A skeptic gets a bacon education from his favorite diner
Let’s get this out of the way now: I think bacon is fine. It’s not great, but just—fine. I love it on everything just as much as anyone else, but when I’m eating breakfast at a diner, there’s nothing more satisfying than the crisp snap of a breakfast sausage link or the savory herbs-and-spices taste of a pork patty, Jimmy Dean-style. Because I’ve been a lifelong sausage supporter, until now, I’d never once ordered bacon from a diner.
But, apparently I’m the only loser who doesn’t care for bacon, so I wanted to find out why the cured pig belly strips are so beloved, especially in diners.
My quest conveniently began and ended at, where else, my local haunt: Vicky’s Diner, in Hudson Heights. Like all great New York City diners, it serves breakfast food all day long, which means serious bacon volume. I spoke with Vasiliki “Vicky” Limberis herself—a blonde firecracker of a host with a thick Greek-meets-bossy-Brooklyn accent—who’s on the floor working in her athletic sneakers every weekend that I eat there. She had more to say about what makes diner bacon so good than I ever thought possible.
Unlike artisanal, small-batch bacon bought from your local butcher shop, bacon for diners ain’t about the breed of the pig or which farm it came from. Because diners do so much business with bacon, their supply has to come from a large-scale producer—but that doesn’t mean it has to be “bad.” Vicky pointed me to a specific producer, Mariah, based out of Columbus, Ohio, and distributed by Peer Foods in Chicago. They sell their bacon like you’d buy shrimp, by the count of slices per pound. Vicky prefers the 14/18 count because it has the ideal thickness and meat-to-fat ratio, and is the most pleasing to the nose.
“When you get the package of bacon, you have to smell it,” she says. “If it smells like bacon—you know what I’m talking about?—but not overly smoky, then you have a good product. I’ve worked some places where you smell the bacon and it smells like nothing. And then when it’s cooked, it tastes like nothing, too. So sad.”
The mark of a good diner, in her opinion (and now mine, too) is how they cook their bacon. Vicky tells me that her chef pre-bakes the bacon on a rack set in a baking sheet in the oven so most of the fat drains away from it. “Otherwise the bacon just sits in its own grease and gets soggy and limp,” she says.
Afterward, the slices are layered with paper towels and refrigerated until an order is fired. When it comes time to sizzle, Vicky’s offers only three options.
“If you order bacon and you say you want it soft, we call that ‘medium’,” she says. “If you want it extra crispy, we make it extra crispy for you, yeah? But if you don’t say anything, we cook it in between. It’s gonna be just crispy enough so it doesn’t droop or break when you pick it up, but not so hard that it shatters. It’s the perfect texture.”
Vicky’s goes through over 180 pounds of bacon a week, making it her number-one most-cooked item. (Breakfast sausage, corned beef hash, then ham round out the top four most-ordered meats for breakfast.) The secret to good diner bacon, she says, is all in the freshness.
“We don’t get our bacon then let it sit in the fridge for even a day,” she says. “We go through so much that as soon as it’s delivered we’re cooking and serving it. And that’s what you don’t get with packaged bacon at home.”
Despite her claims that good bacon can’t be had at home, I figured, if you’re going to have the best bacon at home, you've just gotta buy it right, like she does. Go from small-batch producers, like your butcher, instead of a mass-market brand so you know you’re getting the freshest product—a point Vicky drove home with me again and again. And if you have to go with a big brand, look for one that has minimal ingredients, nothing with preservatives intended to prolong the shelf life of the bacon.
When cooking up a rasher, take a cue from Vicky and pre-bake the bacon in the oven at 400°F for about 16 minutes, then refrigerate it on on paper towels. The excess grease will be gone (crispier bacon!) and all the tedious work of cooking it will be done at an hour when you’re more mentally suitable to handle strips of hot, delicious napalm.
Finally convinced, I ordered bacon every way it is prepared the last time I was at Vicky’s Diner. Each was different enough for me to see why people fall into camps of how they like it cooked. The softness of the ‘medium” won me over in the end. Or maybe it was Vicky’s warm enthusiasm for the bacon that sealed the deal. Regardless, her convivial nature—the same nature that makes her diner and all others like it so special—is what really makes the bacon taste better to me. Sure, I can make bacon that just as good at home, but without a gregarious, lovable, and caring hostess there to make me feel at home, I’d just as rather have the sausage.
Ben Mims is a food writer, recipe developer, and author of Sweet & Southern.