When I first started to write this story, it was a happy story. But, if you wait too long, happy stories might turn sad. Spoiler Alert! This story turns sad.
One day, last December, I had a few days off from work, so I met my son for lunch. My son, a Center City Philadelphia dweller, suggested we meet at a place that he had been meaning to try. So I, a firmly-planted suburbanite, hopped on the train and traveled into town. Around 11:45 a.m, fifteen minutes before "official lunch time," I arrived at our predetermined destination — Smoke's Poutinerie, a funky, little eatery that opened in the summer of 2017 on Philadelphia's famous "hippest street in town," South Street. A few minutes later, my son E. came strolling around the corner in his usual manner, water bottle in hand and bike helmet swinging by his side, having just returned his contracted bicycle to one of the nearby Indego Bike Share docking kiosks that have popped up around the Center City area. Together, we entered the mysterious and exciting world of poutine.
Poutine, for my non-Canadian readers, is the unofficial "official" food of Canada. Although the actual origin is in dispute, it seems to have first been served in Quebec in the 1950s in small restaurants called casse-croûtes, essentially greasy spoon diners. Much in the same way arguments have erupted over the origination of the French Dip sandwich or the all-American hamburger, no less than three establishments lay claim to inventing poutine, with one — Le Roy Jucep — earning a government-issued trademark, much to the dismay of Le Lutin qui rit and La Petite Vache, the other claimants.
The dish — a big pile of french fries covered with cheese curds and brown gravy — is comfort food for our neighbors to the north. In its early days, poutine was negatively received and mocked as "food for commoners," but now it is a source of cultural pride. Numerous restaurants serve their own signature interpretation of the concoction. Even popular fast food chains have jumped on the band wagon, including versions from McDonald's, Burger King, Wendy's and Dairy Queen. But in the United States, poutine is relatively unknown.
In 2008, Canadian entrepreneur Ryan Smoklin opened his first Smoke's Poutinerie in Toronto to much acclaim. He expanded his gravy-and-cheese-smothered empire to 150 locations across his native Canada. Not satisfied with keeping his successful venture sequestered in those ten provinces and three territories, Smoklin was determined to spread the comfort cuisine all over the world. In December 2014, the fine folks of Berkeley, California got its first taste of poutine. The company announced plans to open a whopping 800 Smoke's locations in the United States. Last summer, Philadelphia got its Smoke's. Actually, Philadelphia was doubly blessed, when a place called "Shoo Fry" opened up in the former location of the wildly popular (but mysterious closed) Underdogs, an eclectic hot dog joint just off renowned Rittenhouse Square. Poutine was nearly unheard-of in the City of Brotherly Love... now we have two "poutineries!"
My son and I studied the menu in the cramped restaurant that barely accommodated two small booths and a counter top to allow in-store dining. Our server/cook took our orders — two vegetarian versions of traditional poutine made with non-meat based brown gravy. He disappeared back to the food prep area as we seated ourselves on stools by the window and waited. Within minutes, we were presented with a steaming cardboard container stuffed to overflow with crispy fries, glistening dollops of cheese curds and a light beige gravy enveloping the whole she-bang. My son grabbed two plastic forks from a dispenser next to the cash register and I snagged a fistful of paper napkins I knew — from the looks of things — we would desperately need. We dug in for our first sampling of Canada's national food.
Oh. My. Goodness. It was delicious, despite its "pre-digested" appearance. It was so delicious, in fact, that I scarfed the whole thing down in a matter of minutes, as though I was in some sort of competition. My son, who ate at a slower, more human-like pace, wrapped a protective arm around his container, pulling it closer after he caught me eyeing up his uneaten portion. I sipped my Diet Coke until he finished, resigning myself to the fact I was getting none of his.... but it was sooooo goooood! Did I really want to place another order? Probably not. I didn't want to look like a glutton, although this would have been nothing new for my son to witness. I refrained. I was satisfied with what I had eaten and I would make time for a return visit to Smoke's. Perhaps I would even try something else from their menu. Maybe a different take on the poutine theme.
Here comes the sad part.
Just last week, my son called to tell me that Smoke's on South Street has closed. For good. And, it appears — according to their website — there are only five locations in the United States (the one in Ann Arbor, Michigan is so close to the international border that it might as well be counted among the Canadian locations). Alas, it seems that global expansion of the Smoke's Poutine Empire has come to a halt. People in the United States just haven't warmed up to poutine. To drive the point home, Shoo Fry has also closed its cheese-curd-guarding doors leaving Philadelphia — once again — a "poutine-free" zone.
I'm glad I got to taste and experience poutine. Maybe one day it'll catch on in the United States, eh?