Cheezy export: Man taking poutine to Chicago

Poutine.

(Fotolia)

Poutine. (Fotolia)

Michael Platt, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 7:04 PM ET

In 1926, we gave them our game, and now, 88 years later, a Calgary man is offering Chicago another glorious gift from Canada -- this one smothered in gravy.

“If I walk out the front door, I can see 22 bars from where I’m standing,” says Travis Burke.

“Within a one-and-a-half mile radius, there are 110 bars.”

The nightlife along Chicago’s Clark Street is key, because it was a hunt for hangover-fighting food that sparked the Calgary pub owner’s love affair with the curdsy slop known as poutine.

It’s fitting Burke first discovered poutine in Quebec, spiritual home to the combination of French fries, cheese curds and gravy, first served back in 1957.

Legend has it a take-out customer at a Victoriaville, Que. restaurant asked for curds mixed in with his fries, despite the chef’s warning “that’s going to make a damn mess.”

Of course, it did make a mess, but it also tasted fantastic -- and now, you can barely shoot a puck down the streets of Montreal or Quebec City without hitting a poutinerie.

And that’s why Burke, who owns Calgary’s Drum & Monkey pub, ended up with a stomach full of curds, gravy and fries after a night of drinking in Quebec.

“I was trying to avoid a hangover, so I wanted something to eat -- everywhere I looked there was poutine, so I tried it,” said Burke.

“I knew right away -- Calgary is seriously lacking in this department.”

That revelation in 2010 led to the opening of Calgary’s first dedicated poutinerie, The Big Cheese.

Staying open until 3:30 a.m. on weekends has made Big Cheese an after-bar fixture in Calgary, and other poutineries have followed, including the eastern Canadian chain Smoke’s.

With toppings like pulled pork and chili, Big Cheese has managed to offend traditionalists and health nuts alike.

Burke says he doesn’t care, with queues onto the sidewalk showing plenty of poutine fans do appreciate his modernist vision -- and besides, even in Quebec, no two poutines are alike.

“Everybody has their opinion, but it’s like pizza. There’s no one right answer,” said Burke.

But is Chicago ready to embrace a second Canadian tradition, beyond their beloved Stanley Cup winning Blackhawks?

When it opens next month, Big Cheese will be the first dedicated poutinerie in the city.

Poutine is so uniquely Canadian, even the nation most devoted to fast food and greasy delights has barely discovered it.

Burke thinks Chicago is ready and truth be told, poutine already has a small, cult-like foothold in the windy city, where craft beer and late-night eating are cornerstones of the trendiest districts.

Poutine is on a few exclusive menus, and it has devoted fans in America’s third largest city.

There’s even a small poutine festival -- and yes, Burke entered the nascent contest on behalf of Big Cheese.

But unlike the Canadian Olympic hockey team, he only managed silver and the Calgarian says that led to some mockery in a Chicago press still stinging from the Olympic loss.

“After the Canadians beat up the Americans in hockey they seemed a little bitter,” says Burke, who wore a Team Canada jersey to the festival.

“The headline was ‘Canadians enter poutine fest and take second place.’”

In his defence, Burke says they were a last-minute entry to the festival, now in its second year, and with better preparation in 2015, he’s vowing the Big Cheese will do Canada proud.

“Once we have a chance to properly prepare, we’re going to knock it out of the park,” says Burke.

Of course, what he means to say is “bury it in the net.”


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