When Merriam-Webster added poutine to the dictionary last summer, it was a sign that the dish has arrived. Hailing from Quebec and traditionally sold from roadside “chip wagons,” diners or taverns and pubs, poutine is the original, simple, hearty, French-Canadian late-night nosh. Once a somewhat unseemly rural food, poutine has recently enjoyed a renaissance, elevating it from a regional triviality to a source of national pride. It’s so iconic, in fact, that this quintessential Québécois fast-casual comfort food has populated menus at national and international multi-units such as Burger King, McDonald’s, KFC and New York Fries in the last decade. Similarly, big name Canadian chefs and ambitious culinarians alike have embraced the unofficial national dish, upgrading it with both traditional and nontraditional twists, elevating it from secret pleasure to international treasure.
A Hot Mess
In loosely translated Québécois slang, poutine means “hot, unholy mess”—and, oh, what a craveable mess it is. The culinary and cultural equivalent of a cozy comforter, poutine goes deep into the Canadian split personality, where half the population eschews its existence while urban gastronomes and Acadian rural farmers alike stake their claim to the rustic stick-to-your-ribs concoction. They argue the merits of frite size, shape and doneness, whether the brown gravy is of chicken and/or beef, the necessary level of squeak in the fresh cheddar curds, and permissible additions (which characteristically include Montreal smoked meat, grilled sausages, seasoned ground beef, chicken and green peas). Poutine has its haters and its purists from Quebec City to Montreal, but in yet another characteristic split, many Canadians also advocate and even promote poutine as a platform for inspiration and innovation.
Chefs across the provinces are reinterpreting this essential street food with sophisticated spins and craveable inclusions. High-profile chef Martin Picard of Montreal’s Au Pied de Cochon is one of them. Embracing the humble bar food—often citing its ability to transcend borders—Picard’s house poutine is awash in unctuous chicken velouté enriched with pork stock, enhanced with goose liver and egg yolk and finally festooned with a sizeable slab of sizzling foie gras.
Canadians are not alone in their quest for both authentic and innovative versions. As poutine steadily seeps south across the border, U.S. consumers and chefs alike enthusiastically welcome both the casual comfort of the cultural classic and the platform’s potential for variation.
Authentic adaptations have proliferated in this country at a range of venues: bars and food trucks, white-tablecloth restaurants, rustic gastropubs, regional chains and big multi-unit LTOs—even festivals like Chicago’s popular Poutine Fest. Poutine, it seems, is well past flash-in-the-pan status.
Whether traditional and twisted, poutine’s three main ingredients—potatoes, cheese, gravy—work in concert, each instrument equally important yet entirely independent.
The Classic: The ideal poutine fry is twice fried—crispy on the outside, fluffy on the inside—using Idaho, russet or (often in Canada) yellow varieties. They are well-seasoned and typically sized with enough weight to hold the heavier ingredients, but not so much that their surface area serves as a sponge. Frozen or fresh, skin on or off, all are deployed so long as they meet the above standards.
The Creative: All manner of fries and potatoes are permissible as long as they hold up their end of the deal without over-absorption. Alternate fat—especially duck fat—is en vogue, as are super-crispy tots and waffle cuts. Sweet potato fries are breaking out in both sweet and savory variations. Home fries and hash browns are an excellent option for the new slew of breakfast poutines but aren’t just for breakfast anymore. Healthier adoptions are cropping up with roasted potatoes or ovenable fries. Thick-cut, housemade chips and even potato latkes, pancakes and pierogies can make a fine or fanciful base.
- Tot Poutine: Tater tots, gravy, cheese curds, pulled pork – Tonic, Washington, D.C.
- Canadian Waffle Poutine: Waffle fries and cheese curds smothered in brown gravy — Frank, Austin, Texas
- Sweet Potato Works: Sweet potato fries, fresh cheese curd, beef gravy, bacon, tomato, sour cream and green onions — Elephant & Castle, multiple locations
Curds & Whey
The Classic: According to connoisseurs, the key to a great poutine is squeaky fresh cheddar cheese curds. With rural roots in Quebec, where dairy farms produce an abundance of fresh cheese curds, it makes sense. Evenly distributed curds should keep their squeak and half- to one-inch-sized shape once the gravy has been applied. Traditionalists let only the gravy warm and soften the outside of the curds. Largely owing to the preponderance of poutine, fresh and frozen curds are now widely available in the United States.
The Creative: Québécois aficionados will tell you the primary difference between poutine and cheese fries lies only in the cheese style. Until recently, however, it has been difficult to source the right cheese curds outside cheesemaking communities. That said, Canadians do produce poutine and loaded fries with non-cheddar curd (i.e., mozzarella) and other natural cheeses in crumbles, chunks, cuts and shreds, from semi-soft to semi-hard. Some are meant to melt and even be made into a chunky cheese sauce. Although curds are available, U.S. menu makers have both followed the leader and led the way with cheddars, fresh farmers’-type cheeses, Wisconsin Colby and, for melting, Alpine- and European-styled cheeses, and Italian blends.
- SFIZI Poutine: Beef fat fries with lamb gravy and mozzarella curds — Alla Spina, Philadelphia
- Poutine Chesapeake: Old Bay gravy, blue crab, ricotta salata — Bar Charley, Washington, D.C.
- Duck Poutine: Duck fat fries, duck confit, Gruyère cheese, duck gravy — Victoria Gastro Pub, Columbia, Md.
The Classic: If cheese is the differentiator, gravy is the harmonizer—the liaison between the fries and the cheese, making or breaking the power of poutine without overwhelming it. Traditionally the gravy is beef and/or chicken (mushroom is permissible in the classic) and roux-thickened—not overly thick, but velvety brown and meaty and with balanced salinity and seasoning. The temperature is of primary importance, high enough to warm the cheese, but not so high to scald itself into the fries. The quantity should give good coverage but not spill or pool.
