Frites are in a distinct and separate category from regular old French fries. In fact, the Belgian frites are the predecessors of all modern French fries and represent how best to peel, cut and deep-fry a simple potato. Although it's claimed that frites were invented in Belgium as far back as the mid 17th century, the only thing that's known for certain is that the cooking technique originated in the French-speaking region of Belgium -- historically speaking, this region has always been somewhat geographically and culturally muddled -- and was brought to America sometime in the late 18th century. Anecdotal evidence holds that Thomas Jefferson was the first to introduce French fries to America, but anecdotal evidence also used to hold that he didn't father untold scores of illegitimate children.
Anyway, the point is that frites aren't just plain old French fries. In order to be called "frites," they must meet a few very important definitions: They must be made from fresh-cut potatoes (which means they'll naturally be irregularly shaped), must be fried twice and must be very crisp on the outside while remaining pillowy on the inside. For best results, they should also be dipped in fresh mayonnaise. Tradition has frites served in a paper cone similar to the chips in fish-n-chips, but we're lucky to even have Belgian restaurants in Houston, so we'll just let that slide for now.
And speaking of, we have exactly two Belgian restaurants in town as a result of the acrimonious Cafe Montrose split a couple of years ago: Jeannine Bistro and Broken Spoke. This is bad for the married couple that once ran it, and great for Houston diners who appreciate some measure of diversity in their Belgian cuisine. But which of the two offshoot Belgian restaurants had the best frites? Find out below.
This hole-in-a-wall restaurant along the non-gentrified end of Washington Avenue -- you know, the end closer to the bail bondsmen and used car lots -- used to be a simple and unimaginative restaurant with a bicycle theme. They've somewhat retained the bike theme but allowed Catherine Duwez, former co-owner of Cafe Montrose, to revamp the menu and decorate the walls with Chimay posters. Duwez is every bit as involved here as she was at Cafe Montrose, flitting from table to table greeting every customer by name or simply by "sweetpea," delivering food and even making some of it herself -- the housemade mayonnaise being a stunning example of this last feat.
You can order a traditional moule-frites here, which Broken Spoke calls "La Complete Belge," for only $24. It includes a cavernous pot of moules marinière, basket of frites and a generous pour of Stella Artois. But because moule-frites is more of a summer dish, we opted instead for a BLT with avocado and Cheddar to go alongside our frites (which was delicious, but that's a battle for another time).
The frites here are golden brown and perfectly fit every characteristic of Belgian frites (as well they should, since Duwez hails from Bruxelles). Imminently crunchy yet soft inside, you can easily pop one salty frite after another into your mouth and polish off the entire plate before you know it. But you'd be missing out on Duwez's mayonnaise -- of which she is very proud. The little cup of chamois-colored, creamy mayo has a sharp vinegar tang that's undercut by a soft current of olive oil. It's basically kind of what we imagine ambrosia to taste like. In other words: Don't hork down the whole basket of frites without a few dips into the mayonnaise cup.
The more upstanding older sister to the scrappy little Broken Spoke, Jeannine's Bistro has a sort of calm suaveness that encourages an older clientele. Unfortunately, it also seems to engender a much more uptight atmosphere -- elbows off tables, hushed voices, stilted conversations -- that doesn't really befit an enjoyable, boisterous Belgian meal. This could be due in part to the Grant Wood-esque brother-sister duo of Andrew Klarman and Jeannine Pettas. Klarman was the original chef at Cafe Montrose, but doesn't seem to have brought the cozy or eccentric vibe along with him.
Fortunately, the food is still good. There were a few missteps when Jeannine's Bistro first opened
and a huge one was that they were using bland, pre-cut, frozen, run-of-the-mill French fries instead of serving the signature Belgian frites. We were almost so offended by this that we never returned. Luckily, we did -- the frites have since improved and we once had the finest ice cream dish of our lives there (bittersweet dark chocolate sauce poured over vanilla ice cream and a poached pear).
The frites at Jeannine's Bistro are very good, but still have a little work ahead of them to catch up to Broken Spoke. They're much lighter in color and therefore in flavor. Much of the rich, almost nutty, flavor is gained in that crucial second deep fry, and we suspect the Jeannine's Bistro frites are given only cursory baths each time in the fryer. Despite this, they're still passable frites, especially when paired with the tangy mayonnaise. Again, it's not quite as good as Broken Spoke, but it gave our dining companion a whole new appreciation for what real mayonnaise should taste like.
Broken Spoke, by a slim margin of victory. The restaurant garnered extra points for its laid-back atmosphere, lower prices and nearly ideal frites. Bonus points: Duwez will bottle up some of her homemade mayonnaise for you to take home if you bring in a clean jar. But you have to use it within a few days -- not like that will be difficult to do.