The idea started out simple enough. July was going to be our inaugural “food issue,” and we wanted to talk about some really good things to eat.

So the WSM staff began making a list of some of the most popular, most distinct, most can’t-live-without foods in town. Not an official “best of” list, but a combination of our favorite dishes along with foods that are unique to Winston-Salem. We also asked a few foodie friends for some recommendations — among them Winston-Salem Journal food editor Michael Hastings, former Journal restaurant columnist Laura Giovanelli, and Triad Foodies blogger Kristi Maier. We asked that their selections be limited to items that are available in Winston-Salem (not Clemmons, Kernersville, etc.).

In the end, we ended up with a list that runs the gamut from munchies to main courses to desserts, ranging from $2 fish tacos to $42 steaks and everything in between. So, in what’s almost sure to become an annual compilation, here’s our list of 35 foods everyone in Winston-Salem should try at least once — in no particular order.

Starters and Sides

1. Cheese Straws (Salem Kitchen). For a food with so few ingredients, the recipe for cheese straws can vary quite a bit. That said, Salem Kitchen is famous for its cheese straws (and, in our opinion, it’s because they’re the best in town). Many don’t get the ratio of cayenne quite right, but Salem Kitchen has it down to a science, giving you a slight kick without being overpowering.

2. Fried Green Tomatoes and Okra (Sweet Potatoes). Many dishes at Sweet Potatoes come alive with the addition of the eponymous ingredient, and the fried green tomato and okra appetizer is no exception. Though making an aioli with sweet potatoes is a little more subtle than, say, eating one baked and sprinkled with brown sugar, it turns out to be a stroke of genius, and it’s something you’re not likely to find anywhere else (and it doesn’t hurt that the tomatoes and okra are always fried perfectly).

3. Cauliflower Wedge (Mission Pizza). You’re probably asking yourself, “What is a colorless, bland vegetable doing on this list?” I was skeptical, too … at first. I’ve never liked cauliflower or goat cheese (two of the main ingredients here). But this cauliflower wedge, roasted into a savory charred perfection and topped with creamy whipped goat cheese and a balsamic glaze, is (almost) enough to turn me vegetarian.

4. Mr. Mac & Cheese (Hutch & Harris). Made with cavatappi pasta (corkscrews) and a three-cheese blend, this hearty pasta dish seems pretty basic at first glance. Think again. The perfect amount of gooey and creamy, this pasta comes topped with crispy breaded chicken tenders. While you’ll be tempted to eat the chicken separately and savor the mac and cheese, we recommend you mix it in to add a nice crunchy contrast to every bite.

5. Colorado Chips (Village Tavern). Village Tavern has long been famous for its delicious homemade hot chips. But now, with many other restaurants making their own chips, the Tavern has upped its game. Inspired by its popular Colorado Chicken entrée, this enhanced appetizer piles bacon and cheese on chips and adds the oh-so-Southern comfort of a smoky, spicy barbecue sauce, creating a deliciously indulgent twist out of a classic.

6. Oyster Nachos (Diamondback Grill). These nachos are unlike any you’ll ever try. Obviously they have oysters instead of the requisite beef, pork, or chicken, but they also have two other major differences: no cheese and no corn tortilla chips. Instead, the app relies on the flaky taste of crispy flour tortillas and smoky chipotle aioli paired with fresh pico de gallo.

7. Molcajete (La Botana). La Botana is famous for having some of the most authentic Mexican fare in town, and the molcajete is no exception. This hearty stew made from bean stock, tomato, green onions, cilantro, and mushrooms comes with your choice of meats (or vegetarian options) served in a basaltic rock bowl with pinto beans and prickly pear cactus leaves. It’s enough food for a whole meal—one that will have you feeling transported to Mexico.

8. Relish Tray (Carriage House). Made up of pepperoncinis, two kinds of pickles, black olives, celery, and radishes, this traditional dish harkens back to a better, simpler time. You can opt for a small tray ($3.50) or a large one ($5.50) and pair it with the restaurant’s famed cheese spread (sold separately) for a tasty appetizer that offers a slice of the past.

