Signature Foods of the 1980’s

by and

Before the Age of Foodism descended on us like manna from heaven—bringing with it a concern for food excellence rather than just novelty (or so we hope)—we were willing guinea pigs for a succession of food fads, many of them quite weird. Some, like Jell-O and Pringle’s Newfangled Potato Chips, were technology-driven. Others were the work of cagey capitalists trying to wring the last cents (and sense) out of already-overexposed products like popcorn, potatoes, and mayonnaise. Return with us now to the dark culinary days of the ’80s, when food fads dominated the city like invading space monsters—flying into town one day, then leaving just as mysteriously the next. Here are the products we enjoyed sampling back then, but wondered even as we ate them: “Will they persist into the next millennium?” The short answer: Eek! They did!


The biggest book of 1982 (53 weeks at the top of the Times bestseller list!) was a slender volume by Bruce Feirstein called Real Men Don’t Eat Quiche. Though partly intended as a parody, the title alone telegraphed the idea that a food fad swiped from France—and a dominant dish of the ’80s—was irretrievably effeminate. Well, quiche has survived, packing tons of fat into small eggy wedges while seeming virtuous and low-caloric. Meanwhile, the author of the book has been consigned to permanent obscurity. At Amy’s Bread, you can still find great quiche; their Swiss-cheese-and-ham is the pie’s quintessential Gallic evocation. 75 Ninth Avenue, 212-462-4338; 672 Ninth Avenue, 212-977-2670; 250 Bleecker Street, 212-675-7802;

Cajun Blackened Fish

Poor hugely fat Paul Prudhomme! In the ’80s, he swept into town in his chef’s whites to establish a branch of his New Orleans classic K-Paul’s in Soho (minus the chilies—what a mistake!), only to have it tank soon thereafter. But the Cajun cooking style he accidentally invented persists: blackening spice-rubbed fish in a wok over fiercely hot flames. You can sample this archetypal ’80s dish at Maggie’s Cajun Grill, 12 John Street, 212-577-2668; Londel’s Supper Club, 2620 Eighth Avenue, 212-234-6114; or Delta Grill, 700 Ninth Avenue, 212-956-0934.

Packaged Ramen

The point of ramen used to be its Spartan edge—wickedly cheap, edible raw, unapologetically junky. In a nuclear winter, it would be the cockroaches and the ramen that survived. Improbable as it may have sounded then, the Cold War has given way to the East Village ramen wars. Our choice for the ramen crown is Ippudo, where the long-simmered broth is deliciously porky and the homemade ramen are thin, slippery, and manage to be both delicate and firm. Meanwhile, packaged ramen has evolved. To experience packaged-ramen nirvana, head to Gold City Supermarket, where there’s a long aisle dedicated to nothing but multicolored plastic packs of dried noodles. There are varieties from Japan, China, Korea, and the U.S., all of it cheap as dirt, in flavors like Chinese chive, lobster-abalone, kimchi, seaweed, chicken curry, and “artificial spicy pork.” Ippudo, 65 Fourth Avenue, 212-388-0088; Gold City, 4631 Kissena Boulevard, Flushing, Queens, 718-762-7688;

Ranch Dressing

This may be hard to believe, but once upon a time there was a dude ranch named Hidden Valley in California, and that’s where ranch dressing (made with sour cream, buttermilk, mayo, green onions, and garlic powder) was invented in 1954. It reached its apogee of fame three decades later, achieving mass notoriety as a flavoring for Doritos. Ranch dressing and its multiple variants are now, according to Wikipedia, the second-most popular salad toppings next to Italian dressing. At Wimpy’s III in Washington Heights, you can get it on your grilled-chicken wrap, and bottles of it still line supermarket shelves. 1232 St. Nicholas Avenue, 212-928-8085

Wine Coolers

We may never recover from viewing, at an early age, the 1986 Seagram’s commercial in which a lecherous Bruce Willis intones: “It’s wet . . . it’s dry.” Two decades later, over on the West Side Highway, the Rusty Knot is single-handedly trying to pluck the wine cooler out of history’s dust bin. But the best wine cooler is always the one you make at home. 425 West Street, 212-645-5668

The Don’t-Touch-Me-Bruce-Willis Cooler

Yields: 1 large cooler

3/4 cup dry Riesling, chilled

1/4 cup Lillet Blanc, chilled

2 tablespoons Cointreau

2/3 cup bitter-lemon tonic water
thin slice orange, to garnish

In a large tumbler filled with ice, combine Riesling, Lillet, and Cointreau. Stir well. Add the lemon tonic water, and float the orange slice on top.

