For centuries, Belgium and France have been fighting over a crucial question – Who invented French fries? The Belgians say, “We were the first to fry potatoes and serve them in the way fish is customarily fried and served in our country.” The French claim they were the first to fry potatoes and sell them from wagons as street food, and that they gave them the name and shape that became popular all over the world. Nonetheless, Belgium seems to have the better case, for there is evidence that the first signs that potatoes were fried come from the valley between Liege and Dinan, where as early as the 16th century, people would fry small fish. When the rivers froze over in winter, they shifted from frying fish to frying potatoes. And when Belgium was under Spanish rule, potatoes were imported to Spain and immediately adopted as part of the national diet. At the same time, in France potatoes were considered taboo, designated only for prisoners and pigs. Citizens were not permitted to eat them until 1772. A difference of a hundred years – but who’s counting?
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Whatever the case, the popularity of fried potatoes is generally attributed to the French, even though the Belgians remain the leaders in per capita consumption of fries. French fries arrived in America with waves of European immigrants and fit right in with the American need for fast food. In different places they are known by different names (French fries, chips, crisps, etc.), depending on their shape or thickness; in Israel we call them “chips.” But whatever you call them, they are delicious.
Although it would seem to be the simplest thing in the world, making perfect French fries requires real effort. In Israel in recent years, it’s been hard for serious fans to find fries that deviate from the frozen version. Many chefs blame the influx of American fast food chains that built factories to produce frozen French fries, which then became the standard. After all, who would hire someone to peel and slice potatoes when the frozen product can be easily bought? In many restaurants, unfortunately, frozen fries are used, and while this ensures year-round uniformity, taste suffers, because nothing can compete with freshly made French fries.
Making good fries is a serious business that starts with selecting the best potatoes for frying (best bets: the Desiree and Laura varieties). Choosing a potato that is not suitable for frying will yield a poor and unsatisfying result – pale, flimsy strips soaked with oil. The stages of frying are also important, as is removing them from the heat at just the right moment. Bearing all this in mind, we set out to find perfect French fries. It was no easy mission.
We decided to begin with one of the places responsible for revolutionizing the attitude toward French fries and making them “something to talk about” – Vitrina, at 54 Ibn Gvirol Street, Tel Aviv. This food stall-cum-restaurant had already managed the trick of getting people to shell out for gourmet hot dogs. Then customers discovered that an even better reason to go there was the French fries.
Nati Menashe, the chef and owner, heeded his father’s advice and opened a sausage stand. And as with most brilliant discoveries, he got to these French fries by chance. These 50/50 fries, as they’re called, are half white potato and half sweet potato. But what really makes them extraordinary is the lemon zest and parsley sprinkled on top. It may sound a little odd, but once you taste them, you’ll fall in love and keep coming back again or trying the same thing at home.
Also on Ibn Gvirol, almost opposite City Hall, there’s no missing Brasserie at number 70. Open 24 hours a day, it always attracts a crowd, and its menu is arranged so that at any given time of day you’ll find the right kind of food, whether it’s something to pad the stomach before a night on the town or a quick tasty bite in the middle of a workday. The fries come in a beautiful shade of brown, served up in cones of newspaper (the NIS 24 price has remained unchanged for years), or as a side dish to a main course. The short, thin strips have a delicate sweetness that comes from the type of potatoes used. The secret lies in just the right amount of salty seasoning to offset, but not overpower, the sweet flavor. There’s a reason people keep coming back for these fries again and again – consistency.
One of the strongest contenders for the title of “Tel Aviv’s Best Fries” was hiding in a rather unexpected place. Why would health-conscious vegans be interested in something like fries? Such foolish thoughts nearly caused us to miss the fries at Zakaim – Original Vegan Boutique (20 Simtat Beit Hashoeva). Opened a year ago by the Zakaim brothers, it defies conventional thinking about veganism and proves that vegan food doesn’t have to be bland and sad. Moreover, it’s a place where even meat-lovers like myself can find all they want for a good meal. One dish here that’s become a big hit and spawned imitators is the “hand-torn fries with homemade ketchup.” In a paper sack you get fried potato slices that are not uniform in size or shape, and indeed appear to have been torn by hand. The slices are first baked and then fried with their thin peel on, and they are crispy and extremely addictive. The homemade ketchup is tangy and spicy. If we were part of the Zakaim family, we’d register a patent on this dish right away.
We first chanced upon the next delicious fries on our list three years ago, on the way to the beach – at Shu-Sha (45 Bograshov Street) at the corner of Safed Street. Shu-Sha is essentially a hamburger joint, with a twist when it comes to the fries, which they call zig-zag fries. At first glance, they look suspiciously like the fries from a certain fast-food chain whose name we won’t mention, but at first bite those fears disappear: These are really excellent golden fries, so good that you don’t even need ketchup to go with them. Worth a stop. From Bograshov we found ourselves wandering up Dizengoff Street, and as hunger overcame us we stopped at Goocha, 171 Dizengoff, where we found a choice of fish and chips, or the fantastic “cone to go.” For NIS 19 (a year ago it costs 4 shekels less) you get a nice-sized cone with old-fashioned fries. Nothing fancy or sophisticated, just very yummy, perfectly fried and with a pleasing sweetness.
As evening set in and we wanted to unwind a bit from the rocket barrages and “the situation,” we came to Peacock Bar (14 Marmorek Street), where the fries brought back memories of Orca, a great chef restaurant that was way ahead of its time. The spare description on the menu doesn’t tell you that these are in fact the same fries that used to be served at the dear departed Orca, and that they are still among the most carefully made (and delicious) fries in town. Alas, the Peacock staff was unwilling to divulge all the details on how to make them, but the bartender did tell us that the fries go through a very long process before they reach the plate. After being hand-cut, the potatoes are parboiled and dried well (a very important point). Then they go through a quick initial frying to seal them and keep them soft inside. Then there’s another round of frying that gives them that wonderful crispness on the outside.
As we continued on our quest, from one eatery to another, we were drawn, thanks to rumors about their amazing fries, to two hummus places that are quite different otherwise – Abu Dhabi at 81 King George and Garger Hazahav in the Levinsky Market. All those skinny fries we had eaten up to now had left us yearning for something thicker to sink our teeth into, even if they left a greasier taste behind. Both these places offered just the right answer – large, non-uniform slices of fresh potatoes, thick and tender inside, not too greasy, and just as crisp as you could want.
Our longing for the kind of fries mom used to make still wasn’t quite satisfied, but just as we were about to give up, we found them at Hanan Margilan (15 Mesilat Yesharim Street, in the Shapira neighborhood). The Nachimov family, who immigrated from Uzbekistan more than 20 years ago, offers Bukharan cuisine in all its glory, with the son in charge of the meat on skewers and the mother overseeing the stews and dumplings, which are made on the premises. You don’t go to Hanan Margilan for the fries – You go there for the mantu (meat-filled dumplings that melt in your mouth) of a quality that’s hard to find anywhere else. But then we also asked for a side order of fries – and when it arrived, we knew we’d found it. For just 20 shekels. With all due respect to skinny fries, when someone really peels and cuts the potatoes for you just right, and fries them just right, and lays them out on paper towels – you know you’ve come home.