Greg Bruce visited 12 of Auckland's most lauded establishments in a search for the city's best hot chips. Did he find them? We won't tell you here, in an attempt to get you to read on.
Food has become so difficult and cerebral but, when we strip everything away - the philosophy and aesthetics, the science, the art and the bulls*** - when we really get down to it, what we care about most is potato cooked in fat.
Chips, the world's greatest food, have for too long been treated with disdain by those who see them as the quick and easy production of a plate full of profit. The transformation of a chip from its two basic ingredients to something worthy of two pages in a high-quality magazine requires organisational and logistical sophistication.
The production of a good chip is a mathematical exercise, reducible to a series of formulae: weight and density per square inch, interior to exterior ratio, fat/potato quality matrix and so forth. It's punishingly difficult to perfect and critical decisions need to be made at each stage of the process: sourcing; supply chain management; storage; preparation; fat selection; cooking style, time, heat, duration and frequency; aftercare; seasoning and presentation. A chip is a potato transformed, as my children would argue if they were better at talking.
Establishments appear in the order I thought worked best for the narrative.
• Lee Suckling: Why you should never eat hot chips again
• Annabel Langbein: How to eat hot chips and still lose weight
• NZ's best hot chips
• Hot chips, Pineapple Lumps or pies? The ultimate Kiwi treat revealed
Potato skins w/ Kingsmeade manchego, truffle oil & porcini salt, $12
These chips have become a standard, responsible for the rethinking of the way we treat potatoes in this city. If you weren't paying close attention to the audacious menu description, you'd assume you were reading a luxury car advertisement.
On the plate, with their beautiful crescent moon curvature allowing them to nest comfortably into their neighbours, they resemble nothing so much as a group of close friends conducting a sexual experiment in a loving (not disgusting) way. The layers are obvious, the deep crunchy crust, giving way to the soft fluff below. The flakes of manchego, curling in the heat, beg to be lifted off the skins and eaten alone, even as they beg to stay on the chip. They cannot win; you cannot lose.
I just looked back at the photo and I've changed my mind about the sexual experiment: it's disgusting.
Makikihi fries, $10
I was attracted by the menu description. I didn't know what Makikihi fries meant - and I didn't care. What I cared about was that Hugo's weren't afraid to do something different and to advertise it - that being the essence of attraction.
The fries came in an earthenware bowl, the type you might find in an ancient Greek ruin, piled high with fries, topped with a bowl of aioli. The fries were a pleasing visual contrast of shade, shape and size. They were shorter than the average chip - I kept cramming them in not because they were especially good but because I was never quite satisfied. After we left, my dining companion googled "Makikihi Fries" and discovered that's the name of an industrial chip-making company from the South Island, which also supplies supermarkets including Pak'nSave. I'm not a snob or anything, but … okay, okay, yes, I'm a snob.
Crispy potato skins with sriracha tarragon mayo, $7
A friend had told me Bestie were doing the best chips he'd ever eaten. I doubted that, not because he's an idiot but because I don't trust people. When they arrived though, I knew something special was afoot. They were potato skins in the Depot style, most of the central flesh having been scooped out, leaving the scalloped outer. This is a delicate process, requiring of the scooper the leaving of a precisely calculated proportion of flesh, riding the delicate line between boiled potato and meaningless scrap.
They came in a stainless steel bowl containing a mess of shades from white to black, through every iteration of yellow. They were cracked, blistered, warped, interpenetrated with oil, softened, internally light and crawling with fat grains of salt. The aioli, also served in a stainless steel bowl, was topped with two intelligently sliced, thoughtfully criss-crossed slices of spring onion and sprinkled with some smaller bits of spring onion. Everything about these chips told me their architect had designed them with great care, probably over an extended period and would have wept at the thought of someone in management suggesting they just serve a bowl of high-margin Makikihi fries.
Hand-cut fries with mayo, $8
I had eaten Double Dutch fries once before, several years ago, at a night market in New Lynn, in the pouring rain, hounded by my feral children - an environment that could not have been less conducive to eating enjoyment but I remembered those chips as special and had thought about them many times since. When lockdown ended, I discovered the truck from which they are served was parking up at Eden Park, so I drove clean across town with my kids to get there for lunchtime. They were thick but accommodating, their interiors accessible and boisterous. Double Dutch serve only one product. They're not the first food vendor in New Zealand to do that but they're the first to make an art of it.
"These are the best chips I've ever tasted," said Tallulah, 6.
"These chips are delicious," said Casper, 3.
