America's Best College Town Meals
When I gave up my vote in The Associated Press poll a few years ago, I was thrilled. No longer would I have to wake up early Sunday morning to put together a list of 25 college football teams that would almost certainly get me yelled at by the fanbases of every school ranked lower than No. 1.
But it turns out I miss getting yelled at. So I’ve devised a ranking that will be far more controversial than any college football ranking I’ve ever done. (Yes, even the one where I had Boise State at No. 1.) My job takes me to college towns all across America, and there’s something wonderful about a town that wouldn’t exist had someone not built an institution of higher learning there. It’s usually a little more cultured than a town of a similar size, and has a few more big-city conveniences than another town of the same size because the students demand the same things they had in their (usually larger) hometowns. The inevitable mix of creativity and youthful energy tends to create some delicious food, too. So today we’re going to rank the top 25 college-town dishes in America.
First, the ground rules. These dishes must be available in a college town or the surrounding metro area. How do we define a college town? It must have a major university and a metro population lower than 500,000. Its reason for existing in its current form must be the university. We’ll know who didn’t read this paragraph when they start screaming about their favorite Austin or Madison restaurant being left off the list. Here we go:
1. Ribs at Archibald’s in Northport, Ala. (Metro Tuscaloosa)
A minor controversy erupted this week when it was announced that Georgia would serve Dreamland barbecue — which originated in Tuscaloosa — in Sanford Stadium instead of something from an in-state purveyor. The locals in Tuscaloosa must be thrilled to hear this. They love when everyone talks about Dreamland, the formerly great rib joint that has turned into a pure tourist trap. Those who live in Tuscaloosa know the best ribs in America can be found in a shack next to a house on Martin Luther King Boulevard in Northport. That’s where George and Betty Archibald began serving those juicy, perfect ribs in 1962.
A few years ago, I asked George Jr. — who took over for his dad and has since given way to a third generation in the form of Woodrow Washington III — what temperature he smoked his ribs at and for how long. “I don’t know,” George Jr. said. “I just know when they’re right.” He does. And no one makes them more right than Archibald’s.
2. The Full Leaded Jacket at Leadbelly in Lincoln, Neb.
The Full Leaded Jacket began life as a joke. The folks at Leadbelly wanted to have some fun with that staple of the Nebraska school lunch — chili and cinnamon rolls. (Yes, non-Nebraskans, those things are served together.) So they made a burger that used a cinnamon roll as a bun and dumped chili, queso, sour cream and jalapeños on top. They figured people would get a laugh at just how Nebraska this particular item was.
Instead, the Jacket turned into one of Leadbelly’s most popular dishes. It sounds awful, looks worse and tastes divine. Though the outside may be ugly, the sweet and savory combine beautifully. It is a thing that should not exist, a dish cooked up on the Island of Chef Moreau at the height of his madness. Yet for those of us dumb enough to try it, the Full Leaded Jacket is proof that sometimes we must merely close our eyes and take a bite.
3. Brisket at Fargo’s in Bryan, Tex. (Metro College Station)
Alan Caldwell found himself on the horns of a dilemma a few years ago. He didn’t want to show anyone what his pit looked like. This is a no-no in Texas. If the pit can’t be inspected, people will make all sorts of horrible assumptions. They’ll accuse a pitmaster of using—gasp!—gas. Caldwell wasn’t using gas. One taste of the smoky, juicy brisket slices served at Fargo’s is proof enough of that. So what was the big secret? Daniel Vaughn of Texas Monthly finally got to the bottom of it in 2014. The pit has a longhorn on the front. It’s not even designed as an homage to the Texas mascot, but that sort of thing wouldn’t go over well in Aggieland.
The big revelation hasn’t hurt business one bit. On my last visit, I tried to go to Fargo’s on a Tuesday. That’s a rib tip day, so it gets extra crowded. I had some work to do on the Texas A&M campus, so I didn’t get to Fargo’s until about 1 p.m. The place had already run out of meat and closed for the day. Even in Texas, where football allegiance is sacred, barbecue allegiance means even more.
4. Pork and cornbread from Skylight Inn in Ayden, N.C. — (metro Greenville, NC)
If you’re headed to East Carolina, you need to make the 20-minute drive from campus to visit this all-time great barbecue joint. Skylight Inn is the purest distillation of Eastern North Carolina barbecue. Whole hogs are smoked and picked. Then the pork is chopped on a cutting board that has a giant divot from years of chopping. The pork and cracklins (the cooked skin that gets chopped up along with the meat) are then tossed in a vinegar-based sauce.
