QUESTION: I notice that you have been spending time lately addressing such pointless topics as pork noodle soup, “gourmet” hamburgers and so-called burritos that don’t even have any beans in them. When are you going to get back to writing about the important things? Why have you never mentioned chili fries?
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—Russell, Studio City
ANSWER: I am on record as once having said that Fletcher Bowron Square should be renamed in honor of the counter jock who first came up with chili fries, which is a Los Angeles invention on par with the goat-cheese pizza, the DC-3 and the discovery of the expanding universe. There was a year or two in the ’80s when I practically blew out my liver on chili fries — specifically the crisp, lavalike chili fries then available at the La Cienega location of Tom’s Number 5, served in such a superheated condition that the flimsy plastic fork thrust into the boiling mass instantly melted into goo, which meant that you had to fish through the chili fries with your fingers. I have often theorized that the tangy flavor of vaporized PVC only added to the dish’s appeal.
Since Tom’s closed, no other burger stand has quite measured up: not the suburban branches of Tommy’s, not Fatburger, not Tam’s, or Tim’s, or Tomy’s. The aesthetic, I believe, requires both incredible density on the part of the chili and a certain necessary crunchiness in the fries. These days, I nurture my somewhat diminished chili-fry habit at Wolfe Burger, a rather wholesome hamburger restaurant in Pasadena. Wolfe Burger hand-cuts its potatoes, fries them skin-on in pure peanut oil and buries them under a smooth, smokily intense chili that I believe owes something to the Native American heritage of the late owner Josephine Arroyo, who is still the guiding spirit of the restaurant. They are sleek, pedigreed chili fries, like a Mercedes sedan in place of the snarling GTO that is traditional, but delicious. And the beer-battered onion rings are just about the best in Southern California. 46 N. Lake Ave., Pasadena, (626) 792-7292.
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