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After FryDay, What?

January 07, 1998|LAURIE OCHOA

The pull of Burger King's Free FryDay was difficult to resist. We did indeed try Burger King's new and improved fries this weekend. And we went further than that. We ordered fries at the drive-thru windows of every major chain in the Southland.

You could say that at the end of the experiment we were, well, fried. And yet, we were still hungry for a really great fry. The state of the fast-food French fry is, we fear, in decline.

It's not that we haven't had our moments of McDonald's fry transcendence. The hot, salty, crisp but still bendable McDonald's fry, when cooked just right, is a great American food experience. But you don't get perfect fries at McDonald's every time. Maybe it's our imagination, but since McDonald's changed to vegetable oil from rendered beef fat in 1991, the perfect batches have become a rarity.

Would the new Burger King fry fill the gap?

One East Coast correspondent gave us hope when she said that she preferred the new Burger King fry to McDonald's, which, she complained, had been limp lately. But the consensus of our tasters, as one put it, is that the Burger King fry is the Pringles of French fries. It tastes like reconstituted potatoes engineered to be crisp on the outside and tender on the inside, but it has no soul. Instead it has a starch coating that restaurant trade magazines tell us will increase the keeping quality of the fry and reduce waste. It also leaves a strange aftertaste.

"It feels like my tongue has been waterproofed," one teen-age taster complained. "No matter how much Coke I drink, it won't go away."

As the Newsbites column pointed out last week, Arby's has been making use of the starch-coating technology for a couple of years. And Jack in the Box is also a fry coater. What the Burger King's Free FryDay represents, it seems, is the triumph of the coated fry over the natural fry. We've begun seeing coated fries in sit-down restaurants as well as at fast-food stands.

Before this coated era was the frozen fry breakthrough. Frozen fries weren't entirely a bad thing if you needed consistency on a large scale. Even high-end restaurateur Michael McCarty prefers frozen potatoes for fries to fresh.

But there are a couple of places where the uncoated, fresh potato is still respected. At Benita's Frites in Santa Monica, Belgian-style fries are served, which means they're cut a little thicker and double-fried for crispness. And owner Matt Halliday swears by fresh potatoes, though it takes extra training. You can't set the timer for three minutes and ignore the fries the way you can at most fast-food chains. You have to watch the potatoes cook and know, for instance, that a potato with a high starch content requires a lower blanching temperature and maybe an increased cooking time. Halliday himself points out that his fries don't keep well: "Five minutes down the road and our fries are done." He modestly leaves out the fact that before their five-minute expiration, his fries are among the best things a person can eat in Southern California.

In-N-Out Burger still uses fresh potatoes, but not all of our tasters were appreciative of that. "They taste almost shockingly of potato," one tester reported. But the aroma, another taster said, is too much of raw potato and not enough of wonderful fried potato.

Halliday thinks he knows why In-N-Out's fries don't crush the competition. "They don't know how to cook them," he says.

"I love In-N-Out hamburgers," he says, "but I've never been a fan of their French fries. They fry them once, they fry them quickly at a hot temperature and they become crispy on the outside, almost like sticks. What they really should do is blanch them and then refry them to get a nice crisp light potato."

Our hope is that if the powers that be at In-N-Out ever change their fries, they listen to Halliday and not to Burger King and the other fry coaters.

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