Cheese curds move out of Wis. onto menus everywhere

Mozzarella sticks are so last century. Fried cheese curds are the ooey gooey snack of the moment.
cheese curds with dips
Lazy Dog Restaurants offers cheese curds with two house-made sauces for a popular small plate or happy hour snack with beer. | Photo courtesy of Lazy Dog Restaurants.

It’s debatable whether fried cheese curds got their start in Wisconsin, but since it’s the dairy state and produces a ton of cheese, many Americans think so. Plus, Wisconsinites love their cheese curds, and the deep-fried version is a staple in bars, restaurants and county fairs across the state.

Canadians may beg to differ, as poutine— that mess of french fries and cheese curds topped with gravy—has been a favorite in Quebec since the 1950s.

But it hardly matters, because fried cheese curds are having their moment now across menus everywhere. They are replacing mozzarella sticks as the appetizer, snack, side and even burger topping that satisfies cravings for gooey cheese and crispy fried nibbles rolled into one.

In Technomic’s database of close to 7,000 operators, 1.2% menu cheese curds, but that number is on the upswing. In fact, chains in both the quick-service and casual dining segments have introduced fried cheese curds recently.

A popular small plate at 40-unit Lazy Dog Restaurants is Cheddar Cheese Curds with dips of slow-cooked marinara sauce and house-made Nashville hot ranch. The casual player is based in Costa Mesa, Calif. but sources Wisconsin cheese to promote the pedigree of the dish.

“Our Cheddar Cheese Curds are made with Ellsworth Cooperative Creamery’s all-natural white cheddar curds. They are located in Ellsworth, Wisconsin, which is also known as the ‘Cheese Curd Capital of Wisconsin’ so we couldn’t be happier to serve their product at our table,” said Gabe Caliendo, co-founder and VP of food & beverage for Lazy Dog, in an email. “In our restaurant, we’ve found our Cheddar Cheese Curds are a favorite among many of our guests whether they are sharing the food as a starter during lunch or dinner or enjoying it alongside one of our house beers during happy hour or late-night happy hour. The dish pairs very well with beer making it a crowd pleaser!”

Although not all operators boast about craftsmanship and sourcing, several other full-service brands have spotlighted fried cheese curds as LTOs in the last few months. Among them are Bar Louie, which added Fried Cheese Curds sprinkled with Parmesan and parsley and served with spicy tomato sauce and smoked onion ranch, and Ruby Tuesday, with its BBQ Cheese Curds tossed in barbecue seasoning and dipped in ranch.

It’s not too surprising that fried apps that go well with drinks are trending at restaurants with bars, as my colleague Joe Guszkowski reported about TGI Fridays’ expanded menu. But cheese curds are seeing some action at limited-service spots, too.

Long John Silver's

Long John Silver's Wisconsin White Cheddar Cheese Bites are the chain's take on fried cheese curds. | Photo courtesy of Long John Silver's.

Fast-food seafood chain Long John Silver’s is currently running Wisconsin White Cheddar Cheese Bites for a limited time. Although not called curds, they bear a very close resemblance. Guests can purchase the cheesy fried bites as a side or add-on to a seafood combo, meal or platter.

And earlier this year, Wayback Burgers offered fried cheddar cheese curds as an LTO. The burger chain serves them with ketchup, positioning them as a french fry alternative.

But perhaps the most famous curds on a QSR menu are those at Culver’s. The Prairie du Sac, Wis.-based chain has been sourcing cheese curds from La Grander Hillside Dairy in the state for 20 years, which makes them from a blend of unaged yellow and white Wisconsin cheddar. While they have Wisconsin roots, the deep-fried curds are now served across Culver’s nearly 1,000 locations in 26 states.

As an April Fool’s Day joke in 2021, the chain invented and posted an imaginary Curderburger on social media. It generated so much buzz, that the culinary team had to scramble to create an actual burger topped with a giant fried cheese curd. A real Curderburger launched as a one-day item six months later and it has since become a recurring LTO. It returned to Culver’s menu earlier this month.

tillamook curds

Regal Movie Theatres is serving up Tillamook Fried Cheddar Curds for a limited time. | Photo courtesy of Tillamook Creamery.

Meanwhile, Regal Movie Theatres is betting that film buffs may crave cheese curds over popcorn. Through Nov. 20, Tillamook, the Oregon-based dairy co-op, is offering Tillamook Fried Cheddar Curds to movie goers at participating Regal theatres for a limited time.

Previously, the crispy breaded curds filled with the co-op’s classic cheddar were available only at the Tillamook Creamery headquarters and Tillamook Marketplace at the Portland, Ore. airport. But the heat-and-serve pop-able snacks can be prepared with limited kitchen space and are as easy to nibble as popcorn while watching the big screen.

Chances are more napkins will be required.

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