Mozzarella Sticks I’ve Eaten, Ranked

No matter the season, no matter my mood, no matter what the fuck else is happening in life or where I am or what I want, a mozzarella stick will always hit the spot. More accurately, six mozzarella sticks (the ideal amount to eat at once) will hit the spot.

The following is a mostly-but-not-quite-linear timeline of my life in mozzarella sticks. They are ranked on a scale of 1-5 in the following categories: breading, cheese, financial value (prices vary by location so I tried to go off an average), and emotional value (feelings vary by year in my life so I tried to go off an average).


Costco

Breading: 3 out of 5
Cheese: 4 out of 5
Financial Value: 4 out of 5
Emotional Value: 5 out of 5

I do not remember the first time I ate a mozzarella stick. I wish I could remember the first time I ate a mozzarella stick. I’m sure I smiled. I’m sure I ate so voraciously that I almost choked. I have choked on so many mozzarella sticks in my life that I am almost certain it is how I will eventually die.

My earliest memories of mozzarella sticks are of the Farm Rich brand sold at Costco. They came in packs of 45, and my middle school best friend and I would make them after school in the toaster oven. There is a delicate art to cooking frozen mozzarella sticks in the toaster oven. Cook them for too short, and the cheese won’t soften right, your teeth will just cleanly break the cheese into a stump instead of yielding that perfect, goopy pull effect. Cook them for too long, and they’ll explode, the exposed cheese burning on the oven tray. The cook times on the box are not always dependable! It became my duty to make the sticks, keeping careful watch and turning them over halfway through. I regarded this task with the same careful attention to detail one might give to mixing explosive chemicals in a lab. This was one of the earliest signs of my strong kitchen intuition, my tendency to eschew directions in favor of my own gut.

My best friend and I shared these mozzarella sticks on paper plates with our respective favorite dips (her: ketchup; me: cocktail sauce). This was all part of our after-school ritual, along with homemade chocolate milkshakes and episodes of 7th Heaven and, in warmer months, scooter rides around the neighborhood. She wasn’t impressed much by my mozzarella stick cooking prowess. She was more often concerned with the things I didn’t do well (rollerblading, flirting, dressing in anything other than unflattering gauchos and clashing shirts). She was determined to improve me, and I was already used to this from my closest friends, the pressure to bend a certain way, even if it cracked me. The gap between us grew, and I couldn’t bend anymore. I kept on making her mozzarella sticks until they became just about the only thing we shared anymore.

Long after that friend broke my heart—once, then twice, then once more—I continued to regard mozzarella sticks with ritualistic reverence. If a restaurant had mozz sticks on the appetizer menu, you better believe I was ordering them. If I love you, I’ll share mozzarella sticks with you. If you love me and notice a hint of sadness when we polish off a plate full of fried cheese, you’ll suggest we order another.


Friendly’s

Breading: 5 out of 5
Cheese: 5 out of 5
Financial Value: 5 out of 5
Emotional Value: 5 out of 5

When I finally die choking on a mozzarella stick, it will be one of these. Perfect fives across the board, nothing hits like a Friendly’s mozzarella stick. And… they come! With applesauce! Why! (It is because they are considered a kids’ item on the Friendly’s menu, and you can sub the applesauce for another side… usually, I pick coleslaw, but I love the sheer absurdity of mozz sticks + applesauce.)

Sadly, Friendly’s is a dying chain. The one I frequented during childhood has closed. The next nearest one also closed. Now, when I visit my parents, I have to drive a full half an hour to find the only Friendly’s left in town. But it is a journey I am willing to make, because these are the platonic ideal of a mozzarella stick. This is perhaps a controversial stance, because the mozzarella sticks at Friendly’s are mini.

But the bite-size physicality of a Friendly’s mozzarella stick is part of its superiority. The thing about mozzarella sticks is that pretty much the second you’ve bitten into one, you’ve sullied it. The second air hits the cheese, it starts to lose some of that perfect gooey texture. For someone who is a slow eater like me, that is a particularly dire situation! But a mini mozz stick at Friendly’s can be eaten IN ONE BITE. Which also makes them an even bigger choking risk than your typical stick, but hey, I’ve accepted my fate.


