They said it couldn’t be done. They said there was no way the human body could endure such a horrific volume of carbohydrates in one day. They scoffed at our lofty, potato-centric ambitions, branding us ‘dreamers’ and ‘deranged, spud bothering fantasists’. They even said we should get real jobs.
They were, in fairness, pretty much entirely correct.
But even so, the Great EATMCR Chip Safari of 2021 (Trademark Mary-Ellen McTague) was a resounding, near heart attack inducing success and we would readily do it again. With more people to help out and ready access to a defibrillator.
When fried potato enthusiast and mate of EATMCR Lucy Noone-Blake tweeted the idea of chronicling the best chips in Manchester, the response was instantly resounding. An emphatically positive deluge of replies suggested that it was, in fact, quite a good idea.
And it was one we were very, very keen to be involved with.
Quicker than you could say ‘sweet potato fries are not fucking chips, now get them out of my sight’, a plan was hatched. Establishments were listed, furious debates raged as to which venues would make the cut, with a flagrant disregard for our own health and wellbeing becoming more and more prominent with each spot that was confirmed.
Thirteen. Thirteen restaurants made the cut. Thir-fucking-teen. In one day. Not even a full day either. A fucking afternoon.
Full disclosure, we managed nine. And it almost killed us.
The starch stuffing dream team consisted of the aforementioned plot hatcher extraordinaire Lucy, EATMCR owner/bossman/sheriff Paddy Brown and myself. A triple cooked trio of chip loving renegades. Did some people compare our grandeur and influence to the original New World Order? No, literally only I did that, in my own head, because as far as I’m aware Lucy and Paddy have absolutely nothing but disdain and indifference for mid ‘90s professional wrestling. Still though, two iconic trios, it can’t be denied.
Armed with empty stomachs, massive appetites and a total and utter lack of comprehension of how detrimental to our digestive systems the next few hours was going to be, we descended on our first venue: Honest Burgers on Bridge Street.
Yes, OK, we’ve started with a chain, but a chain where the quality of spuds cannot be denied. Although my suggestion of adding Maccies on Oxford Road to our route at 3am was promptly shut down, Honest was allowed as the launch pad of our operation and it delivered in droves.
A round of rosemary salted chips was dropped to our table, complete with accompanying beef gravy and vegan mayo (separate pots, obviously) and the feeding frenzy began.
To the chest swelling tones of Andrea Bocelli’s dramatic classic ‘Por ti Volare’, a smattering of the rosemary flecked chips were shaken into the gravy, offering up an immersively rich Sunday Roast vibe to proceedings. The outer crunch, the inner fluff of the spuds was spot on, with the gravy a perfect texture so as to coat, not drench, the chips, even after a full submersion. The rosemary was equally not too overpowering, but perfectly complementary and positively moreish.
Paired with a pint of Camden Hells, we were off to the races. Not even the scraps survived. Which was actually where, unbeknownst to us at the time, our downfall would begin some restaurants later.
“This lot are gonna be hard to beat…”
“Right, where ne….” “…Hawksmoor” Lucy’s interruption of Paddy’s query was blunt yet absolutely fair. The Manchester outpost of the classic London staple, located round the corner from Honest in an old Victorian courthouse on Deansgate, with it’s dark wood panelling, parquet flooring and sublime cocktail menu is enough to make you feel like a half cut Don Draper upon entry; all mood lighting and Martinis, the bar area oozes sophistication and debauchery in equal measure. If a load of Mad Men poured in for a half dozen Old Fashioned’s at lunch you wouldn’t be in the least bit surprised.
On this visit, however, steak and top shelf spirits are left on the sidelines (well, sort of) as their triple cooked chips and dripping fries took centre stage.
It was upon ordering that Creameries Commando (official title) Mary-Ellen McTague’s name was brought up to the Hawksmoor staff. As we placed our order, we made sure to accessorise our chips with anchovy hollandaise and stichelton hollandaise. It then dawned on me that I was a Martini away from replicating Mary-Ellen’s go-to Hawksmoor bar order, which she enthused about to me a couple of months ago over far too many shots of bourbon and pickle juice.
“Well, you’ve got to go for it now you’ve mentioned it” a particularly devious member of bar staff exclaimed as I blurted my realisation out loud, without taking into account that it was half two in the fucking afternoon.
“How would you like your Martini?”
“I, erm…well…dr….yeah I’ve literally never had one before”
“If you’re doing Mary-Ellen’s order, I can just do it like she has it – Strong and dirty”
“I, haha, ye….does it come with olives in it?”
