Belgian frites with truffle aioli, ketchup and curry yogurt at Backwoods
3335 N. Halsted St. 773-935-9663 (enter on Buckingham Place)
Rating: !!! (out of 4) Off to a good start
When it comes to late-night eats, tacos do the job and pizza by the slice hits the spot. But there isn't a better portable drunk food than double-fried potatoes in a parchment paper cone. Yes, my friends, I'm talking about Belgian frites.
Shops hawking this addictive snack can be found all over Belgium, and some U.S. cities have been blessed with their own late-night fry shacks, which serve steaming-hot frites to sauced-up bargoers. In New York, a miniscule alley-sized East Village fry shop called Pommes Frites ("fried potato" in French) is considered one of the best.
Lucky for Chicago, one of Pommes Frites' many fans happens to be a partner in Wood, a recently opened small-plates restaurant in Boystown. The owners carved out space at the back of the restaurant for a pass-through window connected to the kitchen, and Backwoods, Chicago's first late-night Belgian frites shop, was born.
To be fair, plenty of local restaurants serve perfectly lovely Belgian-style frites, which are fried not once, but twice for a soft, tender inside and golden, crispy outside. Some even serve them in the traditional paper cones, but when they're propped up in fancy wrought-iron holders on your table, the effect just isn't quite the same. There's also a Belgian frites booth called Frietkoten, ran by a very nice gent from the Netherlands named Jeroen Hasenbos, but it's located inside Ogilvie Transportation Center in the Chicago French Market, which is locked up tight by 7 p.m.
Considering some of my best memories of living in New York involve clutching a grease-soaked cone at Pomme Frites, I didn't need an excuse to chow down at Backwoods. Here's how to make the most of your trip.
1. Save some cash
Next to the emergency cab money in your wallet, you'll also want to stash some emergency frites money: $5 to be exact. Backwoods is cash-only and a fiver will buy you a cone of fries—big enough for one hungry person to finish—plus one dipping sauce. It opens at 10 p.m. Sunday through Wednesday and 11 p.m. Thursday through Saturday, and stays open until 2 a.m. or so, depending on how busy it gets.
2. Step right up
The entrance for Wood is on Halsted, but to find Backwoods, look for the glass door just east on Buckingham. I stepped inside and found myself in a cubby of a space, just big enough for myself and my two fry-loving friends, with an eye-level window looking into Wood's kitchen. Batches of hand-cut Idaho potatoes (Chef Ashlee Aubin said he plans to switch to Kennebec potatoes from downstate Illinois when they're available in a few weeks) pile up, already fried once and chilled anywhere from four hours to overnight. It takes about 90 seconds for each batch to get its second dip in seething-hot oil and a liberal sprinkling of kosher salt. Dipping sauce choices will rotate, Aubin said, and on my visit, it was barbecue sauce and aiolis flavored with truffle oil, garlic, sriracha, malt vinegar or curry. You can count on ketchup, the only sauce that isn't house-made, to always be on hand. "We played with some different flavored ketchup, but to me, honestly, there is not a ketchup in the world better than Heinz," he said. The biggest advantage of making a frites stop with a group is convincing each of your friends to order different sauces so that you can get a taste of them all.
3. Park it
One of my favorite parts of New York's Pommes Frites was the highly coveted tables with holes drilled right through the top; you could just stick your cone right in and free your hands to stuff your face. But Backwoods is a to-go operation at the core, which is perhaps for the best; a cone of frites is best savored (more like scarfed) while walking (more like stumbling) back home from the bar. Standing with steaming-hot cones in hand and doubting our balancing abilities, my friends I scanned for a bench and settled on the stoop of shuttered wine shop Kafka across the street.
4. Dig in