I consider myself somewhat of a French fry connoisseur. When I'm talking fries, I mean “fine” fries. You know, the good ones: fast food fries. I’ve spent the last few weeks waiting for my holiday food coma to wear off, putting all of my effort, between naps, into cataloguing the best of the best, my own Top 10 Fast Food French Fry list. Hey, you have your New Year’s resolutions, and I have mine. However, in the search for the perfect fry, every so often you come across a real doozy… like a soft, greasy, limp noodle. I can spot greatness 10 clicks out, but the bad ones, well, to seek greatness, you trip over garbage sometimes.
This is Battle French Fry and everyone is invited, come one, come all, and bring your own personal opinions. This is an open and welcome space — for delicious French fries. Without any further delay, “Would you like fries with that?”
These fries are my least favorite of any fast-food French fry and specifically made this list just so I’m able to gripe about how inferior they are. A few years ago, Wendy’s made the shift to go to "natural cut" fries. This effort likely comes behind multiple corporate food movements to convince the public they are the “farmer’s market” of fresh, hand-picked ingredients. In my experience, I’m not impressed or duped by their approach or technique of French frying. I do not like Wendy’s French Fries, I would not eat them with a Fox, I would not eat them from a box. The Wendy’s fries have a flavor profile unmatched in the worst possible way, slightly south of “freshness” with a slight faint chemical burnt oil flavor that is left behind in each unsavory bite. From the texture, to inconsistent “sea salt” seasoning and off-putting flavor it all just seems… off. And believe me, this is not for a lack of understanding on my part, or not trying them in multiple locations. The visible potato skin flecks near the top of each fry do nothing to convince me in any way that these potatoes have been handpicked and cut. So sitting at a very solid No. 10 is Wendy’s. Get it together Wendy. Potentially allowing the fry scientist to hang-out with the Frosty scientist for a day or two would be a bold but noble training effort... possibly the quality will rub off on the fries.
#9 Burger King
I will keep this short. These fries are not meant for a King… or even me wearing a golden paper crown. I guess to sum up what I think about the BK fries is rather simple. They will do. If I were trapped on an island and the Coast Guard arrived with hot fresh Burger King fries, I’d eat them because of starvation. I’d thank them for saving my pathetic life on the island and ask questions like, “How did you ever find me,” but in a deliberate oversight, I wouldn’t thank them for the fries.
#8 Hardees's and Carl Jr.’s
The concept alone is a very confusing situation as a fast food chain giant. Everything from the menu to the sign and the little smiling star is the same about these two restaurants. The restaurants have strategically divided the country in half, based on where they were founded. Carl Jr. parks his restaurants on the West and meets Hardees's in the middle. Hardees's has a portion of middle America and spreads throughout the East. Hardee’s has a decent but underwhelming curly fry. The “curlies” as they are known are seasoned and consistent, but almost over-seasoned and often undercooked or less firm and crispy than I’d prefer. Not to mention there are some pretty respectable regular fries on the menu. But with a huge hanging curve ball, Carl's Jr.’s has sweet potato fries instead of the curly? I believe the whole operation needs to form a clearer fry identity. Unless this differentiation is based on a consumer preference regionally, I have no idea why they are so similar in every other area of the menu except their fries. Get one fry, make it perfect, and stick with what works.
Your ordinary fries leave me just as irritated as the commercials you run with the two middle aged non-descript men in a Prius cracking jokes or puns about their Sonic order. But the reason you made the list at all is those tasty little tots. Sonic, you strange, strange car-hop joint, your tots are almost supernatural. Crunchy on the outside and creamy potato on the inside with just enough salt to make me drink a liter-cola. (Insert reference to Super-Troopers movie now.) With much love for the tots, I just can’t ignore that they are obviously not fries. I credit your tots for even getting you near this list, although I would have enjoyed immensely criticizing your fries, I thought that amount of criticism should specifically be left for Wendy’s.
#6 Steak ‘n Shake
You have possibly the thinnest fry in all of fast food. I say this loud: When embarking on a thin fry mission, be precise. Time, temperature, and seasoning matter so much more than your counterparts’ fries. Had my experiences yielded a more consistent fry, your placement for top fry could have been enhanced, based on your fearlessness of the thin fry. Nonetheless you don’t do thin well. Also never, ever order a salad from Steak “n” Shake. I know this isn’t about salads, but in my fry search, it was my attempt (mistake) to off-set the fry calories with a salad. Instead, I had a bowl of burger toppings with croutons — not okay. This didn’t affect your fry placement; however, my less than crispy thin fries didn’t retain heat or crunch. My advice: Get better at thin or go thick.
