French fries are one of the world’s greatest inventions. That’s not up for debate (sorry), but here’s a valid question: Is there a way to take those salty, greasy, crisped up rods of fluffy potato and make them even better?
If you’ve been to Canada, you know people up north think the answer is yes. They call that answer poutine.
First invented in the 1950s by one late-night drunk or another (origin stories are as messy as the dish — “poutine” means “mess” in Quebecois slang), poutine is the ultimate Canadian comfort food. In the province of Quebec, you can get it almost anywhere, from gastronome haunts like Joe Beef to fast food joints like McDonald’s. Yes, McPoutine is a thing.
What exactly is poutine? It’s what happens when you take fries, scatter them with cheese curds and pour thick brown gravy over the whole thing. The result like a loaded baked potato gone mod, cheese fries turned deluxe, Thanksgiving leftovers taken to the next level. It’s familiar, but thanks to the squeak of not-quite-melted curds, also unique.
And it’s about to be everywhere in Philadelphia.
Actually, if you look closely, it’s already pretty common. The number of Philly bars serving poutine has exploded to the point where it’s no longer notable to have it on the menu.
That wasn’t the case in 2010, when chef Matt Levin opened a short-lived Queen Village gastropub called Adsum. There wasn’t a review or breathless blog post that didn’t mention his poutine — whether to laud it (“one the city’s most sinful late-night munchies,” Craig LaBan, Philadelphia Inquirer) or denigrate it (“The foie gras on top was small as as half a premature baby’s foot,” Phyllis Stein-Novak, South Philly Review).
But now. Now!
Poutine is a specialty at Northern Liberties’ Blind Pig, which has local curds made to custom specs, and also at Coeur, the Montreal-inspired bar and dining room in Bella Vista. It’s on the menu at Little Lion in Old City, where it comes topped with pork belly and a fried egg, and at Alla Spina on North Broad, which Italianizes it with a topping of pigs head hash. Even taco joints are getting in on the trend — Heffe in Fishtown does something it calls “Tijuana Poutine,” in which waffle fries sport queso Americano, Mexican chili and pickled jalapenos.
That is to say, it’s a trend. So no surprise that it’s getting even more serious.
By the end of September, the first outpost of Shoo Fry will be open in Rittenhouse. Billed as a “classy French fry bar,” the counter service spot was inspired by owners Matt and Rachel Baiada’s road trip to Canada, where they fell in love with poutine and decided to bring it back home. In addition to poutine, their menu includes sliders and shakes, but fries are the star. Franchising has already started, and the second Shoo Fry is set to launch on a Fishtown corner (the former East Girard Gastropub) this December.
While the local chain finds its footing, it better keep watch on the competition. Smoke’s Poutinerie, a giant Quebec-based outfit with more than 100 locations, is making a move into the region. The first of five planned area branches will open next to MilkBoy on South Street, possibly as soon as October.
This spring, the trend hits Reading Terminal Market. It’s not in the name of the new stand replacing Salumeria, but it’s one of the main attractions. Along with batter-coated franks, Fox & Son Fancy Corn Dogs is touting poutine, plus “squeaky cheese curds” on their own.
Which is the last thing to consider: Are cheese curds a requirement, the signifier of “real” poutine?
According to some fans, yes.
Curds — aka fresh cheese solids before they’ve been pressed or aged — won’t melt down entirely when hot gravy is poured on them, making them very different from the gooey, gloppy liquid that coats the potatoes in cheese fries (this is what separates poutine from disco fries, popular in North Jersey and Upstate New York).
But at Shoo Fry (tagline: Poutine. Sliders. Shakes), there are plenty of cheeses to choose from as you load up your fries, Chipotle-style. And as much as Coeur co-owner Brendan Hartranft loves curds — “I spend more time nibbling cheese curd on the line than anything else” — he doesn’t believe in a proscriptivist approach.
“With food, I don’t understand the whole ‘authenticity’ thing. You go to a place to see what their take is on something,” he says.
“If you like it another way, that’s great, I’m happy for you, but for now, you’re here. Enjoy the experience.”