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?
—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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