A Hungry Man Walks Into a Bar…

While gastropubs may elevate bar food to new heights, there’s something comforting about traditional American bar fare.

Cheese, spice, and basically anything fried are staple options. But here are just a few standbys of American bar menus—some pervasive and well-known, some local and unusual—and how to get them.

Buffalo Wings
Buffalo wings are ubiquitous bar food, but can be as diverse in flavor as you can imagine. The original deep-fried, spicy, and notably vinegary chicken wings came about reportedly from a little late-night kitchen magic in Buffalo, New York, in 1964. The story goes that Teressa Belissimo of Frank and Teressa’s Anchor Bar fried up some extra chicken wings, doused them in hot sauce, and served them up with blue cheese dressing and celery. Depending on who tells the story, she either whipped these up for her drunken son and his friends or to satisfy demands from hungry patrons. Little did she know she was creating a hot-wing sensation that continues to this day.

Fried Curds (or “Squeak”)
Unless you are lucky enough to live near a cheese-making facility, it’s likely you’ve never eaten curds. Curds are formed during the cheese-making process, after the milk has curdled (hence the term “curd”) through acidification, causing the liquid whey and solid curd to separate. When making cheddar, after the curd is separated from the whey, the curds are not molded as are most cheeses, but are left to draw together into what is called a curd cake. The “cake” is then cut and stacked in layers to press out the whey and left to acidify further. This whole process is called “cheddaring.” After this, the curd mass is milled, or cut into small pieces. The milled curds are then salted, put into molds and pressed.

In Wisconsin, especially, the scraps of the milled curd tend to become snacks as well as cheese. There, they can be found at farmer’s markets, fairs, and—you guessed it—bars. The slightly soft, chewy curds have a very short shelf life (they should be eaten within a day), and hence don’t travel far from their hometowns. These curds are also known as the diminutive-sounding “squeak” for the squeaking sound they make when you bite into them. Breaded and fried, however, the curds become both crunchy, and chewy, two favored features of any bar food.

For where to find the very best in curds, check out these thorough reviews, dedicated solely to cheese curds.

(Curds , by the way, make another appearance north of the border, in a dish called poutine. This Canadian bar food concoction consists of fries, curds, and gravy. That’s right…with gravy…. Not exactly light fare.)

Louisville Hot Brown
Do not be scared off by the unfortunate name of this open-faced sandwich. Created at the Brown Hotel in Louisville, Kentucky during the Roaring ‘20s, a hot brown is a slice of toast layered with tomato, roast turkey, Mornay sauce, and bacon, which is actually altogether unlike a bacon-topped Welsh Rarebit. Although most people outside of Louisville have likely (and unfortunately) not heard of it, beware that it may make an appearance on menus masked by other, less-offensive aliases. I always knew of it as the more enticing Cheese Dream. This one is not to be missed.

Beer-battered Pickles
Think salt-and-vinegar fried zucchini. Fried pickles begin to appear on menus as you travel south from Tennessee and Virgina. They seem to be especially prevalent through the Carolinas, where you might see them called chicken-fried pickles, alongside other bar food snacks like fried okra and boiled peanuts. For a treat, if you’re ever in Raleigh, North Carolina, try them at the Raleigh Times.

Oysters
I wouldn’t call them pretty, but they are pretty delicious. These bivalves don’t just get featured on a bar menu, they often get their own bar. And unlike other bar food, they don’t have to be fried or served with a sauce to be tasty. From the eastern seaboard to the west, briny to buttery, blue points to hama hamas,  oysters in their purest form run the gamut in flavor. These little guys certainly have terroir of the sea.

But the beauty of any oyster bar is that if you prefer to dress them up, you can add as little or as much as you like: A mignonette to add a tang to your briny half shell; bacon (angels on horseback) or breadcrumbs (Rockefeller); individually breaded, fried, and sandwiched in a baguette (po’ boy), or rolled into a patty and deep fried (rolled oyster). You pretty much have your choice of how you’d like to serve them up—or, you might say, the world is your oyster.