Poutine, Montreal’s questionably named “drunk food to end all drunk foods,” has been making steady inroads on San Francisco menus, from downtown restaurants to crowded bars in the Mission. Because, why wouldn’t you take a pile of French fries, top it with cheese curds and gravy, and call it a meal?
Being the intrepid eater that I am, it seemed necessary to track down this trend with my roommate, Jean-Sebastien Boulanger, a Montreal native (and therefore, an automatic poutine expert). He knows that traditionally, Montreal poutine includes a smooth, savory, brown gravy. This is topped with fresh, squeaky cheese curds that add texture as well as salty richness. Other things can be added to this base, but these elements are essential.
So we rated six different San Francisco restaurants on their poutine offerings. And we learned a couple things along the way. This city, unsurprisingly, has a tendency to fancy up poutine, meaning that no version was going to taste quite like the fast food iterations JS grew up with. I discovered that I started craving kale after our third tasting. But ultimately we succeeded in finding a number of poutines that are absolutely worth eating again.
Description: Spicy sausage gravy, smoked onion relish, cheese curds.
The Fries: Thick-cut, skin-on, well salted.
The Cheese: Sharp, fully melted cheese sauce.
The Gravy: Smoky, studded with spicy sausage crumbles.
The Whole Package: Tastes like cheese fries with sausage.
JS’s Take on Pig & Pie : NOT poutine.
Description: Mushroom gravy (made with three kinds of mushrooms), Parmesan, mozzarella curds. Option to order your poutine “animal style,” with bacon.
The Fries: Thin-cut, fully buried under gravy and sauce.
The Cheese: Sharp salty kick from the Parmesan, milky freshness from mozzarella.
The Gravy: Deep, savory, mushroom-forward flavor.
The Whole Package: A sloppy, saucy combination, starring the killer mushrooms. Skip animal style – you can’t really taste the bacon.
JS’s Take on Zoe's : Poutine!
Description: Kennebec fries, mozzarella cheese curds, Mornay sauce, short rib gravy.
The Fries: Thick-cut, fresh tasting, nicely crisp. Not very salty.
The Cheese: Fresh mozzarella curds don’t have much flavor.
The Gravy: Has a deep, beefy flavor, and sizable chunks of tender short rib. Mornay sauce adds richness but is unnecessary.
The Whole Package: The gravy is the star, but the overall combination is a good mess of food.
JS’s Take on Salt House : “Fancy” poutine.
Description: Roasted vegetable gravy, mozzarella curds. Option of either oxtail or maitake (we went for the meat).
The Fries: They don’t stand a chance under the pile of meat.
The Cheese: Fresh curds are lost flavor-wise.
The Gravy: This is less gravy than a rich, fatty pile of beef bourguignon.
The Whole Package: Considering this is (very good) beef stew with French fries underneath, I’d just as soon sub them out for mashed potatoes. It’s basically shepherd’s pie, so let’s do it right!
JS’s Take on Wayfare Tavern : Not poutine.
Description: DIY poutine. You choose your fry-width, seasoning, and sauce – mozzarella cheese curds come standard with all poutine orders. We tried two versions: thick-cut fries, sea salt, and brown gravy with mushrooms; and thick fries with smoked paprika and smoked cheese fondue.
The Fries: Thick, crisp, but starchy tasting.
The Cheese: Mozzarella curds are milky and fresh.
The Gravy: The brown gravy with mushrooms is weirdly artificial. The smoked cheese fondue has a chalky consistency.
The Whole Package: From bland fries to kind of gross sauces, these are both no-go’s. The pools of congealed sauces at the bottom of the bowls don’t help either.
JS’s Take on Jasper's Corner Tap : Poutine, but not a good one.
Description: Kennebec fries, fresh mozzarella curds, house-made fennel sausage gravy.
The Fries: Thick-cut, wonderfully crisp fries – these guys are double-fried, at least.
The Cheese: Fresh mozzarella curds add richness but no flavor.
The Gravy: Spicy, rich sausage and Anchor Steam form an incredible, fennel-rich base.
The Whole Package: An addictive well-flavored combination. From the killer fries to the sausage-cheese-gravy blend, this is a poutine I cannot stop eating. A sprinkling of green onions adds freshness and crunch.
JS’s Take on
Just poutine- ish , but very good.
The conclusion: If JS has a poutine craving, he’s going to Zoe’s to fill it. And if I have the desire to eat French fries covered in stuff for dinner, I’m going to Romolo.
Not included in this roundup: a sinfully delicious poutine from Kronnerburger , which I sincerely hope is on the menu when the restaurant opens in Oakland. I hear good things about Citizen’s Band poutine, as well as the version at Beast and the Hare (which will appear as a special come winter). But topping my list of need-to-try poutine is Cantine des Mad’Mzelles , a monthly poutine pop-up at Bender’s Bar (the first Sunday of the month) – apparently, these ladies did some serious sourcing to get the closest kinds of cheese curds. Poutine party January 3rd, anyone?