First in a series on James Beard Foundation America’s Classics eateries in New England.
SOUTH BURLINGTON, Vt. - Cashiers at Al’s never have to ask “Would you like fries with that?’’ since fries - or “frys,’’ as they are spelled here - are the whole point of eating at this fast food place on the highway east of town. Opened as a modest roadside stand on remote farmland in 1946, Al’s has expanded over the years even as strip malls have surrounded it. But lovers of french fries keep coming and in 2010 the James Beard Foundation recognized Al’s French Frys as one of America’s Classics.
Usually associated with celebrity chefs and fine-dining rooms, the Beard Foundation has a populist side as well. Since 1998 it has been honoring locally owned, usually casual, eateries. After all, James Beard (1903-85) was as much gourmand as gourmet. He burst onto the American culinary scene with cookbooks about campfire cookery, backyard barbecue, and charcoal grilling. He would have loved Al’s.
On a Friday night, it seems every vehicle in the Champlain Valley is heading toward the neon sign that signals the turn into Al’s parking lot. Yet calm prevails inside. Everyone knows the drill - and will clue in newbies who have made pilgrimages from all over the country. The line leading to the order-taking cashier stretches toward the door, giving us plenty of time to decide what we want to order to go with our fries. In front of us, Bill Hatch of Shelburne has decided on burgers for himself and his wife. “My brother is 68,’’ he tells us. “He worked here when he was in high school.’’
When we reach his cash register, Greg Brigante is all crisp efficiency. “I’ve been here for five months and it’s so much fun working here,’’ he says. “Two people from Texas told me that we’re well known down there.’’ Order placed (burger, corndog, hot dog, fries) and paid for, we follow the line to the tiled counter that separates hungry customers from the folks at the grill and deep fryers. The cooks are in the groove as they cook and assemble each order. Al’s is so well choreographed that the line clicks along like clockwork.
On warm evenings, regulars and old-timers still like to eat in their cars with the windows rolled down. But Al’s of today also has a large dining room with checkerboard tile floor and booths upholstered in classic red vinyl. There is plenty of room for families with young children, gaggles of flirting teenagers, and gray-haired couples grabbing a bite.
Jill Companion of nearby Winooski is enjoying a chili cheesedog and chocolate milk. “My brother used to work here when Al’s was small,’’ she reminisces. “We came here as kids a lot. Everybody gets something different, but mostly it’s about the fries.’’
We can see why. Not too crisp, not too soggy, they are just right, with a strong potato flavor that comes of being freshly cut from whole potatoes, lightly blanched, pre-fried, and then given a final dip in hot fat before they are served. They set the bar for fast-food fries.
Al’s is one of eight New England establishments that have been recognized as America’s Classics. We can’t wait to try them all.
Al’s French Frys1251 Williston Road, South Burlington, Vt., 802-862-9203, www.alsfrenchfrys.com, Mon-Thu, 10:30 a.m.- 11 p.m., Fri-Sat till midnight, Sun 11-11. Fries $1.30 per cup to $4.25 per quart, dogs and burgers $1.40-$3.20.Patricia Harris and David Lyon, authors of the forthcoming “Food Lovers’ Guide to Vermont and New Hampshire,’’ can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.