Look, it’s been a long two years for everyone. We’re tired, our brains have been melted to a thin pap by the news cycle, and we’ve soundly backslid into our slothful ways despite resolving to exercise off all the cookies we cry-ate over the holiday. During times like this, it’s necessary to celebrate small victories. Celebrate the fact that you woke up this morning, and did or did not remember to bathe. Celebrate the fact that your insurance company has decided that therapy “should” cost $50 per session.
And celebrate the fact that I bring tidings of great joy. After a barely noticeable hiatus, I’m happy to announce the return of the food power rankings just in time for February, our shortest, drizzliest and most romantic month. That’s right, my friends, I am pleased as punch to announce the authoritative, totally not subjective, incontrovertibly definitive and 100% correct L.A. Times Fast Food French Fry Rankings.
French fries, a.k.a. chips, aka freedom fries, aka 炸薯条, are a delightful treat enjoyed the world over, and they’re a staple of the fast-food meal. And what is fast food, exactly? For the purposes of this survey, I’ve selected chains where there’s an emphasis on speed of service, you’re not waited on at a table, and where there are at least a couple hundred locations, if not more. I ordered medium- or regular-sized fries (when available) and judged them based on the two metrics: (1) taste and (2) texture, which includes fry shape and mouthfeel.
1) Five Guys
This is No. 1 with an asterisk, like Wilt Chamberlain’s 100 points, or Cy Young’s 749 complete games. Not only is Five Guys No. 1, but it’s also so far ahead of everyone else it’s almost unfair. You get a generous heap of hot, properly salted, natural-cut spuds, with a good balance between crispy fries and the odd one that’s pleasingly soft. Five Guys fries in peanut oil, which imparts a milder taste than more industrial oils that mask potato flavor. These were the fries that tasted most strongly of tuber.
Excellence comes with a price, though – a medium order of these fries costs roughly double that of other chains.
Texture ranking: 4
McDonald’s fries, for approximately 4½ minutes, while they’re absolutely searing hot, are the greatest food on Earth. But their half-life is astoundingly fast, and by the time these babies are cold, they taste like mealy little icicles. The batch I sampled was warm, not piping, so their greatness was compromised. But I love a thin fry and, perhaps more, I love the memory of great McDonald’s fries I’ve had in the past.
Texture ranking: 3
3) Del Taco
In this ranking, Del Taco is the University of Maryland, Baltimore County taking out Virginia in the first round of March Madness. I came in with the lowest of expectations for Del Taco fries – this is a Southern California-based taco chain after all, and I didn’t even know they had fries until I went in.
Hello, upset! This was a very decent batch of crinkle fries, with a crispy, salty outside and nice, fluffy center. Even better was that the employee who took my order gave me packets of both ketchup and smoky hot sauce with my order.
Texture ranking: 2
4) Steak ‘n Shake
If you lived in Normal, Ill., in the 1930s, it was probably exhilarating to pull into a Steak ‘n Shake, founded by ex-Marine Gus Belt. The chain’s signature Steakburgers, ground from sirloin, round, and T-bone cuts, allowed it to thrive in Midwest despite the Great Depression.
As stated, I’m a fan of a narrower fry. These fries are long and skinny, but not quite shoestring, with a slightly thick exterior that provides a satisfying crunch.
Texture ranking: 1
Blessed be the curly fries, and my memories of eating them in the high school cafeteria. Always consistent, with their burnt sienna coating and powdered onion and garlic flavor, and always delicious. The special treat? The one fry that didn’t quite uncurl and left the fryer in one giant potato-y, batter-y lump.
While other fast food places also have them, Arby’s is the chain that’s really known for its curly fries. How it came to corner the market on that, I’m not sure, but I’m fairly convinced it’s kept the lights on – when was the last time you ate one of their roast beef sandwiches? Curly fries are delicious – crispy, assertively seasoned and amusingly shaped – but they almost feel like cheating. Like, would it even be possible to mess up a curly fry?
Texture ranking: 8
6) Carl’s Jr.
