Food for Thought

How Frito chili pie became the national food of Texas — and a new H-Town version

How Frito chili pie became the national food of Texas — and a new H-Town version

When Bert’s Burgers & Fries nabbed the Big Tex Best Taste at the State Fair of Texas’ Labor Day food contest with Texas Fried Frito Pie, Texans and expats around the globe wondered: Why the heck did it take so long for someone to come up with this?

Frito chili pie has been a staple of Texas fairs, high school football games and greasy diners almost as long as Fritos have been in existence. But it took Nick Bert of Bert’s Burgers & Fries to come up with the idea of deep-frying the corn chips, chili, sharp cheddar cheese and onions. The press release from the Fair calls it a “hot, meaty, crunchy, salty, cheesy, oozing goodness.”

Ooooh, I can feel my arteries hardening already.

(FYI: The winner of most creative creation was fried beer. Hello, this is Texas.)

But don’t hold your breath for deep-fried Frito pie; it’s doubtful you can chow down on this delicacy anytime soon, unless you head up to Dallas before the Fair ends Oct. 17.

But that’s OK, there are plenty of places to eat Frito pie right here in Houston. And you can always make your own.

That’s what C.E. Dolin’s mom, Daisy, did in the early 1930s. C.E. Dolin, also known as Elmer, started the Frito Company in San Antonio in 1931 after he bought the recipe for $100. The company’s website doesn’t say who the poor schmuck was who sold it and lost out on a $10 billion industry. Anyway, according to the PR folks at Frito, mom started fooling around with recipes and created a pie of chili and chips. The rest is history.

Part of which is that corn chips married potato chips to become Frito-Lay, Inc. and moved to Plano, which, at least, is still in Texas.

So, Frito pie is quintessentially Texan. It’s the perfect Texas street food. (Although apparently they even eat it in California where it’s called a Walking Taco.) Vietnam can keep its bahn mi, India can keep all its chaat (even the yummy bhel puri dish of fried noodles, puffed rice and potatoes) and Germany can keep its paper cones of frites. I’ll take a Frito pie anytime.

And as I write that, I’m reminded of my first Frito pie. I had actually just come from the land of frites to a small town outside of San Antonio to start my first year of high school.

Can you say culture shock? I could and I did.

But after a while I sucked it up, bought my first pair of Tony Lama cowboy boots, started listening to Freddy Fender and Johnny Rodriguez and spent a Friday night under the lights. Thanks to the TV show Friday Night Lights, even Yankees know what this means.

I went to a high school football game. I wasn’t on the pom pom squad and I didn’t date a jock, so it was pretty boring. Until I found the band booster parents’ snack stand under the bleachers. It was there that I bought my first Frito pie. I watched with wonder as some anonymous band mom slit open (horizontally, never on the seam) a bag of Fritos Original Corn Chips, ladled in some piping hot Wolf Brand Chili (Meat. Only. No beans. This is not negotiable.) and topped it with some shredded cheddar and diced white onion.

I carried that little bag around, digging into it with a plastic spork until every last morsel was gone.

I have been a Texan ever since.

Today, of course, you can get your fast food Frito pie fix on at most high school football and Little League games, Sonic Drive-Ins, 59 Diners and that Houston institution James Coney Island. And if you like your pie with a side of waitress smack talk, there’s always the Avalon Diner in River Oaks, where Frito pie has been on the menu almost since the diner opened in 1938. Just $2.95 a cup or $4.75 for a hearty bowl.

But if it’s a little culinary creativity you want, there’s the Frito Chili Pie on Yelapa Playa Mexicana’s upcoming brunch menu. Hot young chef L. J. Wiley is starting a Sunday Funday menu the first weekend in October and Frito pie will be front and center on the menu.

“Migas is the obvious choice for a Mexican brunch,” Wiley says. “But why stop at tortilla strips when you have Fritos?”

The recipe includes the famous Texas corn chips, cheese, eggs, a dollop of sour cream, some salsa and a little topping of cilantro and dice onions. And, of course, chili. Wiley’s pork chili to be exact. Because…

“Well, everything’s better with pork!” Wiley says.

But no beans. I repeat: No. Beans.

Wiley concurs.

“No beans in my chili,” he says.

And lest you think Wiley (the tattooed, motorcycle riding former chef at Cullen’s Upscale American Grille who cooked up some sous vide prime ribs there and puts peanuts in his guacamole at Yelapa) is a little too out there to appreciate the real essence of Frito pie, read on.

“To me Frito chili pie means eighth-grade softball diamond snack food. I grew up with it. It’s the ultimate American fast, comfort, snack food. And the best thing about it is that you can make it at home in minutes in the microwave.”

And how does Chef Wiley make it at home?

With Fritos and Wolf Brand Chili.

Wolf Brand Chili with no beans.

I rest my case.

News_Marene Gustin_Yelapa_brunch frito pie
Yelapa's Brunch Frito Pie is a new take on a Texas classic. Photo by Kimberly Park
News_Marene_Texas Fried_Frito Pie_State Fair_winner
The State Fair Winner, Texas Fried Frito Pie is a pure Texas story.
News_Fritos_chips
Fritos started in Texas and are still based here.
Places_Food_Yelapa Playa Mexicana Restaurant_L.J. Wiley_chef
L.J. Wiley is starting a Sunday Funday menu at Yelpa the first weekend in October. Courtesy of Yelapa Playa Mexicana Restaurant