Home of the yummy waffle fry. These guys have figured out two things; chicken and, more importantly for our purposes, waffle fries. I enjoy them most because eating one waffle fry is like noshing a fist full of regular fries. These time-saving fry eating tips sponsored by Ben. Another past-time treat I personally cherish with these fries is the casino like odds of seeing how many potato ends from the waffle fries I can accumulate. Now the only defect I find is that Chick-fil-A is closed on Sunday. Not sure these guys will waffle on that decision anytime soon, but the fries remain to be delicious Holy potatoes — all puns intended.
#4 Five Guys
Cut in-house from fresh, the Five Guy’s fries blaze these zippy puppies in 350 degrees F of peanut oil. Two words: yummy and slippery. The fries are incredible. The portion of the fry always gets me a little excited, as employees fill the cup, and then dump it into a brown sack with one more heaping scoop on top. Grease to salt and potato mix is perfect. The wise Five Guys chose a fry that holds well — you never really hear too many complaints about a limp fry. It’s a smart cut, because of the seasoning and the cook-time. Who cares if it’s a little soggy? That just means a little more greasy goodness to absorb the flavor. And as my least favorite Food Network personality would say, “Five Guys fries are the mayor of Flavor Town.” (Ugh, I can’t believe I just typed that.) These fries are on a level of fries I’ve enjoyed at full-service restaurants, almost as if Five Guys is trying too hard to make them insanely decadent and tasty, and the company knows it. It’s all in the extra scoop, I tell you — pure potato confidence.
It’s a classic, perfect size, sweetness, saltiness, and crispiness. A recipe for fries that I believe put McDonalds on the fry map. It wasn’t the burger or the shake. It was the fry, and the sneaky little dash of equal parts of sweet, salty and savory. I rarely in my 40 years have had a bad fries experience at McDonalds, unless they’re cold. It was hard to add McDonalds to this list, because it seemed so obvious, but also because I don’t like anything else they serve. True story. It’s all about the fries at McDonalds and the fact I can shovel them down my throat while I drive to where ever the road leads me. I always check the bottom of the bag for any that may have escaped.
Based on volume of sales alone, I’m shocked they cut and blanch fries in store. The fries are flippin’ amaze-balls. Fresh, crispy, and always exactly the way I enjoyed them the last time. I rarely find any complaints to anything I’ve devoured at In-N-Out. The only complaint is that the stools are too close to the tables for me to keep up the fry regimen. Back it up a touch, In-N-Out Give a guy a little room to sit and relax while inhaling two days worth of calories in 15 minutes.
#1 Shake Shack
The crinkle fry. I found this decision especially difficult to award Shake Shack the No. 1 position in the fry business. However, allow me to explain. Shake Shack, being the new burger empire on the block, is growing in popularity and size — quickly. Customers love the attention to detail, and details are important. It’s founded on understanding what the consumer wants. From the consumer’s point of view every detail about Shake Shack is simple, perfect, and enjoyable; however, the story behind their French fry success is anything but simple. And almost could have cost them this first place award. After years serving crinkle fries, one of the Shake Shack principles thought that the crinkle fry was just too pedestrian for their brand. Shake Shack should begin custom ordering potatoes, (russet potatoes not Yukon potatoes like it had been using) cutting in-house, double frying, and serving what the company assumed would be a higher quality product. But everyone loved the crinkle fries. Everyone, and I mean everyone. The French fry debacle at Shake Shack surely would eventually resolve itself. So why the change, why the upgrade? Who freaking knows. but thank God Shake Shack brought back the crinkle fry. It took a long time and definitely millions of dollars to change back to the original crinkle, but it was worth it, if you ask me. It’s perfection — golden brown, and reminds me of my youth, seasoned simply and always consistent. It was a three-part system for this award. Part one, I love the Shake Shack crinkle fries. Two, the public’s demand for the crinkle was brought back to the Shack and someone admitted the company never should have changed the original fry from the start. And lastly, because if a crinkle fry was caught in a dark alley with an ordinary slender cut fry, well, crinkle would kick his ass every time.
Ben Vaughn has wrangled snakes from dining rooms and chased rats from cellars while hosting the hit show "Health Inspectors" on Food Network, but his culinary career started while working in the best kitchens of South Florida. His James Beard recognized performance in Memphis as partner and chef at River Oaks restaurant led him to open two critically acclaimed restaurants, Grace and Au Fond Farmtable. He currently lives in Atlanta with his wife and children and serves as Culinary Director for a Georgia based restaurant group.