photograph by John Anderson

French Fries

In the early days of burgerdom, the traditional accompaniments of French-fried potatoes were hand-cut and fried in the cheapest grease available. As burgers became the quintessential American fast food, the demand for consistent quality in a low-cost, labor-saving side dish brought great innovation in the potato processing business. Today, potatoes are peeled, cut into sticks, curls, waffles, and steak wedges, par-boiled in lightly salted water, seasoned if necessary, and flash frozen. Giant processors such as Simplot produce spuds in every style and ship easy-to-use frozen fries to busy restaurants and burger emporiums. Rare indeed is the operation with the time, space, and labor budget to prepare fresh-cut fries.

Judging from years of Chronicle Restaurant Poll results, the most popular fries in Austin are the trademark battered fries at Hyde Park Bar & Grill. Hyde Park owner Bick Brown says they go through about 100 tons of potatoes a year at his one neighborhood joint. Fresh potatoes are peeled and sliced, then dipped in a buttermilk bath before being rolled in a flour batter seasoned with salt and pepper. Once each individual order has been hand-battered, it's fried in peanut oil. The batter leaves considerable residue in the fryers, necessitating the oil be filtered up to four times a day and changed often to insure maximum freshness, another costly proposition. "I took a menu item that is usually low prep and low cost," Brown says ruefully "and turned it into something that is a very high prep, high food cost process." A state-of-the-art potato prep and fry area were key components when the Hyde Park kitchen was remodeled recently. Still, it's a struggle to keep up with customer demands, preparing such a labor-intensive product to order every time.

In his attempt to master the potato problem, Bick Brown has done extensive research and discusses potatoes very authoritatively. "I used to be such a potato snob, I swore I would never serve a frozen product," he admits, "but frozen potatoes fry faster, crisper, and more consistently because they've been somewhat precooked before freezing. If I could find a frozen product that could duplicate ours, I might just be tempted to try it." With that in mind, Brown has been in contact with Simplot, the potato giant that supplies probably 90% of the frozen potato products to restaurants nationwide. "The Simplot folks are impressed with our product and very impressed with our sales volume for one outlet," reports Brown,"but that's about as far as we've gotten. Probably nothing will come of it." Either that or Hyde Park fries will take over the world.

There is no more satisfying fast, hot American junk food than the fast food French fry. Almost all the major chains do them well. My guilty pleasures are the potato wedges at Jack-in-the-Box or the 89cents bag of regular fries at ShortStop. But if you harken back to the days before fast food drive-thru windows when the fries were of the fresh-cut variety, there are several local spots that can accommodate you nicely. The Texas-cut fries at the Filling Station are hand cut, lightly seasoned, and fried to perfection. I'm particularly fond of the fries at 34th Street Cafe, a place that never intended to go into the fry business big time but has developed a reputation for great ones. Texicalli Grill's sweet potato fries are marvelous. If you desire the genuine French article, try the pommes frites with a steak at Jean-Luc's French Bistro. -- V.B.W.

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