Flavored Popcorn

One of the craziest food fads to hit New York in the ’80s was flavored popcorn. It didn’t come in bags at the deli, but in storefronts scattered throughout the Upper West Side and midtown—at one time, there were nearly a dozen places offering it. Popping flavors that ranged from caramel to tutti frutti to chocolate (along with just plain buttered), these places have long since vanished, but Dale and Thomas Popcorn recently revived the fad in Times Square. 1592 Broadway, 212-581-1872

Fruit Roll-ups

Back when moms and dads were less militant about the food that touched little Johnny’s lips, they sent us to school with these flappy, chewy things that were like Kool-Aid in plastic form. Now you can get virtuous, all-natural fruit leathers at health-food stores—or, better yet, make your own.

Millennial Fruit Roll-Ups

Yields: About 10 snacks

3/4 cup raspberries

3/4 cup strawberries, hulled

3/4 cup sugar

2 tablespoons ancho chili powder

In a blender, combine the raspberries, strawberries, and sugar, and blend on high until puréed. In a medium saucepan, combine berry purée and chili powder, and bring to a boil, stirring. Reduce heat to low and maintain at a bare simmer for one hour, stirring occasionally.
Preheat oven to 200 degrees. Take a sheet pan and line it with lightly oiled parchment paper. Spread the berry purée evenly on the parchment paper. Place pan in the oven and bake for two and a half hours, until purée is dry but still slightly sticky. Cool completely at room temperature before cutting roll-ups into pieces.

Jell-O Pudding Pops

When Jell-O Pudding Pops went to the big freezer in the sky in the ’90s, a cry went up from those of us who loved those weirdly chewy, icy treats. Even Bill Cosby, with his distinctively enthusiastic diction (“Jello Puddin’ Pops is frozen pudding on a stick!”) and his comforting dad-sweaters, couldn’t help us. There was even an online petition agitating for their reincarnation. In 2004, pops-lovers got their wish when Popsicle brought them back, and now you can buy them at your local ShopRite or Stop & Shop.

Potato Skins

Talk about turning shit into Shinola! In the ’80s, somebody got the bright idea of filching the inside of the potato and selling just the skins. These skins—with a bit of potato adhering, like drowning sailors clutching a makeshift wooden raft—were then loaded up with all sorts of distractions like sour cream, chives, chili con carne, etc. Truth be told, they were pretty damn good in either their baked or fried incarnations. But the question still persists: Who was enjoying the fleecy-white rest of the potato? Park Slope Ale House produces a superior rendition. 356 Sixth Avenue, Brooklyn, 718-788-1756

Bran Muffins

Remember when you thought bran muffins were good for you? So you’d dutifully eat a leaden bran bomb that had more fat and calories than some African villages get in a year, and then put on your leg warmers and shake your booty to a Jane Fonda jazzercise video. Tragically, leggings are back in style, but thankfully, bran muffins have come a long way, baby. Get the best at Blue Sky Bakery—fluffy, lightly sweetened bran muffins, full of fresh fruit like blueberry and sweet plum. 53 Fifth Avenue, Brooklyn, 718-783-4123


You may find this hard to believe, but tirami sù (“pick me up”), far from being an Italian dessert of ancient vintage, was actually invented at El Toula restaurant in Treviso, just north of Venice, in the ’60s. It spread across the ocean like swine influenza, with such startling rapidity that by the ’80s, it was de rigueur in every Italian restaurant in the city. Catch a slammin’ version at Frankie’s 457 Spuntino, 457 Court Street, Brooklyn, 718-403-0033,, or at V & T Pizza, 1024 Amsterdam Avenue, 212-663-1708.