9. Prince Edward Island Mussels (Willow’s Bistro). If you consider yourself a lover of great seafood, you need to put this appetizer at the top of your food bucket list. The steamed mussels are topped with a pancetta white wine cream sauce and scallions, balancing the saltiness of the mussels with a rich and buttery creaminess. You can order them whenever you go, as the mussels are served for lunch, dinner, and brunch.

10. Hush Puppies (Bib’s Downtown). Eating barbecue without hush puppies is like eating a hamburger without fries. It’s acceptable, but it’s highly inadvisable. While we’ve never met a hush puppy we didn’t like, we can’t deny there’s something extra special about the ones served at Bib’s Downtown. The hush puppies here feature a thick, crunchy crusting and a sweet, peppery flavor—likely the result of the 13 secret spices used in their creation.

Sandwiches, Wraps, etc.

11. BALT (The Porch). I consider myself somewhat of a BLT connoisseur; if there’s a BLT on the menu, I’m going to try it. And honestly, it’s a hard sandwich to screw up. But The Porch has made sandwich perfection with the addition of three simple ingredients: avocado, chipotle aioli, and Camino Bakery’s multigrain bread. It’s difficult to say which of these ingredients makes it my self-proclaimed “favorite BLT ever,” but you can be sure that when they meet, they make a beautiful symphony.

12. Cham (T.J.’s Deli). It’s been called the sandwich that can make vegetarians switch sides—a glorious combination of deep-fried chicken and grilled ham (hence the name). As T.J.’s signature sandwich, the Cham is essentially a Southern-fried version of a chicken cordon bleu with lettuce, tomato, provolone cheese, and mayo piled onto a sesame seed bun. Those feeling extra ravenous can opt for its bigger brother, the SuperCham, or go with the tangy Buffalo Cham.

13. Apple Butter Baby (Mary’s Gourmet Diner). The Apple Butter Baby at Mary’s was ultimately born out of chance. Owner Mary Haglund was eating a sandwich with scrambled eggs and smoked sausage when she spotted a nearby packet of apple butter. “That sounds good,” she thought to herself. And thus, the beloved breakfast sandwich was born. Of course, the secret to why Mary’s is so special is that the apple butter is “mom’s recipe, made in the Crockpot.”

14. Milner’s Burger (Milner’s). Milner’s pimento cheese recipe, like most, is a closely guarded secret. But what we do know is that when it tops one of its juicy burgers, the result is like a melted heaven. Add in some country bacon and tobacco onions, and you’re sure to feel transported to a higher gustatorial plane. Go for dinner and try the hand-cut fries, a perfect complement to this decadent yet comforting meal.

15. Reuben (O’Brien’s Deli). A great Reuben is the result of high-quality ingredients, and O’Brien’s has one of the greatest around. As the “Home of the Reuben,” the restaurant uses only the leaner “first cut” of corned beef, which slices better than other cuts and holds up to the many elements: sauerkraut, brown mustard, Swiss cheese, and thousand island dressing, all piled onto rye bread.

16. Fish Tacos (King’s Crab Shack). Tuesday at King’s is a special day … it’s fish taco day. The tacos come with fresh, homemade ingredients: chipotle sauce, guacamole, pico de gallo, lettuce, and cheese (and fish, of course). You can also get them with chicken or shrimp if you’re not a fan of fish, but we recommend trying the fish at least once; you might just become a convert.

17. Pretzel Dog (Skippy’s). When you’re on Fourth Street looking for some quick, tasty food for lunch, look no further than Skippy’s. The restaurant’s all-beef hot dogs feature a special twist—they’re served on fresh-baked pretzel buns, which serve as a delicious vehicle for as many toppings as you can think of. Whether you eat one Carolina-style (chili, slaw, onions, etc.) or Chicago style (relish, pickles, peppers, etc.), you’re sure to want another.

