Try the Kamikaze Fries from one of KoJa Kitchen's many Bay Area locations.

Try the Kamikaze Fries from one of KoJa Kitchen's many Bay Area locations. (Shelby Pope)

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Except for a blip when they were angrily reclassified as “freedom fries,” Americans have had a longstanding love affair with French fries, originally invented by either the French or Belgians in the 18th century. Thomas Jefferson was one of the first Americans to serve them–he requested “potatoes served in the French manner” at at White House dinner in 1802–and ever since then, we’ve put a distinctly American spin on the dish. Most Europeans dip their fries in mayo; we prefer ketchup. We were the first to develop the technology for frozen fries, ushering in their constant presence at restaurants across the country. And while we love French fries on their own, we also have the distinctly American tendency to pile on toppings and add-ons until poutine looks healthy by comparison. There’s something satisfying about a gussied-up plate of fries–they make the perfect blank canvas for a wide variety of flavors and textures. Here are a few of our favorite fry dishes in Berkeley, Oakland and Richmond, and let us know your favorite in the comments.

Love Boat fries from Liba Falafel, with falafel, harissa and raita atop swet potato fries.
Love Boat fries from Liba Falafel, with falafel, harissa and raita atop swet potato fries. (Shelby Pope)

In 2009, Gail Lillian opened Liba Falafel, a food truck inspired by the falafel shops she saw on a trip to Amsterdam. The truck’s crunchy falafel balls–and toppings like braised eggplant and beet hummus–were such a hit that she opened a brick and mortar location in downtown Oakland in 2014, where hungry office workers can get falafel in either sandwich or salad form. The restaurant also offers the Love Boat, which features crumbled bits of falafel, dollops of spicy harissa, a drizzle of cooling raita and a shower or cilantro atop a bed of crunchy sweet potato fries. The dish manages to pull off the impressive feat of packing a huge amount of flavors and textures–heat, sweetness, creamy richness and crunch–into one bite.

Liba Falafel
380 17th St. [Map]
Oakland, CA 94612
Ph: (415) 806-5422
Hours: Mon-Fri, 11am-3pm
Facebook: Liba Falafel
Twitter: @libafalafel
Instagram: @libafalafel
Yelp: Liba Falafel Shop
Price range: $ ($10 and under)

Carne asada fries from Taqueria La Estrella in Richmond.
Carne asada fries from Taqueria La Estrella in Richmond. (Shelby Pope)

Among the many intriguing beliefs that Southern Californians hold–such as “public transit is bad” and “beaches should be warm”–is the controversial opinion that french fries belong in a burrito. While this distresses a great number of Mission burrito devotees, it makes sense that two of the pillars of SoCal cuisine–Mexican food and burgers and fries–would eventually rub up against each other. Carne asada fries are a similar Southern California specialty, in which nachos’ tortilla chips are swapped for fries. At Richmond’s Taqueria La Estrella, owned by the Carmona family, carne asada fries are an attraction so great that it’s advertised on their windows. After ordering (to a soundtrack of Spanish-language Elvis covers) you’re delivered a huge plate of french fries topped with a pile of steak, pico de gallo, guacamole, sour cream, and cheese that creates tall, dramatic strings when you lift your fork. It all tangles together into a delicious mess that could feed at least two hungry people. I ordered the dish to eat there, but my waitress accidentally gave it to me in a to-go box, perhaps a sign that a dish like this is best eaten on the couch at home, hunched over Netflix while sporting pants with an elastic band.

Taqueria La Estrella
325 23rd St. [Map]
Richmond, CA 94804
Ph: (510) 232-6955
Hours: Sun-Thu, 10am-9pm; Fri-Sat, 9am-10pm
Facebook: Taqueria La Estrella
Price range: $ ($10 and under)

Try the Kamikaze Fries from one of KoJa Kitchen's many Bay Area locations.
Try the Kamikaze Fries from one of KoJa Kitchen’s many Bay Area locations. (Shelby Pope)

Berkeley’s Telegraph Avenue is filled with restaurants competing amongst themselves to see who can lure the most students off their prepaid meal plan. At the sleek, chrome-filled KoJa Kitchen, from owners Alan Tsai, Eric Thai, Mike Hayashi and Hiep Lien, the draw is Korean-Japanese fare with just enough decadence to earn them Guy Fieri’s approval. In addition to koja (sandwiches with fried rice buns), and Korean bbq tacos, they offer a few fry dishes, including their Kamikaze fries. It’s a towering mountain of crunchy-edged waffle fries covered in Japanese mayonnaise, kimchi and enough of spicy, sweet bulgogi to get you through several Econ problem sets.