Some fast food chains offer more than one kind of fry – I don’t have enough Lipitor to try and rank them all, unfortunately. I merely mention this because Carl’s Jr., which began as a hot dog cart in Los Angeles in 1941, offers both regular fries and a seasoned waffle fry. The regular fries are pretty good, approximately the size and shape of a Wendy’s fry, but it was the waffle fry that stood out as a “Best of Breed,” to borrow Westminster Dog Show parlance – a crispy, seasoned outside, and a pillowy interior.
Texture ranking: 5
7) Dairy Queen
A heartier, thicker fry is what you’ll find at Dairy Queen, where employees hold Blizzard frozen treats upside down before handing them to customers in order to prove how thick they are. (It seems like an odd flex – when going over qualities you like in your ice cream, not many think, “Oh, you know, I just like it to be really thick.”)
The fries at DQ are hefty potato batons, long and girthy, with a decent crunch and respectable mouthfeel. The potato flavor isn’t particularly notable, but the chocolate-dipped vanilla cone you can get afterward will swaddle you in a dreamy, childlike warmth that will erase any memories of what you previously ate.
Texture ranking: 7
Disclosure: I was in a Wendy’s commercial several years ago wherein I played an office worker who got rhapsodically upset to strains of Leoncavallo’s “Pagliacci” over the fact that he wasn’t enjoying a delicious Wendy’s hamburger.
In real life, I don’t particularly love Wendy’s burgers (although I do enjoy a nice Frosty), and I think their fries are just above average. This batch of fries, “natural-cut with sea salt” and bits of potato skin attached, was pleasantly floppy – I don’t mind a soft fry – but it could have used a pinch or three more of that sea salt. The potato flavor was strong, and almost made up for other shortcomings.
Texture ranking: 10
9) Shake Shack
Is it fair to compare Shake Shack, which went from zero to 200 locations in 15 years, with other chains? It serves fancified fast food that challenges the traditional model. It’s relatively expensive. It uses potato rolls. It’s staunchly against the drive-through window. In certain ways it’s the anti-fast-food restaurant, but the basics remain the same: burgers, fries, shakes.
Shake Shack does a crinkle-cut fry that’s solid but largely unnoteworthy. A uniform crunch on the outside gives way to decent potato taste on the inside. My order could have been a bit hotter.
Texture ranking: 6
10) Burger King
As goes life, Burger King will never truly escape the shadow of its more successful, better-looking brother, McDonald’s. Burger King’s fries seem to be a direct response to the skinny numbers they serve at McDonald’s: slightly thicker, and with a light, crunchy exterior that houses a fairly milquetoast, flavor-free interior.
Parents do play favorites, despite what we may hope, and Burger King, despite its efforts, can simply never win this battle. The fries at Burger King aren’t bad, but they’re certainly nothing to write home about.
Texture ranking: 12
11) Chick Fil-A
Waffle fries aren’t my favorite shape – why try to make your fries look like potato chips? But if you’re going to create a potato lattice, so much better to capture your condiment of choice, the lattice should have a crisp exterior.
The company, founded by Truett Cathy as The Dwarf Grill in 1946, operates on biblical principles and is known for a marketing campaign featuring cows understandably trying to save their own lives but are also somewhat typo-prone (“Eat Mor Chikin,” read their billboards). I would offer “Mak Betur Frys” as a counterpoint. The waffle fries at the location near USC, while hot and salty, unfortunately were also fairly soft and mealy.
Texture ranking: 14
Colonel Sanders’ original recipe of 11 herbs and spices is a closely guarded trade secret, supposedly locked away in a huge vault and signed by the colonel himself. And while I question the wisdom of never changing your chicken formula, ever, I will admit that it has lent a considerable mystique and aura to the brand, if not necessarily great food.
Kentucky Fried Chicken is the only chain in this rankings that showcases a wedge fry, which presents an issue: the best part of the fry is the outside, not the inside. With a thick potato wedge, there’s just too much inside. The advantage is that you get a stronger potato flavor than usual; the downside is that you don’t feel like eating many of them. They’re not as munchable or snackable, and they’re quite filling. KFC’s wedges are coated in a fried chicken batter-like coating, which adds some pepperiness.
