Benita's Makes Only One Dish: Fries, the Belgian Way

In the great march of world civilization, every country has done its part. The Germans contributed the symphony; the French, symbolist poetry; the Irish, William Butler Yeats. The Dutch chimed in with Mannerist painting, the Nigerians with the great sculptures of Benin. And the Belgians? French fries . . . well, fries and a funny kind of beer that tastes like cherries. Monks make it, I think.

The fries, sometimes called frites , are a sort of medium thickness and are served in big paper cones or with heaps of mussels, sometimes called moules . Restaurant columnist Colman Andrews told me the best ones were supposed to have been cooked in rendered horse-meat fat, though he doesn't think anybody does that anymore. Hog lard will do. There's always fresh mayonnaise around to dip the frites into. As far as I know, in Belgium, catsup does not exist.

You can find paper cones-ful of the Belgian fries, although not the beer, in the old outdoor Santa Monica mall, newly retrofitted with swank boutiques and spitting dinosaur sculptures, down the block from squid-ink polenta and $28.50 bottles of olive oil. You used to be able to buy a bolt of crepe de chine or a cheap set of dishes on the mall, but now, through the miracle of urban redevelopment, it's a lot easier to buy lunch.

And if Saturday is one of those Santa Monica days, with kites and juggling mimes and babies in bicycle seats and kids who drag their Boogie Boards all the way from Encino on the RTD, Benita's, the brand-new frites place, becomes something of a logical destination.

Benita's, a small take-out stand in the true American tradition of overspecialization, serves Belgian fries and only Belgian fries, no mussels, no burgers, no shakes. The owner spent some time in Belgium. Apparently fries became something of an obsession with him, the way other expatriates have their lives transformed by the Altarpiece of Ghent or the NATO high command.

Benita's fries to order, so the frites are always crisp and hot, but the potatoes take a while to cook--it's not fast food. You'll find more things here to put on fries than you can imagine, and you'll have time to consider them all: malt vinegar, red wine vinegar, white wine vinegar, salt, pepper, cayenne, seasoned salt, mustard and even catsup. For an extra few cents, you can get a remoulade sauce spiked with tarragon, a creamy Dijon mustard dip or a thick garlic mayonnaise that will announce your presence in a room five minutes before you actually show up. Something called a "sauce Andalouse," which no Spaniard would recognize, is basically the garlic mayo tinted pink with peppers. There's chili that tastes like the orange stuff you get on hamburgers at the lesser-known stands--Tammy's, Timmy's, Tomy's . . . like that--which is to say, in fact, pretty good.

And the frites themselves are really good, of clean potato flavor, the width of a thumb, and cut from fresh potatoes.

Benita's fries them twice, the first time in coolish oil, which cooks them through; the second sizzles the fries to a fine golden-brown. They're not greasy at all, though you'll certainly feel a large order with garlic mayo rolling around in there for a while, and the oil they're fried in is super-polyunsaturated 98% cholesterol-free something.

(Personally, I prefer the fries at the West Beach Cafe, which have a pronounced pan-dripping meatiness, because they're cooked in pure beef fat--not what the doctor ordered, but they go really well with a half-bottle of '81 Ridge Monte Bello Cab.)

Some days, it seems like everybody who sets foot in Benita's has a suggestion or two for the place.

"You know what you need, young man, is a larger menu," said a Beverly Hills type in an appliqued denim jacket. "I think people would like some fish. Like fish and chips?"

"How about mussels?" a cosmopolite asked. "Tartar sauce," somebody else said. "Tabasco," said a third.

Of course, I had a suggestion too.

"Lard," I said. "Pure lard. It's more authentic. Unless you have a line on some rendered horse-meat fat."

"This is Santa Monica," the owner answered. "I'd lose every customer I had."

Benita's, 1437 Third Street Promenade, Santa Monica; (213) 458-2889. No alcohol. No credit cards accepted. Fries for two, $3-$5.

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