There comes a time every summer when my family stuffs their swimsuits and sunscreen in an overnight bag, hops in the car, and drives three hours to Wildwood, on the Jersey Shore. So deeply treasured is this tradition that even all three of my cats have been to Wildwood.
While we spend most of our time lounging on the sand or splashing around in the ocean, what I really look forward to on our annual trips is the boardwalk. This bustling hive of activity is a rainbow of T-shirt stands and blinking neon signs advertising funnel cakes, roller coasters, and ski-ball, the occasional ding ding ding of an arcade game signaling a win, and kids whizzing past the crowds on bikes. Amid this mess of color and sound is some of the most legendary food in the country — the notoriously greasy, fried, and utterly delicious boardwalk snacks.
With so many options advertising the “world’s best” hot dogs, ice cream, fries, and so much more, trying to determine where to stop and what to eat on the boardwalk can feel overwhelming. But if you’re planning a trip to New Jersey and the Jersey Shore this summer, it’s essential that you spend some time snacking and sipping on the boardwalk’s many nostalgia-inducing offerings.
1. Kohr Brothers frozen custard
If you’re walking by a blue sign with white letters that reads Kohr Brothers, stop what you’re doing and get in line. For me, Kohr Brothers frozen custard embodies the spirit of the shore. A treat in every sense of the word, this creamy, dreamy delight epitomizes everything that makes the shore great. It makes you feel like a kid again, and it’s the perfect antidote to hot weather. But I shouldn’t have to explain why ice cream is great! Just try it.
Where to find it: Wildwood, Ocean City, Point Pleasant, Seaside Heights
2. Curley’s fries
In keeping with the boardwalk’s long tradition of boastful and totally unprovable claims about its (admittedly very good) food, Curley’s claims that it offers the “best fries in the world.” These crispy, salty crinkle cut fries are tasty — but standard — boardwalk fare. What really sets Curley’s apart is its dipping sauce offerings: ‘Jersey Girl’ is sour cream mixed with Thai chili sauce, while ‘Green Goddess,’ is a blend of chives, garlic, mustard, and mayo, to name just two of the many options. But no matter what shore town you’re in, there will be no shortage of booths hawking paper plates piled high with golden brown fries. The classic toppings in my opinion? Good old ketchup and gooey cheese sauce — best enjoyed while meandering between arcade games and cotton candy stalls.
Where to find it: Wildwood
3. Bob’s Fresh Lemonade
Summer on the beach means most of your time will be spent under unobstructed sunshine. You can cool off with a quick dip in the ocean, or head up to the boardwalk for a sip of a cool beverage. In the summer, the go-to is of course lemonade, the lip puckering, super refreshing drink that immediately brings release from the sun. The perfect cup of lemonade should be equal parts sweet and tart, and for that most people agree that Bob’s Fresh Lemonade is the best on the boardwalk. This old-fashioned classic is best paired with the stand’s other classic boardwalk treats, like funnel cake and fried Oreos.
Where to find it: Ocean City
4. Fudge and salt water taffy
Whether you prefer Shirver’s or Fralinger’s “original” salt water taffy, a handful of this iconic chewy candy is a shore vacation must. Shriver’s claims it has been making taffy since 1898, and calls itself a “taste of summer”; Fralinger’s opened its first shop on the Atlantic City boardwalk around the same time. Since then, salt water taffy has become a Jersey Shore institution, and sweet shops selling their own version dot nearly every block on the boardwalk. Alongside buckets of salt water taffy, these shops will also invariably produce slabs of fudge, delightful squares of soft and melty chocolate in flavors like creamsicle and sea salt caramel — a gift to bring home for yourself (or your family) so you can have a taste of the shore even when you’re miles away.