Sonic

Breading: 4 out of 5
Cheese: 4 out of 5
Financial Value: 5 out of 5
Emotional Value: 4 out of 5

These mozzarella sticks! Cost 99-cents! Sometimes! Sonic only offers this promotion on certain days, but when it does, it feels like a goddamn holiday. And they’re good! Definitely the best fast food mozzarella stick option, which is why I was able to make this exception to the rules. The marinara here is a little sweet for my liking, but it’s easy enough to order a side of ranch.

I love the drive-in component of a Sonic, and I spent many late nights at the one closest to my arts high school, slurping cherry Cokes with other girls from the musical theater program. I love the intimacy of a car’s backseat. There’s something out of time and place about a Sonic and the ritual of eating in a parked car. I always, always ordered mozzarella sticks at the Sonic, just like my then-best friend always, always ordered a chocolate milkshake. Our orders at every fast food pitstop were set in stone, parts of us. I haven’t been to a Sonic in years, but the next time I do, I hope it’s with someone down to share mozzarella sticks and milkshakes in a warm car.


Buffalo Wild Wings

Breading: 2 out of 5
Cheese: 3 out of 5
Financial Value: 4 out of 5
Emotional Value: 1 out of 5

Maybe one of the laws of the universe is that if you are primarily known for your wings, your mozzarella sticks suck. My only evidence for this is the low performance of both Hooters and B-Dubs in the sticks arena. Props for breading with panko, but they’re just? So bland? If you’re gonna get them though, sub ranch for the (also bland!) marinara sauce.

Unfortunately, I did eat a lot of these sticks in college, because Buffalo Wild Wings was one of the closest places to the decaying, overstuffed house I lived in for two years that offered mozzarella sticks. One should never have to travel too far for mozzarella sticks, especially during the Michigan winter. So yes, I settled for these, but I settled for a lot in college.


The Café in My Freshman Dorm Building

Breading: 0 out of 5
Cheese: 1 out of 5
Financial Value: 4 out of 5
Emotional Value: 5 out of 5

In college, when I was in denial about being gay and also about being depressed, I briefly dated a guy who later became one of my best friends. Our courtship was awkward and very, very short, mainly because we were both gay and didn’t yet know it. One of our sleepovers really was just that — a sleepover where we talked about Missy Elliott and our favorite dog breeds and stayed up all night long because neither of us were totally sure what to do if the conversation ever stalled out.

There is one thing I still haven’t forgiven him for though. He broke up with me in my dorm room and took a long time to spit it out, but mostly I was concentrating on the mozzarella sticks he munched on while he “let me down easy” by telling me he “wasn’t over his ex-girlfriend.” He never once! Offered me! A mozzarella stick! Those hard mozzarella sticks from the cafe in our dorm building weren’t even good. They were barely edible! The cheese felt and looked like a sponge and tasted vaguely of the plastic the sticks probably came wrapped in. They were cold in the middle. But this is a crime I shall never forget and, for a while, it was my most dramatic breakup story.


Sheetz

Breading: 3 out of 5
Cheese: 3 out of 5
Financial Value: 5 out of 5
Emotional Value: 3 out of 5

Here is where I’ll freely admit a core flaw in my experimental design, because the best part of the mozzarella sticks at Sheetz is how many DIPPING SAUCES they offer, which I have not accounted for in my rating system. You perhaps recall when I very casually mentioned above that I like to dip my mozzarella sticks in cocktail sauce — a chaotic evil choice, I’m aware. While I appreciate a good marinara (especially spicy variations), I am nontraditional when it comes to mozzarella stick accoutrements. At Sheetz, there are over a dozen dips to choose from, including a bbq sauce made with DR. PEPPER. You can also, should your heart desire, choose to get a side of nacho cheese with your mozzarella sticks. I have never tried this, but the fact that it’s an option fills me with joy.

I also wanted to include Sheetz on this list as a shoutout to gas station/convenience store/bodega mozzarella sticks more broadly. These mozzarella sticks vary wildly in quality, but they’re affordable, convenient, and sometimes a delightful surprise!


