Who knew that a vegetable could be so loved, yet misunderstood? Potatoes enjoy global good standing as a staple food of Peruvian origin and cultivation in both the Americas and Europe. That’s how potatoes made it here, but fries? Their story is both root and cultivar. Legend tells us potatoes were an inexpensive food that was first fried by Meuse Valley peasants in Belgium in the late 1600’s to replace the small fish that were unavailable in the winter. Pommes Frites, their Belgian name, were mistakenly named French Fries by World War I soldiers who noted that many Belgians spoke French. Now Americans can hardly imagine pubs and diners without them and their evolving myriad of styles and sauces! Hopefully, we will do some justice and correctly credit this popular culinary and migratory trend, as we recommend our most beloved fries and where to find them in Lawrence, Kansas. Current rumor has it that these potassium-rich global population-sustaining indulgences put the F in LFK. Everyone can enjoy them, as they are an equal opportunity food.
Once upon a time in an open square in Belgium, as students of the University of Kansas, we had some amazing Pommes Frites topped with a rich remoulade sauce – one of a multitude of sauces offered over these fries from a European food truck. After mounting and descending hundreds of stairs in a historic bell tower and working up quite an appetite we devoured our fries as a meal. Several weeks ago in Downtown Lawrence, we experienced a bit of deja vu as an Ad Astra Food Truck serendipitously gave away some fries during the recent Bourgeois Pig street party. Our friend saw the fries being offered, pounced, and we ate their fries with gusto. Jeffry Ward, the Chef and Owner of Ad Astra Food Trucks (which is in their second year as a food truck) gave us the skinny on the fries starting out with the whole grain mustard sauce! Whole mustard seeds are bloomed in Free State Ad Astra Beer, brown sugar, honey and soaked and blended with other grain mustard to make the delicious blend. The Ad Astra Food Truck French Fries are a two-day process. They start by blanching the potatoes for 10 minutes at 300 degrees in a frier at a lower temp snap chilling it and the next day fried for a shorter time at a hotter temp. Ward has worked at Pachamamas, Ten at the Eldridge and went to JCCC culinary college has been in the food industry for a dozen years. Many flock to these fries and will attest that the fries were a good thickness with a great initial crisp bite and a nice soft potato interior. Whatever you do, the next time to see their food truck, track them down and get a bite! Then close your eyes and transport yourself to a town square in Belgium.
A visit to Dempsey’s Irish Pub on Vermont Street is drool-worthy and pays homage some history of the famed root vegetable – remember the Irish Potato Famine – used to make one of America’s favorite fast foods. We challenge you to eat these slowly and enjoy each bite in what could likely end in a feeding frenzy among friends. It is no secret that we celebrated the birth of our third child here with burgers and fries not long ago, but could easily fill up on just fries any day. Dempsey’s offers five varieties of fries: regular, truffle oil (drool) with parm and parsley, duck fat fries, sweet – sweet or salty – sweet potato, and fire fries (fiery as a Celtic dragon’s breath with ghost pepper infused salt). Order all of them in either a side order or a basket and share. They are allergy friendly, affordable and carb-o-licious treats served with an inestimable array of house-made sauces – not your run of the mill pub fries, people. Proof that vegans can live it up, too. Wash some down with an O’ Dell or a shot of Jameson and sing a pub song in your best Irish accent.
Free State Brewery on Massachusetts Street puts the “chips” in fish ‘n chips in our humble opinion, even when only ordering fries. They have been knocking these out of the park with this delectable street food since they opened and we had our first date there. Enjoy these cultivated-but-not-uppity tubers dipped in their award-winning grainy mustard sauce, ketchup, malt vinegar, or their remoulade version of a tartar sauce available on request. We remember exchanging these golden waffle and house fries with our meals while making slightly awkward conversation years ago and many times since – love at first fry. The chefs there swear by the peanut oil for the slightly nutty flavor and crisp-edged but tender texture and suggest you pair a basket of spuds – your choice of waffle or house – with one of their famed foaming local beers, brewed on site with local pride or one of their many entrees. Like a good spouse, these fries are always a great catch and a solidly outstanding choice. No regrets.
Terrebonne Po’ Boys is just off Mass Street off the corner of 8th and Vermont. Their tasty, casual Cajun cuisine extends into the crispy medium thick cut fries with a soft interior. The size of the restaurant and the popularity may have you standing for a while to wait for a table inside, but usually, you can catch a place on their shaded side patio. The fries have a nice spice with a little kick – but not too much – and easily made this list as a place to go for fried cut potatoes. Here is your chance to get a taste of New Orleans without leaving Lawrence. While your there, you might as well get a Po Boy sandwich on the side and still not leave poor… yum.
The Burger Stand, when whispered in our household, sends chills of delight down our spines. We imagine the salty treat, and our pupils dilate. Our best birthdays and late nights after Lawrence Final Friday Art Walks are typically spent enjoying these fries. With so many choices of fries you may be overwhelmed, but don’t fret, here is a quick run down to make sure you get the most from your visit. Truthfully, the simple answer to when asked which fries to partake of is, ANY. However, even if you are feeling all vanilla, if you just get the plain Jane fries you can enjoy with a bazillion of the house-made sauces. You certainly should try the slew of delectable fry choices. Truffle oil fries, yes. Duck fat fries, so rich. How about polenta or tofu fries for a change? Sweet potato fries! Of course, there is always the brilliant classic Canadian route, Poutine fries, topped with a generous amount of gravy and cheese curds. That will keep you warm, eh? Oh, and burgers galore! They’ll call whatever name you provide when you order at the bar, not barring Rainbow Unicorn Princess, so feel free to reinvent yourself here.
We have explored the roots of the fry while sharing some homespun experiences. If you have tried the former venues and are looking for fry love in other places, you will also want to venture to Merchants on 8th and Mass Street, Jefferson’s across the street, Limestone Pizza, Mad Greek (seems odd for a Greek place, but they do have good food), and Bigg’s BBQ. We have stories from these places too, but we’ll let you create your own sultry memories. Tweet out your faves and tag a Lawrence eatery in your pics. Go have fries, which are healthier than you might think when enjoyed on occasion, but enjoyable and affordable enough to have plenty of rumors surrounding them. You can always carb up and then go join in a Dog Days workout, train for your next triathlon-for-a-cause, or finish a lawn and garden project, if you feel the need for balance. But please live a little. Substitute “fries” as a veggie now and then for that adventurous foodie experience everyone can enjoy right here in Lawrence.
Shannon and Darin White
Shannon and Darin are straight up townies from birth who are always indulging in and investing in local culture. These childhood friends and partners in business and life collaborate on art and design projects until they drop, and then they take naps to recharge. They write for arts and culture publications occasionally to lend their illustrious two cents to the promising future of Lawrence.