Of the many ways to describe Chicago, a french fry paradise probably doesn’t spring to mind first. A city stuffed with extra-thick pizza and political corruption? Sure. But a Shangri-La of freshly cut potatoes bubbling in hot oil? Not exactly.
Perhaps you should reconsider.
While you can find great fries all over the country, the sad fact is that even when you discount most fast food chains, the majority of restaurants purchase frozen fries. It’s cheaper and easier to do so. But for some stubborn reason, Chicago is a city dedicated to fresh-cut french fries, the kind that start with actual potatoes punched through a fry cutter and then cooked twice in oil (first at a lower temperature, and then at a higher temperature). The fries that emerge from the oil sport crispier crusts and creamier insides than their frozen counterparts. Instead of tasting like oil, they capture pure potato flavor.
Restaurants at every price point and in all areas of the city serve fresh-cut fries, from fancy new West Loop spots to old-school hot dog stands. It’s so common, most people here don’t even realize how good we have it. That has to explain why most hot dog stands automatically toss in a bag of fries for free with every order.
So when someone suggested we find Chicago’s best french fries (yes, the word “french” is lowercase in this usage, more on that later), we were initially dumbstruck by the impossibility of the task. There were too many options! Our whole department would have to stuff ourselves on nothing but fries for the whole year to find the city’s best.
That’s when someone suggested a $5 price limit. Sure, it would exclude places like Hopleaf Bar and Boeufhaus, but what better way to prove Chicago’s french fry supremacy than to set such a low limit.
We figured if we worked hard, we could find 40 or maybe 50 restaurants serving fresh-cut fries under the price limit, with no chain restaurants and only regular fries (no waffle, steak, curly, etc). Hours later, the list had swelled to over a 100. (Pause for a moment to admire how incredible that number is.) These included options in both the city and suburbs, though we excluded national chains.
Fact-based, indepth, local news reporting takes time, money and professional experience. We can’t do it without your support. Please consider one of the following.
We divvied up the 106 restaurants among Food & Dining reporters and editors (with help from other Tribune staffers) and got to eating. After the first round, in which participants decided thumbs up or down on each spot, we had narrowed the list to 28. For the second round, Louisa Chu and Nick Kindelsperger revisited those semi-finalists, selecting 20 we thought were worth celebrating. To declare a winner, we embarked on round three, revisiting our top eight picks in one potato-packed day.
Along the way, we debated what makes a great french fry. Is a crispy exterior always better, or can a heavy crust cover up the flavor of the potato? Should the interior have a texture similar to baked potatoes or mashed potatoes? Do you really need condiments?
We also uncovered another reason why many of Chicago’s fries taste so good: animal fat. In a 2001 New Yorker piece titled “The Trouble with Fries,” Malcolm Gladwell writes that although the original McDonald’s was located in California, Ray Kroc developed the most popular fries in human history thanks to a hot dog stand in Chicago. “Ray Kroc, in the early days of McDonald’s, was a fan of a hot-dog stand on the North Side of Chicago called Sam’s, which used what was then called the Chicago method of cooking fries. Sam’s cooked its fries in animal fat, and Kroc followed suit.”
While McDonald’s eventually stopped using beef tallow, many places in Chicago still continue the practice, and our fries are tastier as a result.
Finally, are french fries actually French? According to the “Food Lover’s Companion” by Sharon Tyler Herbst and Ron Herbst, “the name does not come from the fact that their origin is French, because the potatoes are ‘frenched’ — cut into lengthwise strips.” That explains why the french in french fries has not been capitalized for the entirety of this article. However, according to “The Oxford Companion to Food” by Alan Davidson, there’s a very real possibility that french fries may have first developed around Pont-Neuf in Paris in the late 18th century. But the book is quick to point out that many people disagree with this statement, and that the “Belgians are anxious to claim the honour of invention.” In other words, who knows? Still, even with an obnoxious dalliance with calling them freedom fries earlier in the century, the name has stuck.
While french fries definitely weren’t invented here, it’s our humble opinion that Chicago should finally get the attention as an epicenter of the french fry arts that it so rightly deserves. Here are 20 reasons why.
Don’t be tempted by the curly fries on the menu. Those come from the freezer. Instead, make sure to order the fresh-cut fries, which have a delicate crunch and a soft interior. They are the ideal partner with the restaurant’s thinly sliced Italian beef, which is also made in-house.
Shoestring fries with delightful dipping sauces. From the owners of Mott Street restaurant comes the cutest french fry experience I had in our quest. Don’t let the pink tray fool you. The fries themselves were tiny but mightily tasty, crisp yet retaining a soft potato nature. Help yourself to ketchup, hot sauce and chipotle aioli. The “naked” fries are also available dressed with oil poached garlic, which they offered kindly as a convincing taste on the side.
