Ever since it opened on June 10th, David Chang’s long-awaited fried-chicken concept, Fuku, has dominated food blog headlines, spurring instant lines and Internet mouth-frothing. People wondered: Could Chang pull off a Danny Meyer-like maneuver and encroach on Chick-Fil-A’s share of the chicken-sammy market?
The response so far has been resoundingly positive. People love it (although questions have begun to circulate about the sandwich’s architecture—the chicken hangs at least three inches over the bun), but there’s a secondary story line here that deserves more attention: Chang’s bold decision to forego skinny fries and opt for steak.
In his insta-review of Fuku, Eater critic Ryan Sutton drew attention to the controversial side dish, and didn’t mince words in declaring them a misstep: “Fries come with for $12. Don’t get them, because they’re KFC-style steak fries, or wedges, which are universally accepted to be an inferior form of fry.” Fellow critic Robert Sietsema backed him up, calling steak fries “the world’s worst type of fries,” and soon a fleet of steak-fry Twitter canoes launched from the e-docks.
The great fry debate brings up a number of sub-arguments off the bat: Aren’t Chang’s variety technically potato wedges, not steak fries? (They certainly don’t mimic the typical fry shape.) And, secondly, do that many people really think steak fries are completely worthless?
To find out where people stand, we reached out to some food writers and chefs to find out where they stand on the matter of steak fries.
Andrew Zimmern, host of Bizarre Foods: “Thicker cut fries are superb! They allow for greater contact time with the heat and cooking elements, so you get more texture and greater contrast between soft, pillowy interior and crusty, crunchity exterior. Anyone against a steak fry is rigid to the point of creating a monastic mindset that inhibits great gustatory pleasure. I love all types of fries. Personal new favorites are thin ribbon-cut fries cut wet into the oil and fried brown but still a little soft. Check them out at Kansas City’s Tenderloin Grill. Cottage fries at JG Melon in NYC are perfection as well; ditto Lafayette’s thin-cut pomme frites…God bless Parmentier.”
Jamie Feldmar, senior editor at Tasting Table: I am into steak fries. Here’s why: In truth, fries for me are really a vehicle for ketchup, which I eat on virtually no other food. Steak fries, by virtue of their sheer physicality, provide a bigger surface area for ketchup and are therefore better. Furthermore, and I know this is something of an unpopular opinion, I personally like fries that veer closer to the soft/soggy side than the crisp burnt bits (if I want crispy potatoes, I’ll get potato chips, thanks), and because steak fries are so much larger than other varieties, they’re more likely to display a certain softness around the middle that I find appealing. Finally, steak fries are big, beefy, manly motherfuckers, as opposed to the limp, wimpy shoestring variety, and I am nothing if not a big, beefy, manly motherfucker, so it is fitting that I eat steak fries with pride.
John Birdsall, James Beard Award-winning food writer: “The potato was the fucked food of Europe. In the 1700s—even earlier in some places—it was the government cheese of Europe. A few social-engineer aristocrats thought these South American tubers, harvested on a massive scale, could feed the starving poor in Ireland, Prussia, even France. Boiled, pulpy, watery, bland—potatoes were nothing like bread, which is what people wanted to eat, but these rich assholes, eating roasts with the crispiest of skins, and delicate little rissoled turnovers fried in beef fat, were like,’Whatever, you get what you get.’ I’m pointing this out to show why steak fries suck so bad. In their thickness, their blandness and pasty bulk, they preserve the shame of potatoes. The poor of Europe came to America so that one day they could eat actual steak, not some pile of commodity carbs with the lowest of surface-to-pulp ratios, called ‘steak.’ Meanwhile, the only good fries are skinny ones. They keep the bulk of potatoes to a thin core, gilded with the crispiness of a double dunk in the deep fryer: fucked food, redeemed.”
Robert O. Simonson, cocktail writer for the New York Times: “I don’t necessarily prefer steak fries to all other fries. I’m basically a french-fry fanatic and am liable to find them delicious in all forms (though waffle fries always seemed a needless novelty to me). But I certainly won’t knock steak fries. I grew up in the Midwest in the ‘70s, where skinny fries meant McDonald’s. Steak fries were what you got at a restaurant or supper club. They were adult fries; fries that could go toe-to-toe with a basket of fried lake perch or, yes, a steak; fries that could satisfy you with a single piece of thick-seared potato, rather than a clutch of, well, small fry. Done well, they were crisp, hot, and golden brown on the outside, tender and moist on the inside. I can only imagine that the steak fries detractors have never enjoyed a proper batch made from scratch, which is entirely possible. The uncooked center is the bane of the steak fry, and, unfortunately, a common occurrence. They’re a tricky fry to get right.”
Justin Bolois, features editor at First We Feast: “Growing up in L.A., you’re inevitably weaned on crappy fries—assuming, that is, that you have half a brain and make your way to In-N-Out when you’re craving a burger. I think we love the idea of Animal Style so much because a sheet of melty cheese, Thousand Island sauce, and grilled onions does wonders at masking the tragedy of those flavorless nubs. So you have to understand that my faith in ‘skinny’ fries has been tested. Having said that, I really do believe in the goodness of steak fries, and my loyalty towards them is more than just a knee-jerk response to my childhood trauma. Firstly, let’s set the record straight: In my world, a steak fry is something very different than a potato wedge. The two are often confused, even though the first resembles the actual the shape of a regular fry, just a little over an inch in width. You’ll often find them paired with my favorite kind of burger, too—the robust, charred, unfussy diner type that’s (hopefully) dripping with juices. Which brings up another point: You want your fries to have more surface area to sop up all that burger juice. People obsess about their fries having “texture” (in a similar way that Elaine Benes demands a “big salad”) so much so that we lose sight of the potato flavor. When I eat a fry, I want to taste the damn potato—I don’t just want a shell of a fry, no matter how delicious that outer sheath might be.
