16 Cheese Fries We Love in Chicago

[Photographs: Amy Cavanaugh]

Unlike most foods, I can pinpoint exactly when I first fell for cheese fries. When I studied at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, there was a little takeaway called Empire where you could get a Styrofoam container of chips and cheese for about two pounds. They were as simple as could be—just a pile of golden fries topped with melted shredded cheese. I don't think I ever got chips and cheese unless I had been drinking Snakebites at the student union earlier in the evening, and that kind of sealed my idea of what cheese fries were: the ideal food to consume after a night out.

My appreciation for cheese fries as the perfect post-bar food grew while I lived in D.C. There, the gold standard was the cheese fries at Ben's Chili Bowl. Even now, when I return to D.C. I make a visit—there's no better snack than hot fries under a blanket of orange cheese sauce and a white plastic fork.

But in Chicago, cheese fries are more than a dish you consume after a night out. Whether this is related to Chicago's hot dog stand culture or that chefs here like to elevate simple dishes, I don't know. But I do know that you can find a very wide range of cheese fries here. They're topped with many kinds of cheese, meats, and pickled vegetables, and available everywhere from hot dog stands to bars to restaurants.

As I ate more and more cheese fries, I began to realize some aspects that I liked more than others. I really liked waffle fries, since toppings fall into the crevices and they won't wilt on your fork. For some reason, scallions seemed to take fries to the next level. They're mild, but add an oniony flavor and a pleasing textural note. And the versions that really coated the fries with toppings were usually better than those that left lots of naked fries around the edges; like nachos, every fry should be in on the action.

Here are 16 versions worth trying. Check them out by clicking on the slideshow, or look at them individually below.