Originating in Quebec, poutine has become so popular throughout Canada that you'll find it everywhere - on the menu of fast food chains (Burger King, KFC, Dairy Queen), gourmet versions at fine restaurants, and even at wedding receptions!
Most Americans have never heard of poutine, and until recently, the closest thing I could find in the Tri-state area were disco fries (with processed cheese sauce - blech). So I would just let my poutine cravings build up until I returned to Canada, occasionally curbing my desire with KFC fries and gravy.
One of my favorite stories about poutine occurred during the 2000 US presidential election, when satirist Rick Mercer, posing as a reporter for the Canadian sketch comedy show, This Hour Has 22 minutes, asked presidential candidate George W. Bush how he felt about a recent endorsement from Canadian Prime Minister Jean "Poutine". His on-air response was, "He understands I want to make sure our relationship with our most important neighbour to the north of us is strong and we'll work closely together". Well, the Prime Minister of Canada at the time was named Jean Chretien, NOT Jean Poutine, so Canadians all had a big chuckle over George W. Bush saying that he planned to work closely with a junk food dish of fried potatoes! Dubya later joked about the incident while visiting Canada, saying that he had "hoped to meet Jean Poutine" during his trip. Check out this hilarious compilation of Rick Mercer "Talking to Americans" if you have time.
During our most recent trip to Vancouver, hubby Kris and I truly outdid ourselves, eating 12 poutines in 12 days! I only planned on trying maybe 5 places, but the poutine recommendations kept on pouring in and I just couldn't say no!
So what exactly makes the best poutine? Since I've never been to Quebec, where poutine was originally invented, I'm obviously not an expert on authentic poutine (9/08/09 update: Just got back from eating a LOT of poutine in Montreal and Drummondville, QC, check it out here) . But like every proud Canadian, I do know the basics of our national dish: the cheese should be cheese curds, so fresh that they squeak; the gravy should be thick and delicious; and the fries should be perfectly cooked and well seasoned. The ingredients should come together like a gastronomic symphony: hot crispy fries oozing with half melted cheese curds covered with lip smacking gravy (excuse me while I wipe the drool off my keyboard). I'm searching for the poutine that I'll dream about every night until I return to Canada. And while I do plan on one day visiting Montreal (poutine capital of the world), my search for the ultimate poutine began in my hometown of Vancouver...
me HUNGRY! VANCOUVER POUTINE SHOWDOWN:
12 poutines in 12 days
Phyllis (me HUNGRY!) and Hubby Kris Our highly subjective and totally unscientific scoring system:
4 categories (10 points per category for a possible total of 40 points):
Fries: crispy/soggy? fresh cut/frozen? seasoned properly?
Gravy: thick/creamy? any aftertaste? meaty? (whether veggie or meat based, I like my poutine gravy to have a meaty flavor)
Cheese: fresh curds? do they squeak?
Overall Balance: good ratio of ingredients?
(all menu items and prices quoted are as of May 2009, in Canadian dollars)
Day 1: Backstage Lounge (Granville Island)
Poutine (starter) $9.95
Great fresh cut fries, cheese curds were creamy and delicious but didn't squeak, gravy was very dark and beefy, but with an aftertaste I associate with a gravy mix, reminding me a bit of bovril. Too much gravy overwhemed the overall dish, and there weren't enough of those delicious cheese curds.
Day 2: Fritz European Fry House
Poutine, small $4.00
Fritz always comes up in discussions of the best poutine in Vancouver, so I had high expectations. The fresh cut fries were crispy but nothing extraordinary (especially for a place that specializes in fries), light colored gravy reminded me of KFC (not a bad thing), and cheese curds were delicious and creamy but didn't squeak. The serving was small but the proportions were perfect. Vegetarian, Italian (with a tomato meat sauce), smoked meat, and chicken poutine options also available.
Day 3: Crave (on Main)
Short Rib Poutine - parmesan truffle fries, short rib jus, $10 plus $2 for foie gras mayo
The was the most expensive poutine and the only gourmet contender. Fries were crispy and seasoned perfectly with bits of parsley and truffle, reminding me of the frites I once enjoyed with mussels in Bruges, and delicious dipped in the foie gras mayo (which didn't really taste like foie gras, but was still good). A hearty portion of tender short ribs swimming in a rich gravy made it a full meal. While the shaved parmesan bits were yummy, I had to dock some points because they weren't cheese curds. I was still thinking about this poutine the next day!
