Food Focus: The Perfect Poutine

By: Michael Engle

In Montreal, QC (home of my undergraduate alma mater, McGill University), "street food" is, sadly, nonexistent.  Unlike New York City, Los Angeles, San Francisco, or even Toronto, street food has been banned since Jean Drapeau's generation-long mayorship from the mid-1950's to the mid-1980's.  Despite this slight handicap (assuming you would even consider "being legally forced to go indoors to order food" as an inconvenience, especially during a Montreal winter day), Montreal still manages to churn out signature street-ready food items, including, perhaps most notably, poutine.

Poutine originated from the Montreal area at some point in the mid- to late-50's.  According to the most commonly accepted legend, Fernand Lachance of nearby Warwick invented the dish, claiming that "Ça va faire une maudite poutine," or "This will make a hellish mess."  Poutine is, indeed, not for bare hands, whether as a side dish or as a main course.  In its most basic form, it consists of french fries, topped with fresh (and cold!) white cheddar cheese curds and hot gravy.  A good Montreal poutine consists of texture as well as flavors; therefore, the fries need to have the right thickness and consistency, while the curds should never be more than a day old.  (The gravy is most commonly chicken-based, but certain establishments use a special vegetarian gravy.)

If assembling a poutine at home, follow this simple, yet important, step-by-step list of instructions:

  1. Prepare the French fries.  Have your gravy ready to go, but don't add it yet!
  2. Place a handful of cheese curds on top of the fries.
  3. Spoon the gravy over the whole bowl or plate of fries and curds.
  4. Eat it immediately, for the best experience.

Certain Montreal eateries will offer simple add-ons to their poutines, including sliced hot dogs, sliced or minced sausage, smoked meat, bacon bits, or mushrooms.  Most Montrealers agree, however, that a simpler poutine is a better poutine.  Aside from these simple add-ons, there are a small number of slight variations that can be commonly found in Montreal:

  • Italian poutine: Instead of gravy, "spaghetti sauce" (a thick tomato sauce with ground beef, thus similar to a bolognese sauce) is used.  This is the most common departure from the traditional version.
  • La galvaude: This variation of the classic poutine adds shredded chicken and peas.  Because gravy is already included, la poutine galvaude is reminiscent of the "hot-chicken sandwich," which is another Montreal comfort staple.
  • Some relatively "upscale" versions will use a pepper sauce instead of gravy, or even swap out standard fries in favor of sweet potato fries.
  • A cheese-less version of poutine is widely available in Canada.  To avoid confusion, this is always known as "frites-sauce;" literally, "fries with sauce."

La Banquise is, in my opinion, the best place in Montreal for poutine.  Though there is a small non-poutine menu (including burgers, sandwiches, and omelets), La Banquise is known for 25 variations of poutine, from the traditional to the most insanely carnivorous.  My personal favorite is the Kamikaze--with merguez, banana peppers (jalapea±os are rarely found outside Mexican restaurants in Montreal, but banana peppers are similar), and Tabasco sauce, it adds layers of spice to the classic poutine.

Poutine is a cultural icon with a wide range of influence.  In fact, most Canadian outlets of international chains, such as McDonald's and Burger King, can convert any order of fries into a poutine.  Poutine also has some American appeal; if you are wondering whether or not the dish has made it to New York, the answer is, "Yes!"  The most classically-Montreal poutine outpost in New York is The Mile End, in Brooklyn.  Named after a Montreal neighborhood and owned by a Montreal ex-pat, The Mile End serves poutine, as well as other Montreal specialties, such as vinegar-based coleslaw (which Montrealers call "traditionelle," as opposed to "cremeuse," which uses mayonnaise), Montreal-style smoked meat, and even Montreal-imported bagels.  (For the record, I like Montreal bagels, but I would never order a sandwich on a Montreal bagel, as I sometimes do with New York bagels.)  The Sheep Station, also in Brooklyn, serves an excellent poutine as well.

For a complete listing of New York eateries that sell poutine, click on this ready-to-go Yelp link.  For a free piece of closing advice, I recommend bringing plenty of napkins, and a hungry friend, just in case.

Photo: Backpack Foodie

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