One fry to rule them all: St. John's competition brings out the flavour
Chefs competing for the title of best street fries
Baseball fans have the World Series. Football fans have the Super Bowl. Hockey fans have the Stanley Cup.
And now, champions of the humble french fry have the Street Fries Showdown.
"What exactly is a Street Fries Showdown?" you say, forks and ketchup packets at the ready.
Well, I'm glad you asked.
The brainchild of local entrepreneur Aryn Ballett, the showdown is a month-long competition between restaurants in and around St. John's, showcasing their unique take on french fries.
Thirteen restaurants and food trucks are offering up everything from new twists on the classics — think fries, dressing and gravy — to mounds of crispy, golden brown fries topped with internationally inspired flavours like Korean kimchi, Thai peanut sauce, and Pakistani chaat masala.
Ballett, who started the popular St. John's Night Market and works behind the scenes with Saucy Mouth food truck, took inspiration from similar competitions hosted in the past like the poutine challenge and the burger battle.
She says holding the event in September also helps participating businesses offset the traditional post-summer slump in sales.
"I worked in restaurants for years, and I remember that February was actually the busiest time of the year because of the burger battle," she said, referring to an annual competition launched by the now-defunct newspaper the Overcast.
But with so many delicious dishes to choose from, and September rapidly passing us by, how do you go about properly navigating the open field of deep-fried challengers?
Lucky for you, I am a sucker for a good french fry, and also a literal and figurative glutton for punishment.
And apparently, I learned nothing from my previous failed attempt to conquer the mountain of Thanksgiving-themed food known as the Sweet Turkey Mess created by Jaime Ryan at the Sweet Newfie Kitchen.
So, when I saw an opportunity to dive face-first into an Olympic-sized pool of gravy and other savoury toppings, I took it. As the old saying goes, nothing ventured, nothing gained — except maybe a few extra pounds and a new appreciation for Spanx.
Frying too close to the sun
First, a brief disclaimer.
Please, for the sake of your wallet and your digestive tract, do not attempt to eat more than a couple of these entries in one day. I started strong, eating two-a-day in a foolish attempt to meet a self-imposed deadline — oh, the sacrifices I make in the name of hard-hitting, investigative journalism!
By Day 3, my body had begun to give up hope amid the french fry overload. I could feel my feet dragging as I walked to my mailbox, and I'm sure I felt potato seedlings sprouting in my chest cavity.
LISTEN: Jonny Hodder tells Weekend AM host Heather Barrett about his adventures with french fries, as part of the show's latest podcast:
In truth, the only feasible way to eat several of these in a single day would be to find a team of friends willing to run the gastronomic gauntlet with you over the course of several hours (likely resulting in several people left lying on the sidewalk, bloated and cursing the name of Luther Burbank, the farmer who first cultivated the noble russet potato).
So, unless you're willing to risk several friendships, spread the french fry love over a few days.
And with that out of the way, here's my guide to the Street Fries Showdown.
A new twist on an old classic
When most people in this province think "street fries," three words likely come to mind: fries, dressing, gravy.
This combination of straight-cut, deep fried potatoes, seasoned breadcrumbs, and gravy as thick and deep brown as melted dark chocolate, is a staple of regattas, come home years and senior hockey tournaments throughout the province.
Two downtown restaurants are offering up new twists on this classic dish.
Magnum & Stein's zeroes in on the "french" inspiration for its duck confit poutine. Fresh cheese curds are added to the fries, dressing, and gravy mix, creating a sort of Newfoundland poutine.
The restaurant then ups the ante — and the French-inspired class — with a layer tender, juicy, slow-roasted duck confit.
Those familiar with Mags' regular menu will recognize duck confit as the star of their bar menu nachos. Here, the duck still shines among the other ingredients, elevating the dish while maintaining a homestyle, roasted dinner warmth.
Chinched, meanwhile, adds some New York deli magic to the classic fries, dressing and gravy combo with its Reuben sandwich street fries.
Standard beef gravy is replaced with a corned beef gravy, a nod to one of the many deli meats made at the restaurant. Rather than a traditional white bread dressing, Chinched uses rye bread, the pre-eminent delicatessen loaf, as its dressing base.
They top it off with melted Swiss cheese, a drizzle of Thousand Island salad dressing and sauerkraut — which might not be to everyone's taste, but it's an essential part of the classic Reuben, and the tangy, pickled crunch of the cabbage is a nice offset to the richness of the gravy and cheese.
A world of flavours
From there, the showdown becomes a bit of an international affair. Chefs are taking influence from Europe, the Middle East, South Korea, Vietnam and Pakistan, to name a few.
Curry Delight in Mount Pearl is piling shredded butter chicken on their fries, melting cheese over the top and seasoning it with chaat masala, a spice blend containing cumin, coriander, and dried mango used in a lot of Pakistani and Indian cuisine.
As owner and head chef Afiya Altaf explained, chaat masala is her go-to seasoning whenever she's eating french fries. "My kids love cheese, so they want to add cheese of top of the fries … but for me, I'm pretty basic. Just give me my french fries and my chaat masala and I'm happy as anything," Altaf said.
