The glory that is grease
Aspen, CO Colorado
ASPEN ” The news this fall that the Grill Next Door in Aspen would be shutting down was met with a slightly smug, knowing grin among a crop of diners in The Aspen Times newsroom. Not that we were gleeful over the closing ” the place had good burgers and dogs, the price was right, and the owner, at least before he bought another eatery, in Snowmass Village, and left his post behind the counter at the Grill, was the kind of guy you wanted to support.
But the Grill had one sin that was inexplicable, dire, and ultimately, unpardonable.
Really bad fries. Curly ones that were more like spirals of orange-brown crisp, and bore the same relation to a potato as a McNugget has to a chicken. Many was the day that we walked away from an otherwise fine lunch, grumbling all the way back to the office ” and then some ” about the subpar fry program. Once, I walked away even before ordering: I had gotten to second in line when, contemplating the disappointment that lie ahead, I turned tail and headed for Cooper St. Pier, where the worst you can say about the fries (straight, plain, good) is that, occasionally, some of the batch is overcooked. Another time, we went so far as to get the owner’s phone number, planning to register our unhappiness. But I couldn’t pick up the phone; how do you tell a restaurateur that his fries flat-out suck?
As has become obvious, we take fries seriously here ” which is to say, I take fries seriously, thus forcing co-workers, friends and family to bring a similar gravity to the topic. Years ago, before frighteningly high cholesterol counts, and before my wife, Candice, decided to make her (i.e., our) healthy dining life’s foremost priority, I had a favorite lunch routine that involved walking crosstown to McDonald’s for a Super Size fries to go, backtracking to the Aspen Underground (in the Aspen Youth Center space most recently vacated by the Grill Next Door, and their sadly lacking fries), ordering a burrito, and happily sitting down to a burrito and fries ” not an obvious match, but trust me and my extensive research.
I’m quite sure my love of fries started before I was 8 ” whose doesn’t? ” but it was at that age that I can confirm that I had the best fries of my life. In 1971, the Livingston Mall opened a mile from our house, forever transforming the public perception of Livingston, N.J. Probably on the very day it opened, my dad hauled us kids to the mall, lured by the Nathan’s Famous. Previously, going to Nathan’s meant schlepping to Coney Island, for the original Nathan’s. My dad was tempted by the hot dogs ” that’s where the “Famous” comes from ” but I was instantly entranced by the fries. Oddly, given the practically miraculous level these fries achieved, I have yet to see someone mimic the unusual Nathan’s fry style ” crinkle-cut, but circular and thick. And greasy. You ate them with a red, two-pronged plastic fork. Certain memories die hard.
Finding fries that could beat the snot out of the Grill Next Door would be a cinch. (My own “oven fries” ” made without a deep fryer, and with a minimal amount of oil ” easily do the trick.) But would I ever be able to find a fry in Aspen that lived up to Nathan’s?
Try I must.
Even a Mexican place, it seems, can turn out a decent fry. The Cantina’s weren’t extraordinary, but better than you’d expect from a kitchen that serves up carnitas and enchiladas. Fresh, thin and crispy, but they left me with a question I would encounter again and again in my quest: Where’s the grease? It seems oil is on the outs in the fry world.
The Hotel Jerome’s fries, which are served gratis alongside burgers and sandwiches, are impressive. Slightly seasoned with green stuff (What herb is that exactly?), they boast a near-perfect fried outer shell-to-potato ratio. There was even a slight but distinct grease factor.
Having had my fill of the straight-up, straight fry ” but not, heaven forfend, my fill of fries ” I headed for Little Annie’s. Annie’s fries, which are also served as a choice of side with burgers and sandwiches, are something apart. Wedge-shaped, they have both a thick side, so you know there’s potato in there, and a thin side, for a nice crunch. It makes for a worthwhile side-trip off the beaten path.
Ella, a new bistro-style spot in Carbondale, offers an exceptional fry, shoestring-shaped, but slightly thicker, which accompanies their equally praise-worthy burger. That Ella adds Parmesan to their fries begs the question: Why? The cheese is not melted in, so 95 percent of it falls off, leaving you, after you’ve polished off the potatoes, a pile of grated Parmesan to nibble on. (Maybe that’s why?)
Topper’s, too, does the Parmesan thing, to the same effect. Their fries are served in a paper cone, a nice aesthetic touch, but our serving didn’t even leave a grease mark on the paper. It did, though, leave a pile of grated cheese to scoop up.
(Note to Parmesan fry makers: How about, instead, an offering of real cheese fries, with the gloppy yellow stuff melted right into the fries? Take me back to my Jersey diner nights.)
Blue Maize goes off the beaten path with its sweet potato fries, and these are an inspired stroke ” a bit more flavorful, colorful ” and yes! greasier! ” than the norm. Served with an aioli, rather than ketchup, one taste and you might never go back. I can even convince my wife that they’re a healthful part of the yellow vegetable family.
The Woody Creek Tavern serves its fries (straight, well-cooked, just-right crispy-to-meaty ratio) in a basket, but they don’t need any clever touches. Their fries would be outstanding eaten off the floor.
Here we come to my great quandary. My journalistic instincts tell me that no survey of French fries is complete without a step into fast-food nation. (Joining that side is my Aspen Times cohort, the Hammer, who likens McDonald’s fries to crack cocaine.) My respect for the sensibility of certain family members dictate that I not step under the Golden Arches, a place I haven’t tasted of in seven years.
I compromise. I’ll eat Mickey D’s fries, but draw the line there. And I won’t allow myself to be photographed eating fries out of the familiar red-and-yellow carton.
I get a large (only because they no longer serve Super Size, thank you very much, Morgan Spurlock, Mr. “Don’t Super Size Me!”. Back in the day, if McDonald’s had something bigger than Super Size, I would have gotten that). I tear open a few packets of ketchup, salivating. Ohmigod, they are as good as I remembered.
The question lingers: What ingredient is it that separates fast-food fries ” McDonald’s, Nathan’s (I didn’t go to Burger King) ” from mere mortal fried potatoes?
I concluded that some questions are best not to think about as you devour the last fry crumbs in the holster.
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