Dave’s Red Hots
Old-school neighborhood fries. This is the oldest hot dog restaurant in Chicago, with a history dating back to 1938. The building may be boarded up upstairs but that doesn’t deter the steady stream of customers in Homan Square. I don’t remember if owner Gina Fountain actually called me sweetheart, but it was understood. As is her family’s thoughtful care with the fries. Fat and satisfying, they bear a burnish comparable to the original wooden booths, and a soul as true.
3422 Roosevelt Road, 773-722-9935
The Region specializes in an ultra-smashed burger style that you’ll encounter most often around Northwest Indiana at places like Schoop’s. But unlike that south suburban chain, The Region makes its own fries, instead of using frozen spuds. These are cooked until nearly brown, picking up a distinct roasted aroma along the way.
It’s not exactly a rule, but you can usually expect delicious things if an establishment hangs a neon sign in the front window advertising its fresh-cut fries. Talk about good priorities. It’s also nice to see some large boxes of potatoes stacked in the kitchen, just waiting to be cut and fried. Sure enough, these fries are incredibly satisfying, with a crust that stays crisp even after cooling down.
5313 Lincoln Ave., Skokie, 847-674-4067
The Burger Moovment burger joint is all about keeping its food thin. The burgers feature beef patties that have been smashed on a hot griddle, and its fries are skinny, hovering in between the thickness of the kind you’d find at McDonald’s and super thin shoestring fries. Even though they are crispy on the outside, they somehow stay soft within.
The Burger Social
This trendy burger joint in Wheaton spends a lot of time on its website discussing its burger. As it should. It’s a great big juicy offering, which uses beef from local producers. But Burger Social should also highlight the fries, which come out of the kitchen with a gorgeous blond hue. Each one also has a remarkably crisp crust, with a pleasing baked potatolike interior.
Super crunchy fries ready to rock. If you’re worried about the loud music played with Brgrbelly’s rock and roll theme, rest assured the baby at the next table slept in his carrier at this family friendly restaurant. Husband and wife co-owners Steve and Nicole O’Brien opened in Portage Park six years ago, weathering the neighborhood’s changes. Through it all the burgers starred but the fries deserve a solo too. A nearly crazy potato chip crunch breaks through to a soft and tender finish. Get mayo as a dip like you’re back from a European tour.
Susie’s is probably best known for its creatively topped loaded fries. Cheese, chili, chicken, gyros, Polish sausages, bacon— you can get it all and then some on top of your fries. But it turns out that the fries underneath deserve attention, too. They have a remarkably thin crust, which gives way to a supremely soft interior. Instead of salt, they are given a shake of seasoning salt, which adds an unexpected flavor profile — a little spicy and weirdly savory — to each bite.
Lucky Burger And Grill
This Vegas-themed shop in Mundelein serves textbook fresh-cut french fries, with a crunchy exterior and a fluffy interior. The restaurant cooks the fries in vegetable oil, but the owner let me know he changes that oil often, because old oil can lead to off flavors. Sometimes it’s the simplest things, like making sure you’re using fresh oil, which distinguish good fries from the truly memorable ones.
Bob-O’s Hot Dogs
Clean-edged classic Northwest Side-style fast food fries. A ’50s diner vibe includes memorabilia showing namesake founder Bob-O and the converted bus that the shop once called home. Phyllis Bartell and her family took over in the ’70s. Now fryer baskets filled with fries always stand ready in Irving Woods. Crisp and fluffy, these are textbook fresh-cut fries. You can help yourself to ketchup and celery salt if you like. Like all Chicago-style hot dog stands, paradoxically there are no condiment rules with fries.
Edzo’s Burger Shop
When I asked Eddie Lakin, owner of Edzo’s, what made the fries at his Evanston burger shop so good, he exhaustively walked me through every step of the process. This was an excellent sign, because it proved how much he’d considered every step. Like most places, he fries the potatoes twice, once at a lower temperature to evenly cook the middle, and finally at a higher temperature to crisp the outside. But in between, he cools the fries down, which helps make the crust that much crisper when cooked the second time.
These are listed on the menu as golden fries, and there’s really no better way to describe them. Each pale yellow fry looks seriously ready for its Instragram close-up. Fortunately, each one also has a delicate crunch, with a fluffy, baked potatolike interior. Needless to say, they also pair exceptionally well with a big, juicy burger — the only other item on the restaurant’s hilariously brief menu.
Top Notch Beefburgers
Top Notch has been doing things the old fashioned way since 1942. That means that all the beef for the burgers is ground at the restaurant, and, most relevant for this discussion, that the fries are cooked in oil laced with beef tallow. So even though the fries might appear like standard blonde-hued diner fries, they have a meaty backbone that makes them far more satisfying.
