The Waylon is a Hell’s Kitchen honkytonk that channels the Lone Star State. The decor features longhorns, wagon wheels, and Willie Nelson. A battered cowboy boot and other kitschy memorabilia sit in glass cases that flank the bar, where bottles of Lone Star and Shiner Bock taps are favorites. The menu, too, features Texan classics like queso and chips, bean-and-cheese tacos, chili con carne, and a jalapeno-cheese corn dog you might grab at the Texas State Fair. But the offering that caught my eye was something not often seen in New York City, and usually associated with New Mexico rather than Texas.
The Frito pie is commonly believed to have been invented by Teresa Hernandez in the 1960s at the Woolworth’s lunch counter on the southwest corner of the famed Santa Fe Plaza, where Native American women sit selling arts and crafts. The pie is not a pie in the strictly modern sense of the word: It consists of a bag of Fritos ripped open, sluiced with chili con carne, and sprinkled with grated cheese and raw onions. The effect is an overwhelming but somewhat dowdy deliciousness.
Fritos, as I know from my father, who was a food chemist at Frito-Lay, was the company’s first product, invented in 1932 by Charles Elmer Doolin in San Antonio. (Another story suggests he got it from Gustavo Olguin.) By the time my dad worked there, in the ’60s, Fritos were thought to be too salty and strongly tasting of corn to be widely accepted across the country, and hence Doritos were debuted in 1966, inspired by the tortilla chips eaten in Mexico, California, and Texas, only saltier, and eventually with flavorings applied. But Fritos continued to be marketed in the familiar red and yellow bag, principally popular in the American South and Southwest.
So it was that Teresa Hernandez, working at the lunch counter in the rear of the Woolworth’s, slit open a bag of Fritos and poured in some of her mother’s chili, as the story goes, perhaps in emulation of chilaquiles. Other accounts suggest the Frito chili pie was invented by the company itself in 1949 or earlier. Either way, the recipe is a wonderful idea, and something that may have spontaneously occurred in a number of places. Making it in the bag is most probably Hernandez’s idea, and therein lies much of the charm.
Amazingly, you can still get the dish at the same lunch counter, though Woolworth’s closed most of its stores in 1993, at which point the Santa Fe branch was rebranded Five & Dime, a generic term for the kind of variety store the chain represented. At Five & Dime, the ingredients today remain chips, cheese, and chili, and seeing customers walk out of the store eating their Frito pies with fingers or a plastic fork is a sight that takes you back decades in time.
That Frito pie had legs, albeit short ones, and as evidence of that, you can get the dish in something like its original form in New York City today. The version at the Waylon ($9) incorporates chips, maybe too much chili, and grated cheddar with pickled jalapenos and sour cream on the side. The chili con carne includes pinto beans and is a little bland and tomato-ey, but good in a mom-must-have-made-it sort of way. Which is why you should immediately mix the pickled chiles in before chowing down, but skip the sour cream as it feels unnecessary and doesn’t stay true to the dish’s history. Blessedly, this Fritos pie is still served in a Fritos bag.
Here are a few more places in town where you can score a Frito pie: Oklahoma-style barbecue Mable’s Smokehouse in Williamsburg serves it, and so does the West Village’s Cowgirl Hall of Fame, where you can have it topped with beef brisket chili or vegetarian chili sin carne. The Levee, a Williamsburg dive bar, offers Frito pie, and so does Brooklyn Ice House in Red Hook.