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A la Carte: Feeling (tartar) saucy

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By Rachel Hergett EBS COLUMNIST

I was on the road to Seattle this week, a long Interstate 90 drive I’ve taken countless times. Not far past the strip malls and shops peddling big rigs and RVs that line the interstate between Coeur D’Alene and Spokane, the landscape gives way to eastern Washington’s seemingly endless farmlands. 

Maybe I’m a creature of habit, as it has become somewhat of a tradition for a pit stop in a little town called Ritzville. I know next to nothing about Ritzville, other than that it is home to a Zip’s Drive-In, an eastern Washington staple opened by Robert “Zip” Zuber in Kennewick in 1953, and a couple of decent gas station convenience stores. 

Why do I love Zip’s? Because I know the superior dipping sauce when it comes to French fries (or crinkle fries in the case of the regional chain), is tartar sauce. While most greasy burger joints offer ketchup and possibly mustard on their condiment counter, Zip’s has both fry sauce and tartar sauce to fulfill my dipping dreams. 

Zip’s Drive-In is an eastern Washington staple and regular stop for Montanans making the westward trek to Seattle. PHOTO BY RACHEL HERGETT

The cashier was chatty while I was contemplating what best to be a vessel for my future sauces. I appreciated her anecdote. Sometimes people ask what makes Zip’s special, expecting to be pointed toward a burger or another drive-in staple. “But it’s the tartar sauce,” she said. “That’s what we’re known for.” And then, bless her, she gave me a bunch to go. 

Tartar sauce originated in France. It may not be one of the mother sauces as defined by chef August Escoffier, but to me, it’s the mother of all sauces for dipping French fries. The acidic pickle and smooth mayo come together to enhance the flavor of potatoes. Try it, especially if you love pickles.

We tend to pronounce “tartar sauce” akin to “cream of tartar,” the stabilizing baking cabinet staple that contains tartaric acid, a byproduct of the grape fermentation process in winemaking. However, if words retained their history in pronunciation, we would say it more like “steak tartare,” the raw minced beef dish. The sauce we know as tartar is often “tartare” in European countries, retaining its roots as a sauce that is put on steak tartare. 

Except today, we don’t use the sauce in the same way. Tartar sauce is generally relegated to shrimp baskets and fish and chips. It’s overshadowed by the punchier cocktail sauce. It’s forgotten. 

Typically the entree and side are the main features of restaurants. At Zip’s, however, the those are merely vehicles for the regional chain’s fine sauces. PHOTO BY RACHEL HERGETT

I don’t think I’m the only one pushing for its return to glory. A national tartar sauce day was created in 2017, celebrated on the Friday after the beginning of Lent, a season when many Christians forgo meat for seafood. And what is great on seafood? Tartar sauce. 

“Tartar sauce is a sauce for the people because it’s so easy to make,” writes Luke Field on, a food ranking website that is an offshoot of YouTube series Good Mythical Morning. “At its core, tartar sauce is made out of mayonnaise mixed with pickle relish. All recipes and versions of tartar sauce are simple variations on the same theme. 

Here’s mine:

I start with mayo, but instead of relish, chop dill pickles and onions to add to the mix. This can be a fine or chunky dice, depending on your personal sauce preference. Salt and pepper to taste. And finally, to give it that tang, add a small splash of apple cider vinegar and a bit of pickle juice to really amp up the pickle flavor.

Rachel Hergett is a foodie and cook from Montana. She is arts editor emeritus at the Bozeman Daily Chronicle and has written for publications such as Food Network Magazine and Montana Quarterly. Rachel is also the host of the Magic Monday Show on KGLT-FM and teaches at Montana State University. 

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