We've gone fancy
As Dallas restaurants turn to nostalgia, Frito pie emerges as the new must-have dish
When our forecast of dining trends for 2013 came out, we somehow overlooked a major trend, looming right under our nose: the funky concoction known as Frito pie.
This white trash dish, consisting of chili poured over Fritos corn chips, is a cousin to ballpark nachos. Despite its humble roots, Frito pie has emerged as a menu must-have, at new places such as Stateside Pie & Beer in Mesquite; FM Smoke House, opening soon in Irving; and, most notably, at Stephan Pyles' new Texana restaurant Stampede 66.
These new restaurants join veteran Frito pie purveyors Sonny Bryan's, Tillman's Roadhouse in Bishop Arts, Tolbert's in Grapevine, and Jen’s Place in North Dallas, which preceded the current trend. It makes sense for those pioneers, who all share an down-home mien.
At Stampede 66, house-made chili is served in a custom-labeled Stampede 66 Texas chili can. They even make their own "Freetos."
But now, bang, it's surfaced at three new places this month.
The State Fair of Texas helped set the stage. Deep-fried Frito pie won first prize for Best Taste in 2010 in the fair's annual Big Tex fried food awards. Then, last October, the fair staged the world's largest Frito pie.
The fair inspired Christi and Brian Rudolph, who own Holy Grail Pub in Plano, to put it on the menu at FM Smoke House.
"In October, we did a whole week of State Fair foods at Holy Grail," Christi says. "We did a house-made Twinkie and fried it. We did deep-fried bacon. For Frito pie, we did our own spin with smoked brisket. It sold out every day. It was our top-seller. It outsold our burgers and our fish and chips."
Food writers Jane and Michael Stern declared that the dish was invented in Santa Fe, New Mexico, but Texas' longtime relationship with chili, a key ingredient, made Frito pie a staple at football games and high school cafeterias across the state.
"If you grew up in Texas and went to public school, it was something they'd serve periodically at the cafeteria," Christi says. "People would say, 'It's Frito pie day!' On its own, it's not exactly a gourmet dish. But you can add your own spin to make it more adult and exciting."
In its most modest, quick-and-dirty form, it consists of a bag of Fritos topped with a can of Wolf brand chili, pre-shredded cheddar cheese and, for the mom who was going all out, a diced onion. Heat until cheese is melted and serve.
Tolbert's version stars its legendary chili, with chunks of beef braised until soft, and tortilla chips on the side. Sonny Bryan's features its chopped brisket with barbecue sauce. Tillman's is served in a fancy white bowl with venison, white cheddar, chopped green onion and a dollop of sour cream.
Stampede 66's rendition is artisanal and kitschy, with house-made chili served in a custom-labeled Stampede 66 Texas chili can. They even make their own "Freetos."
It's part of a bigger trend in which low-end foods like tacos and fried chicken get re-imagined as something grand. Nostalgia is the underlying theme.
"I asked myself, what is the idea — what are our childhood memories of chili?" Pyles says. "We would make chili in the fall, but that was taking the can opener out and opening a can of Wolf brand chili. That was the inspiration for our approach to serving it."