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Fry About Town

Consider the french fry. A simple matter of deep-frying cut potatoes in hot oil, it is a surprisingly variegated dish, producing very different results depending upon the oil, the potato, the precise cooking method, and dozens of other minute variables. It is also far and away the most popular vegetable course in the U.S., a fact most dietitians bemoan as it's a far cry from what they consider a healthy snack.

For many of us, or at any rate for me, the occasional fried potato repast is a requirement for happy living. Fortunately, San Francisco offers more than a few excellent possibilities; I've reviewed several, below. First, though, a couple of notes on method. As a rule, restaurants cook your fries twice, first at a relatively low temperature (a process called "blanching") and then again (hopefully right before serving) at a higher setting. Frozen fries are invariably already blanched, but fresh potatoes will require not only two cookings, but cleaning, slicing, and a fairly lengthy soaking for starters: whatever the ultra-automated processes of the fast food places may lead you to think, it's not an altogether easy dish to make.

The most recent entrant to the fry field is Frjtz Frites (579 Hayes Street), over in Hayes Valley (and, soon to come, a second shop in Ghirardelli Square). They serve a Belgian-style fry made from Burbank potatoes. Their product is cut very thick and tends to be slightly undercooked; they use soybean oil, which is about as healthy and unobtrusive a cooking fat as you can find. The result is a very meaty and by no means oily chip, but it is a bit on the bland side. A small serving is $3.00 and is accompanied by one of their many sauces. The latter, though well thought out, are generally disappointing; you may want to stick with salt and plain ketchup. The restaurant itself is charming, with a hidden patio area in the back and a generally pleasant ambiance.

Right down the street from Frjtz is Absinthe, a rather high-end establishment. Their fries are altogether different. Cut thin (sized much like McDonald's, though there the comparison ends), they are fried in peanut oil and are best eaten with a garlic aioli. The fries, made from Kennebec potatoes, are flavorful, though they could be more crisp (and the kitchen, no doubt, would be happy to cook them so at your request). It's a beautiful restaurant, but one pays for the décor: cost $4.50.

A more typical American-style fry-and what is possibly the best 24-hour fry in the city-is served at Lori's Diner (336 Mason at Geary for the 24-hour one). Lori's uses a "stealth" fry: take your standard machine-produced fry, spray it with a coating of potato starch, and you have an all-potato product that "outperforms" (to use industry jargon) its more pedestrian brother (the product has been popularized by Burger King in particular, and is being used by more and more fast food restaurants every day). In general, these fries are tastier and crispier than untreated ones, and, most important for the "quick service" industry, they will "hold" a great deal longer (i.e., sit under a heat lamp). Happily, this latter characteristic is quite irrelevant: Lori's knows enough to serve its fried foods promptly. The best to be had in an industrially-produced, pre-frozen fry, it is very, very good, and one of the rare instances of a comestible where technology can substitute for freshness. $2.95 a serving.

An elegant twist on the usual fry-and certainly a much more traditionally french-style offering-is served at Zuni's Cafe (1658 Market Street, between Gough and Franklin). A mass of shoestrings cut from Russet potatoes (Kennebec or Winnemuca, depending on the market), Zuni's fries are all crisp, no meat, and are too easily overwhelmed by ketchup; salt and pepper is the way to go, and besides, it is gauche to use more homely condiments in such a chi chi establishment. Because the fries are so thin, they require only a single cooking in peanut oil. Delicious, but for the serious potato lover something with a bit more heft is required. A serving costs $5.

One hestitates to declare a winner in such a contest--de gustibus non est disputandum--but I've saved what I think of as the best for last: Mega Mouth Burgers (3392 24th at Valencia). It's a fine place for hot sandwiches, but their fry, a fresh, rough-cut, Texas II potato, with skin left on the ends, is truly outstanding. Like most of these others, Big Mouth takes the extra expense of peanut oil, and here, too, you can taste the difference. A meaty fry, it is cut somewhat more narrowly than Frjtz's. A side order will cost you $2.75, so it's also the cheapest of the bunch.

French fries are the sort of thing that people can really get worked up about, so I'll include a disclaimer: if I've missed more than a few noteworthy examples, my apologies to vendor and fan alike. Rest assured I'll investigate any suggestions that come my way. Happy snacking.