When Bel-Fries, a tiny counter service restaurant on Ludlow Street specializing in Belgian Fries, made its debut on May 15th, NYC was still technically under Governor Cuomo's PAUSE order, and weeks away even from the first phase of reopening. (Though this section of the Lower East Side wasn't already kind of open at that point in the pandemic, at least for day drinkers spilling out into the streets.)
With basically just a single item on the menu, one that's served in handy portable containers, Bel-Fries has definitely arrived with advantages over more complex culinary operations. But still, opening a new restaurant in what was the epicenter of a global pandemic takes a certain amount of both determination and hope.
"We worked on Bel-Fries for two years, intending to open on March 30th," founder and chef Stephane Lemagnen told Gothamist. "Covid completely halted our plans, but after holding back for six weeks, we realized that the whole neighborhood was under so much stress and ready for comfort food. We also knew that this grab-and-go concept would be appealing under these circumstances, when everyone is looking for quick meals that don't require a lot of contact."
Now the most important news: the fries at Bel-Fries are great. Cut semi-thick in the traditional Belgian street frites manner, the short, chunky strips of potatoes are fried in sunflower oil and arrive crisp on the outside, light and fluffy within.
They'd probably be just fine as is, or maybe with some ketchup, but the way to go here is to slather on one of the dozen or so homemade sauces, including Sriracha Mayo, Smoky Chipotle, Curry Mango, and, the two I went for, Queso and Kewpie Mayo, both of which were highly acceptable versions of those classic potato toppings.
You can also ask your counterperson to sprinkle on pickled onions, jalapeños, or half-sour pickles. The latter choice turned out to be a surprisingly delicious addition to my snack, transforming the Kewpie Mayo into something resembling tartar sauce.
Many of the expected coronavirus protocols are in place at Bel-Fries, like contactless payment, plexiglass shields, masked-up workers (and, one hopes, fellow customers), and squirt bottles of hand sanitizers scattered about. There is one of those nifty tables with holes for your cones available, but distancing is difficult if there's more than one party. A nearby bench provides an alternative for on-site eating or, since the cones are so portable, you can just stroll around the neighborhood while you munch it all down.
Chef Lemagnen has big plans for Bel-Fries, undiminished, it seems, by the ongoing pandemic and economic crisis. "We are on a mission to create the greatest fries and sauces in the world," said Lemagnen. "We picked Ludlow Street for our first shop because it's in a young, hip, energetic, trendsetting area that we felt would be the ideal place to begin our new incredible journey. And though we're starting on the Lower East Side, we have plans to expand to new markets and hope to have Bel-Fries locations in every neighborhood."
Bel-Fries is located at 132 Ludlow Street, between Stanton and Rivington Streets, and is currently open daily from 1 p.m. to 8 p.m. (646-370-3668; bel-fries.com)