Sill’s Cafe sells them all day long, or Salina, at a little place called Mom’s, a neon-signed relic where people order them as a side with their chicken-fried steak.
Virginia: Gas Station Fried Chicken
Cultural law in the DMV region is fairly clear on the matter of gas station fried chicken, specifically that no community be allowed to go without at least a passable rendition of the sub-genre. Convenience store chains like Royal Farms, centered around Baltimore, have even received national attention for their contributions to fried chicken culture. It is in and around Charlottesville, however, that the tradition has been truly elevated, to the point where a road trip becomes necessary. Where you might see a run-of-the-mill mini mart by the side of a rural highway, Charlotesville chow hounds see greatness, at the likes of Mac’s Country Store in Roseland, the Chicken Coop in Lovingston, Brown’s right in Charlottesville, where you at one point were offered a free piece of chicken, and the Brownsville Market in Crozet.
The idea of searching for an American capital of poutine,when the actual capital of poutine was just barely an hour from our northern border, may have been a bit pointless up until 2020, when suddenly, you might find yourself minutes from Canada and completely unable to get there. This seems to have done wonders for the already fledgling fries-with-cheese-curds-melting-under-gravy scene in border-adjacent Burlington, where American takes and near-perfect renditions of the Quebec classic are relatively common. Start at Maudite Poutine, a popular Church Street food cart that moved into its hopefully-forever Old North End home last year.
Washington: Fried Oysters
With a modern history stretching back to the mid-1800s, when it is said that California gourmands looked north to an abundant oyster supply and liked what they saw, Washington is now the country’s largest producer of commercial shellfish, with hundreds of hard-working operations hatching and farming a quarter of the country’s total production. Oysters are big business, and more than that, these are some of the best America has to offer, almost too good for something as brilliantly lowbrow as fried oystersto become normalized. But here’s the thing about having a lot of something — you can be a little reckless, you can have a little bit of fun. And you will, everywhere from fashionable restaurants like The Walrus and The Carpenter in Seattle, where little towers of cornmeal battered locals are being dipped in cilantro aioli all throughout the dining room most evenings, to the in-town oyster and wine bars run by top dog Taylor Shellfish Farms. At their Pioneer Square location, an order of their classic, fried Pacific oysters with tartar sauce is always a fine idea.
West Virginia: Fish Sandwich
Since the 1940s, heading out to lunch in the city of Wheeling has very often meant a trip downtown to the historic Centre Market hall, where the Coleman family has been operating their busy little fish market for over a century, eventually expanding to sell what has become one of the state’s most iconic fried foods: the humble fish sandwich. Stacked high between two slices of Nickles Bakery white bread, your choices are pollock or cod, which around here is mostly referred to as Canadian White, because back in the day, or at least this is how the story goes, telling a bunch of adults who were force-fed cod liver oil as children to eat cod for their lunches didn’t really go over very well. The rebranding worked, that or people really like pollock. Most days, Coleman’s Fish Market serves up over one thousand sandwiches. On Fridays, that number can double, and then some.
Wisconsin: Fried Cheese Curds
What are the chances our forefathers could have predicted that in the 21st century, we’d all be riding around in cars, snacking on drive-through fried cheese curds from Culver’s? Pretty good, honestly, if they knew their food history. From the semolina-dusted globuli of ancient Rome to the batter-dipped sticks of medieval Paris, all the way up to the skewers of queijo coalho dusted with oregano hawked on the beaches of Brazil, fried cheese isn’t just an American thing, it’s a human being thing. Of all the ways we’ve grasped at greatness over the centuries, Wisconsin’s knack for dropping a small avalanche of squeaky-fresh curds and serving them with ranch sauce for dipping has to rank pretty highly. The fast-food version at butter burger fave Culver’s, which sources all of their curds from one Wisconsin farm, is just the come-on. From the state fair to pretty much every local brewery, and on up to fine restaurants like Graze in Madison, where Tory Miller uses Hook’s cheddar curds dipped in a vodka-laced batter, you’ll never, ever run out of options. And why should you? You’re in America’s Dairyland, after all.
Wyoming: Fried Trout
You can catch some pretty good trout in other states, but anglers interested only in a sure thing know they can always take a trip to the North Platte River, specifically a section of the river known as the Miracle Mile, not far from Rawlins, where the fish practically jumps out at you. And while the best fried troutyou’ll try around here is very often the one you cook for yourself, dredged in flour and pan-fried until nice and crispy, even in a state with few people and even fewer great restaurants, you’ll turn up some fine examples of the genre in your travels, from the crunchy trout and chips spied on the menu at the Mangy Moose, a Jackson Hole après-ski legend, to the cornmeal-dusted, pan-fried option served for breakfast at the Luxury Diner, one of Cheyenne’s old reliables.