"Oh." "Oh, yes." "Oh, wow. Yes!...Ohmygod!"
Okay. This is just me. Outta control.
"For crying out loud," says Hank.
"Guess I was," I say. "Crying out loud, that is."
Because this is the real thing. Twice-fried Belgian fries. But it's not so much the salty, crunchy, anchovy-y, mayonnaisy taste I'm getting, it's the crispy-crunchy crack-through effect.
But wait -- maybe it's not even that.
"This," I say, holding up one of the sauce-tipped wonders, "is a part of me."
"What are you talking about?" says Hank.
"Well, I was in my late teens. Let's see, three, four years ago...alone, stuck in Belgium. Antwerp. Tramping the freezing docks, looking for a cargo ship I could work to get me back across the Atlantic."
"And?" says Hank.
"And...this!" I wave a Belgian fry dramatically in the air. "This kept me from croaking, right there on the docks. Belgian fries were the only things cheap enough to keep me going..."
I hand Hank a paper napkin in case he needs to dry his eyes.
"So what else are we having?" he says.
Sigh. We're here on PB's main drag in this new place I'd never seen before. The "Belgian" sign out front was the hook. Maroon and black, with a bright yellow canopy and three tables on the sidewalk and the promise of the best fries you've ever had.
Of course Hank resisted. Health grounds. "Besides, who ever heard of Belgian fries? Freedom fries, yes; French fries, maybe."
But, too late. I barged in before he could finish his quibble. It's nice inside, in a pubby kind of way. Maroon-and-white walls, chest-high counter, five round tables, Belgium tourist posters -- hey, there's one for "Antwerpen," looking sunny like I never saw it that icy January -- and around the walls, dark wood counters with holes in them to put your cones of fries in while you eat. Cool.
It's Hope. Cute gal dressed in black. Waiting to take our orders.
'Course, fries is really all I wanna try, though I see they have Belgian waffles, and breakfast all day, and sandwiches and full-on lunches. But the heart and soul, you can tell, is those damned fries and the couple dozen sauces you can put on them, from Andalouse, a Spanish mix of onions and red and green peppers, to Piri Piri, "a Portuguese roasted red-pepper sauce," to mango chutney -- or fritessaus, the "traditional Belgian mayo made with capers, fresh parsley, and anchovies."
The paper cones come in two sizes, single ($3.95) and double ($5.95). I order a single with the fritessaus just to get us going.
That's when this guy René comes out from the kitchen. He's the son of Belgians who came to San Diego in 1961. He and his sister Marcelle run this place.
"Fries are practically the national religion back there," he says. "Because we invented the French fry, not the French." And, guess what? We can blame the U.S. government -- well, sort of. Seems Thomas Jefferson, who loved all things French, was offered a plate of them when he was ambassador, traveling in what's now southern (French-speaking) Belgium. Back home, he started serving them at Monticello as "potatoes, fried in the French manner."
Later, says René, came the end of World War I, and all the American doughboys returned from the battlefields of Belgium determined to bring "French fries" home.
But are Belgian fries really different? "Absolutely," René says. "They're thicker cut. They absorb less fat. And we fry them twice, first at a lower temperature to seal in the flavor, and then we 'rest' them, then 'shock-fry' them when you order, in a high-temperature oil, so you get the crispy shell and soft center."
René says they started off wanting to be just a frietkot (Belgian fry stand), selling fries and sauces and Belgian beers to go with them. "But getting a wine and beer license has been really tough." Then people kept coming in and asking for more Belgian stuff, 'specially waffles. "Now we have full waffle breakfasts and full lunches. And we're still pushing for a license."
I'd say amen to that. Lord, combine those dark, rich Belgian beers and these fries...
"I'm hungry," says Hank. We look at the lunch specials. He goes for the veggie sandwich in a French roll ($4.95). "Any arguments about the French roll being French?" says Hank. "No argument," says Hope.
Initially, I order the "Fries Benedict" all-day breakfast, which is fries topped with poached eggs, bacon, and homemade hollandaise sauce ($5.25). But they're out of hollandaise, dammit. So I go for the "carbonnade" lunch instead ($7.95).
Hank's happy: he's eating healthy, after all. He gets a salad on top of his cheese croquette sandwich, sprinkled with onions, orange pepper slices, and little button tomatoes. He turned down fries for $1.50 more. They came, though, as part of my plate. This time I got the Andalouse sauce. Oh man, smokin'. But the star of my plate had to be the carbonnade. It's basically a Belgian stew, marinated, René says, in dark Belgian beer. When I chomp into them the chunks of meat taste like they've been in red wine for half a day. Wickedly good, 'specially with the sour cream that comes on top.
Hank finally cracks and takes a swipe at one of my fries.
"Of course, we cook our fries in canola oil," says René. "In Belgium they traditionally cook them in pig fat and horse fat. The flavor..."
"Somehow," Hank says, "I think you'd better stick to canola."