Why Are Chili Cheese Fries So Hard To Get Right?

The perfect combination of fries, chili, and shredded cheddar has yet to be served.

The perfect chili cheese fries don't exi—

Sorry, there was something stuck in my throat there. The perfect chili cheese fries don't exist.

There's almost always something wrong with an order of chili cheese fries. To experience a flawlessly executed trifecta of crispy, salted french fries, hot, well-spiced meat chili, and melted cheddar cheese grated right off the block is a rarity, to say the least. There is always at least one component lacking; pre-shredded cheese, bland chili, and soggy fries are each as common as they are deflating. I've never experienced the perfect order of chili cheese fries because I'm positive they haven't been made yet.

Chef and culinary professional Laura Hoang and I have been speaking longingly about CCF lately.

"I want the chili cheese fries of my dreams," she said with disappointment after the two of us shared some fries on The Oinkster's patio in Los Angeles.

I thought what we ate was perfectly fine. But after Laura and I spoke more about how awesomely transcendent chili cheese fries could be, how rare it is to see them executed with solid technique, I became convinced that there's a brown mound of untapped potential being served just about everywhere you look.

So, what are the attributes of this quintessential, dreamy, can't-be-improved-upon order of chili cheese fries Laura and I dreamed up? So glad you asked.

Danny and Laura’s Perfect Chili Cheese Fries

Here's what CCF would need in order to be considered the Platonic ideal.

  • Crispy, not-too-thick fries that are salted, golden brown, and able to withstand the weight of both chili and cheese. Have good practices: Frozen fries are great, and if they're fresh cut, those motherfuckers had better be blanched and double fried.
  • A piping-hot, beanless chili that's meaty, spiced, and full of flavor. Chunks of meat here, not morsels. "Hormel chili with more meat," Laura says. The taste of cumin, pepper, beef, and salt should all be evident. Hopefully hints of garlic powder and onion powder, too.
  • No nacho cheese. Shredded (preferably Robot-Couped) cheddar cheese that's melty. We want cheese pull. Cheese grated right off the block—none of that pre-bagged cheddar, which contains cellulose, preservatives, and fillers. Freshly shredded cheese is creamier and more flavorful. We'll know if you're using the bagged stuff.
  • To not feel like we're going to immediately shit our pants (wishful thinking). That is to say, some restraint is exercised in the portioning and presentation.
  • The perfect ratio of each component, not too much of any one thing. Every element has to be in harmony, which I'm positive nobody has ever said about chili cheese fries, and yet it's a key differentiator. Too many fries, and you're left with naked potatoes sans chili. Too much chili, and the whole thing feels sloppy and disgusting (see the above point about restraint). Too much cheese, and the whole endeavor becomes one giant gut bomb (see the above point about shitting). We want thoughtful proportions.
  • Our search begins in Los Angeles, a city known for its chili cheese fries. That's because Southern California is the epicenter of fast food and diner culture in America. People love to mock our salads and smoothies and health fads, but this is a burger, fries, and hot dog town through and through. Don't forget it.

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    As such, Angelenos share many wonderful memories of eating these greasy foods, and they long for them. Laura has a specific reverence for the chili cheese fries at Jim's.

    "My brother bought me chili cheese fries to keep me busy," she says. "I was 7 or 8." Despite this, the fries at Jim's don't really hold up for her today. So, is Laura chasing nostalgia? Am I chasing a CCF standard that doesn't exist?

    The only way to know is to be thorough. Over the past week, I've eaten five different versions of chili cheese fries—some good, some bad. Did anything live up to our lofty expectations? Here are my findings.

Tommy’s Burgers in Hollywood

Tommy's Burgers doesn't meet the quality standards for fries nor cheese. The chili, however, is brown, sloppy, meaty, very salty, and bursting with the flavor we're looking for. No chunks of meat, though. It's more minced than that.

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People love Tommy's. And look, there isn't a universe out there in which I wouldn't happily devour these things. But strictly speaking, they just aren't made well. The fries are soggy, too thick, and somewhat bland. Thick fries don't work because they're too creamy in the middle, and this is a meal where the condiments ought to dominate each bite. Crispy and golden straight-cut fries are preferred.

