Is there anything more tantamount to the state of Utah than an ambiguous mixture of ketchup and mayonnaise? Surprisingly, no. Fry sauce is much more than just a condiment to the people who consider it a beloved staple of Western American comfort food, says Kasey Christensen, the chief operating officer for Arctic Circle Restaurants — the fast food chain where it was invented.
For those who haven’t encountered what Christensen calls the "ultimate" dipping sauce, fry sauce is, at its most simple, an equal mix of ketchup and mayonnaise. With the same complexion as Japanese steakhouse "yum yum" sauce, fry sauce sets itself apart in its simplicity. Some may mistake fry sauce for Thousand Island, which is built on a mayonnaise base and a tangy flavor brought on by Tabasco, Worcestershire sauce, or chili spices, enhanced by a slew of minced pickles, onions, olives, and bell peppers. But fry sauce keeps it light with it's smooth consistency and rare incorporation of minced additives, as compared to Thousand Island, which is heavy and laden with ingredients.
Since its invention in 1940, fry sauce has since been personalized by many different people, drawing on influences across the globe — and it might just be positioned to blow up in Sriracha-like popularity very soon.
There’s a rich history behind the tangy-savory-creamy concoction, Christensen says, and it starts in the 1940s with a chef named Don Carlos Edwards.
Edwards got his start in Salt Lake City through a food cart, serving hamburgers, fries, and cold drinks to hordes of customers who would wait in line for his fare, which isn’t much different from the popularity of mobile dining today. While Edwards was a hit at fairs and rodeos across the state, his dream was always to own a brick-and-mortar storefront and maintain a permanent presence in Salt Lake City. That dream came true when he opened Don Carlos’ Barbecue.
Mixing his signature mayo-based white sauce with ketchup in the back of his kitchen one day, Edwards would pester loyal customers and close friends to try the condiment. "Fry sauce really came to be after Edwards showed it to nearly anyone who would listen," Christensen says. "There was once a time when even our burgers had that pink sauce slathered on it. We used to put fry sauce on our sandwiches and some years later on we reversed that trend, and people reserved it for their fries."
Edwards eventually converted his barbecue joint into the first Arctic Circle locations in the early 1950s. More than 65 years later, fry sauce is still the signature pride and joy of Arctic Circle and has spread to most of the West Coast and Northwest.
But that’s not to say that Don Carlos Edwards was the only inquisitive mind who created a sauce out of a ketchup and mayonnaise base. In addition to making leaving its mark on the American west, fry sauce lives a peculiar double life as salsa golf in Argentina after being invented, no less, by a Nobel Prize winner. The condiment made a quick sweep through Central America, eastern Europe, the Balkan countries and a select few countries in the Middle East before the comparable thousand island dressing popped up in a New Orleans cookbook in 1900.
While Edwards didn't think to create his fry sauce until the 1940s, it was in the mid-1920s when salsa golf was created, the earliest occurrence of the mixture in South America before making appearances elsewhere.
Legend has it that Argentine biochemist and physician Luis Federico Leloir, who received the prize in Chemistry in 1970 after discovering the metabolic powers of sugar nucleotides, stumbled upon his version of fry sauce while on vacation in eastern Argentina. According to Víctor Ducrot’s Los Sabores de la Patria, Leloir was with friends and colleagues in Mar del Plata, a coastal vacation spot near Buenos Aires, when he decided he didn’t want to eat his shellfish with the standard mayonnaise. His waiter was happy to bring him a slew of singular ingredients from the kitchen, such as vinegar, lemon, mustard, sugar, and ketchup; the chemist simply just couldn’t resist, and it wasn't long before "salsa golf," named after the golf resort’s restaurant where they enjoyed the meal, was created.
Soon after, salsa rosada popped up in Colombia and made its way onto hamburgers, fries, deli meats and chips (even Goya would pick it up as one of its products). In northern neighbor Costa Rica, it’s commonly served as the dressing for their take on coleslaw, ensalada de repollo. And in Puerto Rico, mayokétchup is often proclaimed as the island’s official condiment. Fry sauce has also invaded Europe — in Germany, for example, fry sauce was also derived from fast-food culture and is served quite plainly with fries in a dish known as pommes rot-weiss, which Pedro Leao says is often served with bratwurst or currywurst in his Keys to Understand German Business Culture. Fry sauce is one thing in Icelandic culture as koktelisósa but totally another as Marie Rose sauce in the United Kingdom.
Christensen is unsure of Don Carlos Edwards’ heritage or family origins, but he does maintain that Edwards was born and raised in Salt Lake City and he doesn’t believe that Edwards was influenced by salsa golf or Brazilian culture. That doesn’t mean he’s not aware of fry sauce interpretations or others trying to lay claim to what he says is Arctic Circle’s own claim to fame.