The Creative: “Designer” gravies often include bits of the meats or vegetables they are made with, and sometimes they are a little creamy or spicy, but still with the same smooth viscosity of a classic velouté, gravy or light demi. Other types of sauce should be adopted with a certain amount of caution. Overly thick tomato or meat sauces tend to drown, while big barbecue or emulsified sauces can overwhelm. This dish is all about salt and umami, so when considering vegetarian versions, choose or include ingredients with high glutamates like mushrooms, tomatoes, soy, sea vegetables or umami-rich condiments.
- Lomito Saltado: French fries with sirloin strips, onions, tomato and soy-sauce gravy — Limon Rotisserie, San Francisco
- Deep Ellum Duck Poutine: Fries, duck gravy, cheese curd and rosemary — Deep Ellum, Boston, Mass.
- Vermont Poutine: Hand-cut fries, mushroom gravy, Vermont cheddar curds — The Blue Stone, Waterbury, Vt.
Above and Beyond
Designer poutine offers the most creativity and the greatest opportunity for differentiation. Substitution of the base ingredients can range from spudless varieties with polenta fries to beet chips to vegan versions that turn the cheese and gravy upside down. We can count on multiple riffs and technical twists, such as the addition of upscale and trendy ingredients like specialty meats and offal, truffles, pickled and fermented veggies, duck eggs and seafood and caviar.
Meaty additions are the most prolific inclusion to poutine platters. They can run from traditional Montreal smoked meat or its American partner: barbecue. While bacons, cured and corned meats are popular, braised proteins add rusticity and make good companions for the gravy they make. And for higher check averages, luxurious or unique meat additions run from lamb loin to pâté to grilled chicken livers or foie gras
- Braised Short Rib Poutine: Belgian frites, ale-braised short ribs, cheese curds, pan gravy, caramelized onions — Two Rivers Brewing, Easton, Pa.
- Earthquake Poutine: Shredded roasted chicken, braised beef, pan-roasted pork belly, Petaluma cheese curds, garlic cheese curds, spicy cheese curds, mushroom cream sauce gravy — Little Chef Poutine, San Pedro, Calif.
- Lento Poutine: Duck fat frites, duck gravy, First Light Creamery cheese curds; can add extra bacon and/or seared Hudson Valley foie gras — Lento, Rochester, N.Y.
Free To Be Meat-Free
The onset of earthy mushroom gravy made veggie poutine acceptable even to traditionalists. Myriad vegetable and seafood substitutions and adaptations abound. Seafood itself is becoming its own poutine category, in part due to the ability to use a smaller portion of those precious proteins—or maybe it has something to do with Canadian chef Chuck Hughes beating out Bobby Flay with his lobster poutine on “Iron Chef America.”
- Woodstock Poutine: Cheese curds, cremini mushroom gravy, mushrooms, onions, garlic — Foster Burger, Portland
Lobster Seafood Poutine: Maine lobster, portobello mushrooms, green onions, cheese curds, seafood gravy, crispy fries — Louie’s Wine Dive, multiple locations
- Green Chile Poutine: French fries topped with roasted and chopped green chiles, cheese curds and choice of sausage or veggie gravy; topped with a poached egg — Radio Room, Portland, Ore.
Poutine’s history of late-night consumption has earned it the moniker “beer sponge.” With all the important elements (starch, fat, salt), poutine may be the ultimate soaker-stoner staple. In fact, melted, cheesy, gravy fries called “Disco Fries” were popularized during club-hopping disco days to keep patrons going all night. Similarly, what could be better after (or before) a long night than a saturating breakfast? Millennial-minded menus are complying with indulgent, egg-inclusive, poutine-styled dishes for breakfast, late-night and all-day dining.
- Sausage Disco Fries: Sausage gravy, Grafton cheddar — ChurchKey, Washington, D.C.
- Muddy Waters Poutine: Fries, sausage or mushroom gravy, cheddar curds, ham, fried egg — Muddy Waters, Minneapolis
- Breakfast Poutine: Fresh-cut fries, cheese curds, scallions, short rib gravy, poached eggs — The Cambridge, Philadelphia
Marvelous Mash-Ups & Frivolous Forms
No American or global comfort food is free from cross-menu, multicultural mashing up. Some of these new forms have served to raise awareness and acceptance for poutine. For instance, “Top Chef” winner Ilan Hall (now of The Gorbals in Brooklyn, N.Y.) gained acclaim as “Stoner Food Champion” for his now famous Banh Mi Poutine, which includes thrice-cooked fries, hoisin gravy and housemade Kewpie-style mayo.
Loaded fries aside, we have come to a new era of “nacho-ization” of poutine that brings in the same indulgence-seeking Millennials that have made mash-ups the culinary norm. The new Arizona location of Canadian chain US Fries boasts several sub- and pizza-topping versions like Hawaiian or Philly Cheesesteak.
- Galbi Poutine: 8-hour braised short ribs atop twice-fried french fries with cheese, kimchi pickled onions and avocado lime crema — Seoul Sausage Co., Los Angeles
- Poutine à la Burger: Fries, cheese curds, gravy, chopped Whopper, mustard, ketchup and pickles — Burger King, Canada locations
- Texas Poutine Nachos: Potato chips topped with cream gravy, bacon, shredded cheddar cheese, jalapeños and choice of brisket or Southwestern-style chicken — Delaware North Companies at Texas Rangers’ Globe Life Park, Arlington, Texas