18. Lexington-Style BBQ (Little Richard’s Barbecue). It sure is nice being only a short distance from the “barbecue capital of the world” (Lexington). We can chow down at some of our favorite in-town barbecue joints—among them, Little Richard’s on Country Club Road. The diner serves authentic, pit-cooked barbecue that’s chopped and laced with a tangy tomato and vinegar-based dip. Order with the requisite sweet tea and hush puppies and enjoy a true taste of the South.

19. Tawook Sandwich (Mooney’s). It’s hard to choose a favorite dish at Mooney’s, a Mediterranean-inspired eatery in downtown. Must-try foods include everything from the Hummus to the Falafel to the beefy Shawarma. But if we had to pick one, it’d be the always tasty Tawook, a Lebanese take on the chicken pita that features marinated chicken, garlic mayo, pickled turnips, and fries (in the sandwich)—all of which is wrapped in a warm, soft pita.

20. Pulliam’s Dog (J.S. Pulliam’s). We think it’s safe to say that, per capita, Winston-Salem has the greatest selection of hot dogs in the universe. P.B.’s, Dairi-O, Skippy’s—we love them all. But if we had to pick a favorite, it’d be the dogs found at J.S. Pulliam’s, which are served on toasted and buttered buns. Throw on some chili, mustard, and slaw, and you have a true Southern delicacy. In fact, a 2011 issue of Every Day with Rachel Ray said Pulliam’s had “the best hot dog in the South.”

Main Courses

21. Pizza slice (Burke Street Pizza). When it comes to post-midnight munchies in Winston-Salem, it doesn’t get any better than Burke Street Pizza. The beloved pizzeria makes giant New York-style pizza that may be one of the most satisfying late-night foods known to man. Featuring a crisp airy crust and just the right amount of grease, the slices are covered with delicious, melty cheese, and crispy pepperoni.

22. BBQ Chicken Pizza (First Street Draught House). While this comes from a place known for its beers and burgers, when I’m at First Street, I tell people what my sister told me over five years ago: “You have to try this pizza.” Most tend to ignore my advice, but I always order it for myself so they can try a slice. And every time, the same response follows: “This is amazing!” The crust is the right combination of crunchy and chewy, and the slightly sweet BBQ sauce adds a perfect contrast.

23. Kickin’ Chicken (Ted’s Famous Kickin’ Chicken). Crispy, juicy, and smothered in barbecue sauce—that’s how chicken is done at Ted’s. The staff starts by deep-frying the chicken until it’s perfectly crisp on the outside and tender on the inside, then they dip it in their signature barbecue sauce, which has just the right amount of heat. Order an upper (breast and wing), and you’ll know why this chicken is so famous.

24. Tomato Pie (Mozelle’s). When compiling our list, we asked several local food critics what they recommended, and almost all of them said the Tomato Pie at Mozelle’s Fresh Southern Bistro. It’s a simple dish, with herbs, tomatoes, and cheese inside a flaky crust—but it’s practically addictive. The lunch version comes with a tasty side of succotash, but we recommend going for dinner because, honestly, what self-respecting Southerner passes up a side of cheese grits?

25. Moravian Chicken Pie (The Tavern at Old Salem). When we asked Lori Keiper of The Tavern at Old Salem what went into the chicken pie to make it so special, her initial response was “chicken.” But she went on to say that there's a lot of little details that go into getting the dish just right. Chicken Pie is one of those dishes you really can’t skip steps on, and The Tavern at Old Salem takes the time to make sure every ingredient is perfect. We think what makes it really special is the addition of cornmeal and a little bit of sugar in the crust (and, of course, the chicken).

26. Steak (Putter’s Patio & Grill). For years, the staff at Putter’s have boldly claimed to have the best steak in Winston-Salem. While it may come as a surprise to some, we’ll be the first to confirm it. Putter’s serves excellent cuts of beef, ensuring a delicious experience for anyone who goes there. Diners can choose from several cuts, and whichever one you decide to order, it’s sure to come out perfectly cooked with a light wood-smoked taste. 

