ADVERTISEMENT

"Hi Janice,

Slowly, real french fries are being replaced by frozen, coated, inferior french fries. Real french fries are something I don't eat often, but when I would like them for a side dish, they appear to be becoming extinct. Whether they are spiced or coated, I am sure they are cheaper to offer than ‘real' ones. This will cost restaurants in the long run.

"I now avoid these restaurants. I always ask the server about the fries before I order, to avoid disappointment. I eat healthy for the most part, but when I am eating a big cheeseburger, I might as well enjoy the fries, too.

"Real french fries may be slowly going away, but I will patronize the restaurants that take the time to prepare and serve them."

– Chuck L.

I have a theory, Chuck, that when it comes to comfort food, many of us are seeking the Impossible Dream, or at least a small portion of it. It might be real whipped cream we're pining for, as opposed to ghastly "whipped topping," for instance. It might be freshly squeezed orange juice, either in a restaurant or in a supermarket. It might be a pie made from honest-to-God apples instead of some mushy, over-cinnamoned apple filling.

Dinosaurs all.

And I'm afraid french fries, too, are joining the downward slide to extinction, succumbing to what is called "progress." Fries are not the healthiest of food, granted. They will never be enshrined for greatness on a wellness wall. So why bother eating them at all if they don't satisfy?

I will now try to ease your pain, or cast a faint light of hope, at the very least.

First of all, I learned something – "french" fries are not called that because they come from France, it turns out; the potatoes are called pommes frites there.

My marvelous "Food Lover's Companion" by Sharon Tyler Herbst and Ron Herbst (Barrons, 2007) tells me that the word "french" describes the way the spuds are cut – long and narrow, like green beans, for instance. Put it that way, those thick, doughy steak fries you find around here are out of the running – at least for me.

But I digress. I called restaurant expert and good friend Don Spasiano, professor of hospitality management at Erie Community College North, who told me that while part of the problem of tasteless fries could be traced to inferior purchased precut spuds, what really is important is the variety of potato used and how that potato is handled. (There are good food-service, precut potatoes out there, said Spasiano; most of them have skins attached and are of even size for better cooking.)

"But it has to be a good-quality potato in the first place," he said, or it won't crisp. And it must go into clean oil heated to at least 360 degrees so the potato will be crisp on the outside and cooked in the interior. (The taste of raw potato is not a wondrous thing.)

A real fry maven, Spasiano told me, will cook the potatoes in 300-degree oil for a short time, then hold them until they are ordered. Before serving, he will finish the potatoes off at 360. (This is the way good European spuds are cooked.)

Does that sound like a lot of trouble? Well, it is, and it also means someone has to really care. That could explain why a good french fry is hard – but not impossible – to find these days.

You can start here:

Papa Jakes, 1672 Elmwood Ave., is a raucous tavern with private back booths and a quote from me on the menu. I hadn't been there for a while and so it was a surprise to find a rapturous description from my restaurant reviewing days, saying that the potatoes actually tasted like they had grown in the ground.

And they still do. Served promptly – and hot – on a Friday fish fry evening when the place was on the cusp of chaos. No fancy sauces here, just potatoes. OK, maybe you will want to add a little salt, and the Companion always wants gravy on the side for dipping. But it's up to you.

A little farther down the street, Blue Monk, 727 Elmwood Ave., calls itself a gastropub and cooks its fries in duck fat for extra flavor. You get two house sauces for dipping, and there's an extensive choice.

I like roasted garlic and sea salt and the spicy Sriracha sauce. You don't have to dip if you don't want to, of course. But you should know that this is a Belgian beer house/restaurant, and in Belgium, where fries are practically the national dish, they are served with mayo, so the dip idea is not as way out as you might think. (Vegan fries are available here, too.)

And, back in Black Rock at the trendy Black Rock Kitchen and Bar, 491 Amherst St., house-cut fries with good dipping sauces are served. Enjoy them while sitting in the new, wonderfully quiet patio at the rear.


Send questions about dining out to Janice Okun at janiceokun@yahoo.com. She will respond in this column, which appears Wednesdays in the Taste section of The Buffalo News.