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Fries that Surprise Plain old fries are fine, but creative forms and flavors make them memorable

Taking inspiration from Japan, Daigaku Imo Fries are coated with a soy-sugar-honey mixture and sprinkled with sesame seeds and salt.
PHOTO CREDIT: nocredit

Maybe you didn’t consciously celebrate National Fry Day (July 13), but chances are you ate fries that day. After all, ordering fries on any given day is highly likely in this country: French fries are so prevalent now that diners can find them on not only most fast-food menus, but at almost half of fine-dining establishments, according to recent data from Technomic’s MenuMonitor. In fact, the data indicates that fries have shown a 46.5 percent growth on menus since 2010.

It may seem hard to believe, but consumers are eating even more fries today than a few years ago. Technomic’s MenuMonitor finds an increase in the number of appetizer fry items on menus, as well as in the number of side fry items at fine-dining restaurants from 2013 to 2015 (up by 5 percent).

Other than the fact that fries, with their magical combination of fat and salt, are ultimately craveable, the increase in consumption can be attributed to the surge in creative flavors and forms. In their search for all things fresh and different, consumers are responding to original, enticing, but still-familiar fries. Most significantly, the unstoppable trend of global flavor exploration is transforming fries into an eclectic, exciting menu choice.

Load ’Em Up

Loaded fries continue to expand as an option, from variations on poutine to global and regional toppings. This category, which built its popularity through food trucks, invites innovation. “Fries as a base are a no-brainer,” says chef Charlie Baggs of Chicago-based Charlie Baggs Culinary Innovations. “If you use fries like you use bread in a sandwich, you have the base, garnish, protein, sauce. If we look at fries like that—and you vary the color, temperature and textural elements—you can build exponential flavor systems.”

Poutine is currently the fastest-growing way of serving fries, according to Technomic. But traditional poutine (fries, gravy and cheese curds) is only half the story; global fusion has entered the poutine picture. Banh mi poutine at The Gorbals in Brooklyn, N.Y., includes thrice-cooked fries with a hoisin gravy and Kewpie mayonnaise.

Beyond poutine, improvisation with loaded fries is rampant. “How can an operator differentiate their menu? Loaded fries with different toppings,” says Don Odiorne, vice president of foodservice for the Idaho Potato Commission (IPC). “This also serves to promote shareable appetizers—it has become the ultimate bar-food indulgence.”

Regional or global flavor profiles prevail, such as the Berliner Fries at Spitz in Los Angeles, which are topped with Berliner red sauce, tzatziki sauce, cabbage-carrot slaw, cucumber, tomato, feta, olives and pepperoncini—with a choice of meat as an option. At Potato Champion in Portland, Ore., the Palek Paneer Fries come with curried spinach and paneer cheese, along with cilantro chutney. Also on the menu, the inspired PB&J Fries are topped with satay sauce and a smoky chipotle-raspberry jam.

Chef Brian Goodman of Sawyer’s Street Frites and The Greenhouse Tavern in Cleveland says, “Anything that can be on pasta, you could also make into a frite dish.” His carbonara frites are inspired by the pasta favorite—with black pepper, pecorino cheese and pancetta pepato—and are a huge draw at Cleveland Browns’ FirstEnergy Stadium.

Fast-food versions of loaded fries are joining in the creative thinking. Wendy’s offered an LTO BBQ Pulled Pork Fries last fall, and more recently launched Baconator Fries, covered in warm cheddar cheese sauce, applewood-smoked bacon and shredded cheddar cheese.

Take the Heat

Whether loaded or not, fries reflect consumers’ shift to spicier tastes. “At the most basic, QSR and fast-casual chains are offering two types of fries: original or spicy,” says IPC’s Odiorne, citing the popularity of Five Guys’ Cajun fries. And Wendy’s has been testing spicy Ghost Pepper Fries as an LTO, featuring cheese sauce, fresh jalapeños, shredded cheddar cheese and a ghost pepper sauce.

Within the spicy category, the dominant theme of global flavors again appears. Korean cuisine is still spreading its influence, and kimchi fries can be found across the country. Chi’lantro, with food trucks and restaurants around Austin, Texas, claims to be “home of the original kimchi fries.” They offer a choice of ribeye bulgogi, spicy pork, spicy chicken, soy-glazed chicken or marinated tofu, caramelized kimchi, cheddar and Monterey Jack, onions, cilantro, “magic sauce,” sesame seeds and Sriracha.

King Noodle in Brooklyn, N.Y., has made a name for its playful take on Asian street food, including Mapo Tofu Chile Cheese Fries, which deliver the numbing heat of Sichuan peppercorns alongside chile and American cheese. And the aptly named Fire Fries at Log Cabin Inn in Harmony, Pa., boast a crunchy cayenne crust. A mouth-cooling ranch sauce complements the hot-hot fries.

