Every Sunday of my childhood, I would meet my octogenarian great-grandparents at a Jewish deli in Dallas called Gilbert’s. After saying hello to their gefilte-fish-breath friends and random relatives who always congregated there, we’d sit down at a booth and nosh on a plate of pickles. Well, they would nosh. I’d try to navigate which ones were sour, half sour and just plain bitter. I always felt a little bitter myself, mostly because we weren’t somewhere else with a good old-fashioned American bread basket.
Turns out that the rest of the country has followed suit, discarding the carbs in favor of briny starters that leave ample room for the rest of the meal. Of course, not every modern pickle comes in the traditional Jewish-deli fashion. No, they come in all sorts of styles (Korean, Russian, Southern, Indian) and using all sorts of ingredients (cauliflower, tomatillos, mushrooms and even fruit like strawberries). No longer just the soggy spears that dampen the chips alongside your sandwich, pickles have become a pursuit unto themselves, a trend bolstered by modern chefs’ obsession with all things fermented. And why not? A little pucker cuts through the fatty, indulgent proteins and starches that we also love so much.
Here are five places with outstanding pickle plates across the U.S.:
1. Momofuku Ssam Bar
Famed chef David Chang combines two trends into one with his pickles served in a mason jar. The small dish is Chang’s take on banchan, traditional Korean side dishes that are served alongside the meal. The jar comes with kimchi plus unusual rotating pickled items, like tomatillo and Asian pear, as well as standards like carrot and daikon. 207 2nd Ave., New York, NY, momofuku.com
At this Indian gastropub in Los Angeles, chef Pawan Mahendro serves an updated version of traditional achaar. The usual Indian ingredients are mango, lime and chili, but Mahendro freshens things up with daikon radish, button mushrooms, white turnips, carrots, English cucumber and red onion, which he cooks for a bit and then soaks in brine for a few days. They’re a great foil for the spicy, rich food on the rest of the menu. 108 W. 2nd St., #104, Los Angeles, CA, badmaashla.com
3. Boxing Room
You might be distracted by the fried gator, duck jambalaya and crispy boudin balls at this Cajun-inspired restaurant from the Absinthe Group in San Francisco’s Hayes Valley. But don’t lose too much focus. The seasonal assortment of vinegary vegetables from chef Justin Simoneaux will keep you guessing, too. Right now, it consists of pickled carrots, radishes, cauliflower, okra, mushroom and egg, all served in a tiny cast-iron skillet. 399 Grove St., San Francisco, CA, boxingroom.com
4. Mission Chinese Food
Of all the chefs performing culinary alchemy with brine these days, Danny Bowien has probably pushed the vinegary envelope the farthest with his excellent pickled peanuts at Mission Chinese. The crunchy snacks are prepared with smoked garlic, anise, fennel seeds and rock sugar. Even his straight-up pickled cucumber dish has a zippy twist, with its scorching blend of Chinese spices including dried red chilies and Sichuan peppercorns, as well as cardamom, coriander, cumin, star anise and cinnamon. 171 E. Broadway, New York, NY, missionchinesefood.com
5. Fat Rice
This hot spot in Chicago’s Logan Square makes addictive Macanese food like po ko gai chicken and fat noodles with x.o. sauce. Sound like a strange mishmash? At one time, the Macau region of China was a Portuguese colony, and the influence comes through in traditional cuisine as well as modern fusion dishes. The Chinese side shines brightest, though, with chef Abraham Conlon’s pickle selection highlighting things like lemongrass carrots. The mixed jumpwater pickles especially cut through the fat in the house’s eponymous fatty rice dish, known on the menu as Arroz Gordo. 2957 W. Diversey Ave., Chicago, IL, eatfatrice.com
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