Astoundingly, it is quite difficult to find good French fries in Tel Aviv. This in a city that has plenty of fantastic street food, which only gets better and more innovative with every passing season. This subject has been exhaustively addressed in this column several times, but for the sake of good journalism we will remind the reader: Aside from a few rare examples, to be cited below, the vast majority of owners of fast-food stands and restaurants in the city are too lazy to cut up potatoes. Instead, they choose – evidently for financial reasons – to buy industrial-size bags of frozen fries. For anyone who has ever eaten French fries (everyone, in short), the difference between frozen chips and the real thing is heaven and earth.
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And so it is that alongside an outstanding hamburger you are compelled to make do with perfectly matching McDonalds fries, and shawarma and falafel share the pita with sad, dry bits of potato. Even when the fries constitute a major element of the meal and not a minor side dish, as in fish and chips, the carbohydrate never gets the respect it deserves.
Yes, there are the exceptions. Garden is a fast-food place that opened this year in Dizengoff Center and is a veritable kingdom for French fry fans. It offers several fresh varieties. Amba chips (amba is a piquant sauce with mango and fenugreek) arrived from Jerusalem with Avi Levy and can be found at Chiripom. The fries at Vitrina, despite having begun the day in the freezer, are given a special treatment that blurs the boundaries. There are a handful of other restaurants that respect this beloved food, chef Eyal Shani’s Romano being a new addition.
A stand in the Carmel market recently joined this limited but highly regarded club; it serves hot potato chips on a skewer. The stall is very low-key and lacks all charm, pretension, financial outlay or brand name. It offers nothing but the thing itself. But it does offer a twist (in both senses of the word) on the French fry that is simple and ingenious; this may just be enough to transform the joint into a compulsory urban waystation for chips enthusiasts in particular, and street food lovers in general.
The first time I beheld this wonder was at the World Cup in South Africa in 2010. Outside the stadiums, aside from the usual beer and souvenirs, they were selling sharply spiced South African sausages (boerewors) served together with an item that became my compulsory snack before and after every game. It was a potatoimpaled on a skewer and cut into a slender spiral with a special machine. This tight potato spiral was then pulled apart like an accordion along the length of the skewer, quickly deep-fried and liberally spiced. It is easy and fun to eat this snack standing up; it doesn’t make much of a mess. And it’s the sort of thing that should be a surefire hit in Israel.
I’m not sure why it took so long, but the machine has finally arrived here. The stall is small and packed tight between other market stalls; it would be easy to miss if not for the permanent cluster of people standing there watching the goings-on. Their expressions vary from a smile to stupefaction.
A skewer of one French-fried potato goes for NIS 10, including a cup of lemonade. Think how much a single potato costs and you can figure out the steep profit. But to be fair, it is reasonable to assume that you would be paying even more for a standard Tel Aviv portion of French fries not significantly larger than this.
The potato (the red kind, suitable for frying) is skewered, sliced by the machine, spread out and fried. At that point, it is parked for a few moments over a large aluminum pan into which it drips surplus oil. Then the customer chooses what to sprinkle on top – salt (obvious), sweet or hot paprika (both advisable), garlic powder (too dominant, we’re not so sure about this one), a blend of shawarma spices (see garlic; the same advice applies), and shockingly, confectioner’s sugar. That’s all. From here on, it is just you and your skewer, on which numerous ringlets of thinly-sliced chips go round and round.
Is it possible to write a critique about something that does not in the least need it? Does a potato that is merely fried in deep oil and becomes French fries curled around a skewer, ever need to be anything other than just plain fun? Clearly not. I had two.
Chips on a Skewer (ask the locals for “Chips al Shipud”). 7 Carmel Street, Carmel market, Tel Aviv.