"Not to be rude, or mean, or anything," said Clara, 4, "but I really have to go to the toilet."
Shoestring fries and malt vinegar mayo, $4
These were fairly orthodox shoestrings, a rich gold, nothing special to look at but on the tongue the chicken salt produced a thick, blunt, savoury taste and faint residual sweetness. The malt vinegar mayo is not just a flavour but a philosophical provocation inviting consideration of the complementarity and contradiction inherent in the juxtaposition of tradition and innovation. There weren't many fries in the bag but, then again, they were $4.
Garlic frites, $10
Even before I opened the polystyrene takeaway carton containing Bar Celeste's garlic frites, it was obvious the frites were not the dominant partner. The box was magnificently pongy, awash in garlic, filled with maxi shoestrings that were almost liquid in the mouth. It was like a kiss with a mid-20th century existentialist at an abstract art fair. It's easy to get caught up in the idea that chips are just fat and potato and forget they are pure possibility.
Fermented fries with feta and oregano, $5
The essence of our species' cultural project is the clash between the drive for - and fear of - novelty. In their sense of adventure, Cotto's fermented fries further us as a species but they also taste a bit funny. Then again, they are $5.
Polenta fries, $10
Whatever these are – and it's not easy to say, precisely – they're big, bold and don't care what you think. They were and they remain, Auckland's first statement fries. They dominate the scene – physically – and have done for more than a decade. I know I said earlier that fries are fat and potato but I was wrong. These are big slabs of polenta, sturdy enough to construct a low-end, probably leaky but nevertheless liveable, city-fringe apartment complex. At least part of their appeal is their unlikeliness, their ability to transcend how bad they sound and look with a crispness, a lightness, which says to you: "Beauty is not what you believe it to be" and dares you to respond otherwise, which you can't, because your mouth is too full.
Duck fat chips, $11
On the plate were 12 uniformly large and yellow chips, with a small white pot of tomato sauce. "Tomato sauce? What is this, 1998?" I asked the table. Shortly after, while I was in the midst of another rant ("Too thick! Too dense! See there's no air!") our server arrived unseen, and interrupted me: "Excuse me," she said, "The sauce is Simon's own. It's made entirely from veges."
Entirely from veges? What is this, 2013?
The mass of the chips' interior was equal to the average black hole. If I had wanted a boiled potato, I would have asked my mum for one in 1984. You shouldn't have to chew your chips; they should dissolve in a puddle of salt, fat and satisfaction.
Chips berbere, honey mustard, curry leaves, $13
Odettes' are the most beautiful chips in Auckland. To imagine them plated alongside the dozen uniform slabs of Giraffe is to make a mockery of the idea they should appear in the same article, let alone the same sentence. At the delivery of Odettes' chips, it was all I could do not to cry at the great flowering of human potential before me; the realisation we are in a new age in which it will never again be possible to treat chips as a side dish. They rose high off the plate – they were constructed rather than served – and remained artfully there, despite their apparent precarity. Careful thought had gone into colour: red berbere spice, white honey mustard drizzle, green whole curry leaves, black plate. The tang of the curry leaves was thick in the warm midday air. The chips themselves were jagged, perfect in their imperfection, full of surface flaws and air pockets, their surfaces a multitude of shade, all offering the thrill of the uncertain. What would happen next? I wondered but, of course, I knew: I would eat them.
Shoestring fries, $8
People love Burger Burger. I love Burger Burger. What I love about Burger Burger is the burgers. They do chips as well but not as well as the burgers.
Montreal poutine: Fries w/ cheese curd & gravy, $9
I've thought a lot about this and concluded the only reason poutine is not more popular here is the word "curd". It's the grossest word in English, far worse than "moist" or "ACT". Instead of "fries with cheese curd and gravy", why don't we call it "Cheese fries with gravy"? A targeted campaign with that slogan would see it become the national dish within the year. Nobody who's eaten the poutine at The Fed can understand how it hasn't happened already: A small plate of maxi shoestrings, piled to a perfect point, doused in gravy and scattered with melty cubes of cheese: It's all one can do not to submerge one's face in it, then pour the remnants all over one's naked body while chanting the words "Al Brown and Company".
The Fed effectively invented poutine in New Zealand. Only Canadians and the Canadian-adjacent would be able to suggest there's anything wrong with it and even then they would be wrong, because they would be making a relative distinction between the poutine at The Fed and the poutine in Canada, which is not relevant when you're tipsy on Federal St on a Friday night. And, if you're the sort of person who says, "This is better in Canada," please go to Canada.