If fast food is our national cuisine, French fries are the emblematic center of the meal. In our consumerist society, we hope for a certain degree of luxury, even in everyday experiences like a trip to the McDonald’s drive-thru. Sometimes, that luxury looks like our creepy desire to worship billionaires instead of taking their money. Sometimes, it looks like some poor sucker losing everything to an MLM scam because they bought into the company’s line about making a fast, easy fortune all while being their own boss. And sometimes, it looks like me impatiently gobbling down a burger so that I can lavish some leisurely attention on the pile of fries next to it, no longer even hungry but still shoving food into my face because it’s the American way.
The perfect fast-food meal — burger, fries, milkshake — is loosely based on the perfect 1950s family meal: meat, potatoes and supermarket ice cream for dessert. To me, the potatoes are the most indulgent part. The hamburger looks healthy and balanced if you squint: It’s got meat, carbs, even a few veggies sliced up and piled on top. But what do the fries add? Salt, potatoes and savor — that’s it. They’re like a reward for eating your boring old protein! They’re the thing your mom tells you to stop eating until you’ve finished your burger!
• Read next: What your favorite french-fry shape says about you
Clearly, I take my French fries real seriously, and it’s my honor to review different fast-food establishments’ offerings for you now. I set the following rules for myself:
- No ketchup, no dipping sauces. I hate ketchup, so this rule was easy, but I think the point stands: I wanted to know the fries themselves, not how they taste when they’re in disguise like a bunch of cowards.
- Palate-cleanse between each fry sampling. I did this by taking a bite out of a dill pickle that I carry everywhere anyway, because I’m Jewish.
- No consideration of menu items other than fries in my ratings. Though I was unable to resist ordering a chicken sandwich from Popeyes, and a [REDACTED] from Five Guys. (I don’t reveal my Five Guys order to anybody. I did once go to Five Guys with my friend Tommy, and when he heard me order, he said, “Jesus fuck,” and had to go collect himself for a minute, so do with that information what you will.)
With all that in mind, I set off to try French fries at every fast-food restaurant I could walk to from my home and my gynecologist’s office, because those are the two places I go in pandemic-era New York City.
Walk with me.
Note: I thought that, for an authentic replication of the wine-tasting experience, I should swirl each bite of French fry in my mouth and then spit it out into a spittoon. But my dream of being a suave, handsome sommelier type was unceremoniously shattered when it was explained to me that this would be a bananas thing to do.
Oh, Burger King — always the bridesmaid. Fast food was banned from my childhood home in D.C. in the early 1990s, as a nod to the era’s relatively new health-mindedness. (It was the best of times, it was the most sodium-conscious of times.) But even when my dad couldn’t take it anymore and insisted that those restrictions be lifted sometime toward the end of the Clinton administration so that he could double-fist his Big Macs unimpeded, Burger King was still never permitted in the house. Not because it was fast food, but because it was gross. That was fine by me; to my childish eye, BK served all the same stuff as McDonald’s, but called it by different names and didn’t make any of it as tasty.
• Read next: Who has the healthiest fast-food breakfast menu?
I’m afraid I have to stand by this assessment. These fries weren’t good. I will say that they had an eerily lifelike potato texture for fast-food French fries, but they were so badly under seasoned that the effect was like eating fistfuls of boiled potato. Weirdly, I could see salt on the fries, but they had no salt taste whatsoever. This led me to like 45 seconds of frantically Googling “coronavirus can’t taste salt,” but I’ve been able to taste everything else I’ve put in my mouth since these fries, so I’m pretty sure Burger King is to blame — not my taste buds and not even that sinister bitch COVID-19.
So, points given for fries that actually felt like potatoes in my mouth. Points also removed because who the hell wants to feel saltless, grainy potatoes in their mouth?
Final Score: 5 fries out of 10
I wasn’t sure whether to even include Popeyes in my quest. After all, fries don’t belong to the Popeyes niche the way they do to McDonald’s or Burger King’s (if I had to pick a signature Popeyes side, it would be the biscuit). But I was ultimately swayed by the incontrovertible fact that there’s a Popeyes right between my local McDonald’s and Burger King, so it was really convenient to go to all these places in the same day. (Also: Nothing makes you feel like a douchebag quite like walking into a Popeyes with McDonald’s and Burger King bags already sticking out of your purse.)
