The 100 Greatest Cult Restaurants in America: Top 20
What does Hash House A Go Go have in common with The Rocky Horror Picture Show? More than just toast. Much like films, bands, books, and television shows, certain restaurants have spawned enthusiastic cult followings. Just ask anyone who’s ever waited in line at New York City’s Shake Shack or Kuma’s Corner in Chicago. Could they obtain a burger from another establishment without waiting in line for an hour? Sure. So why don’t they? Devotion.
So what creates that kind of devotion? What exactly makes a cult restaurant? The highly technical formula Poor Taste used to curate this list includes five parts. First, the restaurant must have a highly devoted customer base and should appeal to locals and tourists. This balance is important. A visit from Anthony Bourdain, Guy Fieri, or President Obama can often drum up interest, but if overcrowding pushes the regulars out, well then you just have a tourist trap. And who likes a tourist trap?
Second, the food must obviously be stellar and unique enough to produce a dedicated clientele. Being home to “The Best” or “The Original” of something helps. Third, the wait is almost always unbearable — but worth it. On this note, population density was given some consideration. Fourth, multiple locations are okay, but not too many, unless they’re in another country. Finally, for our purposes, a single meal should be relatively cheap. Less than 20 bucks per person is ideal. Less than 10 bucks per person is better. Using these guidelines, and with a little help from some epicurean friends, we’ve created a list of the 100 Greatest Cult Restaurants in America. (By K. Tighe, Thaddeus Phipps, Sayer Palmer, Pamela Birchard, and Kristen Kuchar)
20. Umami Burger (Los Angeles, CA) Named after the Japanese word for “really fucking good,” this oft-packed LA burger joint spreads its dedicated clientele between four locations. The petite signature burger comes topped with a parmesan cracker and roasted tomatoes, but venture deeper into the menu for the Hatch (with four kinds of green chiles) or the Port & Stilton (with bleu cheese and caramelized onions). Add a side of tempura-battered onion rings or sweet-potato fries and you’ve got an addiction to the fifth taste you won’t soon shake.
19. The Cheeseboard Pizza Collective (Berkeley, CA) You don’t keep brick-and-mortar in Berkeley’s Gourmet Ghetto by being mediocre, and Cheeseboard doesn’t just occupy the real estate — the food-obsessed neighborhood grew up around the joint. Pies with craft cheeses and fresh, local toppings have earned this co-op a cult status with legions of tourists and locals, including Alice Waters who reportedly chose the Chez Panisse location for its proximity to Cheeseboard.
18. Ray’s Hell Burgers (Arlington, VA) A 10-ounce burger that will challenge even the largest of mouths. It may be hard to resist taleggio cheese, bacon, grilled red onions, and tomato — but go easy on the toppings, or you’ll end up with a soggy bun and tomato juice dripping down your wrists. This was a busy place before President Obama visited, twice, but now it’s nothing short of chaos. Isn’t the perfect medium-rare burger worth it?
17. Wurstküche (Los Angeles, CA) Encased exotic meats and homemade dipping sauces — what a clever way to earn cult status. Sausage concoctions at this Los Angeles favorite run the gamut from adventurous (rattlesnake & rabbit) to classic (bratwurst). A gourmet mustard bar, hefty European beer menu, and double-dipped Belgian fries round out the menu.
16. Pizzeria Bianco (Phoenix, AZ) Decent pizza in Phoenix? Yeah, it seems pretty unlikely, we know, but Bianco actually serves some of the best ‘za in the country. Forty-two seats, a no-reservations policy, and heaps of praise from some of the food world’s most discerning personalities is a recipe for a long wait. An hour and a half before opening, patrons begin to line up for the wood-fired pies — built from San Marzano tomatoes, farmers market veggies, and mozzarella made fresh each morning. The pizza offers more than a reason for otherwise sane folks to wait for hours in desert temperatures, it offers hope that Phoenix’s food culture may finally be catching up to its explosive population.