Day 4: Belgian Fries
Classic Poutine, medium $5.69
Like Fritz, this was another fry place that got a lot of recommendations for its poutine. Fries were adequate but I couldn't distinguish whether they were fresh or frozen. Light creamy gravy like KFC but much saltier, making us super thirsty afterwards. And the cheese curds squeaked (finally!) but were a bit sour (not sure whether this was intentional). The gravy to fry ratio was good, but needed more cheese overall. Several poutine options available including Tunisian (Merguez lamb sausage), Montreal smoked beef, Galvaude (chicken), and chili (meat or veggie).
Day 5: Salade de Fruits Cafe
Poutine Maison $8.99
Cafe Salade de Fruits, located in Le Centre Culturel Francophone de Vancouver, proclaims itself "a real French bistro". Very authentic and charming but be prepared to wait for a table at peak times. The fries were definitely freshly cut, smaller and more delicate than most poutines I've tried but they held up nicely to the delicious meaty gravy. The gravy's flavor was really complex, possibly enhanced with some wine. Curds squeaked only a little, but Kris swears I had trouble hearing the squeaks because of the street noise (we sat outside on the sunny patio). Dish was well balanced overall. This was hubby's favorite poutine. My only criticism was that the dish was a teeny bit salty.
Day 6: New York Fries (Metrotown Foodcourt, Burnaby)
Poutine, small $4.50
Kris suggested we try a fast food poutine so we headed for the foodcourt at the local mall. We chose New York Fries because they had fresh cut fries (isn't it weird that New York Fries have no locations in New York or the US?) Crispy fries, tasty dark beef gravy, but the cheese 'curds' were a soft tangy crumbly cheese (yummy, but no squeaking). Not bad for a fast food option.
Day 7: Brado Pizza
Poutine, small $4.25
I was a little puzzled when I first walked into Brado Pizza, set up like a food court with falafel/shwarma shop on the left and a bubble tea stand to the right. A smiling Brado stood at the middle counter waiting to greet us. Originally from Montreal, Brado opened up shop 5 years ago to "introduce poutine to Vancouver!" He even offered to teach me all his poutine secrets if I wanted to open up a location of Brado Pizza in New Jersey. Tempting but no. Instead, I tried to get him to share some secrets with me while I waited for my poutine (which is pronouced pu-tzhyn, not poo-teen). "The gravy must be vegetarian, no meat, like cream, not watery, and the cheese must be curds!"
Several versions of poutine are offered at Brado, including smoked meat, Italian, and spicy. And it's the only place I saw that offered pepperoni poutine. While Kris was watching our poutine being made he leaned over and whispered to me that they were using frozen fries. Unlike me, who appreciates any kind of fried potato (including the frozen kind), Kris is a fresh cut fry snob. Fresh or frozen, Brado's fries were uber crispy - every single fry remained crispy, even the ones trapped underneath a giant mound of cheese curds and steaming hot gravy. The generous portion of cheese curds were the freshest and squeakiest we'd had. As a carnivore, I generally prefer meat based gravies, but Brado's gravy was so good that I couldn't tell it was vegetarian. And although I've heard rumors that Brado uses a mix (reportedly St. Hubert), there was absolutely no packaged mix aftertaste. Everything was perfectly seasoned and the proportions were right on. We fought over the remaining fries, mopping up every last drop of gravy. I wanted to declare Brado the winner at this point, but Kris reminded me that we still had 5 more places to go...
Day 8: Zog's Dogs, Whistler, BC
Poutine Classic $6.00
We stopped at Zog's Dogs after a day of ziplining in Whistler. The fries were crispy but bland in flavor, the gravy was dark and probably from a mix, with a slight aftertaste. The cheese curds were small but tasty and they squeaked. Overall, it needed more cheese. Canadian, Western, Asian, Italienne, & Euro style poutine also available.
Day 9: The Templeton
Poutine, house chipped fries, mushroom gravy (vegetarian), aged white cheddar $7
Cute retro diner located in a sketchy area of Granville Street. We stopped here because the Templeton's vegetarian poutine was #39 on Vancouver Magazine's 101 Things to Taste Before You Die. Vegetarian mushroom gravy was unique with lots of sage. Fries were crispy and fresh 'chipped'. Instead of cheese curds, white cheddar shreds melted and disappeared into the gravy. Yummy, but the sage and shredded cheddar threw me off a bit. Super friendly service, and the check came with 2 pieces of double bubble gum!