Applebee’s

Breading: 4 out of 5
Cheese: 4 out of 5
Financial Value: 2 out of 5
Emotional Value: 3 out of 5

During my first year in New York, I lived around the corner from an Applebee’s, and I would occasionally go there by myself, which I’ve never told anyone until this exact moment. I don’t know why it was a secret ritual. Maybe it’s because I was a little lonely at that point in my life but didn’t know why. Maybe it’s because I didn’t have any secrets and wanted one.

So I went to Applebee’s in the early evening with a book and sat at the bar and ate mozzarella sticks. Look, the main reason to go to Applebee’s is for the $1-2 drinks, not the food. And at over $10, the plate of eight sticks here has a surprisingly lofty price tag. But they’re also hands down the best thing on the menu.


Neptune Diner II

Breading: 5 out of 5
Cheese: 5 out of 5
Financial Value: 3 out of 5
Emotional Value: 5 out of 5

The perfect mozzarella stick does not exist. Or rather, it did. It does. Let me explain. The perfect mozzarella stick is crunchy on the outside with well seasoned breading that doesn’t crumble or turn mushy. The structural integrity of the breading gives way to a soft, scorching, viscous cheese interior.

The perfect mozzarella stick is served 24 hours a day, seven days a week at a diner in Brooklyn that is a spinoff of another diner in Astoria. For the two years that I lived around the corner from this diner, I regularly ordered these mozzarella sticks, most often after midnight. At $10.65 for seven sticks, they’re on the pricier side, but they are perfect. Truly. Crunch factor, the seasoning of the breading, the pull of the cheese, the temperature, the garlicky marinara that accompanies them. These mozzarella sticks have it all.

They’re also indelibly melted into my last relationship, the one that ended like an exploded mozzarella stick in the toaster oven—messy and scorched. I lost track of how many times I tried to scrape away the gunk and start again.

I can’t say for certain that I’ll never eat these mozzarella sticks again, but I no longer live around the corner from them, and their constant availability to me was part of their perfection. People leave; mozzarella sticks don’t. Mozzarella sticks are forever! Mozzarella sticks will never betray me!


Hooters

Breading: 2 out of 5
Cheese: 2 out of 5
Financial Value: 4 out of 5
Emotional Value: 3 out of 5

On the subject of betrayal, the mozzarella sticks! At Hooters! Are bad! Billed as “cheese sticks” (which honestly I like, because I personally prefer to call mozz sticks “cheese sticks,” but it apparently causes confusion because “cheese sticks” is more commonly used for string cheese, but I digress) and found on the “teasers” part of the menu (get it, like appetizers but make it sexy), the Hooters take on the classic leaves a lot to be desired tbh! Listen, you go to Hooters for the wings (and the deals on Bud Light), not necessarily for any of the other food on hand.

I went to Hooters for the first time this summer. My best friends and I accidentally started the Times Square Supper Club, which is like a book club, but instead of sporadically meeting to discuss books over too much wine, we sporadically meet in the chain restaurants in or around Times Square to discuss our lives over too much fried food and, usually, novelty drinks poured in souvenir cups. When we ventured to Hooters for our second-ever meeting, I was sorely disappointed by how weak these sticks were. I have mixed feelings about the word “mouthfeel,” but it feels appropriate in a writeup of Hooters to say that the “mouthfeel” was not great! Will that stop me from ordering them again in the future? Probably not. I’m slow to internalize betrayal.


TGI Friday’s

Breading: 5 out of 5
Cheese: 5 out of 5
Financial Value: 4 out of 5
Emotional Value: 5 out of 5

Earlier this summer, I started thinking about chain restaurants a lot. Part of this was because of the Times Square Supper Club, naturally. The other reason I started thinking about chain restaurants a lot is because I once again find myself in a long distance relationship. I say “once again,” because every relationship I have ever been in has involved distance at some point. I’m sure there’s a reason for this that I can dig into with my therapist or in another essay entirely, but in any case, here I am.

I am the happiest I have been in a long time, but I am also dealing with the rollercoaster of feelings that comes with the long distance territory. Planes and trains and hotels and packed bags and goodbyes that get harder every time. We’ve spent the past four months in twelve different cities, mostly because of her work. It’s fun, but it’s dizzying, too. Sometimes I wake up and struggle to recall where, when, and who I am.