Seasoned with Care

It’s as simple as can be: Sprinkle seasonings on fries and suddenly they become something new. It could be just a flavored or smoked salt—truffle salt has gone a long way to upgrade fries across the country. Or it could be something evocative of distant cuisines. Here’s where global flavors can really sing. From harissa to seaweed, the possibilities for adding unique flavor profiles via seasonings are infinite.
“I lived in Japan for 10 years, and in Asia they’re more creative with what they put on fries,” says Park Tavern Chef de Cuisine Jim Gill. “A potato is a blank vessel; you can make it whatever you want. The right concept could add furikake to fries—maybe grind it up finer to get it to stay on the potato. Or use Chinese oregano, or black vinegar—there are so many untapped resources for flavor.”

Fog City in San Francisco is known for its furikake fries, served with garlic aïoli. Greek Spot in Washington, D.C., adds Greek spices to its fries, which complement the traditional Greek menu offerings.

Even McDonald’s has been turning to seasoned fries as part of a push to offer more customization to diners. Shakin’ Flavor Fries are being tested in several different regions this year. Free seasonings in three different flavor packets—garlic Parmesan, zesty ranch and spicy buffalo—allow customers to personalize their fries.

Dipping Into Flavor

Whether the fries are served in a cone or pile, the range of dipping sauces now offered have progressed far beyond ketchup or even garlic aïoli. New sauce profiles include fruit-based, dessert-like, global fusion and just plain wacky. “Fries are a great vehicle for scooping up condiments, and we’re a condiment-loving country,” says Baggs. “Also, sauces change the mouthfeel of a carbohydrate like bread or potatoes.”

Blueberry ketchup, sour Thai and maple marshmallow are just some of the playful sauces at Boise Fry Company, whose slogan “Burgers on the Side” indicates their fry-centric worldview. Meanwhile, the long list of dipping sauces at Potato Champion includes: rosemary-truffle ketchup, tarragon-anchovy mayo, bourbon-honey mustard and pesto mayonnaise.

Perhaps not even within the category of fries with “dip,” the ultra-high-end fries at Park Tavern in San Francisco have been a menu signature and conversation piece since the restaurant first introduced them in 2011—preceding the deluxe fries craze. Park Tavern Fries are served with shaved black truffle, and the dipping “sauce” is a soft-cooked egg adorned with caviar. “It came about as a juxtaposition of fries with high-end ingredients, and it all works together really well,” says chef Gill.

Certainly, anything that takes fries to another level of flavor exploration and offers a fresh experience is being greeted with enthusiasm by today’s diners.

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A Vat of What?

What to fry those fries in? Both extremes are trending now, from healthier olive oil to decadent goose fat.

Elevation Burger uses olive oil to reinforce their better-for-you position for diners seeking fries with less guilt. “Olive oil makes sense from a health and wellness standpoint,” says consulting chef Charlie Baggs. “It has a high smoke point, but the key is to find one that is light enough so that it doesn’t impart a bitter flavor.”

Mild-flavored grapeseed oil meets that criteria, and it’s used for the high-end Belgian frites at Brasserie Beck in Washington, D.C.

Canola and soybean oils are high in poly- and monounsaturated fats, which Baggs says is the direction that foodservice is going in. High-oleic canola oil, for example, lasts longer and has a neutral flavor, which lends itself well to making fries, he notes.

Peanut oil also has a high smoke point and neutral flavor. Balthazar restaurant in New York uses it for its beloved twice-fried pommes frites. And Five Guys—consistently voted in the top three for fries—also promotes its use of “pure, no cholesterol, tasty peanut oil.”

After a 2014 report from the University of Cambridge was widely cited for concluding that saturated fats aren’t so bad for you after all, diners are finding their way back to indulgent foods and feeling less guilty about enjoying their fries. Independent restaurants in particular are able to set themselves apart and are using animal fats with abandon to give fries distinctive flavor. Duckfat in Portland, Maine, heralds the use of its namesake in Belgian-style fries served with dipping sauces or as poutine. Meanwhile, goose fat kicks it up a notch at Delachaise in New Orleans, where the pommes frites come with malt vinegar aïoli and spicy peanut satay. And DMK Burger Bar in Chicago holds nothing back—beef fat is behind its craveable hand-cut Russet potato fries.

About The Author

Cindy Han

Cindy Han studied journalism and has worked mostly as a magazine writer and editor, covering topics from animal conservation to interactive desserts. She is also a producer for a public radio news program and is working on a documentary film. She has lived in some great food cities—from New York to Los Angeles to Washington, D.C., to Pittsburgh—and now Portland, Maine. She loves simply being with her family, enjoying nature, art, travel and, of course, good eats. Given her Chinese heritage, Cindy’s favorite dishes are anchored in the classic Asian flavor trio of soy sauce, sesame oil and rice wine vinegar.