2116 W. 95th St., 773-445-7218
Gene & Jude’s
This iconic River Grove stand is a finely oiled fast-food machine that kicks out hot dogs and fresh-cut french fries at an astonishing rate. It’s mesmerizing to simply watch them dress the hot dogs with speed, before tossing on a mess of fries and wrapping up everything in paper. In fact, if you order fries separately, you throw a wrench in the machine, slowing down the process by a good minute or two. But regardless of whether you order just fries or get them piled on a hot dog, they’ll be creamy in the middle, with a delicately crisp crust. While great on their own, they do reach their maximum potential when combined with one of the stand’s hot dogs.
Rand Red Hots
On my first visit to this retro hot dog stand in suburban Des Plaines, I watched a cook shovel a huge portion of white beef tallow into the fryer. That’s the exact moment I knew the fries would be good. The tallow infuses the potato with a meaty profile, almost like the flavor of a baked potato when it mixes with juices from a steak. Of course, it helps that the potatoes are cut in house and fried twice. But it’s the flavor from the tallow that will linger after you’ve polished off the whole order.
Illinois Bar & Grill
Crunchy batons with the fry connoisseur’s coveted, crackling exploded ends. Illinois Bar & Grill is best known for the self-proclaimed best burger in Illinois, as well as one of Nick’s picks as best burger in Chicago. I say the fries alone are worth a trip across town unless you’re lucky enough to live or work in Archer Heights. Whether you’re going Friday after work or Monday morning, both actual times I visited, you’ll have to wait for your order. The reward is a gloriously bountiful basket presented with a cold squeeze bottle of ketchup. Not that you need any condiment with crunchy flavorful bits providing more than enough interest and complexity.
4135 W. 47th St., 773-847-2525
Jimmy’s Red Hots
Soft, irregular and irreverent, stuffed with baked potato flavor. This is the oldest Chicago hot dog stand in the same location, claimed “Hot Dog” Faruggia recently behind the counter at Grand Avenue and Pulaski Road. Open since 1954, Jimmy’s Red Hots, named after Faruggia’s father, Jimmy, used to fry in beef tallow, but now uses a vegetable base. I grew up a block away in West Humboldt Park, and these were my first fries ever, imprinting Proustian memories of the tallow that leaves a telltale waxy feel in one’s mouth. If your ideal fry is crisp or crunchy, these aren’t that. They are, however, possibly the closest you can get molecularly to baked potato in fry form. No ketchup, but you can request hot dog condiments and make it a meal.
Redhot Ranch’s fresh-cut fries are dished out with a stunning lack of fanfare. As soon as they are pulled from the fryer, a cook salts them, wraps them up in paper, shoves them into a brown paper bag and slides them across the counter. So why are they so irresistible? The crust has an audible crunch, which breaks into an interior that’s like the creamiest mashed potatoes you can imagine. Instead of rinsing the potatoes after cutting, a practice that removes some of the starch on the exterior, these go straight in the oil. This explains the fantastic crunch, and the curious fact that the fries sometimes latch on to each other in the oil and never let go. So don’t be surprised if you reach down for one, yet come out with three or four. Of course, Redhot Ranch also slings out an incredible double cheeseburger and a flawless minimalist-style hot dog, but you’d be silly to ignore the potatoes.
2072 N. Western Ave., 773-772-6020
Mr. D’s Shish Kabobs
Long, languorous golden bars filled seemingly with silken whipped potatoes. Mike and Ann Antonopoulos opened their one-room fast food restaurant nearly 50 years ago as immigrants from Greece. Little has changed, except their son John joined the family business decades ago. He said his father is Mr. D, but doesn’t know why. A surprising mystery since it’s just the trio who work so closely together, unless you’ve witnessed the way they work. Imagine a silent ceremony for Japanese tea, instead transforming the same potatoes that steakhouses use into edible kinetic art. These biggest bakers, twice the size and price as those typically used for fries, are sliced then dropped twice in vegetable fat and beef tallow. Sheathed like taut tempura, the first fry you bite into will release a puff of pure potato essence. The warm glow inexplicably evokes for me such strong memories of lingering over fries and wine on the Mediterranean, that stepping out the door in Montclare I half expect to see the shimmering sea.
Here are the other 86 restaurants we visited in our french fry quest:
Tribune staffers Sade Carpenter, Jennifer Day, Joe Gray, Adam Lukach, Tony Puricelli, Josh Noel, Phil Vettel and Grace Wong helped taste and evaluate the fries.
Created by the Chicago Tribune Dataviz team. On Twitter @ChiTribGraphics
Copyright © 2019, Chicago Tribune