One of the best parts of eating is that, with just a bit of effort, you get to keep eating new things. Ingredients, techniques, cultural styles, pairings, and other factors involved in the preparation of a given dish allow for nearly endless permutations.
While variety is an undeniable luxury of dining, at the same time, returning to familiar, tried-and-tested classics is often just as appealing (if not more so). These old faithfuls, both reliable and predictable, provide the diner with a mote of control that they may not have elsewhere in life – it’s comfort food. Peanut butter on toast; chicken wings; mac and cheese; and, of course, french fries. Think about how many times you’ve had french fries – when was the last time you noticed?
The act of eating the same thing a thousand or so times lets you get to know the dish inside and out, or so you would think. Recently, I was made to question whether one can know everything there is to know about something as simple as a french fry. That is, could I still be surprised?
Not too long ago, I paid my first visit to Pharmacii Snackbar on King St. in downtown St. Catharines. A hip little place with hip little dishes, Pharmacii opened in late October of last year, serving up a menu of small-plate pan-Asian dishes. Bulgogi, kimchi, and other Korean staples are worked into Japanese dishes like konbini sandos, and chahan served in an American Chinese take-out box.
With such a varied menu, full of opportunities to try new dishes, I was surprised when the server recommended the “shaker fries”. If I’m honest, I was more than a little skeptical that any french fry would be worthy of note, or even a second thought.
I don’t mean to belittle french fries. A good starch is like a good chair – it fulfills its role without any pomp. Yes, we all know that McDonald’s fries are really good, but aren’t they that good only because they’re always that good, to the same degree, and in the same way?
Potatoes are both the most reliable and the most forgettable part of any given meal. The Thanksgiving turkey might be dry, but the mashed potatoes are just as good as always. Your eggs might be too runny, or not quite runny enough, but your homefries are perfectly crispy. It’s a thankless job, but potatoes have to do it.
Despite how consistently they meet expectations, french fries (and potatoes in general) are cursed to be forever twenty feet from stardom. They’re the rhythm guitar on literally every funk track. They’re the backup vocals on Deacon Blues. They’re Beck.
Before eating the shaker fries, I thought that was their lot in life, which is why I didn’t order them. While I opted for the kimchi chahan (a hearty portion of spicy rice, veggies, and sous vide egg, contrary to Pharmacii’s self-described tapas serving sizes), another diner at my table took the server’s advice and ordered the fries.
The fries are brought to the table in an unceremonious brown paper bag, with the seasoning on the side. Diners are instructed to pour the helping of red spices into the bag, close it up and, of course, shake. The activity adds a little percussion, which is all well and good, but beside the point. It’s not the action that makes the shaker fries worthy of this rant. The point is how damn good these fries are.
This is simply the ideal french fry. Their shell is perfectly crisp (I suspect, thanks to a double-fried process), and has a torn, impasto-esque exterior that only adds more surface area to saturate in oil. Their interior is both fluffy and creamy, spreading smoothly along the fried exterior as you chew. Together, this yin and yang of starch offer up the best of both worlds. The otherwise diametrically opposed ends of the spud spectrum curve and meet to form this phenomenal fry.
I know how this looks. If I’m going to write about a new place like Pharmacii, why not talk about their more overtly interesting dishes, like the neon green Shrek steak? Or their creative cocktail menu, serving up twisted classics (General Tao negroni) and compelling new creations (smoking, scorched marshmallows that garnish the “Campfire”)?
You’re probably right. But it doesn’t matter, because I’m still thinking about the shaker fries. And that’s the point: before shaker fries, I didn’t think french fries could surprise me anymore.
We order french fries because we know exactly what they are. French fries are to dining choices as The Office is to millennial viewing habits. To be surprised by the utter quality of something like a french fry is like catching a new sight gag in an episode you’ve watched 40 times. It’s rare, and it’s worthy of note – if not celebration.
I should apologize for almost certainly exaggerating the idea of these french fries, to which the real thing will likely pale in comparison for some of you. It can’t be helped with this type of hype. Should you visit Pharmacii for the shaker fries, try not to be too disappointed if you don’t feel the spirit move within you. If anything, take this as a heartfelt reminder that those things in your life that you believe to be utterly familiar can still reveal unseen dimensions.
You should always try new things, especially when it’s as risk-free as taking a recommendation from the server or opting for that dish, the name of which you know you can’t pronounce. It’s easy to try new things – it’s not quite as easy to try old things too.