What IS that?! Yes, my fellow Americans, that is poutine. And it is glorious.
There are three things you need to know about poutine:
1. Origin: Québec
2. Ingredients: Fries, cheddar or mozzarella cheese curds, gravy
3. It only comes in one size: #@&!ING HUGE.
Yet for some reason, poutine seems to be something Americans simply cannot understand, and therefore cannot get it right. Since my days of university in Montreal, I have been hard pressed to find a half-decent poutine south of the border. But I have more faith in you, Oakland, and I intend to find a mighty poutine somewhere within your city limits.
My city-wide hunt for poutine has taken on the characteristics of a search for Bigfoot. I’ve heard a few unsubstantiated claims of sightings at various restaurants around town, scoured Yelp reviews that make reference to its astounding and fugacious existence, only to find that the dish has mysteriously disappeared from the menu of Luka’s, Plum, Brotzeit, and others. My quest to compile a comprehensive local poutine guide for Oakland has ended here, with Oakland: a tale of two poutines.
Culinary new kid on the block Lex Gopnik started his pop-up Augie’s Montreal Smoke Meat in August at Beauty’s Bagel Shop. A Toronto native with family roots in Montreal, Lex knows poutine. “I don’t want a fancy poutine with truffle oils and humanely-raised chicken fat. It’s not that kind of food,” he says.
The poutine served up at his Monday popups is truly authentic. The counter is lined with the familiar cans of poutine gravy from St-Hubert, a fast-food chain in Quebec whose gravy is commonly found in supermarkets across the province. And while the gouda cheese curds he uses aren’t super squeaky — as classic cheddar curds are supposed to be when you chew on them — they nicely complement the dish with a unique flavor. The proportions of fries to cheese to gravy are spot on: just enough cheese curds so that you get at least one with each mouthful of fries, just enough gravy to provide some melty goodness without drowning everything in a drippy mess. This is the real deal.
The humble, down-home feeling I get from eating the poutine at Augie’s is an obvious extension of the business model: Lex’s operation is family affair. Augie is the name of his young son. He gets the curds from family friends with a dairy operation in Oakdale that is so small, they don’t even ship or deliver. He makes the hour and a half drive himself. Even the (admittedly mass-produced) gravy comes from a relative who is able to ship it to him from British Columbia.
He started making smoked meat about two years ago when he lost over a hundred of dollars worth of prized Montreal smoked meat to a particularly nasty customs agent coming back to the States. Once Beauty’s opened, he saw a possible Montreal connection and brought owners Amy Remsen and Blake Joffe his creation. They liked it, customers asked for more of it, and soon Lex was invited to use their kitchen to start selling his smoked meat sandwiches and poutine out of their storefront. “They were the catalyst to make it possible,” he says.
If you want to experience authentic poutine as the Quebecois intended their inebriated compatriots to enjoy, this is the place to do it.
The award-winning Oxtail Poutine at Chop Bar is the Bay Area’s response to poutine. Rather than embodying a simple comfort food to be devoured after a long night of bar-hopping in subzero temperatures, Chop Bar’s poutine is a more complex dish meant to be snacked upon at the bar, perhaps while enjoying outdoor seating by Jack London Square.
This dish is succulent. The fries are crisp and the shredded cheddar cheese adds a subtle bite. The oxtail shreds add some sustenance and practically melt in your mouth. Now, I definitely have some qualms with this “poutine” — namely the shredded cheddar, see Item #2 above — but the gravy, good Lord, THE GRAVY. I slurp it up like soup because it is so damned tasty. Instead of the traditional brown chicken-based gravy, this uses a creamy beige oxtail gravy that’s a bit on the thinner side. It is salty and beefy, but not overly so. I want to lick the plate.
After digging in, owner Chris Pastena checks in to see if I am enjoying the food, which I obviously am. He then asks, “Does it remind you of Montreal?” I think for a split second before offering an apologetic, “No.” He smiles. “Perfect.”
Chris hails from the East Coast and grew up with disco fries as his late-night diner treat. He says the inspiration for Chop Bar’s poutine started off as a joke. At the time, the menu at the newly-opened Chop Bar was dominated by pork dishes. In trying to come up with a more beefy, bar-snack type of dish, Chris offhandedly threw out the idea of poutine. He’d never had it before, but liked the idea and started experimenting with an oxtail stew.
At first, Chris says, the poutine was a tough sell because people just didn’t know what it was. But he would talk the dish up to customers, and little by little people started to order it. Other diners would look over at the dish and inquire about it. “It got this cult following… Poutine is kind of sacred at Chop,” Chris says.
As a poutine traditionalist, I have a bit of a hard time calling this dish poutine. But whatever it is, it is delicious and every bit as indulgent and satisfying as the poutine I know and love.