I still remember the first time I set fork to cheese-drenched french fries. I was around 11 or 12, and had ridden my bike to a sub shop in the neighborhood. I never much cared for cold cuts, so for a snack I ordered cheese fries. They arrived in an elongated white styrofoam container: fresh-from-the-fryer shoestring potatoes coated in a rich, orange sauce. I swooned. I was in love.
I began to make them myself. My mother had a deep fryer in the kitchen, so I’d cut fresh potatoes and melt a jar of Cheez Whiz in the microwave. No matter how old I get and how my palate changes, cheese fries will always be my jam. But when I go out, I’m pretty strict about what makes a good plate of cheese fries. Here are my five (and a half) rules:
1. Never nacho cheese.
Especially not the kind with added jalapeño flavor. And if you’re older than 12, same goes for Cheez Whiz. Now, I don’t mean shredded melted cheese, but cheese sauce, that yellow-orange creamy-textured goo, which, admittedly, is probably highly processed and made with very little real cheese. I prefer the fries to be doused in the sauce, the way they do it at Mr G’s Beef
(2715 N. Milwaukee Ave.). But a cup of cheese tossed into the bag alongside the fries, à la Phil’s Last Stand
(2258 W. Chicago Ave.), is acceptable as well. This way, if you’re doing carryout, those fries don’t lose their crisp exterior.
2. Fresh-cut fries are always best.
In fact, this is the rule with french fries in general, fresh
being the key word here. Potatoes should be just-sliced before being tossed in the fryer, skins still on. Evidence: Susie’s Drive-In
(4126 W. Montrose Ave.), which in addition to its tome-like menu, serves its skin-on taters sprinkled with seasoned salt. They also get bonus points for scooping them into a taco-salad shell, dubbed the “edible bowl.” Ask anyone on the North Side where to go for cheese fries, and most likely, they’ll say Susie’s.
3. Crinkle-cut fries are second-best. Portillo’s
(multiple locations) has the crinkle-cut french fry down.
4. Cheese should be creamy, not chunky.
This probably comes down to personal preference, since my first love was the smooth, creamy cheese on the sub-shop fries. Still, I have been swayed by spots that use Merkt’s Cheese Sauce, such as Max’s Italian Beef
(5754 N. Western Ave.) and Murphy’s Red Hots
(1211 W. Belmont Ave.). It’s a little thicker and sharper, probably because it contains actual cheddar cheese. The only caveat: eat those fries fast, otherwise the sauce congeals into a gloopy, chunky mess.
5. Don’t mess with success.
Don’t put stuff on my cheese fries. Cheese fries should be just that: cheese and fries.
I realize rule #5 was meant to be broken. Here are a few places that take cheese fries to the next level by topping them with carefully curated ingredients:
(multiple locations): Chunky blue-cheese dressing and buffalo sauce
(2568 N. Clark St.): Kimchi, porkbelly, and cheddar and jack cheese
Pleasant House Bakery
(964 W. 31st St.): Poutine-like concoction of skirt steak, gravy, and aged cheddar
Photo: © Aimee Algas Alker, Groupon