What’s your favorite comfort food? Is it homemade mac and cheese? Smothered meatloaf? A big breakfast of biscuits and gravy? Your mom’s tuna noodle casserole? When I’m craving something that’s filling and bad for me after a night at the bar or a day in the snow I turn to something that reminds me of my childhood in Canada – Poutine.
For those not to speed on this cheesy, gravy drenched mound of Canadian comfort food – here’s an overview. Poutine is a dish that originated in Quebec and at its most basic is composed of three primary ingredients: french fries, hot gravy, and cheese curds. And within that essential structure a million permutations exist – allowing an individual plate of poutine to exist anywhere on the spectrum from late-night heart-attack bar food to fine dining fare featuring a host of luxurious add-ons. The fries should be crispy and in that perfect medium between too thick and too thin – I’m partial to the hand cut kind that leaves the occasional bit of potato skin intact on the fry. The gravy will often be a thin turkey or chicken gravy, though veal and beef-based gravies are also popular. This gravy needs to be served just hot enough to soften but not totally melt the final element, which are the squeaky tangy fresh cheese curds (which, if you live in Canada or any of the US border states, you are probably already intimately familiar with. And for those of you who aren’t, it’s something you should seek to remedy as soon as you can – I suggest ordering some from Western New York purveyor Yancy’s Fancy or even trying to make your own at home, because when it comes to making the perfect poutine the freshness of the curds is key.)
Prior to opening Allen Street Poutine Company, Jake Fraser owned two chip trucks at Sherkston Shores in nearby Port Colborne, Ontario, just across the Peace Bridge from Buffalo. He spent his summers serving fries to tourist crowds on the beaches and hitting the bars with friends at night, nights that often ended with a late night plate of Poutine. He wanted to bring that experience to a more permanent venue, so he teamed up with business partner and longtime friend Konstantine Kentros to bring poutine south of the (Canadian) border. “I knew that poutine was the late night bar food of choice in Canada, but was something of a novelty in The States. Despite being known as The ‘All America City’ there are a ton of expats here and there’s a strong connection between Buffalo and Southern Ontario. There’s a great bar scene, the weather is cold, Buffalonians love to have fun, and there was a need for more great late night food options – Poutine is a great match for that culturally. On top of all that, being in the heart of a bar and music-rich area like Allentown is such a natural fit for us.”
When I first moved from Canada to the US as a teenager it was a rarity for me to come across poutine. What had once been nearly ubiquitous everywhere I went was now mostly relegated to a rare treat that I got to indulge in on family trips back to the homeland. I spent a lot of time trying to explain to my friends exactly what this mysterious dish was, and convince them that “no, you’ll love it if you try it” (I also spent a lot of time wondering why so many of my friends, despite living mere minutes from another country, had never set foot in Canada – though that quickly changed when we all approached adulthood and started taking advantage of the fact that the drinking age in Ontario is 19, at which time poutine became everyone’s favorite post bar food). Thankfully, Jake and Konstantine are changing that perception – Poutine is becoming less of a here-and-gone trend as it has been in the US in the past and becoming a true fixture of the WNY late night bar scene – just as it should be.
As the dish has evolved it’s become something of a framework, much like hotdogs and pizza – a basic structure that’s informed and reinvented by the experiences of the people preparing and eating it. Much as I’ve enjoyed Sonora dogs that capture Southwestern/Mexican flavors, or binged on amazing Georgian Khachapuri, I’ve run into poutine that pulls flavors from all over the world: Indian Poutine with butter chicken and paneer, Trinidadian inspired versions with curry goat, poutines featuring foie gras and foraged mushrooms that would be at home in a fine French restaurant, and Jake even told me of a Korean remix of the dish with kimchi and bulgogi that he’s come across. As a dish that originated in a country that often celebrates its diversity and multiculturalism, it’s no surprise that those varied experiences and palettes have had an influence on its cuisine.
Allen Street Poutine Company’s menu features both the classic rendition of the dish as well as regularly updated offerings based on a variety of regional and international influences. Among the highlights are Buffalo-centric versions like a Buffalo chicken poutine and a beef on weck variety featuring slow roasted beef, caraway, and coarse salt as a topping. Sloppy Joe, Philly cheesesteak, and a pulled pork with red cabbage slaw poutine round out the slate of American inspired flavors. Poland is represented by a poutine adorned with pierogi and sauerkraut, Greece comes strong with a rich poutine seasoned with feta, tomatoes, and oregano. A spicy General Tao’s chicken represents the Asian flavor profiles, and a nacho-style poutine brings little Tex-Mex heat to the party. And of course Canada brings it strong with what, in my opinion, is the restaurant’s signature dish – a Montreal smoked meat poutine covered with the restaurant’s signature cured brisket and pickles (and it’s one of the few places in the States I’ve come across that you’ll even see Montreal smoked meat on menu). There’s even a vegan poutine available to make sure no one is left out of the fun.
After a few rounds of drinks on a cold winter night in Buffalo, it’s comforting to know that there’s somewhere me and my friends can go that hits all the right notes: open late, warm, welcoming, and with great food and beer. It doesn’t hurt that for me it’s like having a little slice of Canada sitting right there inside one of my favorite Buffalo neighborhoods.