Raspberry Vinaigrette

Every time raspberry vinaigrette is mentioned (not too often these days), we naturally think of Prince’s “Raspberry Beret,” one of the greatest songs of 1985. In fact, the two have much in common: Catchy yet cloying, both made a massive mark on an entire era. Vinaigrette is supposed to be sour, but raspberry vinaigrette is uncommonly sweet—almost as sweet as the syrup you put on your pancakes. And its most common use in those days was pouring it over salmon fillets. Yuck! Sample raspberry vinaigrette in all its retrograde splendor on the tricolor salad at Caffe on the Green, a national landmark in Bayside that was once the home of Rudolph Valentino. 201-10 Cross Island Parkway, Queens, 718-423-7272,


In 1974, an article in The New York Times calculated that there were 100 Japanese restaurants in the city, a number that had exploded from just 10 in 1964. (“With a gusto once reserved for chow mein and egg foo young, New Yorkers are now dipping their chopsticks into another Oriental taste treat—Japanese cuisine,” chirped the article.) By the time the ’80s rolled around, it had become a certifiable craze. Now, of course, you can get a sushi fix for $450 a pop at Masa, or pick it up pre-made at the supermarket for a few bucks. Sushi is still—and always will be for those of us without trust funds—a treat to be carefully balanced between value and quality. For our money, the best sushi in the city is at Taro, a bare-bones joint where you can sit at the sushi bar and have a beautifully fresh, skillfully executed omakase meal for $40. 446 Dean Street, Brooklyn, 718-398-0872


Though Steak-Umms were invented in the ’60s, they reached their apotheosis in the ’80s, when every suburban house had an ample supply in the deep-freeze, deploying them in casseroles, burritos, sloppy joes, and lasagnas, in addition to the use for which the Reading, Pennsylvania, Steak-Umms company originally intended them—Philly cheesesteaks. Though the razor-thin portions of beef may have inspired the pejorative term “mystery meat,” they can still be acquired in many supermarket freezer cases around the city. So as not to be seen buying them, we prefer to scarf an actual cheesesteak at Carl’s Steaks, 507 Third Avenue, 212-696-5336, 79 Chambers Street, 212-566-2828,; 99 Miles to Philly, 94 Third Avenue, 212-253-2700,; or High Stakes Cheese Steaks, 216 Flatbush Avenue, Brooklyn, 718-230-8616.


Brie peaked at an important time in American cheese history. Fatigued by the usual selection of cheddar, Swiss, and American, Yanks turned their gaze to Europe for inspiration. Brie was the first to step forward, becoming a bona fide food fad at receptions, cocktail parties, and other events, where the ease of spreading it on a cracker was an important factor. Maybe it also had something to do with its resemblance, at least as far as texture was concerned, to Velveeta. Though it was soon supplanted in our affections with other, more flavorful cheeses, brie is worth a revisit. Find it at Stinky Brooklyn, 261 Smith Street, Brooklyn, 718-522-7425,; Lamarca Cheese Shop, 161 East 22nd Street, 212-673-7920; or the Cheese Store, 720 Monroe Street, Hoboken, New Jersey, 201-683-8162,

Frozen Yogurt

When frozen yogurt came around the first time, it was like hearing that the laws of the universe had been reversed—ice cream that you can gorge on because it’s fat-free! Now we file frozen yogurt, along with trickle-down economics, under “Lies They Told Us in the ’80s.” But frozen yogurt is back, draped in an even more virtuous disguise: Fro-yo is now the domain of Pinkberry, Red Mango, Yolato, Flurt, and a dozen or so imitators with equally infantile names. It isn’t just fat-free; it’s also supposedly good for your digestive system, the earth, and whatever else might need saving. The tart, “natural yogurt”–flavored soft-serve originated in South Korea and then made its way to New York via L.A. It all tastes the same. There’s one exception—Öko uses yogurt made by a Greek family in Queens, and the result is intensely tart, densely yogurty fro-yo. 152 Fifth Avenue, Brooklyn, 718-398-3671; 137 First Avenue, 212-228-3321