In food, there is very little that has not been documented in incredible detail. Google anything from apple pie to zucchini, and your search will return endless recipes, exhaustive histories and examinations of said item’s cultural resonance.
Information about loaded fries, however, is notable by its absence. You can unearth fragments of the 1950s origin story, which involves a precocious 16-year-old Texas genius creating chilli cheese fries. But whereas Canada’s Quebecers proudly celebrate poutine – a dish of chips, fresh curds and gravy – there is a distinct lack of curiosity about the timeline that gave the United States pizza fries or post-clubbing disco fries.
This is despite loaded fries now being a staple of menus, not just in New York, but in faraway Norwich and Aberdeen. The US has exported outrageously topped fries to the world.
Are loaded fries somehow beyond the pale, too simple, too calorific, too unsophisticated to warrant investigation? Is disregarding them the last acceptable snobbery? A bit like Blur, Banksy or Breaking Bad, loaded fries are kind of cool, good fun and popular, but it seems no one is quite sure if we should take them seriously.
You might say it would take a particularly shallow food column to go deep on this topic. So here we go. How to Eat, the series defining how best to enjoy our favourite foods, is here to pick through the tangled mess that is loaded fries.
On the side?
The inflationary greed of the (ugh!) “dude food” era, the more-is-more mantra of the Man v Food epoch, their nudge-nudge proximity to burgers on restaurant menus, have all helped to position loaded fries as a side dish. This is erroneous.
Both from a volume and a boredom perspective, you do not need a portion of loaded fries with a burger. You do not even need to share one. That combination is both repetitive (pair your hunk of meat and carbs with another hillock of meat and carbs!), and creates a confusing crossfire of flavours if your fries are loaded with a radically different topping.
Essentially, you are eating two meals at once, which, while it sounds good, frequently leaves you nauseous, bewildered and nine quid worse off. Think of loaded fries as a meal in itself.
Ideally, you want to eat loaded fries with your fingers. A key appeal of this dish is that it allows you to disavow parental authority and the arid discipline of the bourgeois western dining table – and dig greedily and unapologetically in with your fingers.
Loaded fries are food’s equivalent of finger painting, mud baths or four days without showering at a music festival – a return to a more uninhibited sense of ourselves and our tactile pleasures. That desire to get hands-on requires fries that can both support their own weight and act as delivery mechanism – part nacho, part chopsticks.
Here, fries are food and utensil. A requirement that rules out traditional British chips on a spectrum from chunky, chain-pub chips to soft, golden chip-shop numbers. Too long, too limp, prone to sogginess and liable to break as you lift them, such chips cannot be relied upon to carry heavy loads.
Instead, look to the chip world’s extremes. What you need as a base for your load is either thin french fries (squeezed between two fingers they form a convenient fanned scoop) or for heavier, wetter loads, glassy, crunchy, triple-cooked chips (they are more robust and have a slower rate of absorption).
Properly browned and encased in a crisp crust of starches and sugars, such chips will withstand excess moisture without becoming waterlogged and, rather than a potato flavour, will be notable for their caramelised, sweet, buttery fried character. This is not a dish in which you want elemental flavours of the land. If you want an overt potato flavour, bake one. Loaded fries should be a rich, indulgent feast.
Note: yes, you may need to use a fork on the last few sodden mouthfuls (and that is a good thing – you want a variety of textures through this meal), but that will only be at the load’s core. Not before.
Sweet potato fries …
… have no place in loaded fries. See also: curly fries, overly literal matchstick fries, wedges, earthy skin-on interlopers.
Do you know how many potential combinations of toppings you can put on loaded fries? No, neither does How to Eat. But given the answer lies somewhere between those theoretical concepts, shedloads and infinity, it is best we talk in terms of broad rules rather than individual combinations.
Cheese: Melting cheeses (orange American slices, Monterey Jack, cheddar, mozzarella) have a tendency to coagulate as they cool in a way that, if you apply them too thickly, will make it a struggle to prise apart the fries. Be judicious or, better still, use a combination of a looser cheese sauce and layers of finely grated cheese, to avoid cloying clumps.
Downsize: While certain larger, flexible items (caramelised onions, shredded braised beef) will drape themselves conveniently around the fries, less malleable components will not. The list is endless but, for example, chorizo, bacon, fresh chillies, meatballs, fried chicken, lasagne or herbs, must all be ground or very finely chopped to a size where they can be easily lifted on one or a few chips. Ground beef, for instance, works on fries in a way chopped pieces of burger patty does not.
Moisture: If adding chilli, bolognese or other stew-adjacent dishes, strain them. Some liquid is good (to soften a proportion of the chips). Too much is terrible. Your fries will drown. Conversely, drier toppings require you to go hard on the sriracha, smoky barbecue sauce, salsas etc. Those carbs and proteins need lubrication.
Zing, crunch, freshness: Loaded fries can easily become a soft, amorphous lump. This dish needs multiple points of flavour inflection, textural punctuation, differentiation – particularly some sort of fresh zing to cut through its salty, greasy base. From pickles to coleslaw, kimchi to quick-pickled onions, this can be achieved in numerous ways. If you think about it, nacho-style fries (beef or veggie chilli, guacamole, sour cream, jalapeños, tomato salsa, a crushed sprinkling of nachos) is as close to perfection as the form gets. That offers a bit of everything.
Clag: Particularly because so few kitchens top loaded fries in a controlled, circumspect way, many toppings are added in gratuitous quantities that, in combination with the fries, produce a density death spiral. Refried beans, pasta, halloumi, feta, chicken etc must only be added with caution. The obvious reoffender is pulled pork, often cooked until it is a dry, fibrous mophead of meat, and dumped on loaded fries with scant attempt to truly shred it. You will be eating that monster for days.
Loaded fries need not be a soaring topographic spectacle. Lower-lying mounds, where skinnier fries have been thoughtfully dressed to a shallower depth, are welcome. What is unforgivable is meanness: withered remnants of topping, isolated sauce islands, haphazard meat, burnt cheese flecks. Loaded denotes a topping both generous and comprehensive.
Places that use words like filthy, dirty and trashy on their menus will insist on serving loaded fries in peg baskets lined with greaseproof paper (stuck to the fries); or straight on to flat metal trays with almost no lip to work against, which leaves you scrabbling awkwardly after your food; or in cardboard boxes too deep and flimsy to dig into easily. This is where those hokey, retro, enamelled troughs or bowl-plate hybrids shine, allowing easy access from all angles.
Kitchen roll on the table is not some hipster affectation. This is messy work. You will need it. You may also need a fork. This should be a full-size metal or wooden one you can scoop up remnants with. Street food stalls may try to fob you off with Borrowers-size chip-shop forks (plastic with super-sharp tines or the two-pronged wooden classic), but once chips are damp and mulchy, such diddy forks are incapable of picking up anything larger than a Tater Tot without it splitting, collapsing or dropping off. It is exasperating.
This is a sizeable task. It requires a drink to match. Something ice-cold and refreshing, almost aggressively fizzy, preferably with bottomless refills. Your preferred soft drink or lager/pale ale is the obvious solution (a complex saison or IPA will be wasted in this flavour circus). Remember, it is a marathon not a sprint. Do not bloat yourself. Take small, regular sips. Remain calm.
So, loaded fries, how do you eat yours?