The fried pickle—now appearing on Philadelphia bar menus from Fairmount to Pennsport—isn’t some weird menu novelty. The fact is that batter-dipped dills and gherkin have been an American culinary treasure for a long time. The sour snack was invented in 1963 by Bernell “Fatman” Austin, who served them out of the Dutchess Drive-In restaurant in Atkins, Arkansas. Thanks to writer John T. Edge and a surge of bad-times enthusiasm for all those feel-better foods of the American South, the cuisine of Dixieland has a renewed cachet among chefs all over the country. And Philly is not immune to the charms of any deep fried snack that’s often served with a pot of sweet and spicy house-made mayonnaise. Here’s where to find some of the best versions around the city right now:
Cut in sandwich-style waffle chips, these slices ($4) are battered in cheese-enhanced breadcrumbs and egg before their dive into deep-fryer. Don’t worry if you miss them on the menu. You can only order them by special request. (Though they are served as a side with the BBQ sandwich.) You’ll need to remember to request a dipper from the various sauces available. One bartender says he always pairs them with the house-made Thousand Island dressing, while a fellow patron suggested the buffalo aioli.
Nothing beats eating fried pickle chips ($6) on a late summer night outside and underneath holiday lights. But it only serves to add the charm that is Northern Liberties’ El Camino Real. Battered in cornmeal and garlic powder, these chips are crunchy, juicy, and light. Piled in a big basket and paired with a spicy chili mayo, they are are almost as easy to eat as French fries. If you’re looking for added spice, try pairing them with a jalapeno margarita. That duo is guaranteed to clear even the stuffiest sinuses.
Don’t be disappointed by the sight of this plate of pickles ($4). Your first thought staring down at a meager serving of four slices will be that you have paid one dollar per pickle chip. And—regrettably—you already offered to share. But these chips are thick, generous cuts coated in a substantial batter made up of three types of flour and cream ale. Like Village Whiskey, you need to know to ask for them: The fried pickles are off-menu.
The Happy Rooster’s house-brined pickled spears ($6) are big, briny beasts. Battered in flour and Kenzinger, they pair especially well the brew that is integral to their recipe. These pickles are fried to a pale golden hue, and the crust is less crunchy than some fried food aficionados might crave. But the resulting pickle is far juicier than most others and it brims with fresh flavor. A hearty sidecar of tobacco-infused mayo takes it completely over the top.
These are the cheapest of the recent crop of crispy pickles ($3), but The Corner does not sacrifice flavor or quality to make that happen. Brined in-house and coated in a simple batter made from water, salt, and flour, the pickles emerge from the deep fryer with remarkable freshness and crunch. The wedge shape of the pickles means there’s a pleasing variety of textures from lacy, crackly edges to the thicker vinegar-drenched center. The spicy mayo served alongside adds welcome creaminess and kick.
Though the most expensive at $7, the Taproom has perfected the spear form, creating a crispy, golden brown exterior without compromising the flavor or juiciness of the pickle within. The horseradish buttermilk dip is also unusually good—an inspired twist on the usual chile-spiked accompaniment for fried pickles in this town. Battered in buttermilk and flour, these huge spears are heavily coated and incredibly filling. There’s plenty to share.
Photos by Kara Khan