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The best french fries in Charlotte

By Helen Schwab
Restaurant Writer

The Observer's 2010 Tournament of Fries turned out to be our most unpredictable event yet, with surprises in every bracket. When the salt settled, Fran's Filling Station, finalist from the Fries-Frites bracket, emerged victorious over a strong Comet Grill, representing the Potato-Potahto pairings.

The deciding factor: texture.

Both Comet and Fran's counted on strong, vibrant potato flavor - fries "with real integrity" as food editor and tournament co-judge Kathleen Purvis put it - to get to the championship.

But Fran's produced a fry with a crisp, relatively greaseless exterior the night of their head-to-head competition, while Comet's offering on this evening proved a tad tough in the outermost skin.

Fran's uses russet potatoes, cutting them "a couple of times a day," according to owner Fran Scibelli. It then soaks them in cold water, fries them in canola oil at a low temperature first, then fries them again to order at a higher temperature. They're seasoned with either french sea salt alone or a spice blend that includes a bit of smoked paprika.

Comet had slipped past the venerable Nolen Kitchen fries in the semifinal, largely on the basis of Comet fries' endearing homemade quality - skin-on, square-cut pieces of 80-count Idaho russets of varying lengths with a few skinny bits, fried once in vegetable oil, drained and tossed with seasoned salt. Nolen uses flash frozen fries (for a high starch content that allows "a crispier product"), fries them once and seasons with pecorino Romano, kosher salt, and a blend of thyme, chives, parsley and tarragon.

Fran's easily won its semifinal over Big Daddy's, which had an off night: limp, bend-y square-cuts visibly oily and undercooked, though they arrived quite hot. (Interestingly, the sweet potato fries were terrific: crisp and hot, with perfectly soft interiors.) Big Daddy's uses Kennebeck potatoes, rinses and dries them, blanches them in soybean oil, cools them and then fries to order, seasoning with a blend that includes salt, pepper and garlic, says Gary Fenimore, director of purchasing for the restaurant group.

Fran's is a newcomer. It was opened last fall by Scibelli, who has run an upscale restaurant, a diner and a bakery in Charlotte in years past.

So what do you learn from a tournament so chockablock with starch and stamina, so fully packed with heart-threatening works of staggering genius?

FIVE THINGS:

Fry lovers boil down to two factions: those who venerate flavor above all, and those to whom texture is king. Flavormongers can be subcategorized into those who love potato and those who love salt, while the texture freaks divide into crisp-crunch (the thin-fry contingent) and crisp-soft (those who want some interior to taste). Here are choices (other than our top finalists):

For potato flavor: try Big Daddy's, Rooster's, Crepe Cellar, Tenders.

For salt: Nolen Kitchen, Lulu.

For skinny fries: Café Monte, Steak 'n Shake.

For crisp-soft: Moosehead, Sub Corral.

Places that do fries well often do salads well. Go figure.

Dilworth has some weird fry vibe going on: three of four semifinalists within a mile.

People care about fries deeply, maybe even more than about wings and pizza, and this tournament's combining of voting and staff assessment is hard for some to swallow. Both do count; when quality was close, reader votes carried the day. But we keep in mind there's no way to prevent ballot-stuffing. That wasn't understood by all. Best comment this year: "Don't waste our time publishing a Web site address where you can vote for your favorite only to have those votes go by the wayside. I suggest you change the name from 'Tournament of Fries' to 'Schwabament of Fries.' " Personally, I endorse this change.

Even places known for their fries proved inconsistent. We had shockingly poor product from several places that had cruised into the Savory 16. Most likely culprits: inconsistent cooking temperature and times. This is a food that requires attention and methodical preparation. When that's lacking, you can't hide the problem. What this also means is that you may have hit one of the places successful in this tournament and thought: "What? How could they think that's a good fry?"

Trust us: When we were there, if the place advanced, the fries were good that day. You may want to give the place another shot. Yes, I understand I may have eliminated places in early going that can serve great fries. Tournaments are tricky like that.

If you have suggestions for next year's tournament, let me know at hschwab@charlotteobserver.com or at the blog: helendining.blogspot.com .
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