Fancy fried pickles
Southern starter is popping up in unexpected places

When first presented with the idea, many diners back away. A fried what? But by simply giving the appetizer away, Randal Hughes is able to coax waffling eaters into sampling fried pickles.

In other words, he is able to get customers hooked on the savory fried starter.

"A lot of people are hesitant to try fried pickles," said Hughes, the local market partner for Mimi's Cafe. "That's why I'll pass them around for free. Just to get people to try them. Because once you try them, you'll crave them."

It's true, as Todd Ginsberg can attest. The head chef at Tap, a new gastropub in Atlanta, said the dish has been the No. 1 snack food on his bar menu since the restaurant opened about six months ago.

Vendor Mandy Calloway had trouble keeping the snack in stock at the recent Gwinnett County Fair, where she went through more than 35 plates of fried pickles in half a day.

And Lauren Black, general manager at The Fickle Pickle in Roswell, said the fried fare is their most requested menu item, with diners coming from across the Southeast to get a taste.

"The dish is legendary," she said.

Pickle appeal

Just what is it about this simple fried snack that brings diners out of the woodwork? For one thing, it's fried, and "everything is great when it's fried," Black said.

For another, fried pickles present a nearly perfect combination of tartness and acidity.

"It's perfectly balanced," Ginsberg said. "They have a very unique taste that lingers on your tongue and leaves this great flavor in your mouth."

The dish's distinctly Southern roots don't hurt, either. In recent years, there has been a push in the metro dining scene for restaurants to get back to their Southern origins. Fried pickles fit perfectly into that mix, Ginsberg said.

"Trends are cyclical, and right now, Southern foods are very in," he said. "But we're planning to keep the fried pickles on our menu for quite some time. I think there would be an uproar if we didn't."

However, Hughes is quick to point out that while the South may be credited with the invention of fried pickles, the dish is not merely a Southern thing. Mimi's Cafe sells just as many fried pickle appetizers in California as they do in Georgia, he said.

"I'm not a Southern Southern boy, but I am a southern California boy, and I love fried pickles," Hughes said. "You may find our customers in northern California are more reluctant to try fried pickles, but when they do, they love them just as much. It's really a snack with universal appeal."

Simple sampling

It doesn't take a culinary mastermind to understand the basics of a fried pickle. The recipe is right there in the name: pickles, that are deep-fried. That doesn't mean all fried pickles are the same, though. If anything, it's quite the opposite. Since the dish is so elementary in form, it lends itself to whimsical alterations and flavorful variations.

Mimi's Cafe takes its pickles down a traditional route - using a cornmeal crust and offering them with a side of ranch and Thousand Island dressings.

Packing a little more of a punch are the garlic and jalapeno pickles at The Fickle Pickle. Beside the plate of fried goodness is a creamy Cajun dipping sauce, which Black says is just the right amount of spicy.

"Honestly, I didn't want to try them at first because I didn't think I would like it. I thought, how can that be good? But then I ate some, and I fell in love," she said. "It's not all that spicy, but has this great kick in it."

At Tap, where all the pickles are made in-house, chefs soak the pickles in a rich buttermilk, then dust them with cornmeal and panko flakes before sending them to the fryer. As for the dip of choice, they go for a thick Irish blue cheese fondue.

"When you put that bite of pickle into your mouth, followed by a taste of the distinct blue cheese, it's an indescribable flavor," Ginsberg said. "That's the great thing about fried pickles. They can be simple, or you can dress them up. And either way, it's going to be good."

SideBar: Fried Pickles

2 gallons peanut oil

11⁄4 cups all-purpose flour, divided

1 cup milk

1 large egg

3⁄4 cup coarse-ground cornmeal

1 (1-pint) jar dill pickle chips, drained

Ranch dressing, optional

Pour oil into a deep fryer; heat to 350 degrees. Place 3⁄4 cup flour in a shallow dish. Combine milk and egg in a medium bowl, stirring well with a whisk. Combine remaining 1⁄2 cup flour and cornmeal in another shallow dish. Dredge pickles in flour; dip in egg mixture. Dredge in cornmeal mixture. Fry pickles at 350 degrees for 4 minutes or until golden, turning once. Remove pickles. Serve with ranch dressing. Serves 4 to 6 people.

Source: LouAna Peanut Oil

Pickle Spots

Got a hankerin' for some deep-fried pickles? Here are the top spots in the metro area for the simple, Southern snack:

Mimi's Cafe, 1880 Mall of Georgia Blvd., Buford. Call 770-614-0554 or visit www.mimiscafe.com.

Tap, 1180 Peachtree St., Atlanta. Call 404-347-2220 or visit www.tapat1180.com.

The Fickle Pickle, 1085 Canton St., Roswell. Call 770-650-9838 or visit www.ficklepicklecafe.com.

One Midtown Kitchen, 566 Dutch Valley Road, Atlanta. Call 404-892-4111 or visit www.onemidtownkitchen.com.