Aside from a shared month of independence, Americans, Belgians and the French hold one particularly delicious thing in common – a fondness for gloriously crispy fries. And each country has their own take on the tasty spud, whether it’s the classic French thin frites served alongside a perfectly cooked steak, the slightly thicker Belgian frites served with mayonnaise or the American take, served a variety of ways but always with ketchup on the table.
For the perfect Belgian frites, you need good potatoes and not too much starch, explains Chef Bart Vandaele, owner of Belga Café (Barracks Row) and B Too (14th Street Corridor). Vandaele says he lets the potatoes sit overnight in room temperature water, then cuts them and rinses them for over an hour to get as much starch out as possible.
“The big difference with Belgian frites is you cook them twice, so the first time you poach them in the fryer at a lower temperature, creating a crunch on the outside and the mashed potatoes on the inside,” Vandaele says. “When they are done, they whistle to release the steam that got built up inside and then you take them out, let them cool and fry them for a second time to a nice golden crisp.”
The classic way to serve up Belgian frites is with mayonnaise or other various takes on aioli, but don’t let any ketchup nearby, Vandaele cautions.
“It’s like blood to your fries,” he says. “There is only one way to do it, and that’s mayonnaise. When I first opened Belga, I refused to serve ketchup for nearly five months.”
At Belga Café, enjoy their many offerings including the Belgian mussel pots, served with Belgian frites and mayonnaise (my personal favorite – mussels ostendaise for $26). And at B Too, order the grilled tenderloin with Belgian frites and béarnaise ($34).
The French and Belgians will long argue over who created the first fries, with street vendors in the late 18th century selling fries on Pont Neuf in Paris, while Belgians are said to have originated the dish in the 17th century when the rivers froze the fish during winter. Either way, fries are a part of the French culinary culture, served as a delicious accompaniment to many classic dishes – particularly a perfectly cooked steak – and on their own as a tasty treat.
Traditionally, French chefs fry the potatoes in beef or duck fat (vegetarians beware!) and do so double time – once blanching and second frying. Frites in France can be thicker cut, à la Pont Neuf style, or thinner, but both are characteristically crispy.
At Dupont Circle’s Bistrot Du Coin, their homemade frites ($7.95) are somewhere in between the two thicknesses, and insanely addictive, with a side of béarnaise sauce as a must for dipping. Over at Le Diplomate, you cannot go wrong with ordering the moules frites ($19.50) or steak frites ($28.50), with the most delicious herb-roasted butter. The frites are thinner cut and served with a side of mayonnaise, though you are likely to just start dipping the frites in the herb butter/steak juice combination instead.
While many outside of the U.S. may look toward fast food establishments as the American representation of fries, there is a whole different take on the dish that showcases the true melting pot of American gastronomy. Loading up your fries with heavenly meats, cheeses and even – dare I say – cheese curds has become somewhat of the newfound favorite in the United States.
At DGS Delicatessen (located in Dupont Circle and Mosaic District in Fairfax, Va.), they use their hand-cut fries and perfectly crispy latkes as blank canvases for their eight-day, house-cured pastrami, applewood-smoked salmon and other artisanal Jewish deli treats to give an updated take on fries, and pay homage to the Eastern European groceries of yesteryear. Try the Reuben French fries ($7), which start with hand-cut and double-fried French fries, topped with heaps of DGS pastrami and layered with house-made sauerkraut, Swiss cheese and Russian dressing.
“One of our first cooks, Dave Moser, created them late one night,” DGS Co-founder Nick Wiseman tells On Tap. “He’s since passed away, but they will always be on the menu to remember him.”
Over at The Partisan in Penn Quarter, they use their expertise in butchery for their heavenly beef fat fries with ranch aioli ($6). The fat from dry-aged beef (aged minimum 21 days) is used to fry up these thick-cut fries, which are then tossed with a garlic confit, rosemary and salt.
“The beef fat gives it a really nice flavor and also makes the fries have their signature crispy crunch,” Partisan Sous Chef Alexia Sutter says.
You’ll be licking your fingers and the plate after eating these, trust me.
Pick Your Fries
Delicatessen: 1317 Connecticut Ave. NW, DC; www.dgsdelicatessen.com
The Partisan: 709 D St. NW, DC; www.thepartisandc.com
B Too: 1324 14 th St. NW, DC; www.btoo.com
Belga Café: 514 8 th St. SE, DC; www.belgacafe.com
Bistrot Du Coin: 1738 Connecticut Ave. NW, DC; www.bistrotducoin.com
Le Diplomate: 1601 14 th St. NW, DC; www.lediplomatedc.com
Photos: Courtesy of Belga Café/B Too and DGS Delicatessen