Starch Madness Winner: Shojo’s ‘Shadowless’ Duck Fat Fries
Sometimes a chef’s signature dish, the one that has most longevity on a menu, is nothing but a serendipitous mistake. Just ask Shojo chef Mark O’Leary whose Shadowless duck fat fries came together out of seemingly disparate parts. There was the crispy, hand-cut Russets, double-fried in a sizzling whirpool of duck fat. But those had been on the menu prior to his tenure, which began in the summer of 2014. Then there was the cheese sauce, a blend of funky kimchi brine, gooey American cheese, and gelatin; a condiment designed as an Asian accent for O’Leary’s late-night burger. Finally, there was line chef Chen Jun Li’s mapo tofu, a family recipe that was generously whisked together as hearty pre-shift staff meal.
None of those ingredients was ever meant to grace the same plate, that is until Shojo bartender Mike Patterson introduced the holy trinity in an inspired (and ravenous) moment he couldn’t stop talking about.
“This is so funny to us because originally the Shadowless fries were just this throwaway dish that was never meant for the menu,” O’Leary says. “Basically, how the story goes is that our bartender, Mike Patterson, would order this for himself almost every night. He’d come into the kitchen and ask, ‘Can I get French fries, but doused in some of that mapo sauce, and maybe some of that cheese sauce from the late-night menu.’ It sounds wacky, but it ends up that it tasted pretty good. So, we just said ‘Fuck it, let’s put it on the menu. Why not?’ I mean, people were already asking for it based on Mike’s recommendation.”
Below, in O’Leary’s own words, a breakdown of all the brines, “secret” sauces, and invaluable expertise that goes into making this year’s winner for the best fried potato dish in all of Boston.
Step One: Twice-Cooked Fries
“This is a very collaborative dish. The duck fat fries have been on Shojo’s menu since day one. Our prep guy Orlando, who has been here forever, he’s been making them since the wee beginning of Shojo. He makes them consistently crispy and delicious every single time. To start, we cut Russet potatoes, then blanch them, and par cook them at a low temperature, just to cook them through. For service, we cook them in this little mini fryer that we have filled with duck fat. That takes about two minutes to crisp up. Afterward, we just season them with a little salt and pepper. That’s it!”
Step Two: Mapo Bolognese
“We have this cook from Shanghai named Chen [Jun Li], he made this mapo tofu dish for staff meal one time and it was just fucking delicious. I was like, ‘This is what mapo tofu is supposed to taste like?’ Not to talk too much shit, but I’ve had a lot in Boston that’s been pretty bland and this was just a kick in the face. It’s super rich and spicy and has these funky Szechuan notes to it. After I tasted it, I thought it would be great with a hand-pulled, hand-slapped noodle.”
The Secret Ingredient
“To make the mapo, we sauté ground beef with sake, tons of garlic, ground Szechuan peppercorns, some of our house-made pork stock, and broad bean chili paste. That’s the most ingredient as far as the mapo dish goes. It’s actually really hard to find. A lot of times we have to track it down and it’s a total pain in the ass, but it’s worth it. I don’t even know the name of it. It’s just this jar with red stuff in it. Chen can’t even translate it into English for us, so we just call it ‘Lady Sauce,’ because it has this lady on the label. That’s the only way we can identify it. But we just cook that all up together, let it simmer for around two hours, and let it get really thick, almost like a sloppy joe mix. At the very end, we drop in some tofu, which is supposed to mimic the cheese curds in regular poutine.”
Step Three: Cheese Sauce
“We take a mix of American and cheddar cheese, add milk and a touch of gelatin, then whisk in some of our kimchi base, which is made from gochujang, garlic, chilies, and ginger. Instead of blending kimchi directly into it, we take the flavor of the kimchi and pour it in. It funks it up a little bit. Originally, we’d refrigerate the cheese so it would solidify and we could slice it. But eventually, we were selling so many late-night cheeseburgers that it became impossible to melt them all to-order under a broiler. So we just made a cheese sauce because it was way more efficient.”
The Final Dish
“Mike [Patterson] has the word ‘Shadowless’ tattooed on his chest, so when I asked him what we should call his dish, he said, ‘Shadowless.’ Nobody questioned it for months, they were just Shadowless fries. A customer finally asked us what it meant and I had no idea. I asked Mike about a week ago just because of this contest. According to him, there’s two interpretations. One is that there’s a martial arts move where you kick so fast that it doesn’t even leave a shadow. The second one is even cooler though. In the olden days, ninjas would have a shadow, or someone who mimicked them—a body double to some extent. There were some ninjas that were so good and so secretive that they were “Shadowless.” Long story short, Shadowless implies that something is so unique that there’s no comparison. That’s what our fries are like.”