A shop that sells nothing but fries? Why not? After all, french fried potatoes are among the most prominent staples of the American diet.
A little background before we taste, however. Despite congressional notions to the contrary, the misnomered fries are not of French provenance. Pommes frites (pronounced POHM·FREET; essentially, "fried potatoes"), or simply frites, are widely believed to have originated in Huy, a municipality within Belgium's Francophone Walloon region, in the province of Liège. To substantiate that belief, Belgian historian Jo Gérard cites a document that traces the area's practice of frying sliced potatoes back to the late-17th century. The 1781 family manuscript relates that, for more than a century, the poor inhabitants of the Andenne district (which includes Huy) "allegedly had the custom of accompanying their meals with small fried fish, but when the [Meuse] river was frozen and they were unable to fish, they cut potatoes lengthwise and fried them in oil to accompany their meals."
Unfortunately, we've grown accustomed to engineered adaptations of the original Belgian fries by commercial producers seeking to capture that market. While it may not be shocking to discover that fast-food and so-called family restaurants use frozen spuds, I was surprised to learn that celebrated chef Thomas Keller serves Sysco Systems frites at Bouchon.
Systems instead of Foods? One can virtually taste the chemical stew from the company's own description:
"The manufacturing process used on Sysco Brand French Fries involves both water and oil blanching to assure uniform golden color, plus air drying to assure high potato solid content and a crisp outer shell, which extends holding time."
Do we still know how a simple fry tastes? Happily, Pommes Frites in Manhattan's East Village offers us a reminder with the pure, earthy flavor of its authentic Belgian fries. Here, hand-cut potatoes are fried twice: once to cook them through; and again to add color and texture. The resulting golden-brown beauties are simultaneously crisp and silky.
Their thickness, incidentally, distinguishes Belgian pommes frites from the thinner variants known as pommes allumettes ("matchstick potatoes"), whose dimensions are similar to those of McDonald's fries.
Pommes Frites offers three serving sizes: regular ($4.50); large ($6.25); and double ($7.75). Accompaniments include several condiments at no extra charge, as well as 25 sauces at $1 each. I chose a componential variation of the especial: a cup of ketchup mixed with raw onion, and another of frites sauce (traditional European mayo). In the end, however, the sauces tasted better together than they did separately.
123 Second Avenue (between E 7th St & St Marks Pl), East Village, Manhattan
By train: 6 to Astor Place
By bus: M8, M15
Comestiblab: They're not fried apples. When referring to potatoes, pommes (literally, "apples") is a shortened form of pommes de terre ("apples of the earth," or "earth apples"). Terre comes from terra, the Latin word for earth. (Many English words—such as terrene, terrain, terrace, and terrestrial—share this etymological origin.) The word frites is the past participle of frire ("to fry"). While "pommes frites" is easier to say than "pommes de terre frites," it's easier yet to say "frites." Of course, it's not all that hard to say "fries," either.