If you want to really do it right, spoon some of that pork between two pieces of cornbread. The bread lives somewhere between loaf and cake, and a bite that mixes that bread, that pork and those delectable cracklins is about as close to heaven as we can get here on Earth.
5. Bacon steaks at Lasalle Kitchen and Tavern in South Bend, Ind.
Bacon has few weaknesses. Still, if we have to nitpick the finest piece of the pig, it would be that the mass-produced version tends to be a little flimsy. Perhaps this is because America’s bacon producers don’t believe we could handle the pure pleasure a thick, juicy slab would provide. Perhaps they worry the resulting euphoria might cut nationwide productivity to unacceptable levels.
The proprietors at Lasalle Kitchen and Tavern have no such concerns. They serve massive bacon strips so thick that the “steak” descriptor is entirely accurate. If you prefer your bacon thin and crispy, you might change your mind after a few of these beauties. The slab develops the same delicious crust as well done thin bacon, but because it’s so thick, it stays tender inside. That gives the bacon steak the best qualities of both versions of thinner bacon. Usually, bacon steaks are only available at steakhouses that will set you back a few hundred bucks. But Lasalle’s prices are quite reasonable, and just because they love us, they’re serving those steaks with redeye gravy now.
6. Deep dish pizza at Satchel’s in Gainesville, Fla.
If you want one of these thick, loaded monsters for dinner, call ahead and make sure they still have shells. (They only make a limited number each day.) This isn’t Chicago-style deep dish. It looks like New York-style pizza pumped full of butter steroids, and the two-inch-thick bread provides the ideal foil for Satchel’s spicy tomato sauce. Order whatever toppings you like, but make sure your combo includes meatballs. Also, your pie will take 45-60 minutes to cook. So order a salad for the table and whet your appetite with some of the world’s most addictive vinaigrette.
I try to get one of these on my birthday every year, and I always think this will be the year that I can take down a whole pie. It’ll never happen. Even the biggest appetites can only handle two or three slices. But that just means leftovers.
7. Sampler at The Smokin’ Pig in Pendleton, S.C. (Metro Clemson)
You expect great pulled pork in South Carolina. You do not expect excellent brisket. But they do both well at The Smokin’ Pig. So when driving between Anderson and Clemson (on a Thursday, Friday or Saturday), stop in and get a plate loaded with the pork, brisket and ribs. Get the jalapeno cheese grits and Brunswick stew on the side. Then find a friend to wheel you out of the place.
8. Sous vide pork chop at Theo’s in Fayetteville, Ark.
Theo’s is a grown-up spot in a college town. It may be surrounded by places where the old Miller Lite sticks to the floor, but Theo’s is the place to get a real cocktail and a pork chop cooked in an immersion circulator. What’s that? It is a device that allows for ultra-precise temperature control, producing meat that is a constant temperature throughout instead of riddled with hot spots and cool spots.
Theo’s cooks a massive double-cut pork chop this way. The chop is then placed on a bed of kale and cheddar grits and covered with bacon marmalade. Ask bartender Ryan to mix up an Old Fashioned to accompany your chop, and you too might be as inspired as Arkansas coach Bret Bielema was one night at Theo’s. It was on the back of a Theo’s menu that Bielema first drew up this bit of offensive brilliance.
9. A bottle of Panther Creek pinot noir in Eugene or Corvallis, Ore.
East of the Rockies, pinot noir from Oregon’s Willamette Valley can be scarce and sometimes pricy. Only the biggest operations ship their product across the country. So a bottle of Panther Creek may be available at one steakhouse in Florida, and it may leave a drinker who’s craving just one more drop but is unable to do anything about it short of ordering a crate from the winery. But visit Eugene or Corvallis and the stuff is everywhere because those college towns are only a short drive from Panther Creek’s headquarters in Dundee. A trip to a grocery store and about $20 will land you a bottle of the silky, fruit-forward (think plums and dark cherries) elixir. It pairs with steak or seafood or a burger — or nothing at all. On second thought, better get two bottles at the grocery store.
10. The Mountaineer at Tudor’s Biscuit World in Morgantown, W.Va. (or The Thundering Herd at the Tudor’s in Huntington, W.Va.)
This chain started in Charleston, W.Va., and even though it has expanded into Ohio, Kentucky, Virginia and even Panama City, Fla., it remains a West By God Virginia favorite. Before all these hoity-toity artisanal biscuit places began opening with their $8 biscuit sandwiches, Tudor’s served giant, soft, fluffy biscuits stuffed with delicious meats and cheeses at a reasonable price. It still does.
