WHEN FOOD WRITERS discuss food, they should divide it into two categories: sober food and drunk food. Sober food is what you eat when you go to a fancy restaurant and want real artisanship put into your food. It’s what you want to spend lots of money on eating. Drunk food is what you shove down your throat after a night of heavy drinking in the misguided hope that it’ll absorb whatever alcohol hasn’t yet made it into your blood stream.
As far as I’m concerned, one category isn’t better than the other. I love a well-prepared meal, but there’s something truly awesome about having a line cook slop grease onto a plate in front of me and then expect me to eat it, ashamed, in the alley next to the restaurant before catching a cab home.
Each of America’s regions has its specialties — pizza in Chicago and New York, Mexican in the Southwest, barbecue everywhere — but America is America, and we know how to seize on a good idea and then take credit for it ourselves. For drunk food, of course, distinctions like “who did it first” and “where it’s the best” don’t matter — all that matters is “is it in front of me?” and “can I keep it down?” Here are some of America’s best regional (and national) drunk foods, as well as a place or two to find them.
1. Chili dog
What could be simpler? A hot dog with chili con carne and cheese. Probably most famous on the East Coast (we’ll get to Cincinnati’s variation later), the chili dog (or “Coney”) is a classic drunk food. The best that I’ve had is at Ben’s Chili Bowl in DC.
2. New York pizza
The eternal feud between the New York and Chicago schools of pizza is silly because the two are so fundamentally different. And they’re both delicious. It’s like an argument over who’s better, the Beatles or Stones? Answer: Who gives a shit? The world’s wonderful with both. Time Out gives the best slice of pie to Lucali, but the City’s got so much great pizza that who really cares about rankings?
3. The humble hamburger
Hamburgers are an American institution, but each region has its own best burger. The best fast food, non-gourmet, perfect-for-being-drunk burger I’ve had is from In-N-Out, which is the strongest argument I’ve got for moving to the West Coast. Honorable mentions to Shake Shack and Five Guys.
My friends from out West complain that there’s no good Mexican here in DC, and while I disagree (what up, District Taco!) I know the true home of Mexican food in the United States is the American Southwest. The Daily Meal gives the “best in the country” distinction to La Taqueria in San Francisco, but honestly, as long as I’m trashed and can eat 17 of them, I’m good with whatever.
5. Garbage plate
There is only one, and that is at Nick Tahou Hots in Rochester, New York. A garbage plate is exactly what it sounds like: a pile of greasy food. That includes cheeseburger, Italian sausage, red hots, chicken tenders, eggs, and a number of other things (depending on the variation you order). It’s like a fat sandwich (keep reading), but without the pretense of putting a bun on it. Time to go get drunk in Rochester.
Pronounced “yeer-ohs,” not “jy-ro,” the gyro is a traditional Greek dish of roasted lamb, some veggies, and tzatziki sauce wrapped in a pita. I feel like I stumble across gyros while wandering drunk through unfamiliar neighborhoods, and it’s always like bumping into an old friend. Try Bill’s Gyro Souvlaki in Atlantic City.
7. The McGangbang
You’re probably going to get blank stares if you walk into McDonald’s and order the McGangbang. Here’s what you do instead: Get a double cheeseburger and a McChicken, then put the McChicken between the cheeseburger patties, and you’ll have made drunk food perfection. The one pictured above is actually made from Wendy’s burgers, but hey, you’re drunk, you can’t tell the difference. Available literally everywhere.
You’d think nachos would be harder to fuck up — chips with meat, cheese, maybe some veggies? But it’s weirdly hard to find really delicious nachos, especially if you aren’t living in the Southwest. You’ve got to layer the ingredients, guys! I don’t want to get to the bottom of the pile and just have corn chips!
9. The Kentucky hot brown
The Kentucky hot brown is a staple drunk food in the Bluegrass State. It’s an open-faced turkey bacon sandwich covered in Mornay sauce or, in a pinch, just molten cheese. I really don’t need to sell it any more than that. Try it at its home: the Brown Hotel in Louisville.
10. Philly cheesesteak
My favorite thing about Philadelphia is the cheesesteaks. Jon Stewart, who’s been making a career of picking food fights with other cities, recently tried to do a takedown on cheesesteaks but admitted at the end of the bit that he actually loved them, even though you have to order them “with Whiz.” My favorite is pictured: Pat’s King of Steaks, home of the cheesesteak. I know people who would murder me for picking Pat’s over Geno’s, though.
Let’s give credit where it’s due. This is a fundamentally Canadian (or, for the separatists, a fundamentally Quebecois) dish. But fries covered in gravy and cheese curds is an idea so beautiful that it belongs to everybody, especially the drunks. Americans are mercifully starting to steal this wonderful recipe and selling it to drunks on our streets, but for the best, Thrillist suggests Le Banquise in Montreal. Add steak to take it to a whole other level.
