Barbary Coast Food: The Hangtown Fry

Take a few eggs, fry them up, and then slap on some oysters and lay a couple strips of bacon across it. You wouldn’t be wrong to think this was a late-night, bong-hit-induced home dinner. But it’s really a Barbary Coast-era rich man’s meal.

Meet the Hangtown fry. This mishmash of seemingly incongruent ingredients originated in the ominous-sounding Hangtown (today’s Placerville, CA.), smack in the Gold Rush country. It’s said that a miner in the early 1850s, who had just found a motherlode of gold, went into a restaurant and asked for the most expensive meal they could cook up. Eggs were something of a delicacy because they had to be transported (very gently) from afar; same with oysters, which came on ice from San Francisco; and bacon was brought all the way from the East Coast.

The other tale associated with the origins of the Hangtown fry relate to someone about to be, well, hanged. When asked what he wanted for his last meal, the soon-to-be-executed prisoner requested eggs, bacon, and oysters, knowing it would take days to transport them there and he’d have bought himself some time.

No one knows for sure if either of these tales are true or apocryphal. One thing is certain though: the Hangtown fry is truly a California dish–the origins of California cuisine, perhaps?– conceived at the same time the state came into the union.

Best of all, if you know where to look, you can still find it today. Mission District restaurant Foreign Cinema sometimes has it on the weekend brunch menu (though not at the moment) and Comstock Saloon turns the dish into a very snack-able and tasty toast (see photo). But the closest to the original might be at the Tadich Grill in downtown San Francisco. Opened in 1849, it’s the oldest restaurant in California and they’ve been serving up the Hangtown fry for as long as anyone can remember.