The hate on steak fries needs to end. Today.
One of my favorite restaurants in Los Angeles was Eszett (now closed), and it used to serve what it called Big Fries. These fries were indeed big: nearly two finger widths, fried perfectly, tossed in seasoned salt, and served with garlic aioli. Even now, despite their complete lack of existence, I can taste the the Big Fries and their balance of textures (crispy on the outside, impeccably warm and creamy on the inside). They were truly the pinnacle of so-called steak or pub-style fries, the best it could possibly get. And the more I think about them, the more I think Big Fries might be indicative of future trends—that is, if we can let go of our hang-ups.
The well-documented hatred of steak fries, explained
Steak fries have incurred a boatload of slander over the years. To cite just one example, Alex Delany wrote an article for Bon Appetít in 2017 titled “Steak Fries Are Garbage and I Will Not Apologize,” describing these fries as wet and rubbery.
“A steak fry has an overwhelming amount of potato, with a minimal amount of crispiness to back it up,” Delany writes. However, the argument that “99% of steak fries are undercooked” implies that their imperfections come down to how people in kitchens are treating steak fries, rather than some inherent flaw in steak fries themselves. Therefore, I submit that thick fries are merely misunderstood, not irrevocably broken.
Thin fries have long been preferred by the American public. A lot of credit for that has to go to McDonald’s, which has coasted on its reputation as America’s favorite french fry for the better part of a century. The New York Times ranked the leading french fry styles in 2018 and declared standard (thin) fries best, while steak fries ranked a distant eighth place out of nine.
Hating thick fries is not only the dominant position, but this hatred has become synonymous with good taste. More article titles about the subject: Steak Fries Are The Worst Thing To Happen to Potatoes (The Daily Meal) and Things We Hate—Steak Fries (The Village Voice). And of course, there are several Reddit discussions about why steak fries suck. A lot of the arguments come down to two points: there’s just too much potato, and the fries are not cooked properly.
But what if that potato had been cooked differently? What if the fries were so creamy and indulgent that each bite offered perfectly whipped mashed potato encased in a crispy, crunchy outer skin? What kind of world would this be if the vast majority of steak fries were not undercooked, but cooked perfectly?
Sure, a teenage fast food employee working their first job with minimal training might not be keenly aware of the starch content, cooking time, and blanching process needed to produce truly excellent steak fries. But chefs are—and chefs are the only ones who can possibly turn all this slander around.
What chefs say about thick fries
At Proudly Serving, a restaurant in Redondo Beach, California, the fries are thick, and they’re advertised that way, too.
“Not sure if it’s because I’m Irish and I love potatoes, but I prefer the bite of a thick potato,” Matt McIvor, one of the owners of Proudly Serving, says of his love of steak fries. “It showcases the flavor more... Shoestring fries are just fried nothing to me.”
McIvor grew up eating pub fries, and he’s had a ton of success pairing his smash burgers with thick-cut fries tossed in duck fat and served with ketchup.
While I’ll never say no to a classic straight-cut, ⅜” french fry, the steak fry has some functional benefits.
“Thin fries often lead to disappointment,” says my friend and pastry chef Laura Hoang. “The lack of heat retention sucks.”
It’s a great point; the Big Fries at Eszett were very big, but they held heat incredibly well. They’d always have to cool down for at least a minute or two once they hit the table. To me, that’s a bonus. A meaty cut fry won’t sog out as quickly (ahem, McDonald’s).
“It depends on what they’re being served with,” says Jesse Griffiths of Dai Due in Austin, emphasizing the importance of proper pairing. “Grilled meats and a tart salad, I go thin. Fried fish, I’d go thick.”
Steak fries should generally be between ½” and ¾” thick, but when you picture these big boys you’re probably envisioning something on the larger end of that spectrum. The ½” fries are something between McDonald’s offering and pub-style—more of a burger joint fry. (Michael Walker of Comfy Pup in LA serves substantial fries of the ½” variety, which he refers to as “fresh hand-cut fries.”)
Most fast food fries, including those at McDonald’s, In-N-Out, Wendy’s, and Five Guys, hover around the ⅜” thickness and below. This makes perfect sense for them: Thinner fries are generally better with a burger. There’s more of a munch factor to them, which pairs perfectly with a sandwich or entree.
Yet by embracing the creamy indulgence of thicker steak fries, chefs like Matt McIvor and Spencer Bezaire of Eszett have shown the public their huge appeal. Maybe they’re not what you’d think to pair with burgers and hot dogs, but eat them alongside fried fish, wings, salads, pork chops, or tartare and you’ll find these potatoes provide something incomparable to the dining experience.
Despite Eszett’s closure, the Big Fries loiter in my brain because of their total singularity in the modern french fry space. What’s remarkable about Big Fries is that they can be enjoyed as an appetizer, accompanied by absolutely nothing. The potato is the star of the show here, not playing second fiddle to a burger or steak. Steak fries offer all the indulgence that restaurants aim to provide; hopefully it’s only a matter of time before more restaurants embrace them, instead of trying to convince us that less is more.