That’s how my first ever Martini order went down and, true to form, it was strong. Stronger than The Rock’s thighs on leg day. Fortunately, despite the whirlwind of gin and vermouth enveloping my brain, my tastebuds were left well in tact to experience some of the best, if not the best chips I have ever had the pleasure of dropping into my mouth.
Lots of noises were made. All involuntary. Whatever happens during the three rounds of cooking these chips go through, it can only be surmised is some sort of sorcery. It’s not even worth knowing how the end result is achieved. Just enjoy the magic while each golden, rectangular wonder passes your lips. The dips are no mere sideshow either, each providing supreme umami vibes, somehow lifting these Holy Grails even further into the stratosphere. I could bang on for another 2,000 words about them, to be honest. Every other couple of words would just be ‘fucking hell’.
“This lot are going to be hard to beat” is my final, ridiculous understatement of a review as we saddle up for a visit to venue number three.
“FUCKIN’ HELL, LET’S MAKE A CHIP BUTTY”
Those final words from Hawksmoor must have made their way up the road to the team at Kala Bistro, because this lot did not fuck around with their contribution to our urban carb safari.
The King Street standout, another jewel in the crown of Elite Bistro Kingpin Gary Usher, is a pretty fucking wondrous place. Being that we’re only downing a portion of chips, we belly up to the bar rather than taking a table in the main restaurant and, were it not for the fact we had another TEN portions to navigate, it is hard to picture the day deviating away from these seats. Sunlight bouncing through the towering front windows, a handful of truffle parmesan chips are illuminated as they are placed in front of us, as if descending from upon high. Between the presentation and the couple of bevs swilling around my stomach, it certainly felt like a borderline religious experience.
What came next was a moment of such divine inspiration that the end result deserved it’s very own deification.
A couple of rogue, Hors-d’œuvre sized focaccias appeared unexpectedly, their varnished crusts glistening in the mid-afternoon sun. Immediately, we knew what had to be done.
“Fuckin hell, let’s make a chip butty” came the cry and, despite Lucy being drained of about a litre of blood from an over enthusiastic bread slicing incident (a noble effort in the quest for ultimate chip butty creation) there was no messing with a masterpiece that could have easily stood up next to ANY of Neil Buchanan’s Art Attacks.
Was it a ‘posh’ chip butty? Yes, OK, there’s no denying that. But eschewing the traditional majesty of a flour dusted bap or slices of toastie loaf, slathered generously in butter and gravy/curry sauce/mushy peas being the vessel for our chips was unavoidable in these circumstances. We had bread, we had chips, what else were we going to do?
The result? More noises. More shaking of heads as we wondered how such a simple staple can be done so,so well. It may just be the most perfect bar snack in all of Manchester.
Just one thing, though.
The shape of the ‘chips’ at Kala is ever so slightly on the ‘wedge’ side of the scale. Not a criticism, just an overview of the geometry of the Elite Bistro offering.
I plead my case about whether or not these truffle and parmesan adorned starchy bois should even be considered chips, but we’re already well on our way to the next leg of the tour.
The Pit Stops
Time is now working against us. That’ll happen when you’re allowing the necking of Martinis and severing of fingertips to get in the way of the fucking Catalina Wine Mi…. I mean EATMCR Chip Safari.
We realise our next few spots need to be navigated swiftly, but one look at the line up tells us we’re in trouble: Salt & Pepper, Northern Soul and Almost Famous. Three portions in and we’re flagging, now we’ve got to funnel another trio of heavy hitters down our gullets?
Salt & Pepper, as everyone is extremely well versed in by now, produce their unbeatable crinkle cut concoction with their signature ferocious blend of green peppers, onions, chillies, salt and spices. The aroma alone enough to generate a tsunami from even the most dried out of saliva glands. Chloe Tao and her brother Cash are rarely seen without a snaking queue at their Arndale Market stall, and just one mouthful of their chips will tell you why.
We then stagger in the direction of the Northern Quarter and park ourselves at Northern Soul’s new digs on Tib Street.
This is where the pain begins.
It’s humid, we’re full of potatoes and lager and we’re about to inhale even more of it. Oh, and this round of spuds comes complete with a topping of macaroni and cheese the size of a fucking Renault Clio.
I have longstanding reservations about the use of mac and cheese as a side order to meals, let alone a topping. I take a long, lazy sup of Neck Oil and wonder how on earth any of us are going to withstand the strain of MACARONI AND CHEESE FRIES.
Let it just be said that both the mac and cheese and the fries are a thing of beauty. Both expertly prepared and, I’ll admit, the queso-esque sauce oozing onto the crisp, salty brilliance of the fries is decadent as shit, I’m just not sure the macaroni is necessary, delicious though it is. But let’s not allow personal preferences to get in the way of this being an elite beer snack.