15. Grimaldi’s Pizzeria (Brooklyn, NY) The world almost stopped when this iconic New York City pizza joint was served an eviction notice in August, 2010. No more would long lines of hungry customers enjoy views of the Brooklyn Bridge, patiently waiting for a coal-fired brick-oven pie. The constant crooning of Frank Sinatra would be silenced. Patrons would have to travel to Queens for the handmade mozzarella and secret sauce. Famous faces would be carefully removed from the wall, and the checkered table cloths would be neatly pressed and folded. But pizza prevailed, back rent was paid, and adventurous tourists and devoted locals can still enjoy a $14 pie with friends.
14. Father’s Office (Santa Monica, CA) Have it your way? Screw that. People pack this Santa Monica gastropub to be told exactly what to eat: a nearly bloody dry-aged beef patty topped with gruyere and maytag cheeses, applewood bacon compote, caramelized onions, and a pile of peppery arugula. The swarms of loyalists don’t dare ask for extra condiments — messing with the Office Burger is strictly prohibited.
13. El Farolito Taqueria (San Francisco, CA) Choosing sides in the San Francisco burrito wars can be a dangerous thing, but El Farolito broke our top 20 for having cred to spare: there was actually a punk rock anthem recorded in honor of the Mission district mainstay. With burritos bigger than newborns, a knack for slow-cooking the icky bits into tender pieces of taco heaven, and an al pastor you’d push your own mother out of they way to get, El Farolito has all the makings of America’s top taqueria.
12. Mamoun’s Falafel (New York, NY) Opened in 1971, Mamoun’s is the oldest falafel place in New York City. Drawn by the promise of cheap and delicious Middle Eastern fare, crowds of NYU students and local falafel lovers move in and out with maximum efficiency. The short menu is a good sign — Mamoun’s makes only a few things, and they make them well and sell them cheap: $2.50 per falafel or $5 for a falafel platter. Craving meat? Get the shawarma sandwich for $5. Finish your meal with a sticky baklava. There are only two booths, so don’t expect to get a table. Instead, take your meal to nearby Washington Square Park for quality people watching.
11. Roscoe’s House of Chicken and Waffles (Los Angeles, CA) Perhaps the true measure of the success of Roscoe’s came when the California public stopped thinking the combination of chicken and waffles was weird. A favorite of celebrities from Snoop Dogg to Larry King, the late-night takeout place (which now has five locations) is known for introducing Harlem soul food to Hollywood.
10. Din Tai Fung Dumpling House (Arcadia, CA) A rarity in the cult restaurant genre, Din Tai Fung is actually a pretty mammoth Taiwanese chain. It makes our list because its only United States location is so revered that people have been known to fly from all corners of the country for a taste. Dumplings are the specialty here, and the steamed xiaolongbao is the best you’ll find outside of Taipei. Latitudely challenged fans received some exciting news this summer — a new U.S. location will be opening in Bellevue, Washington.
9. Ben’s Chili Bowl (Washington, D.C.) Ben’s is not just a fad — this D. C. restaurant has been uniting a community for decades. U Street has gone through its share of ups and downs, but Ben’s, opened in 1958 in an old silent movie theater, has remained constant. The Chili Half-Smoke for $5.45 is a half-pork, half-beef sausage in a bun, topped with mustard and onions and completely drenched in a spicy, reddish-brown chili. This is not refined dining, but it’s good enough for the Sarkozy family; the French President and First Lady Carla Bruni reportedly devoured two half-smokes a piece.
8. Shake Shack (New York, NY) Rain or shine, hot or cold, there will always be a wait at this New York institution with global ambitions. Danny Meyer began his plan for world domination with a single cart selling Chicago-style hot dogs and eventually expanded into a retro vine-roofed concessions stand in Madison Square Park famous for its burgers, frozen custard, and whimsically named concretes. Now, with several locations in the city and beyond and with franchising sights set on Kuwait, the entire world will soon be feasting on The Shack Stack — a cheeseburger topped with a portobello mushroom. Will more locations mean shorter lines? Let’s hope so.
