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You know that thing? That thing popping up on menus everywhere, but you don’t quite know what it is? And it sounds like something you should already know about, so you don’t really want to ask? Well, we know about it, and we’ll give you the intel. Welcome to What’s the Deal with.

What's the Deal with...Frito Pie
Photograph by Willy Wiggins (Flickr, Creative Commons)

First it was brisket. Now, Frito pie is the Texas dish fixing to win over those who live above the Mason-Dixon Line. But what is it? It contains Fritos, yes. It’s not really a pie, although it does have the components of a savory one—corn chip “crust,” meaty filling, and garnishes. 

As is the case with most classic regional foods, there exist many (many!) opinions about Frito pie. Our resident Texan, managing editor Sarah McColl, says “it has to have chopped raw onions and jalapeños” and that she prefers it served “in those plaid-ish red and white paper dishes, like at the State Fair.” Others like it sprinkled with scallions and served in a foil Fritos bag.

To get the basic facts, we called up John Avila, pitmaster at Brooklyn’s new Morgans Barbecue. Avila worked at Austin’s famous Franklin Barbecue, grew up in Houston, and is the grandson of a BBQ restaurant owner. So, like, he knows what he’s talking about.

Photograph by Tim Mazurek

Where It Comes From: There’s debate over the creator of Frito pie: some trace it back to the mama of Frito-Lay’s founder; others say it was birthed at F.W. Woolworth’s lunch counter in Santa Fe, NM. But what’s clear is that it’s all over Texas. “Every concession stand served it growing up, even the ice cream trucks had it,” says Avila. “For me, it was a reward after baseball games. They just take a bag, open it up, put the stuff inside, then close up and give it over, all melted together.” 

Defining Characteristic: Two things. One: It must be made with Fritos, at least these days. “Frito-Lay actually sued someone years back for making chili pie, calling it Frito pie, and not using Fritos,” says Avila. Two: It should be served in the bag. Sorry, Yahoo Food Resident Texan, you’re outnumbered on this one. “The bag is very nostalgic,” says Avila. And Bon Appétit restaurant and drinks editor Andrew Knowlton agrees: it should be “consumed straight from the bag." [Ed. note: Y’all just don’t love the State Fair like I do.]

Why It’s Catching On: There’s the whole comfort food craze, for one. But Avila also points out: “When you think about it, you get all of the elements that chefs chase after: it’s crunchy, it’s spicy and hot, it’s cooled off by the sour cream. It hits a lot of different parts of palate—it’s got a lot that excites the brain.”

How to Make It: Place a small bag of Fritos on its side. Slit open the “top.” Spoon some chili on top. OK, fine. Smother it. (At Morgans, Avila uses Texas red chili—that’s cubes of beef, a cumin-heavy red sauce, and no beans, folks.) Garnish with chopped white onion, cheddar cheese, and sour cream. Eat with a spoon, a fork, a spork, your fingers, or your face.