27. Pan-Seared Ostrich (Bernardin’s). With entrées such as duck, bison, and kangaroo appearing on the menu, Bernardin’s leaves no shortage of intrigue. But our favorite exotic dish found here is the Pan-Seared Ostrich, which comes crusted in cumin and served over a scallion-studded wild rice/corn cake with braised cabbage. The meat tastes similar to beef yet contains a lower fat content (hence its growing popularity). Order it rare to medium rare, as meat with less fat tends to cook much faster.

28. Steak au Poivre (Ryan’s). Simply put, it’s the most popular dish at one of the city’s most popular restaurants—and you won’t find anything else quite like it in town. Ryan’s Steak au Poivre is classically served as a 6 oz. graded choice filet mignon that is rubbed with cracked black pepper and sautéed to order. It comes with a red wine and cognac cream sauce ladled over the filet. Those looking for a bigger cut can also order any of Ryan’s other steaks in the “au Poivre” style, from the 14 oz. N.Y. strip to the 16 oz. prime rib-eye.

29. Carolina Shrimp & Grits (Fourth Street Filling Station). In a city known for its Shrimp and Grits, the ones at the Filling Station stand above the rest—and that’s saying something. This decadent dish features a fried grit cake, chipotle cream sauce, and andouille sausage, giving it a distinctive taste. Having earned praise in publications such as Southern Living, it’s easily the most requested entrée at this gas station-turned-eatery in West End.

The Sweets

30. B&G Fried Pies. With their sweet fillings and golden brown crusts, B&G Pies might be the most nostalgic snack in town. The handmade pies are available in five flavors—peach, lemon, chocolate, cherry, and best-selling apple—and are still made from scratch inside a Winston-Salem factory, just as they have been since 1949.

31. Krispy Kreme Doughnut. For more than 75 years, Krispy Kreme doughnuts have been Winston-Salem’s favorite guilty pleasure, especially when the neon “HOT NOW” sign is glowing at the flagship store on Stratford Road. As a writer from The New York Times once said, “When Krispy Kremes are hot, they are to other doughnuts what angels are to people.”

32. Mrs. Hanes Moravian Cookies. If tradition had a taste, it’d probably taste something like the cookies found at Mrs. Hanes Moravian Cookie Factory. Sweet, addictive, and impossibly thin, these delicacies help define the holiday season for many in town. Mrs. Hanes produces six unique cookie flavors, the most popular being sugar and ginger. To this day, the company relies on a talented crew of cookie-makers (aka “artists in aprons”) to hand-roll, hand-cut, and hand-pack each individual treat.

33. Pink Lemonade Square (Dewey’s). A staple at local birthday celebrations, the pink lemonade square is a delightfully refreshing summer treat that can either be a fresh discovery for newcomers or a bit of nostalgia for Twin City natives. Regardless of which group you fall into, the tangy sweetness of this little treat is sure to make your day a little sunnier.

34. Vanilla Bean Crème Brûlée (Meridian Restaurant). If you’re looking for one of the most indulgent desserts in town, look no further. Meridian’s crème brûlée puts a minor twist on the typical recipe that makes a world of difference. Many recipes use vanilla extract, but the substitution of vanilla bean creates a nostalgic flavor reminiscent of homemade vanilla ice cream, pairing perfectly with the crisp, caramelized layer of sugar.

35. Chocolate Cake (Chelsee’s). Need a chocolate fix? Head over to Chelsee’s Coffee Shop and grab a slice of the homemade chocolate cake. It’s moist, delicious, and smothered in sweet chocolate icing that melts on your tongue. Paired with a rotating choice of hand-ground gourmet coffees, the cake is sure to perk up your day.

Restaurant info

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*NOTE: WSM editor Michael Breedlove also helped write this article.

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