Traditional Poutine with an American Twist
For years, Canadians have politely criticized America’s attempts at recreating one of their country’s most iconic dishes: poutine. Our northern neighbors have written articles with headlines like “8 Times America Ruined Poutine for Everyone” and “A&W debuts poutine not with a squeak, but a whimper.” They have decried comparisons between poutine and disco fries (a similar but unrelated dish that originated in New Jersey diners) and wondered how such a simple dish can be so hard to find in the States. Poutine’s recent appearances on a growing number of menus across the country have earned it the coveted but fleeting “food trend” designation and heated the debate up again – but a business in Arizona has been offering authentic poutine since 2014.
The American Poutine Co. is owned by Canadian transplant Brendan McGuinness and his wife, Mareka. They operate out of two food trucks and a storefront based in Gilbert, Ariz., offering traditional poutine alongside other loaded fries topped with flavors that are pure Americana. We talked to McGuinness about running an American poutinerie and what exactly makes a good plate of poutine.
“What is Poutine?”
Despite the mystery and confusion surrounding poutine for those unfamiliar with it, poutine (pronounced like routine) is a simple dish that only requires three ingredients: french fries, gravy, and cheese curds.
“It’s probably one of the simplest things you can make, in a lot of ways, but it can also be the hardest thing to make right,” McGuinness says. “I don’t know why that is, but it seems like a lot of places can’t get it right.”
Many American interpretations of poutine exclude cheese curds in favor of a different type of cheese, a faux pas that seriously irks most Canadians trying to find the dish in the U.S., but using the right fries and gravy is an equally important part of making good, authentic poutine.
“If you have hand-cut french fries that are nice and crispy, and you have really fresh cheese curds that are nice and squeaky, and a really good gravy, it’s like the best thing you’ve ever had,” McGuinness explains. “A lot of people don’t do it that way [and it doesn’t work] if the gravy’s not right and your cheese curds are too cold or too big.”
Poutine in America
“I grew up in Canada, in northern British Columbia, so poutine has been something that I had from a fairly young age and always knew about,” McGuinness says. “If you ever ordered french fries, the first question you got was, ‘Do you want gravy with that?'”
After seeing firsthand how popular it was in his home country, McGuinness believed poutine could also resonate with an American audience. However, when the first American Poutine Co. food truck hit the road, most first-time customers hadn’t even heard of poutine.
“Nobody knew what it was when we first started, unless they were from Canada,” McGuinness says, adding that Canadians were more accepting of the business concept when they learned he was from Canada. “In the beginning, we had to explain it to everybody. They would pronounce it wrong or ask us if we just made that word up. Now, most people know what it is.”
He credits the number of diverse restaurant and culinary shows on TV with helping educate people about more obscure foods like poutine, and says that the Travel Channel actually stopped by in March 2018 to film an episode of Food Paradise, providing national exposure that “is like winning the lottery” for a small business.
American diners are also more familiar with the Canadian specialty now, since it – or some imagining of the ingredients that borrows the name – has been making more frequent appearances on fast food and fine dining menus in the last few years.
Being at the forefront of the poutine food trend in the United States gave the McGuinnesses the opportunity to secure the American Poutine Co. name, branding that allows their business to be one of the top results when people search for poutine in America. That distinction has already led to some unique business opportunities.
“We had some people in Sonoma, Calif., find us online,” McGuinness says, explaining that the customer was a fellow Canadian in search of good poutine. “They actually paid to have our truck shipped 12 hours to California, paid to fly us there to do 25 servings for guests, and then paid to have our truck shipped back.”
Poutine vs. Loaded Fries
The American Poutine Co. offers authentic poutine, but the dish is one that can easily be transformed with additional toppings. However, they are quick to differentiate the “poutine” from the “loaded fries” also offered on their expanded menu. Diners can enjoy original poutine and poutine with additional toppings like pulled pork and fried chicken, or they can order loaded fries with popular American combinations, including Philly cheesesteak fries (ground steak, onions, and cheese sauce), pizza fries (pepperoni slices, cheese curds, pizza sauce, and shredded cheddar), and apple pie fries, which they call “dessert fries.”
“To me, that one really takes it to the next level,” McGuinness says. “Most people cringe at first and are confused by it, but after they try it, they get it. I coat the fries in cinnamon and sugar – I try to get them as crispy as possible, and coat them as soon as they come out of the fryer so they still have a lot of oil on them. They just coat up really nicely, and then they’re almost like a churro or something. The apple pie filling goes on top of that, and then whipped cream.”
In addition to routinely testing new items, diners can enjoy seasonal specials, like a Thanksgiving-inspired holiday poutine (featuring turkey, stuffing, and cranberry sauce on top of the usual poutine ingredients) and sweet potato pumpkin pie fries.
“I definitely try to be inventive and creative, which I think you have to be in this business,” McGuinness says. “You want to have your favorites that people love that they’re always going to come back for, but then you want to try to push the envelope and be creative with it, too.”