No state is linked quite as closely or exclusively to a singular food as Idaho is to the potato—with the exception maybe of Wisconsin. But limiting the gustatory experience of an entire state to one food is an injustice, especially in a place with as many iconic dishes as the Gem State.
Actually, this nickname might as well be referencing the number of unique culinary delights you can find throughout Idaho. Even if half the items on this list are derived from, inspired by, or variations of Idaho’s most famous food, that’s no matter. It just shows how much creativity you’ll find in this underrated culinary dreamland!
In no particular order, here are ten of the most famous foods in Idaho:
All Things Potatoes
What can we say? Idaho is famous for potatoes, and with good reason. The state overtook Maine in 1957 as the leading spud producer in the country and has since become so closely associated with this beloved root crop that nearly 75% of Americans say they prefer Idaho potatoes over any other.
Today the Gem State grows more than a third of all US potatoes, more than the following 5 states combined—with the exception of its next-door neighbor, Washington, which comes in at a very close second. Who knew that one singular root crop could be so versatile? Idahoans, that’s who.
The list of potato possibilities is nearly as long as the Idaho panhandle: potato pancakes, pizza, poutine, croquetas, gnocchi, fries (that goes without saying), on your grilled cheese, and even ice cream potatoes…there are simply more variations on the Idaho spud than you could shake a steak fry at.
Chicken strips? Please—you’re in Idaho. The finger steak is a very close second when it comes to iconic Idaho dishes. In fact, many locals might say these deep-fried beef strips are the true state classic, and meat-loving Idahoans from Bonners Ferry to Boise will proudly boast of their town’s best.
Whether bite-sized or full-length, you’ll find steak fries in just about every saloon, diner, dive bar, and major restaurant throughout Idaho. Fried crispy while boasting a pink, tender inside, each restauranteur has its own hand-battered recipe. They’re also usually accompanied by each locale’s unique blend of fry sauce, but more on that later.
Ice Cream Potato
Even desserts can’t escape the influence of the spud in Idaho. The ice cream potato has been a sweet staple in Idaho since it was first invented at Boise’s Westside Drive-In, circa 1957 (though the true origin is hotly debated). At first glance, a potato with a heap of vanilla ice cream bathed in chocolate sauce, topped with whipped cream, and dusted with cocoa, is actually sweet, not savory.
Made from ice cream coated in cocoa powder to resemble the state’s most beloved starch, this tuber treat has become so iconic in Idaho that it’s served on menus in most restaurants and is common fair food in town fairs (along with huckleberry jam scones). Idahoans take particular delight in wowing visitors with this unique dessert. You don’t want to miss out on this sugary surprise!
How can you have all those fries without anything to dip them with? Fry sauce is such a big deal in Idaho that it’s practically a separate food group. It certainly counts as a dish in its own right. Just ask anyone who’s been to Boise Fry Company—or better yet, stop in yourself at this one-of-a-kind fry joint.
Here, burgers are famously the side item and there are literally thousands of condiment combinations with your fries—100,000 ways to dip, to be precise. The base of the fry sauce consists of mayonnaise and ketchup, with red wine vinegar and Worcestershire sauce. But you’ll find more variations of this dip in Idaho than people—and you certainly aren’t limited to just fries for your fry sauce.
It’s even found across the country. Based out of Kansas, Freddy’s has their own fry sauce (affiliate link) to try, although what you’ll find in Idaho is likely whipped up on the spot. Order it with your finger steaks, your pizza, your poutine, or with your Meltz Extreme grilled cheese. In short? Don’t mess with Idahoans and their fry sauce.
If you haven’t tried an Idaho huckleberry, you’re missing out on one of the most beloved gems of the Gem State. This delectable, full-flavored berry is about as classic summertime Idaho as it gets. Find this fruit in everything from shakes, pies, and ice cream to jams, glazes, and even in your coffee. You can even buy huckleberry lip balm (affiliate link).
What makes the Idaho variety so highly coveted is that the berry thrives at higher mountain elevations and has a rather short fruiting season (late June to early August). Additionally, the berries take 15-20 years to fully fruit. This long maturation period gives the berry its characteristic deep, full flavor, and unmatched juiciness.
With that said, picking huckleberries is part of the adventure of enjoying them so much, as long as you can find the right spots! Because huckleberries are so prized, Idahoans can be rather secretive about where to go for the best ones. Regardless, you’re sure to find plenty of huckleberry delights while visiting.
Caviar? Yes, you read that right. Landlocked Idaho is quickly rising on the list of places to find the best caviar on the market thanks, in large part, to one man and his farm. Leo Ray is the 84-year-old owner and founder of Fish Breeders of Idaho, widely recognized as one of the most innovative fish farms in the world.
He and his wife started farming catfish and tilapia in southern Idaho’s Hagerman Valley in the 1960s, after moving north from California for the cleaner mountain waters of southern Idaho. These rivers are home to North America’s largest freshwater fish, the white sturgeon, which Ray soon realized would be a hot market for both its meat and eggs.
Sadly, due to damming of the Snake River, the population of the “American beluga” quickly plummeted, and now farmed sturgeon is the only way to experience this highly coveted delicacy.
