I’m an unapologetic foodie and and a completely pretentious alcohol snob just like the rest of you. So, of course, I enjoy going to nouvelle gastropubs and pairing my saisons with housemade charcuterie plates, or sopping up cleverly-crafted cocktails with “small plates” of pickled whatevers and truffled something-or-others. But, you know, sometimes I also really start to miss the simple, greasy, fried, and great bar food we grew up with. Where the hell did it all go?
It used to go without saying that any place where you could grab a cold beer would also serve you a massive plate of loaded nachos. Not any more. Meanwhile, it’s become damn near impossible to find chicken tenders or mozzarella sticks. Jalapeño poppers? Forget about it. Those foods were great, they were the perfect foods to pair with beer and mixed drinks—even craft beer and mixologist-approved cocktails. I miss them dearly.
Just a few weeks ago, I found myself thinking about potato skins. Remember those? Giant halves of potatoes, the somewhat healthy white insides almost completely scooped out and replaced with melted cheddar cheese, bacon bits, and piles of sour cream. Back in the ‘90s and early-2000s, it would have been unthinkable for any joint worth its salt not to have some on its “bar bites” menu. But in 2014, I’ve realized they are damn near impossible to simply stumble upon while making your weekly drinking rounds. The snooty spots I frequent would never dream of offending today’s Paleo, low-carb, gluten-free masses with such a down-market snack.
I really start to miss the simple, greasy, fried, and great bar food we grew up with. Where the hell did it all go?
My suspicions were, in fact, sadly confirmed. Using the “Find-a-food” search box on MenuPages.com, I was distressed to see that a mere 417 New York City bars and restaurants (out of 17,390 cataloged) currently serve potato skins…and none were in my neighborhood. So I found myself simply wandering the streets of the Upper East Side, stopping in front of dumps I would never deign to enter to inspect their outside menus, assuming that only a behind-the-times shithole would still have them. Indeed, I finally I located a broken-down Irish pub in the east 90s with some skins on their menu. And, yes, of course, they were GREAT.
Even though we know this kind of bar food is delicious, items like potato skins and jalapeño poppers (a mere 179 “Find-a-Food” listings) are clearly fighting off extinction in New York and other cities where “artisan” trumps tried-and-true. We never quit liking them—slick bar owners just somehow made us forget all about them. You probably haven’t thought about either in years, too busy wondering if you can add some shaved Brussels sprouts or a chopped kale salad alongside the Negroni you just ordered. But, as a result, we’re losing something essential about the American bar experience.
Potato skins and jalapeño poppers are clearly fighting off extinction in New York and other cities where ‘artisan’ trumps tried-and-true.
This hankering for these classics isn’t just a matter of nostalgia, either—it’s about under-equipped bars flying flying too close to the sun. Not every pub kitchen out there can deliver a burrata as glorious as the one at Bar Sardine, but almost all could handle breading and frying some mozzarella and serving it with a big tub of marinara sauce.
Not every tavern has the ability to roll out bowls of sea-salted shishito peppers like the mind-blowing ones at Toro. But some jalapeño poppers with a cool ranch dipping sauce will always hit the spot for any drinker with a pulse, even if a short-order cook yanked them out of the freezer a few minutes ago.
And for God’s sake, all you rinky-dink corner bars out there, keep the loaded nachos (+$4 to add chicken) on your menus! They work. They’re easy to make. We enjoy them. And that exotic poutine you’ve replaced them with is frequently soggy and an insult to the truly great ones served at places like Mile End or Uglyduckling.
Not all mac and cheese needs truffles, not ever burger needs to be miniaturized into unfulfilling slider form.
Maybe I’m just a New York snob. Maybe where you live in Pittsburgh or Atlanta or Kansas City or Denver you’re thinking, “What is he talking about?! All our bars still have these awesome things.” But I know that’s not true. No matter where I travel in America these days, outside of chain restaurants and their microwaved “appe-teasers,” poppers and sticks and tenders and skins have completely disappeared, replaced with pricy mousses and pates and terrines and crudos and goddamned pickled everything. It doesn’t have to be that way.
I get that chefs want to find ways to “elevate” basic bar foods like burgers and tater tots to squeeze a little more money out of us. But why have they completely ignored the true bar-food classics—the ones that were always guaranteed to appear on those massive “sampler” platters you always wanted, but were always too ashamed to order…until you got too drunk to care?
Luckily, there are a few places still keeping it real, which I’ve listed below. Let’s just hope they keep fighting the good fight, continuing to realize that not all mac and cheese needs truffles, not every burger and po’boy needs to be miniaturized into unfulfilling slider form, and we don’t always need a selection of 13 farmhouse cheeses to choose from when we’re out getting bombed.
After all, if we let the potato skin die, what does that say about our national heritage?
The Sampler Platter
The New York bars still keeping their bar food real.
Potato skins at Molly’s If you’re going to be one of the few places still serving potato skins, then you might as well go big or go home. And, sure enough, this sawdust-covered Irish pub goes BIG. A mere three skins arrive on your plate, but each are as massive as an over-turned frisbee, with what must be an entire block of cheddar cheese shredded on them and a whole packet of bacon strips crumbled atop. The bar even has a “Reuben-style” add-on, which is just as good as you’re imagining it to be. (287 3rd Ave, 212-889-3361)
Loaded nachos at Professor Thom’s The folks at this Beantown-boosting sports bar cares about their loaded nacho program that they chose a mouth-watering shot of the dish for their online menu’s backdrop, a savvy marketing move if there ever was one. The nachos at Thom’s have no foodstuffs on them you wouldn’t expect—sorry foodies, they aren’t topped with beef short-rib or pork belly or any other bullshit that would turn them into a $19 plate of Tostitos—and they come in three serving sizes, the largest (the “triple”) delivered on an 18-inch pizza tray. (219 2nd Ave, 212-260-9480)
Jalapeño poppers at Mudville 9 Yes, this downtown spot is most famous for dirt-cheap wings (and twentysomething finance guys summarily “crushing” plate after plate of them), but they also have some insane jalapeño poppers. Made with real cheddar cheese—as opposed to some artificial liquid “cheeze”—and served with a side of chili mayo, they boast a peppery zing that’ll have you reaching for a brew from the better-than-you’d-expect craft-beer offerings. (126 Chambers St, 212-964-9464)
Mozzarella sticks at Village Pourhouse Now, they aren’t “sticks” per se, but the “luna mozzarella” at this fratty hangout is even better…and not because it’s are elevated in any way. The shape of these fried half-moons of mozzarella provides a bigger-than-usual gooey explosion every time you bite into one. The Pourhouse also has a solid enough craft-beer list and is a great spot to watch games. (64 3rd Ave, 212-979-2337; 982 Amsterdam Ave, 201-792-2337)
Chicken tenders at Keg & Lantern A cool-neighborhood Brooklyn spot with vintage beer cans lining an entire wall might first make you think, “Uh oh, the food here is gonna’ be some serious frou-frou hipster shit.” Instead, it’s the standard bar food I’ve discussed above, jacked up to epic proportions by the cooks at this incredibly comfy local sports bar. Best of all, Keg & Lantern now brews its own house beers in the basement to bolster the 32 craft tap lines. (97 Nassau Ave, 718-389-5050)