Ottawa Sparks Street PoutineFest 2017

Poutine. With all due respect to Celine Dion, it has become Quebec’s most famous contribution. Growing up in Kanata, I’d never heard of poutine. It was still one of the best kept secrets over the border to the East, with Quebecers insisting the deeper you got into the province, the better it was.

It was only in my teen years, living in the English community of Low, Quebec, when I first had it at the small Pineview restaurant… or at least, what was called poutine. What I actually got was a plate of French fries and shredded mozzarella smothered in a brown gravy. I cleaned that platter until it shone a dishwasher white, and probably would have had seconds if I wasn’t subsiding on a paltry $5 a week allowance.

Self-portrait, circa 1997

It was months later I realized I’d been duped, and the first time I had that hot mess of cheese curd, gravy, and twice fried potatoes, a lifelong obsession was born – culminating with a Trump sized wall of curd and gravy that my arteries undoubtedly are forced to push through every second of every day. It’s the price we pay, us Quebecers.

Over the last decade, with the rise of social media has come a worldwide explosion of flavors finding their way to all corners of the earth, and poutine is no exception. While I’ve never had the guts to try one at one of the many state fairs I’ve visited, and I certainly couldn’t even begin to describe the horrific version I saw attempted by one restaurant in the Philippines, I can say I’ve seen the name appear in places I never would have dreamed of, and that’s a testament to its incredible power.

Right on the border of Quebec is our nation’s capital, and we love our poutine. Fry trucks can be found on every corner of the city, damn near every restaurant has their take on the treat, and two full blown festivals take over the downtown core every year.

Last week was Poutine Fest on Sparks Street, and 3 long city blocks were packed with fry trucks. I went down there on my lunch break on Friday, with temperatures up and around 20 degrees and … oh my god, the humanity.

With lines snaking from end to end, I didn’t have a chance to be choosy. It was like playing a game of Choose Your Own Adventure; you pick a line, and turn to the appropriate page. Nearly 45 minutes later, I found myself standing in front of…

Fat Les! First of all, the name is phenomenal. I’d never eaten there before, with their home turf of Kemptville being a little off the beaten path for me.

They were advertising an “Award Winning” bacon double cheeseburger poutine; and if you’re gonna come at me with that level of hyperbole, I’ll take the bait — but you best be prepared to back it up, lest you wish to feel the wrath of a blogger with (and I don’t wish to brag) several direct family members who read it.

From a presentation standpoint, bravo. Huddled underneath an unbelievable mass of cheddar cheese, crisp bacon, green onions, and chopped hamburger lay twice-fried french fries, sauce brune, and curds galore. It also weighed about as much as my son did the day he was born.

Everything complimented each other well. It was creative enough that it stood out from the usual specialty poutines, without overpowering what it really was. The only shame was that there was so much food packed into this tray that I was only able to eat about 1/3rd of it. Poutine, for all its positives, doesn’t keep and reheat real well. I really wish it had come in a smaller size.

Still, digestion did it’s thing, and by Saturday evening I was ready to try my hand at poutine #2.

I was working an evening shift, and my timing couldn’t have been better. With the Senators locked in a double overtime battle with the Rangers, and the weather down around 5 degrees, Sparks was a virtual ghost town, made up of poutine trucks and smelling of fry oil.

Because I hadn’t thought ahead to bring a jacket, I scooted into the first line I found.

First of all, Le Smoking BBQ might be the most dirty Frenglish sounding place I’ve ever heard. It’s the kind of place I imagine a group of Gatinese locals sitting around and planning to “visiter le store pour acheter du beer apres le game des Canadiens”. However, it’s actually a fairly well respected BBQ restaurant and truck business operated out of Montreal, and they participate in the annual ribfest as well. Given my affinity for BBQ, this seemed like a good fit.

Succulent pulled pork, covered with extra sauce, overlooking a gravy smothered concoction of curds the size of North Korean warheads, and crispy fries. Poutine is such a versatile, easy food, and these guys just made it look easy. The bark on the pork was to die for, and the gigantic curds melted just enough to create a pillow for the french fries to nestle on. This was magic; and I ate so much I spent the remainder of my shift digesting like a boa constrictor.

Of course, I wasn’t done. Come Sunday, with my wife out of town, and another evening shift at my disposal, I couldn’t help but take a final kick at the can. I had planned to visit Golden Fries; which readers may recall has what I coined my favorite poutine in the city – the deep fried curd poutine. Alas, when I got to the truck, I was disappointed to hear all they had left was lobster gravy – a cream and pepper based sauce specifically for their bacon lobster poutine. They were willing to put it on my deep fried curd poutine, but that’s just downright sacrilege to perfection. How dare they!

Instead, I wandered. I was temped to mix two Ottawa staples together at a truck named Fadi’s, where they slopped shawarma on top of the fries. But, I spied something even more intriguing ahead.

Green Papaya is an Ottawa-based food truck that I haven’t had the chance to try before. They’re a Thai restaurant with 3 locations in the city, and the idea of putting their traditional fare on top of a poutine seemed so ludicrous that I had to try.

First of all – kudos to these guys for having a small option for only $7. I appreciated being able to get a Chris-sized portion, as opposed to trying to put down the equivalent of a cinder block. As for the poutine itself; it worked! I’m now convinced there’s nothing you can’t throw on top of a poutine and have it worked. What you’re seeing here is pad Thai, and all the components are there. The vegetables are crisp, the crushed peanuts add a wonderful crunchy texture, the lime juice adds a refreshing sour twist, and underneath, the heavenly, rich poutine. THIS SHOULDN’T WORK. IT WORKS!

Of course, they had something else on their menu that intrigued me.

Right there, ladies and gentlemen, are cheese curd stuffed spring rolls. Hey, if you’re going to participate in something called PoutineFest, but you run an Asian truck, you may as well throw yourself into the deep fryer head first, and these guys embraced the theme like straight up bosses. Here’s a view from the inside:

Ok, so it doesn’t look as good as it tasted; but it rocked my socks. My only suggestion is that instead of offering your standard spring roll dipping sauce, pair it with gravy instead. That advice, by the way, is free, but when you win every award at every festival ever, I want you to name your children after me.

These guys ended up being the big winners of the weekend for me, just for being so ballsy without compromising on flavor. But, the city of Ottawa needs to be commended as well, for celebrating the foods that make us who we are, and allowing vendors from all over – be it home-grown, French-Canadian, Asian, Middle Eastern, and anywhere else – that so long as they’re prepared to wow our palates, they’re welcome to participate. If there’s one thing that always draws a crowd, it’s great food, and PoutineFest held up its end of the bargain.

Fat Les’s
Address: 639 Van Buren St, Kemptville, ON
Facebook: Fat Les’s

Le Smoking BBQ
Address: 2186 St-Catherine O, Montréal, QC
Facebook: Le Smoking BBQ
Twitter: @LeSmokingBBQ

Green Papaya
Address: 3 locations in Ottawa
Facebook: Green Papaya
Twitter: @greenpapayarest

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