Diets be damned. Thrasher's french fries, available on the boardwalk for more than seven decades, are here to stay no matter what the surgeon general thinks about eating fried foods by the bucket.

"To me, they're the best fries in America," said Scott Kinsey, a tourist in from Reading, Pa.

"These are the best in the world," said Kitty Joan Langley, down from Newark, Del.

Since it fried its first french fry in 1929, Thrasher's has been an Ocean City boardwalk staple. For many tourists, the fries, cut fresh at three concessions and served with a dousing of vinegar, are synonymous with visits to the place that, on most summer weekends, becomes the second-largest city in Maryland.

Technically, the fries come in cups -- 16 ounces, 32 ounces and 53 ounces -- but the largest looks suspiciously like a bucket. So, in these diet-conscious times, exactly who orders french fries by the pail?

"Everybody," said Carl Hammond, manager of one of the stands. "Young people. Old people. Local people. Tourists. You name it."

That is not to say Thrasher's has the Ocean City fry market cornered. Boardwalk Fries, a national chain, has a concession between two of the Thrasher's stands, and Steve Amico, the 19-year-old surfer behind its counter Friday, said he didn't think Thrasher's fries were so special.

But it was Amico's first day on the job and, it must be said, his defense of Boardwalk Fries lacked the dust-cover hyperbole of Thrasher's supporters. Boardwalk's fries, Amico said, are made thusly: "They come in and you deep-fry them."

"To tell you the truth, I'm not a huge fast-food person," he said.

On a bench nearby sat Mike Roberts, up from Kentucky, cradling a cup of Boardwalk's fries. Roberts, a supervisor at a hospital cafeteria, was not impressed. "I'm an old Kentucky boy. I prefer mine with a little life in them," he said, although what that meant was not clear.

Roberts said the fries cannot properly be compared to the potato wedges he serves in the hospital cafeteria. "Two different worlds," he said.

There seemed a natural place to find an answer about Ocean City's best fries: the white shack with the red roof and the large sign that says "Information." There, Russell Maykrantz, a city employee, confessed to a friendship with the owner of Boardwalk Fries but said, still, there was no question. "Thrasher's is definitely the better fry," he said. "Those are professional french fry people."

So what makes them so special?

"There's something to it, but [owner] Buddy Jenkins isn't going to let the cat out of the bag," he said. There are a number of theories, Maykrantz said, prominent among them that it's "something he puts in the grease."

Jenkins is very serious about french fries. The way he sees it, Thrasher's is a tradition, on par with Nathan's Famous hot dogs of Coney Island, and he intends to see that nothing changes -- or gets revealed.

"We have a process that I certainly don't intend to divulge," Jenkins said. He would say only that it involves a recipe and cooking times.

What he did divulge was that the potatoes typically come from Idaho, that they are peeled and sliced where they are sold, and that minimizing the time from fryer to palate is a priority. "You can imagine what that would be if that wasn't our discipline," he said. "You'd have a limp potato."

Hammond, the manager, said he would have sworn when he was a kid that he could smell Thrasher's french fries as he came across the Route 50 bridge into Ocean City. "And maybe I could when the wind was right, I don't really know," he said.

One thing Hammond knows for sure is that after more than 30 years as a Thrasher's employee or manager, he can't smell them at all anymore. "I don't smell anything," he said, except the barbecue joint next door.

Kelly Nichols, left, and Lydia Figueroa of Anne Arundel County work on a "cup" of Thrasher's fries on the boardwalk in Ocean City.

Gracie Mummau of Bainbridge, Pa., holds on to her father, Jesse, as a wave comes in at Ocean City, where the fries are almost as big a draw as the surf.