The Mountaineer packs country ham, hash browns, egg and cheese into a biscuit the size of a small dinner plate. The Thundering Herd, meanwhile, swaps the country ham for sausage. If you’re at the Morgantown location and you’re still hungry, get a Huggie Bear. This biscuit — named for West Virginia basketball coach Bob Huggins — includes bacon, sausage, egg and cheese.
11. Deep fried Double Cheeseburger at Joe’s Gizzard City in Potterville, Mich. (Metro East Lansing)
The fry cook on duty when I visited Joe’s in September 2015 is named Cassandra. She is a wizard with a can-do spirit. She can fry anything. “Nobody has ever asked for that,” she said when I inquired about the possibility of deep-frying a bacon double cheeseburger. Guy Fieri had gotten a single cheeseburger deep fried when he visited for Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives, but that’s not ambitious enough. Cassandra knew her fryer was capable of more. So she made that double bacon cheeseburger and she dropped it in that fryer. The result was a perfectly cooked burger encased in the equivalent of an unglazed, low-sugar raised doughnut. It was spectacular. It might have taken three years off my life, but it was worth it.
12. Redneck Reuben at Pulaski Heights in Athens, Ga.
It’s a shame Georgia had to go out and hire Alabama-based Dreamland BBQ to supply the smoked meat at Sanford Stadium. There are plenty of great places in the Peach State, including this one a few miles from Georgia’s campus. The pulled pork and ribs are excellent, but the best thing on the menu is the Redneck Reuben, which provides a showcase for the house-smoked bacon.
That bacon gets combined with pimento cheese, collard greens and ranch dressing and slapped between two slices of Texas Toast. It’s what you’re ordering unless you come on a Wednesday. If it’s Hump Day, you’re getting the barbecue-infused ramen special.
13. The B.O.M.B at Boylan Heights in Charlottesville, Va.
You can design whatever burger you like at this hopping spot on The Corner, but you might be better off putting yourself in the capable hands of these mad burger-and-sandwich scientists. The B.O.M.B. changes every month, so be prepared to grab one if they create a burger you love. This month’s B.O.M.B. is a salmon burger topped with sun-dried tomato pesto and cucumber radish relish that can be paired with a watermelon salad for an ideal dead-of-summer refresher. Last month’s was a lamb burger topped with marinated grape tomatoes, spring mix, chickpeas, pickled cucumbers and yogurt sauce. The best B.O.M.B of recent vintage came to celebrate the fourth-years (they don’t call them seniors at UVA) graduating this past May. It was a half-pound Angus beef truffle burger topped with cheesy creamed spinach, sautéed mushrooms, onion straws and steak sauce.
14. Burgers at Booches in Columbia, Mo.
The burgers that come off the flat top at Booches are about the size of a fast food burger but infinitely superior. A better way to describe them is they’re the perfect diner burger at 75% scale. This results in a higher bun consumption than meat consumption when eating multiple burgers, but that ratio probably works given the quantity of beer consumed on the premises. If given the opportunity, I’d eat 100 of these.
15. Blueberry cobbler coffee at Strange Brew Coffeehouse in Starkville, Miss.
The Starkville food scene has perked up considerably in the past few years, but Strange Brew was already hard at work perking up townies and Mississippi State students alike. Every time I visit, I buy at least two pounds of the Blueberry Cobbler coffee.
I know what you’re thinking. Blueberry coffee? No, it doesn’t make sense. But it tastes incredible. The blueberry lightens up the coffee just a touch, and it really marries well with half and half if you’re a light-and-sweet person like me. It’s great when I make it at home, but there’s something about the way it comes at Strange Brew — with a chocolate-covered coffee bean resting on the cup — that makes it my favorite cup of coffee on the road.
16. Biercamp jerky in Ann Arbor, Mich.
Biercamp sits in the shadow of Michigan Stadium, and it should be the first stop on a visit to Ann Arbor to load up on between-meal supplies for a football weekend. Have some of the house-made bratwurst and a pint of the Biercamp’s house-brewed beer while visiting the store, but you’re there for the jerky and other assorted meat snacks. Get the Jamaican jerk pork Jerky, the sriracha chicken jerky, the Korean BBQ turkey jerky or the classic beef jerky. Also stock up on habanero smoke sticks and hickory smoke sticks. This way, hunger pangs can’t slow you down.
17. The Big Easy at Ajax Diner in Oxford, Miss.
You can get a Plate Lunch (meat and two sides) or add an extra side to make it a classic meat-and-three, but The Big Easy is a classic Southern lunch in sandwich form. Take the country fried steak, mashed potatoes and butterbeans you’d be ordering anyway and put it on a bun. That is pure efficiency.