Remember when I mentioned that the pain had started? Yeah, well, it gets a whole lot worse.
Almost Famous are a decade old Manchester institution and the city’s first proper viral culinary superstars. And their bacon bacon fries are, for very good reason, one of the city’s most beloved dirty dishes. But by fucking christ, a titanic sized portion of these bastards was the last thing I wanted to see sat down before me at this moment in time. And I hate myself for saying that, but when it feels as though chips are now piled from your lower intestine up to the back of your tonsils, more of the fuckers topped with bacon mayo and ‘bacon rain’ is enough to make you weep openly in public.
Fortunately tears were avoided and Paddy, tiring of the pair of us measly picking at a dish we would ordinarily devour (Lucy’s vegetarianism prevented her from partaking in this course) performed a herculean effort. One heroic gust of second wind catapulting him forwards, his fork stabbing through starch and bacon like an angry cobra going apeshit on a warren of rabbits it’s just stumbled upon. The chips disappear into his mouth, pain etched on his face, but also glory. A true ‘taking one for the team’ moment that will be seared into our collective memories forever. This may have been when the crying started.
The Last Leg
“Guin…actually, wait, just a pint of something easy”. We collapse into the Bay Horse Tavern on Thomas Street not a well gang. We order the ‘thrice cooked chips’, complete with a miniature saucepan of beef gravy and we realise Guinness, although perfectly poured in this Northern Quarter stalwart, is not the way to go refreshment wise. In all honesty, neither is any lager after seven portions of chips, but there we were, committing to complete and utter heart failure.
Even seven portions deep, however, there was no denying the strength of Bay Horse’s chips. The time and patience put into each cooking of them a worthwhile effort. We’d much prefer them as our first round to our seventh, but even so, it’s painstakingly obvious that these beefy behemoths are well worth your attention.
At this point, Lucy departs. A group hug is shared, like a scene straight out of a late ‘90s/early ‘00s coming of age film, only missing an overly emotional pop punk ballad to really deliver the gravitas that it so richly deserved.
Left to our own devices now, Paddy and I head Babwards. Greek fries, crumbled with feta and olives and drizzled with tzatziki, garlic mayo and chilli sauce are, much like the previous four courses, chef’s kiss worthy fries. It’s also an arseload of salt for two lads who can barely even talk to each other at this point.
We give the basket of Greek goodness in front of us the valiant effort it deserves. It’s not exactly Angelos Charisteas heading in the winner in the Euro 2004 final, but given our own fitness levels in the moment, it’s also not that far off either. Applause is also apt as, in a market as saturated as the ‘loaded fries’ one, Bab have produced a dish that is actually pretty unique, with more bars focusing on the melted cheese/bacon/fried chicken/gravy toppings for their Frankenstein’s monsters. Feta and olives are a welcome break from the norm, even if the pair of us feel as if we’re about to go blind, slip into a coma, or both.
“Time to say goodbye”
The operatic beefcake Andrea Bocelli scored the opening scene of this tour and it’s with his soul stirring crescendo of Italian drama coursing through our veins that we amble, not quite beaten, but battered to Fry By.
We order up a cone of European inspired fritey fulfilment at the Hilton St hatch, holding it aloft like the Champions League trophy when it arrives. We fucking did it. For each and every one of you we did it. We are about a stone heavier respectively, but we mercilessly plough through the double cooked deliciousness, seeing off everything in our wake, pickled pink onions, a myriad of mayos, homemade salts, each tastier than the last. This is our last dance, like Michael Jordan and Scotty Pippen, just ruining the ever loving shite out of any poor set of sods who steps before them in the NBA Play offs, we polish off the ninth and final serving. And what a spot to draw a close to proceedings.
While Fry By’s residency on Hilton Street is sadly no longer, we expect to see the Amsterdam inspired frite shop open for business elsewhere at some point in the future. Their red desiree potatoes, fresh from McCalls on High Street, are steamed, blanched, fried and seasoned to a tee, delivering an almost Kettle Chip like quality. It’s no surprise that the post-5pm crowds were constantly amassed around the spot next to Corner Boy during its three month stretch. Wherever this gem reappears, it’s going to do gangbusters business.
And so, sweaty, exhausted, potentially on the verge of a major cardiac incident, we head off into the sweet embrace of Stevenson Square, victorious and in agony. As the sun lilts behind the Victorian splendour of the surrounding buildings, we regret not being able to give superior spud slingers such as Viet Shack, Evelyn’s, Bull and Bear, 10 Tib Lane and the assorted Chop Houses their flowers. Maybe next time…
As we swear off all potato based orders for at least a month, Paddy disappears to a nearby offy. He returns with a Toffee Crisp. My mind is blown.