Texture ranking: 17
13) Jack in the Box
The Jack in the Box I visited had an unusual smell to it – septic tank mixed with cleaning product, each scent sharp and distinct from the other. The fries, sadly, made a not dissimilar impression. They had a decent texture but tasted almost gassy, like there was a leak in the back. The curly fries I ordered, which I elected to have slathered in chili and something resembling cheese, were better but didn’t redeem the experience.
Texture ranking: 11
Popeye’s is my favorite fast food fried chicken. But does that excellence translate to fries? The move that chicken places seem to make is to coat their fries with something approximating what coats their chicken. The result is something vaguely like a seasoned fry, but a bit crustier and cakier, with a taste of dried onion and black pepper.
The ones at Popeye’s nearly work, but my batch was on the sad and insipid side. It didn’t help that my $2.99 portion was fairly paltry. The old Annie Hall joke about there being terrible food, and such small portions, sadly rings true in this case.
Texture ranking: 13
Wienerschnitzel takes the honor of being the one restaurant on this list that doesn’t serve the food that its name ostensibly advertises: there is no wienerschnitzel, that delightful Austrian pounded veal treat, anywhere to be found on the menu. There are, however, hot dogs and fries. The fries at Wienerschnitzel are well-executed but otherwise poor. They’re approximately McDonald’s-shaped, long and thin, with a fluffy if slightly flavorless interior. The Von Trapps would not be pleased.
Texture ranking: 9
I have a lot of respect for Jollibee, primarily because I enjoy the names of their products: items like the Big Yum, Chickenjoy and Jolly Spaghetti sparked a good deal of Marie Kondo-style joy in my otherwise dreary fast food existence. Sadly, the fries on my visit weren’t really up to snuff. They had a vaguely sweet, almost pastry-like overtone that didn’t jibe with their being otherwise fairly flat and tepid.
Texture ranking: 15
Rally’s, which you may also know as Checkers, once had a viral-ish ad campaign with Rap Cat, a cat that meows over a rap beat. My experience watching that video roughly sums up my experience at Rally’s: muttering to myself and musing, “Why do you exist?”
While I appreciate the cute 1950s drive-in look of places like Rally’s, it’s ultimately for naught if the food can’t back it up. In this case, I was unimpressed with the flat and milk-warm seasoned fries I received.
Texture ranking: 16
Sonic’s drive-in aesthetic works better for me, at least on paper. You park your car in its own little bay with its own little intercom, press the red button, place your order, and wait for one of the car-hops to bring you your food. It seems kind of unmanageable from an logistical point of view, but I appreciate the idea.
These fries, however, were b-a-d bad. They could have been good, or passable, but they had clearly been sitting out for a while, and had taken on the characteristics of F.F.R.M. (French Fry Rigor Mortis), which sets in approximately nine minutes after leaving the fryer. They were grainy, stiff, and tasted of cold potato. I could have gone to another location and gotten an order that would maybe have been hot, but why should I have to do that?
Texture ranking: 19
And bringing up the rear is In-N-Out. Before you tell me there’s a way to “hack” these fries, or somehow make them better, either by loading them with American cheese and secret sauce, or by ordering them well-done, I will grant this: It certainly doesn’t make the fries any worse. Just as dumping the fries into a dirt pile on the shoulder of a highway access road and running over that pile with my car would also probably not make the fries any worse.
Why can’t In-N-Out make better fries? The answer is that they likely could, but don’t need to, because we’re in love with dreamy California car culture, palm trees and red-and-white tiles, and romantic sense-memory associated with their overrated burger. I am a thousand percent guilty of this, and have posted more than one Instagram Double-Double thirst trap in full knowledge that, barring a road trip, there’s little culinary excuse for hitting up an In-N-Out.
In-N-Out is always crazy busy so the fries are fresh, at the very least. But they’re also bland, crumbly little matchsticks that aren’t improved by any amount of ketchup, salt, cheese, or salad dressing you want to add to them.
Texture ranking: 18