French fries are about as common as American food. You can find them on virtually every menu from coast to coast, whether it’s the electronic one shining above your head at Mickey D’s or the leather one at your favorite steakhouse. And yet, for all the occasions to knock over a plate of fries, I think it’s fair to say that the majority of them are mundane: soft, greasy, cold, starchy, undercooked, too salty, the disappointments so common that our senses have basically come to expect little from fry.
Which is why I did a double take when I tasted that first long, thin spud on Fryer’s patio. The skin on fries were perfect in every way. It crunched on the first bite, its crispy exterior giving way to a soft, almost creamy interior. The fry was also warm to the touch, its warmth acting as a sort of hand warmer in the cool fall air. Then there was the salt: sprinkled enough to marble the golden skin of the fry and amp up the earthy flavors trapped inside. It was the kind of experience that becomes archetypal memory, the one you’ll summon in future conversations to explain the possibilities of frying.
I’ve never been able to recreate that November moment at Fryer’s, even though I’ve come close to it once or twice. I think that says a lot about the status of French fries in American kitchens – they regularly get the kind of innocuous treatment bestowed on these second-class side dishes – and something about Fryer himself. The place can be beautiful one day, wildly incoherent the next.
Mood swings, perhaps, are not surprising. Fryer’s isn’t the latest creation from a company with years of experience running restaurants. Nor is it a passion project of a chef who has worked for a long time in service of someone else’s vision. No, Fryer’s is an idea hatched by Steve Engelhardt, a former bartender (his resume includes stints at the District Chophouse and the Hamilton) and manager who saw the pandemic as a business opportunity. He had no professional cooking experience.
Fryer is both personal and calculated for Engelhardt. Night manager at McGinty’s Public House in 2020, he was set adrift after the Silver Spring pub closed at the start of the pandemic. He took the opportunity to find how to open a spot dedicated to soft ice cream, like the ones he enjoyed when he was little at Dip in Orange, Connecticut. His place, in the warmer months, would serve even from a walk-in window, like a boardwalk store tucked away in suburban DC.
But as a hospitality veteran, Engelhardt knew he would need to supplement the swirling confections with something not so seasonal. He weighed his options: He sent resumes to Five Guys, Little Caesars and Popeyes, with the idea that as an hourly worker in his late 50s he would learn the details of any of those foods American staples and would include the dish in its business plan. . Only Popeyes called him back.
For about 16 weeks in 2020, Engelhardt donned a Popeyes corporate uniform and absorbed every detail of frying and serving chicken. He didn’t tell his boss about his schedule, at least initially, which may explain why the manager sometimes expressed amazement at his new hire’s work ethic: “I just don’t understand your exuberance for this work,” Engelhardt, now 60. , remembers the boss telling him.
Fryer’s is not a carbon copy of Popeyes, of course. Engelhardt and his business partner, fellow refugee bartender Oscar Sanchez, worked on their chicken recipe for several weeks, trying to come up with one with the right color, perfect crunch and a flavor profile all its own. Their bone-in chicken holds its own against the competition, although Engelhardt doesn’t reveal his secrets. At least not publicly. He told me privately about an ingredient he mixes in his flirt, the one that sets her apart from others. I noticed it on the first bite, though I couldn’t, for the life of me, put my finger on it. Cardamom? Nope. Star anise? Not enough.
“I love when people come in and say, ‘I love that you put five spices here,'” Engelhardt tells me. “I just smile and say, ‘That’s great’.”
Fryer’s bone-in chicken boxes (four, eight or 16 pieces) are a more reliable order than the fried chicken sandwiches from the shop. These are based on chicken breasts, brined in buttermilk and hot sauce, which are then fried and slid into a Woodmoor Pastry Shop toast with coleslaw, pickles and back sauce. Runny condiments and toppings tend to tone down this fried cutlet.
I really like certain sides of Fryer. Her mashed potatoes are as velvety as any I’ve eaten at steakhouses where you’ll pay three times the price but don’t get half the satisfaction. I’m also a sucker for Fryer’s Baked Beans, a side that not only incorporates mumbo sauce and Coca-Cola, but also a mix of chili powder made from peppers (think: Carolina Reapers, habaneros, jalapeños and more) that Engelhardt grew and dehydrated himself. . Then there are these fries, hand cut from russet potatoes. One day you will swear by them, the next day you will swear against them.
Fryer’s has, as Engelhardt envisioned, many soft-serve options. You can order root beer floats (personally I want more ice cream, less soda), turtle sundaes, shakes and even ice cream, the latter being a combination of soft vanilla, ice crushed and your choice of flavored syrup, such as Tiger’s Blood, a mysterious concoction flavored with watermelon, strawberry and coconut, produced in a Cargill laboratory. I prefer a straight vanilla swirl, nice and creamy, maybe dipped in chocolate, just like Engelhardt and I had when we were kids.
Unfortunately, the chocolate dip is not available at this time. Engelhardt, the rookie restaurateur, doesn’t know how to harden his chocolate. He works there. “Maybe Dip Top will tell me,” said Engelhardt, with a generous laugh, “Or Dairy Queen.”
Hours: noon to 9 p.m. from Tuesday to Sunday.
Prices:$1.50 to $35.99 for all menu items.