French fries are the culinary equivalent of beer: They’re available basically everywhere, their quality ranges from common fare to mind-blowing-gourmet and there’s probably something healthier on the menu. Diehard loyalists favor each variety of fry — crinkle-cut, curly, shoestring, steak, waffle, wedge, etc. — with such voraciousness they’d have you believe anything besides their preferred preparation is indictable treason.
In case you don’t cook or have never bothered to consider how your food is prepared, french fries are slices of potato boiled in fat or oil (oven-roasted fries are irrelevant to this discussion). Before seasoning enters the equation, the main distinction is the manner in which the potato is cut — thick, thin, curly; it’s a diverse playing field, but each fry is carved from a similar kind of spud (generally russet).
There are only so many ways in which you can ruin fries, but the most serious offense is to undercook them, which tends to result in a mushy exterior with a raw, grainy center. An overcooked fry, if it’s not fully carbonized, is at least crispy — one of the dish’s most important features. Salt is mandatory, but only in moderation. The roof is the limit when it comes to what you decide to pile on top.
So many different restaurants serve fries in the city it would require an entire book to discuss each of their merits. This survey is meant to be part of a gradually unfolding conversation about our city’s culinary landscape. These restaurants are not ranked in any way, just sorted for your consideration.
Northside Yacht Club: Poutine
The Yacht Club’s kitchen consistently impresses diners with a wide selection of elevated bar staples like house-smoked buffalo wings and pulled-pork sandwiches, but their poutine is one of the most buzzworthy dishes. Fresh-cut fries are covered in duck fat gravy, succulent Wisconsin cheese curds and garnished with scallions; I recommend you upgrade and add a fried egg (well worth the extra dollar). This will cure or prevent any hangover you might earn at their well stocked bar. 4231 Spring Grove Ave., Northside, northsideyachtclub.com.
Pleasant Ridge Chili: French Fries with Gravy & Cheese
Affectionately known as “gravy cheese fries” by locals, crinkle-cut fries are slathered in a brown beef gravy and topped with shredded cheddar, which immediately melts into the sauce. Eat this right away and you’ll be delighted to find the fries can withstand the gravy’s presence without losing their crunch, which seems like a culinary miracle. You should have no problem clearing your plate but know that this dish doesn’t travel well if you value a crisp fry. It’s not much to look at, but it is an imperative dish to sample if you want to appreciate Cincinnati’s diner culture. 6032 Montgomery Road, Pleasant Ridge, pleasantridgechili.com.
Quan Hapa: Sesame Waffle Fries
Color me surprised to find out Quan Hapa serves fries. I’ve always loved their house okonomiyaki (aka savory Japanese pancakes) — washed down with a cool Tiger Beer — but I didn’t expect to fall in love with a basket of their waffle fries. The sesame seasoning blend is subtle but matches the Asian street food flavor profile on the rest of the menu, especially since the accompanying ketchup seems to be spiced up with a bit of Sriracha. Where else in the city can you enjoy a bowl of tonkotsu ramen and waffle fries at the same time? 1331 Vine St., Over-the-Rhine, quanhapa.com.
Skyline: Chili Cheese Fries
Many Cincinnatians might balk at the choice to feature this iteration of our city’s signature chili, but I have my reason. In my circle, Skyline is the obligatory first impression of Cincinnati chili that tourists should sample. Now, a lot of stubborn diners just can’t comprehend the appeal of chili atop spaghetti and, maybe they don’t like hot dogs, either. In that case, Skyline’s chili cheese fries are the best way for a curious out-of-towner to try Cincinnati-style chili. Versions of chili cheese fries can be found at restaurants across the country, so it’s an easy way to introduce our lovely, weird, soupy brown culinary anomaly to a new initiate. The only drawback to this dish is that around 80 percent of the fries are so saturated with chili that they lose their crunch, but the chili’s savory, slightly sweet flavor is still one of the best and most consistent in the city. Multiple locations, skylinechili.com.
Senate: Truffle Fries
Senate offers two unique fry options, one cooked with duck fat and the other prepared with truffle oil. I decided to focus on their fries prepared with truffle oil because of my waitress’ recommendation. The fry has a nice herbaceous kick from dried thyme and the truffle flavor travels really well on your palate, causing that irreplaceable umami sensation that only truffles can impart. Dipped in the included chipotle aioli, you’ll feel like a fancy Belgian with your elevated mayonnaise and fries. Fun fact I learned while researching this dish: despite being a fungus and not an animal, many vegans do not consider truffles acceptable to eat since they are often — but not always — foraged using dogs and hogs. 1212 Vine St., Over-the-Rhine, senatepub.com; 1100 Summit Place Drive, Blue Ash, senateblueash.com.
Sacred Beast: French Fries with Mornay Sauce
Sacred Beast was opened by veterans of la Maisonette, so it seems appropriate their culinary background would yield an excellent French-style fried potato. The fresh-cut shoestring fries are exceptional, really, especially when paired with the mornay sauce, which is béchamel blended with parmesan and gruyère cheese and flavored with chicken stock. Like many French dishes, it’s a marriage of the best features of all ingredients involved. Crisp and simple fries with a deeply flavorful sauce, you’ll exclaim “mon dieu!” after your first bite. 1437 Vine St., Over-the-Rhine, sacredbeastdiner.com.
Wahlburgers: Crispy Yukon French Fries
Crunchy exterior, fluffy center. A great standard-cut fry that’s delicious on its own or with your condiment of choice. I ordered a hot dog and small fry off the kids menu after I saw the size of the burger on my neighbor’s table. Even so, Wahlburgers seems to think a meal intended for a child should contain an entire day’s caloric intake and I, a hungry adult, was filled with fries to spare. Because of the quality of my fries, this visit left quite a good first impression. Founder Paul Wahlberg wrote that he fondly remembers when his dad used to make a batch of his homemade fries and I can’t help but imagine his little brother Marky Mark could eat a whole funky bunch of them. 199 E. Sixth St., Downtown, wahlburgers.com/cincinnati.
Contact Sean M. Peters: [email protected]