Where to find it: Atlantic City, Ocean City, everywhere else
5. Fried shrimp
Shore towns are known for their abundant seafood — from oysters to crab cakes — but on the Jersey Shore specifically, fried and breaded shrimp reign supreme. These crispy, bite-sized shrimps are easy to munch while you peruse the arcade games and t-shirt stands that populate the rest of the boardwalk. Fried shrimp have more substance than an ice cream cone or a bucket of fries, but aren’t too much. They’ll leave you with enough room to indulge in some fudge or a platter of funnel cake later in the day without being so filling that you feel uncomfortable in your bathing suit when it’s time to return to the beach. No, it’s not exactly a full meal, but remember the boardwalk is all about snacking anyway.
Where to find it: Point Pleasant Beach, Wildwood, Seaside, Asbury Park, everywhere else
6. TLC’s Polish water ice
Water ice is a super creamy frozen treat without a hint of dairy — just blended ice and juice flavoring. Dispensed from a soft serve machine to give it that smooth ice cream-like texture, water ice is the kind of refreshing sweet treat perfectly suited to a hot beach day. The most famous hawker of water ice is inarguably TLC’s Polish Water Ice; the brand’s watermelon flavor is a particular favorite. Water ice will certainly help you cool down, but that’s not the only reason it makes the list. No matter what flavor you land on,TLC’s Polish Water Ice comes in satisfying pops of color that fit right in with the boardwalk’s rainbow aesthetic.
Where to find it: Ocean City, Wildwood, Seaside Heights
7. Hot dogs
Boardwalk trawlers can get a hot dog pretty much anywhere on the Jersey Shore boardwalk. It’s a summertime classic that never goes out of style and always manages to taste good no matter where you get it from. Even though it’s a chain, my personal preference is Stewarts in Wildwood for the cheese fries, chili dogs, and root beer floats. There is a wealth of options though: Maui’s Dog House (in North Wildwood) offers toppings like horseradish, Wisconsin cheddar cheese, spicy mustard, and bacon. In Long Branch, institutions like Max’s Hot Dogs (now a diner, though it started off as a stand on the boardwalk) and Windmill are the go-to options. But if you’re simply cruising the boardwalk anywhere on the shore and your tummy starts rumbling, there are quick-stop spots up and down the boardwalk that offer this portable snack on the cheap.
Where to find it: Long Branch, Wildwood, everywhere else
8. Caramel corn
Caramel corn epitomizes those summer afternoons at the ballpark or the carnival — or the boardwalk. It’s the sort of snack that makes plenty of people nostalgic for childhood, and the stuck-in-your-teeth goodness is the flavor and texture of summer. Buckets of caramel popcorn are a staple down the shore, where sweet indulgences are pretty much the norm no matter the time of day. Johnson’s Popcorn in Ocean City is a favorite, but most shops that sell fudge and other treats will sell paper cups overflowing with caramel popcorn.
Where to find it: Ocean City, everywhere else
9. Funnel cake
Any list of classic boardwalk foods isn’t complete without a nod to the (arguable) king of the boardwalk: funnel cake. Ribbons of puffy cake batter are fried, covered in powdered sugar, and then plopped on a paper plate. It’s impressively simple, and enduringly beloved. If you think that you can skip the funnel cake on your shore trip because you know what it tastes like, you’re wrong. Eating funnel cake heaped on a paper plate as the summer sun beats down on you, while surrounded by the cacophony of boardwalk noises, engenders a joyful, childlike feeling that only this boardwalk dessert has the power to conjure.
Where to find it: Anywhere there’s a boardwalk down the shore
10. Tornado potato
You’ll see it advertised on awnings up and down the boardwalk: the famous tornado potato. For the uninitiated this moniker might sound strange, even intimidating. But so much about what makes boardwalk food so good is that it reinvents new ways to eat classic foods (please see: funnel cake, creamsicle fudge, and chili cheese dogs) — and the tornado potato is no different. Essentially it’s a fried, spiralized potato that, like everything else worth eating on the shore, you can enjoy while walking.
Where to find it: Anywhere there’s a boardwalk down the shore
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