18. Gut Pak at Vitek’s in Waco, Tex.
The Gut Pak is the ultimate Frito Pie. It’s also the ultimate test of your intestines. The folks at Vitek’s take a Styrofoam and fill it with Fritos, cheese, chopped beef, beans, sausage, pickles, onions, jalapeno peppers and BBQ sauce. Then they toss in bread slices in case you want to make a sandwich out of that mess. You won’t. Dip the bread into the mix. Then eat the rest with a fork. It might hurt a few hours later, but it will feel so good in the moment.
19. Keeney Beany Chocolate at the Berkey Creamery in State College, Pa.
Every flavor is great at Penn State’s working dairy that dates back to 1889, but I’m a sucker for chocolate. This chocolate is particularly interesting because it includes chocolate chips and vanilla bean. It may sound counterintuitive, but the vanilla bean adds a complexity regular chocolate can’t achieve. This flavor also helps raise money for the food science department at Penn State. A portion of the proceeds from each scoop of Keeney Beany goes toward a fund to endow the head of the department.
20. Deep fried biscuits at Squealers Award Winning Barbecue in Mooresville, Ind. (Metro Bloomington, Ind.)
I’m fudging a bit here because at 35 miles from Bloomington, Mooresville is definitely more metro Indianapolis than metro Bloomington. But I don’t play by anyone’s rules — not even my own — and I feel like the world needs to know about these glorious starches. I can’t describe these any better than I did when I originally wrote about them in 2011:
You read that correctly. Fried. Biscuits. Imagine a Cracker Barrel biscuit met a Krispy Kreme doughnut, dropped a few of his best lines and took her back to his Old Country Store to make doughy carbohydrate love on a Travel Checker Rug. The offspring of that union is what a fried biscuit tastes like.
21. Hot softshell crab appetizer at Acre in Auburn, Ala.
The great thing about an insistence on fresh ingredients and unrelenting creativity is a chance to always try something new and delicious. The bad thing is that incredible menu item may not be available any longer. So consider this an example of what the culinary minds at Acre can create. When I visited for the first time in the spring of 2015, the most intriguing item on the menu was a softshell crab fried Nashville hot chicken style and staked to a piece of white bread.
The spicy batter made the crab even more delicious, and the juice turned the bread into a dish unto itself. Afterward, I had a ribeye that had been cooked in bacon grease. That one had rotated off the menu by the time I got there, but they made it for me anyway. So perhaps it’s not too late for the hot crab. Of course, some of the appetizers on the menu at the moment (chicken fried bacon, pork rillettes with pecan mustard, fried blue crab claws) might make me want to try something new.
22. Pulled Pork Mac and Cheese at The Village Idiot in Lexington, Ky.
There was some tumult among the regulars at this gastropub when the management yanked the beloved truffle mac and cheese from the menu in favor of this, but the dissent quickly drowned in the smoked gouda mornay sauce that turns ordinary penne pasta into something beautiful. The usual order of operations for this sort of thing is to have a side of mac and cheese with your pulled pork.
At the Village Idiot, they turn the king of side dishes into the main course and make the meat the sidekick. Of course, the rich, smoky gouda is a protein in its own right. When it coats the juicy pork and cascades through those noodles, it earns this side’s place in the entrees section.
23. Butter flight at Radina’s Bakehouse in Manhattan, Kan.
Wine flights are fine. Whiskey flights are even better. But why should a delightfully horizontal sampling of flavors be limited to spirits? Why not do the same with butter?
That’s the innovation Radina’s has brought to the world. They’ll pour you a Snicker’s mocha to sip while sampling their finest butters. Sourdough provides the perfect canvas to decide which one butters your bread the most, but the best spreads are the tangy herb butter and the sweet honey butter.
24. The Heaps Sampler at the Brick Oven in Provo, Utah
Cross a pizza buffet with a Brazilian steakhouse and you have the Heaps Sampler. Servers roam the restaurant with pies of all kinds, offering slices to anyone wise enough to order the Heaps. You have to save some room for the pizza though, because the Heaps comes with a trip to the house-made pasta bar. There is probably some commentary to be made on the laziness inherent in today’s society—we can’t even be bothered to walk a few steps to a buffet to stuff our faces with pizza—but who cares? Bring me a slice of the meat lovers and a slice of the pepperoni and black olive.
25. Chilaquiles and steak at Taqueria Jalisco in Lubbock, Tex.
This is a wonderful way to start the day. The same steak you’d get in your steak and eggs at a diner is served alongside diced corn tortillas mixed with tomatoes, onions, red sauce and white cheese. Scoop some of that mixture on a steak and roll it in a fresh tortilla. Then repeat. You’ll be ready to face whatever comes your way the rest of the morning.