12. Chicago deep dish
I had to put pizza on here twice for its two most famous incarnations. Chicago deep dish is, as Jon Stewart put it, almost “a fucking casserole.” But God bless this casserole. It’s much more deserving of the title “pie” than its New York counterpart in terms of structure, and the good thing is you can fill it with ingredients, making it perfect for drinking. Thrillist gives the honor to Lou Malnati’s, but it’s an intense debate.
The true essence behind the best drunk food is “pile as much shit as possible together and wrap it in something.” That’s also the definition of a burrito, which directly translates to “little donkey.” Nate Silver, predictor of elections and seer of everything, is currently running a Best Burrito in America knock-em-out tournament, and you should check out what he has to say about it. In the meantime, skip Chipotle and get your burritos from food trucks — they’re almost invariably better.
14. Cuban sandwich
The Cuban sandwich actually did not originate in Cuba — it’s from Florida. And considering it’s basically just a ham and cheese sandwich — which can be bland and boring — it’s incredible that there are no bad Cuban sandwiches, anywhere. So get hammered and try Gaspard’s Grotto in Tampa.
Technically not an American food, yeah, but hey, neither is pizza. We absorb everything in this country. Kebabs — or, if you’re being honest about what you really want, meat-on-a-stick — are a wonderful Middle Eastern import that’s perfect for drinking. It’s usually just spiced, cooked meat, and really, what else could you want? If you’re ever in Oxford, Mississippi, check out the Chevron Food Mart for chicken-on-a-stick.
16. Bacon cheddar fries
I mean, the beauty is in the title. Bacon. Cheddar. And fries. If you’re bearded like me, you can relish the joy of having those smells on your face for a few days afterward. You can find these almost anywhere in the US, but Endless Simmer suggests the Lucky 7 Tavern in Jersey City.
17. Banh mi
While there’s a lot of horrible stuff that came out of colonialism, one of its truly wonderful products was the fusion of Southeast Asian and French cooking into modern-day Vietnamese cuisine. Americans have happily adopted two of the most popular Vietnamese meals: pho and banh mi. Pho is a soup, so it’s not well-suited to drunkenness. Banh mi, however, is a sandwich, and is perfect for absorbing the chemicals you’ve put into your stomach. There’s a large Vietnamese population in Seattle, and The New York Times suggests Saigon Deli, but they close early, so you may want to grab them after day drinking.
18. Cincinnati chili
My hometown’s signature dish lends itself to much maligning from people who root for different sports teams, but three-ways, chili dip, or cheese coneys with Cincinnati chili on them are my #1 choice for drunk food. The best place to get it — and this is very hotly debated in Cincy — is Skyline Chili.
19. Roast beef sandwich
Roast beef sandwiches need to be sloppy and possibly covered in cheddar. My only option growing up was Arby’s, and seriously — fuck that shit. I’m sorry, Arby’s, I need more beef than that. Residents of the great state of Massachusetts swear by Kelly’s Roast Beef as a proper drunk food.
There’s no more shameful way to wake up from a night of drinking than under a pile of tiny cardboard slider sleeves. Or possibly no better. Sliders are technically hamburgers, which of course are on this list already, but they can hardly fit as much sloppiness as a regular sized burger, so really, the goal is to find one that slides easily down your gullet. My top pick? White Castle. But you should never go there unless you’re drunk or high.
21. Chicago-style hot dogs
The beautiful thing about eating while drunk is that as long as there are a ton of flavors and a lot of grease, you really don’t give a shit about how well or clean it’s put together. This is sloppy food for slopfests. And Chicago dogs are perfect for that — you’ll wake up hungover and covered in hot dog remnants. Serious Eats gives the top Chicago dog to Gene and Jude’s.
22. The fat sandwich
I first met the fat sandwich while drunk at my alma mater, Penn State. They are basically subs with every nasty, greasy thing you can imagine on them: fries, chicken fingers, cheesesteak, mozzarella sticks, mayo…they don’t originate from PSU (I believe they’re from Rutgers in New Jersey originally), but these caloric atomic bombs might be the most American drunk food on here. My top place to eat them is at Are U Hungry? in State College, or RU Hungry? at Rutgers.
You know, considering that so many Arab countries are devoutly Muslim and thus aren’t fans of drinking, it’s kind of strange that they’ve given us so many perfect drunk foods. I’m a fan of both shawarma and falafel, and the best I’ve had ever has been in the great city of London. The food thankfully got a huge boost from The Avengers movie, so if it’s not near you by now, it will be soon. I know I’ve favored DC in this article with my choices, but Amsterdam Falafel in Adams Morgan, DC is too damn good to not recommend it to everyone.