For reasons no one can explain, curly fries never get their due. A staple of pool-club snack shops, bowling-alley concession counters, and each of Arby’s 3 zillion locations, this relic of late-20th-century cuisine has somehow eluded the culinary anthropologists who busy themselves digging up old edible artifacts and updating them for a new audience. A decade ago, this could have been blamed on food snobs demanding fresh-cut fries made from potatoes grown by local farmers and lovingly hand-blanched by chef-artists. Even though this is no longer the case, and all sorts of fries and fast-food staples have found adoration once again, curly fries remain unloved. Yet this is just one more way in which they are perfect.
Inferior fries abound: Frozen, crinkle-cut fries, despite their mushy texture and pasty flavor, have a legion of vocal fans, including New York critic Adam Platt. That frozen French fry — back on the scene thanks to their presence at Danny Meyer’s many, many Shake Shacks — even got another critical boost from Pete Wells, in a starred Times review of a Sichuanese restaurant, and no one blinked an eye. Since then, Brooklyn’s very of-the-moment Emmy Squared has angled to bring back waffle fries — as close as you can get to being a curly fry’s spiritual cousin — which have also been adopted by tastemaker Andrew Carmellini at his burger-and-soft-serve stand Mister Dips. David Chang even thought it was a good idea to go all-in on the wedge fry.
The curly fry, meanwhile, lacks a chef-patron to advocate for its excellence, yet remains the ultimate bar-food order. Curly fries play best at dives and other affordable establishments, and nothing needs to change. In New York, you won’t find them at Fuku or Shake Shack, but instead right where they belong: at the classic hot-dog stand Papaya King, Staten Island’s excellent bar-pizzeria Pier 76, pub chain Croxley Ales, and other dives and haunts. Angelenos can eat them at places like Jerry’s Deli and Top Round Roast Beef. In Chicago, your fix can be satisfied at Rocks; in Austin, you can hit up Dan’s Hamburgers.
Perhaps no chef has made a notable attempt at reinventing the curly fry because the curly fry needs no reinvention. They are exquisite just as they are. And you can’t charge $14 or whatever for a plate of them because curly fries’ defining characteristic, beyond their shape, is the immediately familiar industrial spice mix of paprika, black pepper, onion powder, garlic powder, and whatever else. The best versions of the fries are aggressively seasoned, and look as though they were rolled around in chile powder. And any chef who dared to mess with the seasoning — by tossing the fries in sumac or, God forbid, fresh herbs — would do irreparable harm to their essential curly-fry-ness.
These are, in other words, industrial products. Who invented the curly fry isn’t entirely clear, but there’s evidence that they’ve been around since the 19th century. Certainly they’ve been around since at least 1940, when they were served at Oklahoma City’s Dolores Restaurant and Inn. But the modern era of industrial frozen curlies likely didn’t start until the great French-fry crisis of the ’80s, when fry sales were slumping and someone realized that something needed to be done. In 1985, Washington company TaterBoy, then part of the potato vanguard, unveiled its Curley Fries, billing them as “an innovation.” Arby’s sometimes gets credit for the groundbreaking potato development, but the chain didn’t introduce them until 1988. Arby’s does appear, however, to have introduced the now-requisite Cajun-esque seasoning, a clear attempt to capitalize on what was at the time a nation-shaking Southwestern food trend.
All of this is to say that curly fries, in their inexplicable shape and Southwestern-ish industrial seasoning, are about as far as you can get from an açai bowl, avocado toast, or even kale salad. Curly fries aren’t your trend-chasing friend who’s always looking for the next thing; they’re the buddy you can count on to keep things low-key and just have a good time. Curly fries don’t need to be cool. They don’t need to be handmade. They don’t need to be artisanal. They just need to be tossed in seasoning and enjoyed in their native environments: dives, carnivals, diners, movie theaters, let’s even throw Arby’s in there. Sometimes stuff is just better if nobody messes with it. So please, let’s not mess up curly fries by turning them into a thing.