Potato Fry Bread Just Got A Serious Upgrade

Chefs are taking fry bread from humble comfort food to showstopper

"I think it's one of the dishes that makes carnivores not want a slice of pepperoni pizza on the way home," chef John Fraser says of the already-infamous potato fry bread at his new, vegetarian restaurant, Nix, in New York City.

This isn't Native American fry bread but an Eastern European-inspired potato version that's popped up on three of NYC's hottest menus. Both decadent and humble, this trendy comfort food fulfills everything diners crave these days. And the versions at Covina, Nix and Agern are dressing this traditionally simple dish to the nines.

Chef Tim Cushman serves Covina's fluffy potato bread straight from the fryer with smoked salmon and an herby, house-made kefir ranch that's so good it may start its own trend (see the recipe).

Also the chef and co-owner of Japanese restaurant O Ya, Cushman knows his way around multiple cuisines. Though he describes Covina as California Mediterranean, the menu also honors the restaurant's multicultural home base. Lamb kofta is a nod to nearby Curry Hill, and the fry bread touches on one of NYC's classic breakfasts: a bagel with lox and cream cheese.

Cushman had the dish planned for Covina long before he knew of the other fry breads that almost simultaneously surfaced in the city.

"When I first started cooking in L.A. in the 1980s," he says, "Hopi Indian fry bread was one of the buzzwords of the moment, and that was my first experience doing a puffy fried bread."

Chef Tim Cushman | Photo: Jessica Nash

Later, Cushman found himself making deep-fried pizza at an Italian restaurant in Chicago, and his latest iteration was inspired by the Hungarian langos he tried a few years ago at Bar Tartine. Chef Nick Balla ate langos when he lived in Budapest as a high school student, and loved it with sour cream, cheese and garlic.

"At Bar Tartine, we served something inspired by this classic version. Chad [Robertson] made the bread using potato and fermented it using the Tartine starter. We used our homemade sour cream, garlic, dill powder and black pepper," Balla says. Toppings included lox and farmer cheese with caraway, beef tartare with pickles, and bottarga and tonnato sauce.

The fry bread at Nix is also a play on Eastern European fried bread. It comes "fully loaded" like a "steakhouse baked potato," Fraser says. Freshly ground black pepper, scallions and crisp radishes provide relief to the seriously rich and greasy potato bread, covered in sour cream and Cabot white cheddar. Fraser's not kidding when he calls it a "mortal sin." This dish is the definition of addictive.

Agern, Claus Meyer and chef Gunnar Gíslason's newly opened restaurant, offers yet another take. This one is inspired by an Icelandic fry bread called soðið brauð that Gíslason grew up eating. Traditionally served "fresh from the pot" with butter and cheese, Gíslason calls it one of his favorite foods. At Agern, the potato bread is made of half mashed potato and half sourdough, and comes with buttermilk, fresh lovage and pickled lovage stalks.

The varied interpretations speak to one of this comfort food's strengths, and a trait Cushman appreciates: Fry bread is "such a neutral canvas."

"There's a lot of ways we can go with it," he says, tossing out the possibility of smoked bluefish while it's in season or "something cheesy" in the colder weather. "We may even go back to Mexican," he continues, harking back to his early days cooking in California and dropping the golden words "queso fundido."

The seemingly endless possibilities bode well for this NYC trend to find ground around the rest of the country. Because if you can make it here, you can make it anywhere.