[Best of the Santa Clara Valley 1998

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A French Fry Is Not a Hot Dog

[whitespace] fries
Christopher Gardner

Vivi l'Excellence!: The fries at Vivi's come as near to the Platonic ideal as any we've tasted. Crisp, golden, glistening with huile, they're a show-stealing yet humble part of the Cupertino eatery's formula for success.

The best fries are the ones that know their proper place--on the side of the dish

By Justin Berton

Somewhere along the line, the french fry started acting more French than fried, and suddenly, where before a properly humble side dish had loitered, an arrogant little SOB emerged. Thomas Jefferson should have seen it coming the day he allegedly stepped off his boat in the late 1700s with the first barrel of "Potatoes, fried in the French Manner." Such an affectation of description surely heralded the insouciance to come.

For much of its submissive history in the United States, the french fry has known its place: sidekick to the hamburger, and dependent upon ketchup to justify its existence. But within the last few years, the ideology of a New French Fry has risen to power. Among its brethren, the New French Fry elite called for a repositioning of its image and, unfortunately, its mission. Lost in a cloud of sudden fame and self-importance, the french fry grew pretentious and attempted what so many other failed sidekicks have: It tried to make it on its own. It was as if Ed stood up one evening and interrupted Johnny's monologue to say, "Dunk me in garlic and make me curly." A dismayed nation would have shaken its head in disbelief.

Now, french fries are covered in chili, smothered in three different types of cheese, and topped with humiliating layers of multi-colored goop. Someone forgot to tell the chefs at Spoons, "The french fry is a french fry--if it were supposed to be something more, they would have named it the hot dog."

No doubt, the french fry should enjoy its well-spaced moments of glory. But it should also know when to take a dive in the game of one-upmanship.

Here ensue the guidelines for rating a good french fry; like the best of sidekicks, it should complement, not upstage. French fries plastered with adjectives before their names cannot be included. French fries prepared en masse by chain restaurants actively participating in the cultural homogeneity of flavor are also out. (Everyone knows McDonald's fries are tasty--no sense in explaining it here.)

After wolfing down baskets of french fries from across the valley, this investigator released a sigh of relief when a self-controlled french fry was finally identified. At ViVi's, a small diner just off Stevens Creek Boulevard in the west end of Cupertino, the french fries are delicious in their humbleness. Fries at ViVi's are simple straight cuts at a precise three eighths of an inch--nothing frivolous like the waffle cut or preposterous in width like the so-called "steak fry."

ViVi's ensures the fry is cooked all the way through by lightly pre-cooking the potatoes beforehand. Come time for service, they get heated once more to perfection. Too many fry-cookers make the mistake of frying the outside, then leaving the inside mushy with cold potato. Worse, some overcook the french fry straight through, creating the delicate consistency of a brick.

But at ViVi's, the fries are served hot, crisp on the outside and flavorful on the inside. The fries are not sloppy greasy, but they do glimmer in their rich color of darkened wheat, which proudly boasts, "I am a good, solid french fry that will be enjoyed without gimmick." Next to a hamburger, they look as comfortable and correct as Andy next to Conan.

Yuri Freeland, who has served up the fries for more than 20 years, said the fries, while dutifully submissive, do have a few loyal fans.

"When we are out of them," Freeland says, "some people just walk away. They don't want to order the rest of the food."

As long as Freeland reminds his french fries what they are and not where they came from, he will continue to have the best fries in the valley.

ViVi's is located at 21731 Stevens Creek Blvd., Cupertino (408/255-3535). Hours are 10:30am-8:30pm Monday through Saturday, except Thursday, when closing is at 4:30pm. Closed on Sundays.

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From the September 17-23, 1998 issue of Metro.

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