14 Dishes that Defined the ‘90s—And How to Make Them Yourself
Long live Caesar salad, molten chocolate cake, tuna tartare, and cosmos!
The 1990s were pivotal in American food culture. The decade’s most influential dishes departed from rigid Continental cooking in favor of globally inspired fare: “Fusion” and “authentic” were the buzzwords of the era. Not that folks were giving up their deep-fried bar snacks or down-home cooking—there was simply more room on the table for hot sauces and spice blends, achaars and salsas, avocados and kiwis, and—of course—a glut of low-fat and processed foods.
The ‘90s seem like a century ago in restaurant years. Anthony Bourdain was still slinging steak frites at Les Halles, Marcus Samuelsson was a humble apprentice at Aquavit, and Thomas Keller had just become chef of a little-known restaurant in a former laundry, where he began creating flights of culinary fancy (think: Baskin-Robbins-inspired cones reimagined as silver cornets scooped with salmon tartare) and helped launch the careers of such crew members as Grant Achatz, René Redzepi, and Corey Lee.
Food was also becoming part of pop culture like never before. A group of Friends started hanging out in a fictional coffee shop called Central Perk, a testament to the second-wave coffee revolution, while the Soup Nazi—”No soup for you!”—had his memorable turn on Seinfeld. Around that time, a fictional sex columnist and her three besties sipped cosmos and appletinis in the City’s sleekest bars while, across the Hudson River, Jersey convenience store clerks overcooked coffee at the Quick Stop.
The decade that gave us Food Network, Emeril, and Iron Chef showed us there was more to food TV than stand-and-stir cooking shows. And food lovers (not “foodies” just yet) were devouring a new genre of food writing, too. Saveur debuted in the summer of 1994 with a 13-page cover story on the moles of Oaxaca, a culinary deep dive that set a new bar for reporting on food with its culture of origin front and center. The rest, as they say, is history.
So the next time you feel some nostalgia coming on (or want to party like it’s 1999), whip up one of these 14 quintessential ‘90s dishes.
Invented by a French-trained Japanese chef in Beverly Hills, this dish epitomized American fine dining in the ‘90s. Sushi-grade tuna combined with ripe avocado (a novelty at the time) signaled the trendiness of “Asian fusion.” Get the recipe >
The chilled tomato soup native to the Iberian Peninsula became a summer dinner party staple, even if the chunky, crunchy American adaptation (inspired by a mid-century recipe from M.F.K. Fisher in How to Cook a Wolf) departed from the silky soup Spaniards were spooning up across the pond. Get the recipe >
The sauce that Ligurians have been making for centuries—combining sweet Genovese basil and the freshest-possible garlic (to avoid bitterness)—turned into a global hit in the ‘90s. Get the recipe >
The Aztecs called it āhuacamōlli. Traditional guacamole is still blended using a volcanic stone molcajete, which inspired the tableside preparations that swept Mexican American restaurants in the ‘90s. Add garlic at your own risk. Get the recipe >
Zany, unorthodox flatbreads inspired by experimental California chefs came into their own at the turn of the millennium. This recipe is a ‘90s twofer that combines pizza bianco and the garlicky romaine salad that was all the rage at the time. Get the recipe >
Once a go-to for ladies who lunched, this updated version of the Cobb à la Snoop Dogg adds homemade croutons and strips of chicken smothered in Sweet Baby Ray’s barbecue sauce. Get the recipe >
With the publication of her masterwork Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking in 1992, Marcella Hazan introduced a new generation of Americans to traditional Italian recipes such as this aromatic flatbread topped with lemon slices and rosemary sprigs. Get the recipe >
Every gumbo starts with a rich, dark roux and the blend of onion, celery, and bell peppers that Cajuns call the Holy Trinity. This version is thickened with herbaceous filé, the ground sassafras powder favored by TV cooking host Justin Wilson, who influenced a whole generation of Louisiana chefs. Get the recipe >
Oozing with spicy, cheesy filling, these crumb-coated, deep-fried peppers were a non-negotiable appetizer at ‘90s Super Bowl parties. Get the recipe >
Popularized by chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten, this distinctly ‘90s restaurant dessert, which is still ubiquitous today, has a runny chocolate core that erupts like a volcano upon digging in. Get the recipe >
This Chinese American fusion dish may have started at Madame Wu’s in Santa Monica, California, but it has evolved over time with the addition of instant ramen noodles and fried wonton wrappers. Get the recipe >
After Samantha ordered a sour, citrusy cosmo in the second season of Sex and the City, the whole country started sipping along. Get the recipe >
One part vodka, one part cultural phenom, this acid-green, apple-flavored “martini” was invented in 1996 at Lola's West Hollywood. Get the recipe >
This recipe inspired by the Subcontinent pays respect to the battered-and-fried steakhouse side popularized by a certain Australian-themed fast-casual chain. Crikey, you really can make a bang-up version at home. Get the recipe >