Of course, this comes at a cost. A meticulous process to extract and clean, sellers have to wait a decade for the female’s eggs to ripen to the point of becoming premium caviar. All this work means that Fish Breeders can sell the caviar for $1000 per kilo to the nation’s most high-end restaurants, who then charge four to five times as much.
So if you’re ever in the mood—or within the budget—for it, you can thank Idaho, and Leo Ray, for your unforgettable caviar experience. If you’re not in the Gem State, consider shopping online, there are plenty of brands of American sturgeon caviar (affiliate link) to taste.
Idaho is definitely a trendsetter when it comes to this classically Canadian cuisine. When you add the state’s love for wild game meat like bison, elk, deer, and sturgeon, you won’t be surprised to see dishes like duck confit poutine served on menus in Idaho.
If you find yourself in Boise, Bittercreek Alehouse is consistently ranked as the best in the state. Not a basic dish of gravy and cheese, guests will be treated to duck fat, braised beef, and short rib poutine with beer-battered fries, loaded crab or lamb poutine, and even poutine sandwiches.
Be sure and try Idaho’s classic poutine gravy, red wine, and beef brisket reduction, or have a go at poutine topped with mushrooms, morels, and loads of delightful aromatic herbs. This will make for a delectable Pacific Northwest experience you’ll dream about for years.
You may be surprised to know Boise has one of the largest Basque communities in the US. This thriving pastoral culture has had a strong culinary influence over the years throughout the Gem State. You’ll find everything from croquetas and paella to solomo at the Basque Market in Boise, and you won’t ever be too far from a refreshing glass of sagarno, or apple cider (literally, apple wine in Euskara).
Traditionally a coastal sheepherding people, the Basque have a strong love of fish and meat in their diet. Naturally, this cuisine found a ready entrance into the Idaho palette, with natives’ love of meat (especially game meat) combined with the Pacific Northwest affinity for fresh, simple, and local.
You’ll find Basque mainstays like roasted garlic chicken, rack of lamb, or cod, which can be preapred a la Vizcaina, al pil-pil, or as just the heads, known as kokotxas. If you’re feeling super adventurous, you won’t want to miss Beef Tongue Saturday at Bar Gernika in downtown Boise. But be sure to come early before they run out!
You’re in Idaho—that means burgers, burgers, and more burgers. Americana is at its finest in the Gem State, where you’ll find absolutely everything on your burger except the boring.
Take Brakeman Grill’s Crazy Brakeman, which boasts a sky-high half-pound beast topped with bacon, grilled mushrooms, pickled jalapeños, Colby-Jack cheese, and a whole harvest’s worth of vegetables. On top of all that, it’s served with more fries than your extended family knows what to do with.
Mind you, Idahoans don’t stop at beef. You’ll find bison burgers, elk burgers, and, yes, even plant-based burgers. No matter your meat orientation, you’ll rave about the homestyle veggie nut burger at My Father’s Place in McCall, Idaho.
Surely, though, what could be more classic Idaho than a burger challenge? If you want a little notoriety, the Big Jud’s Challenge is for you. Featured on Man VS Food in 2010, this burger joint now offers three different challenges for your chance at their Wall of Fame: the 1lb, 2lb, and the “Man VS Food” challenge.
This last is a four-pound monstrosity with two one-pound patties, 10 slices of bacon, two thick swathes of mushroom, and layers of blue cheese, Swiss cheese, mayo, and tomatoes—plus one pound of fries on the side, all to be consumed within 30 minutes. Just be warned: you must finish a large soda as well to master the challenge, so spare the extra calories and avoid the fry sauce!
Meltz Extreme (Grilled Cheese)
If you combined all the state’s culinary treasures in one meal, this is it. Meltz Extreme, as the name suggests, is absolutely everything but your ordinary grilled cheese. Here, classic American comfort food meets unforgettable Idaho creativity and quality. Each individually crafted sandwich oozes on all sides with your choice of ten kinds of cheese expertly chosen for their melting quality.
If the menu has you overwhelmed, try the original Ultimate Meltz with white Cheddar, mozzarella, provolone, fontina, gorgonzola, and goat cheese. This beauty is not only scrumptious but also has an extremely impressive list of awards including the 2014 National Grilled Cheese Invitational Winner, Business Journal’s Best Sandwich in 2018, 2019, and 2020, and Best of North Idaho in 2018.
This, perhaps, is what makes Meltz Extreme so iconic in Idaho. The owners, Matt and Joe, first put their heads together a decade ago in the picturesque lake town of Coeur d’Alene. They wanted to offer Idaho’s best comfort food, but without all the hoity-toity fanfare of “fine dining,” which they felt just doesn’t fit northern Idaho.
Since 2012, their mission has been to bring comfort food and classic Idaho hospitality to the extreme, with a vibe that makes you feel like you never left your mom’s kitchen. Needless to say, Meltz Extreme is an experience as much as a meal, and you won’t soon forget either.
Iconic Idaho food is summed up as classic Americana fare (think burgers, potatoes, steak, fries, and summer favorites like berry pie and shakes) with a unique flare that makes each dish simply unforgettable. Once you put a little Idaho on it, you won’t want to go back to your own boring burger or fries ever again!