Hand-cut fries are showing up in more and more Charleston restaurants, whether piled around a burger at a roadside stand or carefully plated next to a seared steak at one of the white-tablecloth joints on East Bay Street. It's an encouraging trend, part of the larger movement among the city's chefs to focus on fresh, top-quality ingredients with simple, traditional preparations. If we're lucky, it will be enough to save the great American French fry from its long, slow decline into mediocrity.
Frozen fries, the kind engineered by fast food empires, are cheap and predictable, but they turned what should be a rare treat into the ubiquitous restaurant side dish that we barely even notice anymore, much less savor, even as the servings grow larger and larger. In the 1950s, Americans ate, on average, four pounds of French fries per year. That number is 30 pounds a year today, or about four servings of fries each week.
But an increasing number of Charleston restaurants start with fresh potatoes, cut them by hand right in the kitchen, and fry them without the aid of a computer. Russet Burbanks are almost universally the potato of choice for Charleston's fry kings, since its high starch content makes for fries with a dry, soft interior. When it comes to the other details — the size of the cut, the choice of oil, the method of cooking, and the accompanying condiment (or lack thereof) — there's less agreement. But, any one of them can make you realize how perilously close we came to forgetting how good a properly made French fry can be.
Jack's Cosmic Dogs
$1.95 small; $2.35 large
Mt. Pleasant. 2085 Hwy. 17 N.
From the screen door and glass-bottled Sundrop to the retro decor on the cinderblock walls, Jack's is such a throwback to the classic roadside hotdog stand that it only makes sense they would make their fries the old-fashioned way, too. Jack's fries are very thin — about a quarter-inch square across the face — and are cooked in 100 percent peanut oil. They are best eaten several at a time, squeezed together into a big bunch and dunked in ketchup. Pile them alongside an Astro Dog (with its blue cheese slaw and pickles) and you've got a lunch that's out of this world.
Downtown. 15 Beaufain St.
Mt. Pleasant. 1313 Shrimpboat Lane.
It's hard to find a better happy hour treat than a basket of hand-cut fries with a side of pepper gravy from Vickery's ($3.95 at the Shem Creek location; they'll cost you 80 cents more downtown). Perhaps because of the crispiness, Vickery's fries have a tendency to break into small one-inch bits ("'tater nubbins," you might call them). They take a little more time to eat than a full-sized fry, but they taste just as good. And if you're sitting on the deck at the Mt. Pleasant location enjoying a basket with a cold beer while the sun sets over Shem Creek, are you really in a rush?
DB's Famous Cheesesteaks
$2.75 regular; $4.75 large
James Island. 915 Folly Road.
The fry-making operation at DB's is front and center, with four double-pot Dean deep fryers positioned just behind the front counter. Beside them, two tall racks of fry baskets pre-loaded with freshly-cut potatoes stand at the ready. DB's needs the capacity, for they crank out a lot of fries to complement their authentic Philly-style cheesesteaks. DB's has brought the "boardwalk-style" fry down from Maryland's Eastern Shore. The potatoes are a medium cut (about 3/8") with the skin still on and cooked in peanut oil. The fries are a light golden brown with lots of dark strips of peel mixed in. They are served in big brown paper bags ($2.75 for a regular, $4.75 large), which quickly get spattered with dark brown circles of oil and seem to have a mysterious crisping effect on the fries. Somewhere down in the middle is a big Styrofoam cup, ostensibly there to hold the fries, but the bag's piled so full that you'll be halfway done before you even see the cup.
39 Rue de Jean
Downtown. 39 John St.
Rue scored an impressive victory earlier this year in the City Paper's Best of Charleston issue, garnering the Readers' Pick award for Best French Fries — and handing McDonald's its first loss in a decade. So they must be onto something. They certainly have the classiest presentation of any fries in town. The side order of pommes frites ($4.25) comes to the table in a tall silver cup lined with white paper, a little ramekin of ketchup at its side. They're light and golden brown with a dusting of sea salt. Pair them with a Butcher steak and enjoy a French brasserie classic, or try them with a fresh, house-ground burger for an upscale take on the American fast food classic. You can even get them with an omelet for a midweek brunch.
The Glass Onion
West Ashley. 1219 Savannah Hwy.
Chris Stewart at the Glass Onion is passionate about his restaurant's fresh-cut fries. They have to be crispy, and they have to have just the right amount of peel, which means starting with Russet Burbank potatoes and peeling just one half of the spud. One deep fryer is reserved for potatoes only (so no fishy flavors creep in), and the fries get two cookings. The first is a slow dip at 250 degrees for four to five minutes. The potatoes are allowed to cool completely and rest until it's time to serve them. Then it's back in the oil — a vegetable blend — at high temperature (350º˚F) for a few more minutes until brown and crispy. The finished fries are seasoned with the Glass Onion's own spice mix and served in a big basket along with a cup of bright yellow béarnaise sauce. The end result is a remarkable basket of fries. The exteriors are so dark brown that you might think at first that they are overcooked, but one bite tells you otherwise. The outsides are definitely extra crispy, and — sure enough — there's just the right amount of peel to give a little extra texture, but the insides are soft and fluffy the way great fries should be. A basket with béarnaise is only $3, so you might need to order two. They will get eaten.
Downtown. 432 King St.
The fries at Rue de Jean are great, and the ones at Glass Onion a little better, but La Fourchette still gets this reviewer's nod as the best in town. You could sum it up in two words: duck fat. But that would be oversimplifying things. There's a lot of research, trial-and-error, and plain hard work that goes into the La Fourchette method, all of which culminate in an unparalleled order of pommes frites. They go through about 75 pounds of Russets a day. When potatoes are kept in a cool environment, their starch turns to sugar; when they warm up, that sugar turns back into starch. To ensure the proper starch level, the La Fourchette team cures the potatoes for three days at room temperature before peeling and slicing them.
Then it's time for cooking. The famed duck fat is actually a blend of duck fat and soybean oil (specially selected to be free of any anti-foaming agents, lest they impart an off flavor). The potatoes get a quick blanch at 275 degrees, then are laid out to dry in a single layer on sheet pans, which quickly fill every free surface in the tiny kitchen, stacked one on top of another with tin cans to separate them. At serving time, the potatoes go back for one last dip in the duck fat, this time for about three minutes at high heat until the fries are a dark, lustrous brown.
It's not a formula for a restaurateur focused on the bottom line. Duck fat is expensive, and the hand-peeling and double-frying is inefficient and labor-intensive. But the outcome is amazing. The fries are perfectly crisped outside while soft and tender inside, and the duck fat gives a rich texture that can only be described as luxurious.
You can have frites alongside a hanger steak for a big meal, or sit at the bar and enjoy a big basket with a glass of red wine. Just be ready to share.