Curry Delight will also add chili flakes and sliced pickled jalapenos to kick things up a notch, if you're so inclined.
Both Blue on Water and No. 4 Restaurant took the South Korean route, topping their fries with fresh kimchi and bulgogi beef, as well as their own take on Korean-inspired aiolis.
The two restos diverge here, with No. 4 opting for fresh peas and the added crunch of sesame seeds, while Blue includes sauteed mushrooms and nori. Blue also offers the option to add seared tuna, which works strangely well on top of fries.
Speaking of unexpected toppings, how about french fries with chopped spring rolls? Saucy Mouth's Vietnamese bun-cha fries come with chunks of spring rolls, shredded carrot, cucumber, marinated tofu and a sprinkling of crunchy chickpeas. It's an unexpected vegetarian treat on the street fry circuit.
But the strangest combination of internationally inspired flavours has to be at Mickey's Sandwich Company.
Owner Mike Boyd is making a Dutch dish called patat oorlog, otherwise known as "war fries." The entry automatically wins the Most Heavy Metal Name award, and definitely raises a few eyebrows when people hear the flavour profile: seasoned wedge fries topped with mayonnaise, peanut sauce and raw onion.
This was the first time I'd heard of the odd combination, but Boyd says it's a popular Dutch pub food he learned about on a trip to the Netherlands.
"We got talking to the bartender, obviously asking about food because we're chefs," he said. "He closed the bar and took us to his little spot and told us we had to try it, and that's the first place I had it, and yeah, it's awesome!"
I can attest from first hand experience that the seemingly incompatible flavours work are a match made in heaven atop Mickey's crispy wedge fries. As an added bonus, the war fries are another vegetarian option that can be served vegan if you ask for the vegan mayo.
Spice up your life
Then there are those who want to offer their street fries as a sacrifice to the spice gods.
If you're passing by the Manuels River Interpretation Centre, in the parking lot you'll find the Poko Loko food truck. Their street fries include cheddar cheese, queso sauce, braised barbecue beef brisket, pico de gallo salsa, jalapenos and chipotle cream. They call their dish pappas loko.
Meanwhile, Global Eats, the food truck operated by the Association for New Canadians in the St. David's Church parking lot on Elizabeth Avenue, has their Cosmic Fries: hand-cut wedge fries, diced tomatoes, pickled turnip, mozzarella cheese and garlic sauce, with your choice of chicken shawarma or ground lamb kofta.
"We're trying to integrate different cultures into our Cosmic Fries," said Amr Alagouza, who manages the social enterprise projects at the Association for New Canadians. "A little bit from the Middle East, a little bit from Morocco, a little bit from Venezuela, so we came up with 'cosmic,' hence the name."
The shawarma and kofta have a pleasant warmth and understated heat from their respective spices, and if you ask for it hot, they'll drizzle the entire thing in a cilantro and chili sauce called "zhoug."
But the spiciest of the lot has to be Seto's buffalo chicken fries. Think of all the great flavours associated with buffalo wings — chicken, buffalo sauce, blue cheese — tossed on top of a plate of steak-cut fries.
The entire thing is covered with a bright orange buffalo wing sauce that is not to be trifled with. As Mudder would say, "It'll burn the mouth right off ya." I love spicy food, and this housemade sauce tasted delicious, but even I was asking for a reaching for a glass of water after a couple of forkfuls.
Lobster and chicken and bagels! Oh my!
By now, you're either running out your door en route to your nearest street fry contender, or wondering why my cardiologist hasn't staged an intervention. But don't rush off too quickly! We still have a couple of entries to talk about, and your patience will certainly be rewarded.
Rounding out the pack, there are street fry creations from two food trucks and a restaurant in downtown St. John's.
Bernard Stanley Gastropub on Duckworth takes you on a trip to the southwest with their southern fried street fries: shoestring fries dusted with chipotle mango seasoning, covered with chunks of southern fried chicken, dollops of goat cheese, fresh corn salsa, and chipotle crema. It's one of the more colourful plates on the tour, and the addition of goat cheese is a well-appreciated swerve.
Over the past couple of years, Johnny & Mae's food truck has built a reputation for taking street food to its saucy, flavourful extreme.
The everything bagel loaded fries are no exception. They triple cook their fries, then encase them beneath layers of cream cheese mayo, shredded cheddar cheese, crispy crumbled bacon, diced green onions and a healthy shake of their "everything bagel" spice blend, which includes sesame seeds and poppy seeds for that authentic crunch.
Last, but certainly not least, is maybe the most decadent of the group — which is impressive, seeing as we've already talked about fries covered in duck confit and seared tuna.
Quidi Vidi Fish & Chips steps up to the table with Newfoundland lobster street fries. The dish is essentially a deconstructed lobster chowder: lobster meat, corn, crispy bacon lardon, classic old bay seasoning, and béchamel sauce, all smothering a tray of golden french fries.
When I say it all out loud, it becomes obvious that whoever is working behind the scenes at QVFC is clearly some sort of mad genius.
And there you have it, folks! The complete rundown of the September Street Fries Showdown!
Now, with any luck, the next big food competition this city hosts will be some sort of Juice Cleanse Jamboree. Happy eating!