FRENCH FRIES ARE THE GLUE THAT holds our diverse culture together. From meat-loving grammas to childlike vegans, we all come together around the deep-fried potato. I'd landed the choice assignment of assessing the world of fries; realizing we'd need expert help, my Administrative Assistant (AA) and I re-activated Chow deputies R1 and R2 in a simple sunrise service at Golden Gardens. (Both had previously served proudly in a review of Bellevue's The Eating Factory.) This would truly be the All-American Fry Squad: R1's a vegetarian, R2's a butcher, the AA's a Mormon, and I love pets.

It was surprisingly simple to narrow the field down to five contenders: Dick's Drive-In (any location), the Elysian on Capitol Hill, lower Queen Anne's Figaro Bistro, the Five-Point Cafe by the Seattle Center, and Ballard's Sunset Lanes bowling alley. With such a diverse and balanced field representing the best fries Seattle has to offer, we set about our quest with a great deal of civic pride. Emotions were running high, and R2 wept openly on several fry ingestion occasions.

Dick's Drive-In's fries ($.90) taste best when the consumer's blood alcohol content is over .30. Luckily, this was the case, since we had the good fortune to snatch the Stranger staff driver for the evening. One thing is predictable about Dick's fries: great inconsistency. On a good night, they're crunchy and hot, sliding down the gullet marvelously. On a bad night, they can be limp, broken, tiny, and stuck together in clumps.

The Figaro Bistro, an upscale establishment, offers a remarkable side for $3.95. Long, slender, and sleek, this fry is about as sensual as they come. Some swear that peanut oil is a must-use for fries; with their sunshine-yellow color and ultra-stiff exterior, we guessed that peanut oil was indeed in the house. Figaro's Steak and Fries is a true knock-out, and paints a beautiful platter portrait. The AA titillated us all with this pre-meal visualization exercise: "Pretend that the big slab of meat is a powerful but dense lover, and pretend that the lean fries are the seducer." When R2 urged, "And then what?" we howled with glee.

The Elysian's fries ($3.95), while bountiful and brimming with strong and positive flavors, provoked the most controversy among our panel. R1 had been the staff's Elysian cheerleader, and felt a strong attachment to their crescent-shaped hotties. Yet R2 was sure they were a frozen product, and made an aggressive if gentlemanly inquiry. Sure enough, our friendly server confirmed the frozen status. This news came down like a ton of bricks on the AA: "You mean a place like this, with its lovely ambience, blond-wood accessories, thoughtful design, and alterna-staff chose to serve FROZEN?" It was true. A grim silence hung over the table, until the AA's plaintive wail cut through the smoky air like a hot knife: "Oh, God, why?!"

Sunset Bowl, Ballard's flagship business, felt more like a zoo than a bowling alley. Not to say that it smelled like zoo animals, but there's just something a little off about the place. It was karaoke night, and in the little box of a bar, some sort of post-modern group-counseling session for the insane was apparently in full swing. The fries, however, were nothing short of a steal at $1.20. Sure, they're frozen too, but these medium-sized little grease monkeys came on buttery and smooth, particularly when loaded up with black pepper.

Finally our splintered panel stumbled into the Five-Point Cafe--and frankly, we were sick of the whole thing, realizing that maybe we should have split up the tasting into more than one evening. But when our fries came we lit up like a bunch of two-bit carny monkeys. Why is that? Well, when it comes to french fries, all roads lead to the Five-Point. Long, thick, and clad in attractive little wood-grained skins, they were freshly made, beyond a doubt. So fresh was the flavor that we suspected the Five-Point was growing spuds in the back. This was a fry that inspired. Sitting under moose antlers adorned with brassieres--apparently tossed by naughty patrons on a previous jolly occasion--we laughed and joked and mixed up crazy and impossible condiment concoctions. Vinegar, ketchup, jalapeño Tabasco, mustard: all would find their way onto these golden gems. With their modest salting and picked-tomorrow vitality, the Five-Point's potatoes reconfirmed our belief in the fry--and above all, in the ability of the french fry to heal.

Five-Point Cafe: 415 Cedar St, 448-9993. Open 24 hours, 7 days.

Sunset Bowl: 1420 NW Market (Ballard), 782-7310. Serving Sun-Thurs 7-9 pm, Fri-Sat 7 pm-12 midnight.

Elysian: 1121 E Pike, 860-1920. Serving Mon-Fri 11:30-midnight, Sat-Sun 12 noon-2 am.

Figaro Bistro: 11 Roy St (Queen Anne), 284-6465. Serving daily 5-10:30 pm, Fri-Sat till 11:30 pm.

Dick's Drive-In: Several locations. Serving daily 10:30 am-2 am.

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