No Ordinary Fry

Exploring the city’s multicultural offerings of fries, frites, and chips.

The French may be quick to deride our love of hamburgers and Coca-Cola, but they'll eagerly take credit for the third member of America's great fast-food trifecta. The French fry "is the culinary sign of francité (French ethnicity)," the philosopher Roland Barthes once wrote.On francophone food Web sites, the Belgians and the French squabble over which of them invented pommes frites. In general, I'll back the Belgians in these turf wars, having spent a year there during high school, but I'm not convinced by their somewhat torturous claims. Were frites really invented by 17th-century river dwellers who, when the Meuse was impossible to fish, had to forgo the little fish they loved to fry and substitute potatoes cut into the same shape? Similarly, the French don't make the most compelling case when they argue that Parisians—who adopted the potato as a culinary staple much later than the Belgians—invented frites in the 1780s and introduced this street food to their northern neighbors during the Napoleonic invasion.Historians are generally in accord that the American passion for fries blossomed in the 1920s, thanks to World War I soldiers who came to love Belgian friteries (fry stands) while they were stationed along the Yser River. Returning troops brought the snack back to the States, calling them "French fries" because...well, perhaps the Belgians are right to be bitter.These days, fries aren't just French, Belgian, or even American. They belong to the world, whether they're called slap chips (Namibia), cartofl prestiche (Romania), or kentang goreng (Malaysia). Even within our city limits, Seattle proves to be a United Nations of fries. This is the multicultural, multicaloric world that I have spent the past three weeks exploring:Belgian fries. As millions of apple-shaped Midwesterners can attest, there is no finer accompaniment to beer than fries. Spiritual brethren, the Belgians also believe that beer with fries is a lifestyle. In Seattle, there is no better place to eat fries with beers than Brouwer's Cafe (400 N. 35th St.) in Fremont. Hundreds of men geek out over Flemish tripels while devouring huge plates of potatoes. Brouwer's has gotten a little sloppy of late with its fryer—the plate I recently got with my Hair of the Dog Dave ale was occupied by an overbrowned mass of fries that looked a little like the Fortress of Solitude wrought in spuds. But Brouwer's does right by the Belgians by offering a choice of sauces. I normally choose remoulade and dragon sauce, which is mayo with Sriracha.French French fries. Sambar (425 N.W. Market St.) is beloved for its skinny fries with Dijon mustard. Capitol Hill's Cafe Presse (1117 12th Ave.) one-ups the francophile bar because its frites—crisp, skin-on, served properly with mayonnaise—are on the menu all day. That means you can order French fries for breakfast. In fact, it's almost de rigueur. Being allowed to eat fries before 11 a.m. is like being told by your pastor to have a Bloody Mary before church. I ordered mine with an omelet and a green salad. Guess which plate was finished first.Greek fries. Maybe it's that Belgian influence, but I just don't get fries and ketchup, which I find overly sweet and tangy, the potato flavor completely masked. This is why the sensible Greeks at places like Niko's Gyros (2231 32nd Ave. W.) in Magnolia, who squirt lemon juice on their fries and shower them in crumbled feta and oregano, have a special place in my (prematurely hardened) heart. West Seattle's Kokoras Greek Grill (6400 California Ave. S.W.) serves thick potato rounds, sliced to achieve maximum contrast between the papery-crisp exterior and the mashed-potato interior, sprinkled with cheese and drizzled with a little yogurt; get extra tzatziki on the side for dipping.Universal love fries. At dinner, Earth & Ocean (1112 Fourth Ave.) serves a popular side it calls "sexy fries." Covered in chopped garlic and parmesan shavings, the umami-amplified potatoes become a bit of a smelly mess. Although garlic breath is commonly considered a turnoff, I spent a lot of time licking my fingers while eating mine, which may be the sexy part. You'd have to ask my tablemate. In the same aphrodisiacal vein, the truffled fry, whose popularity is waning, may yet be found at the Baguette Box and Elysian Fields.Canadian fries. Speaking of hot messes, the popular Canadian street food called poutine is currently to be found in fine dining establishments across the country, its trendiness buoyed by the same faux-anti-gourmet esprit that has created bacon chocolate. Though a number of restaurants are serving this delicious wrongness—poutine, I mean—it's most deliciously wrong at the mobile Skillet Street Food (www.skilletstreetfood.com), where the fries come saturated with gravy and glued together with melted white-cheddar curds.Miscellaneous European fries. Not all of Europe, it must be said, has a way with the pomme frite. Copper Gate (6301 24th Ave. N.W.) serves Swedish fries showered in dill and served with curry ketchup, a combination that sounds intriguing. It might work, in fact, if the fries weren't dry and overly crisped; it's not a potato chip, people. And though I'm a fan of Pike Street Fish Fry (925 E. Pike St.), I've tried its Spanish fries enough to think they suck. I don't care if the best Madrid restaurants serve tater slabs that wilt when they're drenched in sweet chile sauce and sour cream; we in America can do better than that. For example, by ordering the fries with a side of the Fish Fry's smoked-paprika aioli.Alterna-fries. Before they settled on the potato, the French dallied with salsify and Jerusalem artichoke. What tastes might these abandoned evolutionary paths have produced? Enter alternate universes by ordering starchier, blander yuca root topped with chicharron (fried pork) and tomato salsa at Salvadoran restaurants like El Trapiche (127 S.W. 153rd St.) in Burien. The current non-potato trend in upscale bars is the sweet-potato fry. Having finally settled on a lower-sugar variety of the tuber, which doesn't turn black in the fryer as yams do yet retains a subtle sweetness, Greenwood's Pig 'N Whistle (8412 Greenwood Ave. N.) serves nubbly little bits with lots of chopped garlic and a sweet, smoked-tomato ketchup, while Smith (332 15th Ave. E.) bests them by providing a big paper cone full of perfectly seasoned, plump fries with a ramekin of sage mayonnaise on the side.Three-continent fries. The restaurant that inspired this entire piece—an Indian place that served a "French fry curry"—took the dish off the menu before I could try it. Seattle's Irish bars, however, have made up for this loss. Reproducing the great British-Irish pastime of getting drunk and stumbling out for curry, the city's Irish bars sell "chips," as the Irish quaintly mispronounce pommes frites, with curry sauce. Paddy Coyne's (1190 Thomas St.) ruins the effect by serving skinny taters with a coconut milk–based Thai curry that's far too loose, sweet, and floral for a pub snack. Fado (801 First Ave.), however, serves fat potato wedges, creamy inside, with a fiery, Madras-curry-seasoned sauce chunky with vegetables.American regional fries. Multiculturalism isn't just an outward-facing discipline, so the cultural-competency experts say. It's also critical for the multicultural thinker to examine his or her own heritage. Perhaps that's why the French fries that made the greatest impression on me were the chili cheese fries at Slim's Last Chance Chili Shack in Georgetown (5606 First Ave. S.). For only $7.50, the saloon smothers fat fistfuls of fried potatoes in its Texas red chili, a concentrated, three-alarm sauce in which swim chunks of tender beef, and then caps it all with melted cheese.The Franco-Belgian fry, centuries in development, subject of culinary debate and worthy of academic study, may be a thing of class and refinement; mayonnaise attests it so. But the gut-aching, intestine-blocking appeal of those fried potato sticks drowned in hot meat sauce at Slim's made me proud to wave the red, white, and blue.jkauffman@seattleweekly.com

 
comments powered by Disqus