The Origins Of Pittsburgh's French Fry-Topped Salad

Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, is a metropolis more known for its working class, industrial history and sports teams than for its food scene. But if you take a good, hard look at the city, you'll find unique, delicious dishes that are not only the pride of its residents but that impress almost everyone who visits the City of Bridges. Pittsburghers proudly claim an affinity for pepperoni rolls and pierogies (there is even a pierogi race during every Pirates home game), two dishes it does frequently and well. The city is home to chipped chopped ham sandwiches, fries on sandwiches, Potato Patch fries at Kennywood (Pittsburgh's historic amusement park), and even french fries on salads. It's obvious: Pittsburgh loves its fried potatoes.

In Steel City, the claim that putting fries on a salad defeats the purpose of ordering a salad is blithely brushed off. That point simply doesn't matter; the purpose of the dish is that it tastes really good and woe to the critics. Like so many of the world's greatest foods, the origin of putting french fries on greens is hazy at best, but naturally, claims have been staked on the concept, not by people in the city itself, but close by.

The salad was inspired by a customer's order

About a 45-minute drive north of Pittsburgh is the small town of Beaver, where Jerry's Curb Service has been serving consistently good, unpretentious food since 1947. The classic drive-in style restaurant draws in many Pittsburghers and other out-of-towners, particularly in the warm summer months. It's here that the french fry-topped salad known as Pittsburgh salad was supposedly first created. Serious Eats recounts that a hungry customer arrived in the early 1960s and placed an order for a steak sandwich with fries and salad dressing...without the bun. Upon receiving his order, the customer cut up the steak, scattered the fries on top, and covered everything with the dressing. Donna Reed, owner Jerry's wife, was understandably curious about what she saw, so she recreated the concoction for herself but put everything on some salad greens. It's been on the menu ever since, not as "Pittsburgh salad" but as "steak salad." Several other meat options can top the greens as well.

But the now-closed Hilltop Grill, located just across from Beaver in Rochester, PA, also claimed to have invented the Pittsburgh salad. Wherever it came from, word of the dense dish spread throughout the region, and today, Pittsburgh salads are just about as synonymous with the city as Heinz ketchup is. Whether touted as Pittsburgh salad, steak salad, grilled chicken salad, etc, they are all the same, wonderful thing.

French fries are the key

A traditional Pittsburgh salad is really quite simple. It seems more weight and importance is given to the perfection of the fries than to the elements that technically make it a salad. The lettuce doesn't matter, although crunchy types are best, such as iceberg and romaine. The vegetables are minimal: cucumbers, tomatoes, and maybe a thick slice of red onion. Your choice of grilled (or fried) meat is sliced and laid atop the veggies, plus a heaping portion of crispy fries and a very generous sprinkling of shredded cheddar cheese. The dressing is usually ranch or Italian.

Healthy? Hardly. Surprisingly yummy? Absolutely. This isn't the lunch option for someone wanting a nice light salad but more for the ravenous who still want some veggies for good measure. Variations of the ingredients are naturally plentiful, with eateries including more vegetables, hard-boiled eggs, grilled fish, and even house-made tater tots in lieu of french fries. Basically, if fried taters are present, you've got yourself a Pittsburgh salad.

Pittsburgh salad is rare outside of its birthplace

In the city of Pittsburgh, a Pittsburgh salad can be found from the shadiest of dive bars to the hippest of bistros. Local Pittsburgh restaurants that are considered verifiable food institutions in the 'Burgh, like Pamela's and Eat'n Park, offer the salad, as does the acclaimed Tessaro's, which serves their steak version with grilled onions, mushrooms, and crispy home fries. The surrounding boroughs and cities of Pittsburgh are also plentiful in restaurants that include the famous salad on their menus.

Once you leave the immediate area, however, a Pittsburgh salad is going to be more difficult to find. Fortunately, it shouldn't be difficult to customize your own wherever you are. Simply order a salad with your choice of meat, a side of french fries, and dressing on the side. You could also request a dish of shredded cheese if you're going all in. Assemble the sides on your own, and — boom — you've got a western Pennsylvania specialty. If you get strange looks, just brush them off the way they do in Pittsburgh and pity those munching on their nice, light salads.