KoJa Kitchen (multiple locations)
2395 Telegraph Ave. [Map]
Berkeley, CA 94704
Ph: (510) 962-5652
Hours: Mon-Sun, 11am-10pm
Facebook: KoJa Kitchen
Twitter: @KoJaKitchen
Instagram: @kojakitchen
Yelp: KoJa Kitchen
Price range: $ ($10 and under)

Duck fat fries from El Patio in Berkeley.
Duck fat fries from El Patio in Berkeley. (Shelby Pope)

If the other dishes on this list speak to the joys of excess, these fries are an example of how good fries can be when they’re stripped down to their basic elements. No, the fries at Hamei Hamedi’s Mexican/Venezuelan restaurant El Patio (formerly Café V) aren’t the most elaborate, but they’re not your traditional American french fries in the McDonald’s mold. These are simply better than your average fries, thanks to several tiny flourishes. They appear hand cut, with a few remnants of actual potato skin remaining (no Sysco-uniformity here), and they’re sizable yet well-crisped. They’re cooked in duck fat, which gives them an appetizing richness, and they lack the stale oil taste that afflicts lesser fries. Instead of merely salting them, the restaurant showers them with an addicting seasoning salt they blend themselves. And rather than a server leaving you with a desultory bottle of Heinz, they provide an accompaniment of homemade roasted red pepper aioli, with a subtle yet distinct heat. Plus, the fries at El Patio are the most glamorous you’re likely to encounter, arriving at the table in an elegant metal cone.

El Patio
2056 San Pablo Ave. [Map]
Berkeley, CA 94702
Ph: (510) 548-2222
Hours: Mon, 3-10pm; Tue-Sat, 11-12am; Sun, 11am-10pm
Facebook: El Patio
Price range: $ ($10 and under)

Fungi Fries from the Snack Shack in Berkeley.
Fungi Fries from the Snack Shack in Berkeley. (Shelby Pope)

Hungry students forced to trek uphill to the north side of the UC Berkeley campus don’t lack for food options: there’s pizza, Indian burritos, Vietnamese, Himalayan, and more. (There’s also no lack of punny WiFi names: my phone offered to connect me to the “Abraham linksys” network when I arrived at the Hearst Food Court.) The Snack Shack, from owners Rachel Spector and Scott Wortmann, offers fried foods, the kind of food that serves as a natural pairing to the restaurant’s amenities, which includes a TV playing sports, an astroturfed-floor, Big Buck Hunter and foosball. The menu features a few types of burgers, Lucky Charms milkshakes, a fridge full of craft beers, and rotating specials that try to top each other in their creativity and calorie count: recent weeks featured an “oatmeal stout beer battered bacon Brie stuffed fried burger w/ strawberry serrano bacon jelly” and a “pork belly macaroni and cheese burrito w/caramelized onions and peppers.” An entire section of the menu is dedicated to fries, and while truffle fries are a star dish at many restaurants, at the Snack Shack they’re one of the more banal offerings, compared to other options like sweet potato fries with cranberry mustard or maple butter fries. I tried the fungi fries, featuring waffle fries the size of Christmas ornaments topped with an umami rich combination of tender mushrooms, an herby aioli, caramelized onions, chives.

The Snack Shack
2505 Hearst Avenue D [Map]
Berkeley, CA 94709
Ph: (510) 679-5171
Hours: Mon, 11am-2:30pm; Tue-Fri, 11am-8pm; Sat-Sun, closed
Facebook: The SNACK SHACK
Twitter: @SnackShackBerk
Instagram: @thesnackshackberkeley
Yelp: The Snack Shack
Price range: $ ($10 and under)

Bay Area Bites Guide to 5 Favorite French Fry Dishes in Oakland, Berkeley and Richmond 30 June,2017Shelby Pope

Author

Shelby Pope

Shelby Pope is a freelance writer living and eating her way through the East Bay. She’s written about food, art and science for publications including the Smithsonian, Lucky Peach, and the Washington Post’s pet blog. When she’s not taste testing sourdough bread to find the Bay Area’s best loaf, you can find her on Twitter @shelbylpope or at shelbypope.com