Cajun fries are my go-to side when I’m getting a Popeyes meal, but I don’t actually like them that much, and today was no exception. Though the color of the fry in the picture makes it look like they must be highly seasoned, they weren’t. They’re about as spicy as if they’d met Lawry’s seasoned salt at a party once and thought he seemed nice enough but a little “different.” It’s weird that these fries are dotted all over with red granules that could have been Old Bay or cayenne or whatever, when all I could taste was salt. And they had a — how to put this delicately? — a real limp dick problem.
Basically, points removed because these fries can’t get it up, and because I feel lied to by the term “Cajun fries.”
Final Score: 5 fries out of 10
I’m tickled that Wendy’s leaves the potato skins on the ends of its fries. It sends the message that these are Natural and Real, two things that Americans currently prefer their foods to be even though neither word actually means much in the context of, say, FDA guidelines. A McDonald’s fry is what it is, proudly so. It stands up in its little paper pouch and says, “I am produced in a lab somewhere! One of my ingredients is something called ‘Natural Beef Flavor’! I am full of dextrose so that I don’t turn brown in the fryer like a peasant food would! I am the endgame of a century’s post-industrial capitalist growth that seeks to provide for every conceivable human whim and I taste fucking fantastic!”
Wendy’s fries want to look like something humbler that a mom might whip up at home — but they’re not! Does not a Wendy’s fry, too, dry out your mouth and swell up your fingers and make you really fucking thirsty on the way down? Does not a Wendy’s fry contain dextrose? Is not a Wendy’s fry unnaturally yellow even on its way out of the fryer? Sure, the virgin Wendy’s fry doesn’t contain as many ghoulish-sounding ingredients as the Chad McDonald’s fry, but its ingredients still do mostly sound ghoulish. I’m not fooled.
Points deducted for ideological dishonesty. Points also deducted because these fries were so salty that they hurt the inside of my mouth and made me feel like a wuss.
Final Score: 6 fries out of 10
It’s always enraged me that Shake Shack’s fries are crinkle-cut. Shake Shack is celebrity restaurateur Danny Meyer’s big fast-food project for the masses, right? Well, crinkle-cut fries bring the masses no joy, and you can tell him I said so. (No, please don’t. I don’t need any beef with Danny Meyer in the good Lord’s 2020, not with everything else that’s going on.) It’s the same issue I have with Chick-fil-A’s famous waffle fries: God gave us the perfect McDonald’s fry and we want to turn around and tell Him we’re too good for His shit? The shoestring fry wasn’t broke, so why do we insist on fixing it?
Five Guys and Shake Shack partake of the same issue: It’s ostensibly fast food, but at sit-down prices. It’s the same experience you get at your Paneras and your Les Pains Quotidiens (I wasn’t sure which of those three words to pluralize, so I figured go big or go home). But Shake Shack isn’t as chill and pleasant a place to hang out as its fast casual brother-in-arms, maybe because the type of food it serves translates into a raucous, noisy fast-food experience in our shared cultural mind. It’s McDonald’s ambiance at shockingly high prices.
As such, both Five Guys and Shake Shack lend themselves really well to the feeling of getting ripped off. If I want to eat a $12 burger, wouldn’t I just go to a bar, where it’s much more enjoyable to hang out for an hour? And if I want to eat fast food, wouldn’t I just go to McDonald’s and spend a fraction of the money?
Five Guys and Shake Shack have found a profitable niche, it’s true, but the downside of that niche is that it pisses everybody off. And between the two, Five Guys does “bar food minus the picklebacks” better.
Points deducted for a stupid fucking shape. Points grudgingly granted because despite being too salty, these fries were fine.
Final Score: 7 fries out of 10
I’m from D.C., where public opinion of Five Guys falls somewhere just shy of idolatry. The chain’s original locations, the ones owned by the eponymous five guys themselves, were right outside the city. As such, D.C. is fiercely invested in the Five Guys v. In-N-Out Battle because it’s one of few fronts where we can really compete in the East v. West Culture War (a war whose losses are always more keenly felt by us than them, because D.C. is full of transplants who are deathly afraid to seem like the passel of Docksiders-wearing squares that they are, and California is smart enough not to engage).