7. Philippe The Original (Los Angeles, CA) This classic Los Angeles lunch spot has enjoyed a fanatical following for over a century, thanks to some soggy bread. In 1908, Philippe’s began serving the French dip sandwich and the rest was history. Now, loyal patrons can order a turkey, beef, pork, lamb, or ham sandwich, dipped in pan juice and smothered with a sinus-clearing spicy mustard.
6. Burma Superstar (San Francisco, CA) “At San Francisco’s Burma Superstar, it’s all about the colorful, crunchy, and exotic Tea Leaf Salad. On a menu of standout choices, like Vegetarian Samusa Soup and fiery Tofu Vegetable Kebat, the Tea Leaf Salad still deserves a pedestal of its own. With crispy fried garlic, fresh peanuts, and the eponymous fermented tea leaf, the salad is first presented untossed so the patron may see the full scope of its unique beauty — after which your server will gladly mix. No wonder it was a featured dish on the Food Network.” — Emily Savage
5. Kuma’s Corner (Chicago, IL) What does it take for Chicagoans to happily wait for hours in the bitter cold? The promise of ear drum-bursting metal music, burgers bigger than their heads, and a kickass craft beer selection. Every concoction that emerges from the microscopic kitchen here is outstanding, but we’re partial to the Mastodon — cheddar, bacon, barbecue sauce, and fried onions on a pretzel roll.
4. Ippudo NY (New York, NY) This is not the 20-cent instant ramen of your college days. Decorated with a puzzle of horizontal wood paneling on the outside and a warm red glow on the inside, this Japanese ramen restaurant is the first American outpost for ramen king Shigemi Kawahara. Lines for lunch begin at 10:30 a.m. and continue on well into the evening. The secret is the rich Tonkotsu broth and hand-pulled noodles. A multi-course dinner can be pricey, but stick to one dish and you’ll be able to keep the bill under $20. The pork belly Akamaru Ramen and Pork Buns should do the trick. Get your waiters attention with “Sumimasen! Kae-dama, please!” for extra noodles, and don’t forget to say “domo arigato” as you leave.
3. Pink’s Hot Dogs (Los Angeles, CA) With a line that rarely includes less than 30 people, you may find yourself thinking that Pink’s isn’t worth the wait. You’d be wrong. A fine chili dog on its own, once topped with bacon or pastrami, it becomes something otherworldly. The brave at heart may try the Three Dog Night, a multi-dog burrito creation that somewhat resembles a dirty diaper. If you can’t finish it, don’t worry — that’s probably a good thing.
2. Tartine Bakery & Cafe (San Francisco, CA) How does a neighborhood bakery develop such a fanatical following? You could chalk it up to a few James Beard awards or an unsolicited Mark Bittman endorsement, but we blame it on the morning bun. Splicing the best parts of a croissant and an orange-cinnamon roll together, the morning bun achieves the remarkable feat of inspiring huge lines before the morning commute. We’re also pretty sure that the merit of Tartine is the only thing the San Francisco Bay Guardian, the SF Weekly, and the San Francisco Chronicle have ever agreed on.
1. Hot Doug’s (Chicago, IL) “Any place that forces 40-minute waits, oftentimes in rain and bitter temperatures, for a hot dog is tops in my book. And when this place is hailed as an encased meats emporium that is frequented by top chefs (including Anthony Bourdain), you know something right is going on. Regardless if I get a hot dog (yes, I am proud to say I buck the Chicago trend and include ketchup), a guilty-pleasure corn dog, or one of Doug’s gourmet sausages crafted from a variety of game like elk, kangaroo, snake, or antelope (no joke) with toppings like smoky bacon dressing, blackberry mustard, foie gras mousse, or pomegranate cream, I try to go on a Friday so I can be sure to stuff myself sick with duck fat fries. There’s just no reason not to.” — Ari Bendersky