A friend texted me the other day: “Doesn’t your life feel like it has changed so much so quickly?” It really has. I don’t know that I’ve ever gone through this much change this quickly, and it’s exciting. It’s good change. I haven’t had good change in a while.

Amid all the change and amid all the traveling with my girlfriend, there are some constants. There is us. And there are chain restaurants. Every city we visit has them. Like mozzarella sticks, chain restaurants are forever. And, thankfully, we share a love for chain restaurants. For appetizer sampler platters and unlimited breadsticks and margaritas bigger than our heads. Before we met, when we were still just strangers flirting online, I texted her that I was at a Bonefish Grill in suburban New Jersey with my mother, and she promptly informed me of the deal on pies the restaurant was offering that night and later said I should write an essay about Bonefish Grill. Chain restaurants! Our love language!

It wasn’t until a couple months into our relationship that my girlfriend finally took me to one. Specifically, she took me to the subterranean(ish) TGI Friday’s in the Financial District which, despite having lived in NYC for several years, I DID NOT KNOW EXISTED. It is not technically underground, but its entire vibe screams “you’re in a murder basement.” And you know what? As someone who is pretty sure she’s going to die choking on a mozzarella stick, I felt very at home smooching my girlfriend at the bar of the mostly empty, American Horror Story-esque TGI Friday’s in the Financial District. We shared mozzarella sticks and fried green beans, which if I’m being honest are one of the best fried appetizers other than mozzarella sticks, even though they’re far more elusive. She kept making jokes about how taking me to a TGI Friday’s during Pride weekend was the pinnacle of romance, but you know what? It kinda is.

This was the first of many times that we shared a plate of mozzarella sticks. Other than their ubiquity and timelessness and perfect salty taste, that’s the true beauty of a mozzarella stick. They are meant to be shared. Sure, I’ve had my fair share of solo mozzarella sticks. They’re my go-to sad food, and it’s easy enough to get them delivered in any city. But mozzarella sticks are inherently a shareable snack. I can’t remember the first time I had mozzarella sticks, but I know they were shared. The worst thing about those supposedly perfect mozzarella sticks from the Brooklyn diner? Orders came in an odd number.

Kayla Kumari Upadhyaya is a Brooklyn-based writer, television critic, and comedian who spends most of her time over-analyzing queer subtext on television, singing "Take Me Or Leave Me" in public places, and assembling cheese platters. She has a cat named after Piper Halliwell from Charmed, and her go-to karaoke song is "Everywhere" by Michelle Branch. Her writing can also be found at The A.V. Club and The Hollywood Reporter, and she wrote the webseries Sidetrack. You can catch her screaming in all-caps about Kalinda Sharma, Jennifer Lopez, and oysters on Twitter and Instagram.

Kayla has written 177 articles for us.

39 Comments

  1. Does anyone remember when McDonald’s had mozzarella sticks and they were 3 for a dollar and came with a little thing of marinara sauce??? I would go to the McDonald’s that was a block away from my college dorm and get 2 or 3 orders cause I was and am the PICTURE of health and they were actually surprisingly good, all things considered. Now they’re discontinued and I am constantly sad that I will never find a better deal on mozzarella sticks.

  2. Thank you for this detailed analysis. 🙏🏻

    Personally, my favorites are Trader Joe’s frozen mozzarella sticks and Farm Rich frozen mozzarella sticks from Stop and Shop/Whole Foods.

  3. Hot take, I was never a fan of Hooter wings and found their cheese stick(I think it was called cheese tots at the location I was at years ago). I found their Key Lime Pie Martini the best thing there, but it was also a bit overpriced.

  4. 1. I did not know until now that you were a musical theatre kid in high school. This makes so much sense.

    2. My earliest memory of mozzarella sticks is the ones from a pizza place in my hometown, Genova’s Pizza. They weren’t even that good, in retrospect, but in middle school my friend and I would always get an order of mozzarella sticks and an order of disco fries. So healthy.

  5. When I was younger and went to Olive Garden a lot for family dinners my cousins and I always ordered “cheese triangles” which were basically triangle-shaped mozzarella sticks.

    Damnit now I really want mozz sticks.

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