The nacho cheese suffers from that all too common problem of a bland, roux-like flavor. I'll say it again: We want shredded cheddar. I understand some people love nacho cheese on their chili cheese fries, but it creates a sub-optimal texture, and it's too easy to get the flavor wrong.

I strongly believe that to understand what's good, you have to dissect what's bad. These fries are bad.

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The Oinkster in Eagle Rock

The Oinkster is a step in the right direction, but perhaps there's too much chef-driven (vroom vroom) finesse. Chili cheese fries are, or should be, all about brute force.

By speaking to an employee, I confirmed that the fries are done right: blanched overnight, double fried, and salted immediately. The cheese and chili both leave a lot to be desired, unfortunately. The chili is tasty, but it's far too creamy. There's a bechamel vibe to it, a hint of tomato flavor, but no real cumin taste. It feels less like chili and more like a mother sauce. There are chunks of meat, but simply not enough.

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The cheddar cheese is nice, thin, and shredded, but because the chili isn't hot enough, the cheese barely melts. Disappointing.

The lesson here? Chili needs to be very hot. The Oinkster's was not.

Carney’s in West Hollywood

Carney's in West Hollywood surprised the hell out of me. These are maybe my favorite chili cheese fries in Los Angeles.

The chili is cheap, filling, well-spiced, and just a tad greasy, which provides nice fatty flavor. Finish the bowl and you'll notice the bottom is subtly stained orange from beef fat. No notes on the fries, which are served McDonald's-style: straight and thin, crispy and salty. The mound of chili is also strategically placed in the center of the fries, which means that no single fry becomes too bogged down by chili or cheese. Carney's is a masterclass in both portion and proportion.

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In an odd move, Carney's applies a single square piece of cheddar cheese to the dish, tucked between the fries and the chili. Shockingly, it works. The cheese melts perfectly, offering a really great cheese pull. I get the sense that for some people this isn't nearly enough cheese. Personally, I think it's sensible. I ate this entire bowl and went about my day.

The Hat in Alhambra

I won't spend too much time here, because these fries are really bad. Pickles and tomatoes? Absolutely not. This meal has no flavor, and the whole thing screams "quantity over quality." Despite the amount of, ugh, everything, there were far too many fries left naked after just four or five bites. Everything chili cheese fries shouldn't be.

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Tops Burgers in Pasadena

This is up there with Carney's, but for completely different reasons.

The hottest chili of all came from Tops Burgers in Pasadena. On the basis of non-food-related aspects alone, I absolutely loved this diner, which had spacious booths and a wonderful staff completely on top of its shit, service-wise. Everyone should come to Tops, because it deserves to be supported.

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When my giant carton of chili cheese fries arrived, I was sure this was going to be a dud. Why? Look at that thick layer of unmelted cheese. It didn't inspire much confidence. I couldn't have been more wrong, though, because the cheese is perfect—a combination of both pepper jack and cheddar shredded in house, with the clumpy texture and decadent flavor you'd never get from pre-bagged shreds.

Underneath the cheese sits piping-hot chili. Like, goddamn hot. So hot that as soon as you stir it around your fries the cheese instantly melts and awards you with a thin but stretchy cheese pull. I do think Carney's chili has more flavor, but structurally, Tops' chili cheese fries are a masterpiece. Somehow the fries didn't get soggy at all.

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So who has the best chili cheese fries?

Though I prefer Carney's, Tops is technically closest to what Laura and I declared the perfect chili cheese fries. Fresh cheese with melty pull, crispy fries, and hot, balanced chili—all of that was accounted for. But there's something else, a criterion that I hadn't considered before sampling: The best chili cheese fries have a familial quality, too.

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They're shareable, inherently hospitable in their delivery system. The type of thing you order with loved ones, or which a brother orders to keep an 8-year-old busy, but also to make them feel included. Of course there's a sentimental quality to chili cheese fries—they're a mound of greasy food that takes a village to conquer. It's literally about teamwork.

Maybe that's the memory Laura had been chasing. It's what we're all chasing: community through food. In seeking the perfect fries, maybe we're just giving ourselves an excuse to perpetuate the search. How can anything possibly be better than that?

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