Despite my allegiances, I was curious to know what one of my culinary heroes—L.A. Times food critic Jonathan Gold—had to say on the issue, so I asked him during one of his weekly webchats. His answer was pretty clear-cut:
Regan Hofmann, food writer, contributing editor at PUNCH: “In the Great Fry Debate™, people will try to tell you it’s all about ratios of crisp exterior to fluffy interior. And this is correct, sort of, except the only ratio that matters is MORE FRY. Why do we deep-fry things in the first place? To get more essential fats into our nutritional pyramid? No. It’s for that crunch. The interior of a fry is purgatory, a potato-y dead zone that exists solely to help you experience all four sides of shattering, golden-brown perfection. Steak fries are the cave paintings of the fry world, humanity’s first clumsy, ham-fisted attempts before we figured our shit out and started turning out Monets like In-N-Out’s slim beauties (well-done, of course). Besides, everyone knows the steak’s natural potato accompaniment is a baked potato. Steak fries are an evolutionary mistake. Go thin or GTFO.”
Culinary Brodown, food writer, mash-up guru: “Steak fries all day—no question. First off: All fries are good fries. Any time you dunk potatoes in hot oil and sprinkle them with salt, you’re going to come out with a tasty plate of food. I’m by no means debating the fact that fries are, indeed, dope as shit. But not all fries are created equal. I’ve eaten a whole lot of them in my life—from straight-outta-the-bag Ore Ida, to the perfection that exists at frietkots in Brussels—and I’ve parsed it down to single factor that exists in the perfect fry. It needs to have two distinct textures: crispy exterior, tender interior. That’s it. It might sound simple—and it is if you have your blanched-then-fried game on lock—but too few places do (for reference on single-texture fries, go to your local In-N-Out). The only cut of potato that consistently allows for enough oil penetration to create a deep external crunch, but still gives the flesh of the potato enough room to steam from the inside out and get tender, is the thick-cut, baton-like steak fry. But, let’s not distract ourselves from real enemy here: shoestrings.“
Corey Cova, chef at Lord Hamm’s and New Leaf: “Fries. Regular or steak? Well, what’s regular? Shoestring? Crinkle? McDonald’s? In-N-Out? I suppose the point is moot given that, when it comes to the best of both varieties, steak fries are the supreme champion. Asterisk! Based on the consistency of the millions of fries of the world, regular fries are always a much safer bet. Even though there are countless regular fries that are better than the vast majority of steak fries, the absolute best french fry is in the steak camp and happens to be the triple-cooked fry. That is Yukon (or a similar waxy variety) cut to ¾-1 inch, rinsed in cold water for 15-20 minutes to remove unwanted starch, simmered until tender, then chilled and/or frozen to remove as much moisture as possible. Next, these guys should be fried at a low temperature of 275°F until the fries just start to brown, then chilled again. To order, the potatoes are fried at 350-375°F until they reach peak golden-brown with an almost glassy exterior and light, fluffy interior. A striking example of steak fries at their best are the thick potato fingers fried in duck or beef fat found in such noble establishments Au Pied Cochon in Montreal, or Northern Spy in NYC. Unfortunately, over 99% of all other steak fries are just awful compared to the addictive, chip-like quality of more dependable regular fries. At the end of the day though, where’s the debate on what we put on these things and how we handle them? What do the Dutch have to say in defense of the subject? Something about mayonnaise and putting things in paper cones…”
Chris Schonberger, editor-in-chief at First We Feast: “If you’re wondering what the purpose of steak fries is on this earth, the answer is right there in the name—why you would eat them with a chicken sandwich is beyond me. But even in a red meat-and-potatoes context, I’m not convinced that they are a valuable addition to the fry taxonomy. The French provide a compelling counter-argument, serving a much more delicious pile of thin, crispy frites with their bavette. Anyone who claims steak fries are better than bistro frites is the type of jamoke who boycotted Grey Goose (not to mention fucking fries in general) after 9/11.
I get that thick-cut fries and potato wedges* have juice-sopping potential, but they are a role-player at best—eating steak fries without steak is like listening to a Memphis Bleek song without Jay Z on it. There is no good reason to do it. And we all know the best fries don’t need any help—that’s why a place that sold fries exclusively (Pommes Frites) was one of New York’s greatest restaurants, and why McDonald’s fries are better than anything else on the chain’s menu.
When it comes to the genre of Big Ass Fries™, the flatter pub-style chips of England (thrice-cooked, natch) deliver a far better balance of golden exterior and creamy, mashed-potato–style interior. So, to recap, steak fries get murdered on their own turf by both the British and the French. Let’s send them back to culinary dump from whence they came.
* By the way, ask ten people what steak fries are today. The amount of different answers you’ll get is a direct reflection of how irrelevant they are.”