A laundry list of ingredients
Christensen said he’s never heard of salsa golf, but there’s always times when he runs into what he says is fry sauce masquerading under another name or with extra ingredients. "Recently I was in Dallas, Texas, talking to some folks about Arctic Circle product, including our fry sauce, and most of those who came to the booth said ‘Oh, that’s Raising Cane sauce, I know that sauce.’ But that sauce is completely different from fry sauce," he says, citing the spicy kick in Raising Cane sauce as the main differentiator.
So what is in Arctic Circle's version? "For one thing, we’ve never done pickle juice in ours. Never ever," he says. Other than that, Christensen says, fry sauce is relatively open to interpretation.
"I can tell you that we stay pretty close to the very basis of the recipe, which is an equal mix of ketchup and mayonnaise, there’s no secret to that," he says. "There’s a ratio of salts to spices, and here we don’t use pickle juice. Other than that, nowadays there’s lots of kinds of fry sauce that you wouldn’t have seen many years ago."
Christensen chose his words carefully about Arctic Circle’s rendition, but many other recipes call for ingredients such as hot sauce, vinegar, Worcestershire sauce, black pepper, sugar, and other spices and flavorings.
In Utah and bordering Western States, even corporate chains have to get in on the fry sauce action if they hope to compete, Christensen says. He names corporate monsters McDonald's and Five Guys as players in the fry sauce game, as well as the upscale Denver-based burger chain Smashburger, founded nearly 10 years ago and known internationally for their smashing technique when it comes their hamburger patties.
"As a brand, we try to localize our menu, with a focus on strong geocoded preferences that we can incorporate into our offerings," he says. "Our Salt Lake City locations has one of the special elements of those interested in a burger and fry restaurant in Utah, and that's fry sauce. We’ve tapped into the preponderance of fry sauce out here, where it’s a local favorite."
Smashburger has strayed from industry standard, however, and serves a fry sauce jointly based on ketchup and the chain's ranch dressing. Ryan says guests at Smashburger prefer the change of pace, where ranch adds to the creamy element of fry sauce.
"We do have that classic mixture of ketchup and something more on the creamy side, but our mayo is particularly eggy and strong, and the mixture of the two was a little overwhelming," he says. "Ranch dressing is a little thinner mayo with some herb in it, on principle, so we tried it. Why not take this notion of fry sauce and do something innovative with it?"
While Ryan isn't shy about particular ingredients, Arctic Circle hasn’t released the full recipe for their fry sauce, mostly in part because they want to maintain the tradition that Edwards started so many years ago, Christensen says. They also want to stand out among competitors and look-a-likes. "Some other chains and restaurateurs also claim as well that they created fry sauce, but we’re confident in our history and knowledge here that Arctic Circle was the birthplace of fry sauce before it ever became popular anywhere else."
In the near future
Seventy years after it was first served, fry sauce is still a classic favorite at Arctic Circle, and Christensen says it’s not part of a trend that will eventually fade away. In fact, he says the restaurant chain goes through nearly 50,000 gallons of the sauce annually in the chain’s dining rooms, where self-service pumps are going through two gallons a day on average.
"That’s not even considering the drive-thru or the 16-ounce bottles that are retailed," he says. Arctic Circle began selling bottles of its signature fry sauce in stores within the last decade, and Christensen says a proceed of each bottle sold goes towards Arctic Cares, an in-house foundation for vendors, employees, franchisees and distributors in dire need.
Ryan believes the fry sauce craze in Utah is a prime example of regional cuisine's rising popularity in the food industry, along the lines of Nashville hot chicken right now.
When Ryan and Smashburger entered the Salt Lake City market in 2009, it wasn't long until all six Salt Lake City locations offered fry sauce as part of their menu. Boise and St. George, Utah, restaurants also went ahead and incorporated fry sauce into their locations later on, and it has appeared briefly in Smashburgers in Nevada, Ryan says. But he's unsure if the trend will continue in other locations, even though he's seen fry sauce served in independent burger joints in Minneapolis, Chicago and even Denver. He believes fry sauce needs to be upsold to his customers outside of Salt Lake City.
Things have certainly changed for Arctic Circle, a place where Utah residents used to line up in the 1950s to see cutting edge technology that produced soft-serve ice cream for just 15 cents a cone (now just 89 cents, in case you’re wondering). But fry sauce is a timeless remnant from that era that will remain a staple in the West for years to come.
"I think fry sauce is so inherent here partly because we started so many years ago, you know, people from Utah tend to stay around Utah," he said. "These things — the heritage, the nostalgia, the fact that we never ever deviated from the recipe — that could be why fry sauce has become the staple for our company and for our customers across the state and the country."
The real question is, then, when can we expect to see fry sauce at burger joints outside of the west? Will Americans ever dredge fries into this alluringly pink sauce in corners away from the west coast? "It's more of a speciality item rather than a ‘gotta have.' And many specialties have gone ahead and become a must-have item in kitchens over time," Ryan says. "It's been a long time coming for fry sauce, but we've just got to wait and see with this one."