Food-obsessed New York City lost its collective mind earlier this summer when Frito-Lay announced it would open a Cheetos-centered popup restaurant under the direction of celebrity chef Anne Burrell. The three-day popup was the hottest ticket in town during its brief life, providing proof positive that gourmet junk food hits all the right buttons.
Whether you think of it as simple nostalgia or a tasty break from earnestly healthy food, it’s clear that junk food recipes take on a whole different life in the hands of a good chef. Here are 10 noteworthy examples of the trend from eateries across the country. They vary in price and sophistication, but each one presents familiar ingredients in unexpected and interesting ways.
1. Cheeto Sushi Burrito, Low-Key Poke Joint — $8.99
Ceviche is so last-decade. The hot new way to serve uncooked fish is as poke, a Hawaiian take on marinated seafood. The Low-Key Poke Joint, a popular California eatery with locations in Garden Grove, Loma Linda and Riverside, blends Hawaiian, Japanese and mainland flavors into a singular take on the trend. Its Cheeto sushi “burrito” is a signature example of the style. The concoction begins with green tea-infused bamboo “Bootea” rice and a generous helping of salmon and tuna poke wrapped in nori seaweed and then dusted with either regular or Screamin’ Hot Cheetos. Alternatively, order it as a poke bowl and add Cheetos as a topping. Prices start at $11.
Burrito for brunch? It’s another crazy eating option, and something to try at some of the most extravagant brunch choices across the country.
2. Fried Bologna Sandwich, Au Cheval — $11.95
Chicago’s Au Cheval describes its food as “elevated diner fare.” What does that mean? Well, consider the eatery’s approach to something as simple and nostalgic as a fried bologna sandwich. To start with, the bologna itself is made from scratch in-house. Then it’s shaved thin and piled on the grill in mounds, where the outside crisps while the inside softens. Then it’s stacked high on a soft roll with melted cheese and a dollop of dijonnaise. It’s become a signature dish at the restaurant, where locals literally line up out the door to get one.
3. Compost Cookies, Momofuku Milk Bar — $16.60
The Momofuku chain of restaurants is the brainchild of chef David Chang, but his wildly popular Milk Bar bakeries owe their success to quirky-but-brilliant pastry chef Christina Tosi. Her off-the-wall creations famously tap childhood nostalgia and junk food ingredients to make obsession-worthy treats that keep customers coming back. Her Compost Cookies are a brilliant example, loaded with salty, crunchy pretzels and potato chips as well as more conventional butterscotch and chocolate chips. If you can’t get to a Milk Bar location — they’re in New York City, Las Vegas, Toronto and Washington, D.C. — you can have six individually wrapped Compost Cookies delivered to your door in a gift tin for $16.95.
4. Cheetos Macaron, Macaron Parlour Patisserie — $15.00
The French culinary tradition is filled with sweet and savory treats that are deceptively simple, but somehow maddeningly difficult to execute well. One example is macarons, simple meringue cookies usually filled with buttercream or ganache. Even traditional French patisseries serve them in a range of colors and flavors, but New York City’s Macaron Parlour pushes them into an utterly unfamiliar territory. Their borderline sacrilegious Cheetos-infused macaron is one you definitely won’t see on your next trip to Paris. It’s salty and sweet, strangely addictive, and, yes, it will leave your fingers covered with orange dust. The shops are located in New York, but you can order six for $15 and have them delivered to your door.
5. Mac ‘n’ Cheetos, The Attic — $9.00
When it comes to childhood comfort food, macaroni and cheese is right at the top of the list. Many chefs have tapped into that nostalgic vein with their own jazzed-up versions of the classic, but few approach it with the conviction of Steve Massis, proprietor of Southern-themed restaurant The Attic in Long Beach, California. His menu includes a sidebar section with no fewer than six variations on Mac ‘n’ Cheetos, his own signature take on mac and cheese with a topping of hot Cheetos. Pricing starts at just $10, and your options include smoked bacon, mushrooms, jalapenos and even braised short ribs or fried chicken.
6. Dark Chocolate Pop Rocks, The Bazaar — $8.00
Spanish chef José Andres originally made his reputation at Washington, D.C.-area restaurants Jaleo and Café Atlantico, where he helped make Spanish tapas a hot trend several decades ago. He now presides over a thriving empire of 26 restaurants, where he reinterprets both Spanish and American cuisine. One of the quirkier examples of that fusion is his dark chocolate Pop Rocks, available from The Bazaar by José Andres in Beverly Hills, California, and Miami Beach, Florida. As the name suggests, the austere richness of good dark chocolate gets an injection of fun from the iconic, tongue-tickling candies.
7. Totchos, Oaks Bottom Public House — $7.00
Some of the foods on this list are brilliant examples of chefly skill. This one falls more into the facepalming, “Why didn’t I think of that?” category. there are dozens of mouth-watering ways to cook with potatoes, and this is one of the best. Taking already addictive Tater Tots as your base, with their crisp exterior and creamy interior, and then loading them with cheese and nacho toppings? That’s simple late-night brilliance, the kind of thing party hounds will trek across town to eat. You’ll find Tater Tot nachos, or “totchos,” at a number of restaurants around the country, but the Oaks Bottom Public House in Oregon may have been the very first to do it. It’s only appropriate, given that Tater Tots are an Oregon invention dating back to the 1950s. A small order will cost only $7.
8. Spam Sliders, Marination Restaurant — $3.00
When you live on relatively small islands in the middle of a massive ocean, durable shelf-stable groceries are definitely your friend. That may be why Spam is such a staple in Hawaii, where Marination chef Kamala Sexton grew up. She’s been evangelizing for the iconic canned meat since coming to the mainland, and the Spam sliders at her popular Seattle food truck and restaurants are legendary. They make a perfect happy hour destination. The seasoned ham is glazed with teriyaki and served on soft buns with a spicy secret sauce and a crunchy pickled ginger slaw, making a deliciously messy lunch that local residents can’t get enough of. $3 a slider is a perfect price for these crazy tasty treats.
9. Cereal Milk Soft Serve, Momofuku Milk Bar — $5.00
If there’s one restaurant chain that’s all-in on the concept of junk food recipes, it has to be Momofuku Milk Bar. Tosi has a genuine gift for finding nostalgically offbeat flavors to use in her sweet treats, and the greatest example of that brilliant simplicity might be cereal milk. After all, who didn’t grow up slurping the leftover milk from the bottom of the bowl? Her version steeps classic, simple corn flakes in milk, then uses the flavored milk to make desserts such as soft-serve ice cream. You can order it at the stores in New York, Toronto, Las Vegas and Washington, D.C. Prices start at $5 and depend on serving size and toppings. Ice cream, alas, isn’t available for home delivery, but you can find deals on ice cream wherever you look.
10. Flash-Seared Hamachi with Pop Rocks, TAG Restaurant — $17.00
TAG chef Troy Guard grew up in Hawaii, a place where Asian traditions mingle freely with low-brow Americana (Spam is a staple there, after all). If there’s a dish on his menu that captures that free flow of culinary ideas better than any other, it’s his Flash Seared Hamachi with Pop Rocks. The delicate tuna is seared briefly, then served with jalapeno, baby tatsoi, truffle soy and myoga under a scattering of Pop Rocks. That unlikely combination somehow works, with the candy’s on-the-tongue liveliness and sweetness balancing the dish’s savory notes.