Day 10: Vera's Burger Shack (Davie St. Location)
Vera's is a locally based chain known for their giant burgers. Poutine was disappointing - fries were not cooked enough and slightly raw tasting, only one of my stringy cheese curds actually squeaked, and there was too much dark salty gravy (tasted like french onion soup mix).
Day 11: Zako's Deli
Poutine, small $4.75
Known for their Montreal smoked meat. Decided to stop here after seeing an article in a local paper that listed Zako's as competition to Brado Pizza's poutine. Was a little disappointed, the portion was small, with slightly soggy and bland fries. The gravy was good, but there was too much of it and too little of the curds (which squeaked only a little bit because most of them melted).
Day 12: Burger King (Vancouver Airport)
Can you believe after eating 11 poutines in as many days, I was still craving more?! I started to panic after we checked in for our flight home. Luckily there was a Burger King conveniently located by our gate. BK fries are always reliable, gravy was tasty but a little salty, mozzarella cheese (but not cheese curds) congealed into a gooey delicious mess. And yes, those are onion rings in the background (oink!).
So the winner of the me HUNGRY! Vancouver Poutine Showdown is ...
Salade de Fruits Cafe finished a close 2nd and I'm still salivating over that short rib poutine at Crave!
1. Brado Pizza
2. Salade de Fruits
3. Crave (on Main)
4. Fritz European Fry House
5. Backstage Lounge
6. The Templeton
7. three way tie: New York Fries, Zog's Dogs, & Burger King
8. two way tie: Belgian Fries & Zako's Deli
9. Vera's Burger Shack
Please note: Kris and I were only able to visit each location once, and we certainly acknowledge the fact that restaurants can have bad days sometimes. Vancouver Poutine lovers, I'd love to hear your opinion, so please leave me a comment below.
5/9/2010 update: Another year, another round of poutine... read more of my Vancouver poutine adventures here (includes an updated top 5 list).
Poutine in New Jersey?
It didn't take long for my poutine cravings to come back so last weekend we stopped for lunch at Rat's Restaurant, a local restaurant located in the beautiful Grounds for Sculpture. An unlikely place to find poutine, but apparently the chef is well-travelled and likes to include international dishes on the menu. The dish was listed as "poutines" and we were told that the gravy was chicken-based and the cheese was gruyere, not curds. Oh well. Beggars can't be choosers. The $6 "poutines" were actually quite tasty and took care of my craving (at least temporarily):
When it gets cooler, I'll make a home version of poutine with leftover porcini pot roast gravy, extra crispy fries (McCain or Ore-Ida) and Heluva Good cheddar cheese curds ($2.49 at Wegman's, no squeaking but yummy):
There are several places online where you can buy squeaky cheese curds from Wisconsin, where locals eat cheese curds like popcorn. I've also seen flavored cheese curds from Yancey's Fancy (upstate NY) at Wegman's.
"Squeaky" cheese curds at Dussa's Ham & Cheese (Granville Island, Vancouver) and at Marketplace IGA (Whistler, BC):
And I couldn't leave Vancouver without buying some St. Hubert poutine mix! Buy it online here (although it's cheaper just to use your favorite gravy):
Poutine in NYC?
Pomme Frites (poutine: Canadian cured cheese curds with chicken gravy)
Sheep Station (poutine served 3 ways)
More about poutine:
New York Times article: A Staple from Quebec, Embarrassing But Adored
New York Magazine/Grub Street: Blame Canada: Is Poutine Becoming Routine?
National Post: Gatineau Considers Poutine Ban: Like Banning Rainbows and Happiness
PHEW! Sorry about the marathon post. I had a lot to say about my favorite snack!
Did I leave out your favorite poutine spot?
Disagree with my poutine showdown results?
Know where to get some squeaky cheese curds?
Suggestions on how I can lose the 5 lbs I gained from eating all that poutine?
Leave me a comment below!
7/12/09 update: Serious Eats just blogged about this post and it's generating some interesting comments (who knew poutine could cause such controversy?) :