All this is to say that allowing me to review Five Guys fries is all but a conflict of interest. And yet, look! Look at that fry in the picture! Isn’t that the most erotic thing you ever saw in your life? Working very, very hard to be impartial, which I acknowledge that I’m not, I still think that these fries are categorically better than In-N-Out’s. They sit at the center of the salty-sweet-starchy Venn diagram, which is the only appropriate place for a really fine French fry to sit. And how about that color, that deep brown dappling all over a golden base coat?
None of that dextrose-infused chicanery here; this is a proud, deep-fried, richly brown potato. I sincerely like In-N-Out, but I’ve always believed their fries are uninspired, owing perhaps to the fact that they’re more closely related to the fast-food tradition than Five Guys (which, as I see it, owes more to the bar food tradition).
It’s this last matter where Five Guys must, I’m afraid, lose some points. Yes, I think these fries are perfect. But the fact remains that a small fries at Five Guys is more than twice as expensive as McDonald’s and In-N-Out’s small fries. That extra $2 is no joke. Fast food must be huge and filling, yes, but it’s also supposed to be cheap.
Final Score: 8 fries out of 10
I was especially excited to try this fry. I have so many fond childhood memories of going to McDonald’s with my friend Allie’s parents, who would ask me if I was allowed to have McDonald’s. I’d lie and say yes, and then when I got home later, my own parents would ask if I’d been eating McDonald’s and I’d lie to them, too. Then I’d play with the Mulan or Toy Story toy that had come in my Happy Meal, and I’d scramble to hide my sins when my mom asked what I was doing. Just an ever-expanding web of subterfuge that is, if you ask me, what growing up is all about. My mom does claim now that she always knew what I was up to, but that’s counterintelligence 101 — I still think I was a good, successful little fry-munching liar.
As an adult, though, I’m allowed to have McDonald’s, so it’s pretty much lost its luster. For every pleasant memory of lying to my parents, I have three more of biting into a Chicken McNugget and getting a gnarly-as-hell bite of something that couldn’t possibly have been chicken.
I did get to enjoy something of a McDonald’s golden age with my dad for the brief, glorious time that we went to the drive-thru together after my ballet class. Even after the fast-food ban was lifted from our home, he always told me not to tell my mother that we’d gone to McDonald’s because she was doing the Atkins Diet that year. So that was a helpful introduction to both the two-for-one hand-held apple pie and the concept of pitting adults against each other for my own gain. Later, as a wee stoner, I couldn’t afford anything but McDonald’s, and I cherished it for being so cheap and so unwilling to have me and my friends removed from the premises no matter how many of us had French fries up our noses.
As a grown-up, no part of that last sentence appeals to me. Just like the goth chick from The Breakfast Club once said, “When you grow up, your heart dies.”
Still, McDonald’s French fries have kept it tight over the years. I’m pleased to report that they’re as wonderful as they ever were. The McDonald’s French fry is an exercise in untouchable, inviolate balance. They’re crispy, but not too much. Salty, but not too much. A little sweet, but not too much. Exactly as starchy as they need to be to drive home the fact that they’re potatoes, but they don’t hit you over the head with it. Plus, five or six McDonald’s fries makes the best handful out of all the places’ handfuls. To my mind, you never eat just one fry at a time, so fast-food fries have to work on an individual level as well as in a group setting.
My portion did have an unusually high number of flaccid fries, but it’s a fucking pandemic out there. So in the spirit of Christian generosity, I won’t be docking points for this minor grievance.
Final Score: A perfect 10 fries out of 10
The Final Word
My suspicion is that these ratings are going to rankle people, simply because we develop weird attachments to our fast-food establishments of choice, and make them aesthetically and ideologically responsible for way more than we should. (Remember how much we once loved the Denny’s Tumblr account? Remember how we hooted and hollered and cheerleaded for the great Popeyes vs. Chick-fil-A Twitter beef of 2019?)
To those people, I can only offer my sympathy. We have control over so little in our lives. Attaching ourselves to fast-food chains that remain successful even as our own lives go repeatedly to shit is a coping mechanism, albeit a crappy one. But I’m no stranger to crappy coping mechanisms, and I support everyone who feels called out by the crappiness of their favorite fast-food joint’s fries. All I ask is, please don’t be yet another person who makes me eat In-N-Out to prove your point.