With the possible exception of maple syrup, Canada isn’t really known for its contributions to world cuisine. The Brits left behind a legacy of bland and boiled food that defined cooking here for generations. In fairness, cosmopolitan cities like Vancouver and Toronto have embraced new flavors brought by immigrant groups, and both cities boast thriving Asian food scenes. Finding a real, down-home Canadian meal, however, can be a challenge.
With millions of Olympic tourists about to descend upon Vancouver – many hungry for a taste of the “real” Canada – I decided to go looking for the classic Canuck meal in the city’s Granville Island neighborhood. Technically a peninsula, Granville Island consists of a cluster of markets, shops and restaurants crowded onto a sliver of land jutting into a downtown inlet. The main draw, apart from great views of the city and the mountains beyond, is the Public Market, where hundreds of vendors sell fresh fruits and vegetables as well as gourmet meat, fish and cheeses. But I’m looking for something a bit different.
Just behind the market is the Backstage Lounge, a popular pub that smells like spilled beer even at two in the afternoon. While the Backstage may be more famous for its live music than for its menu, it has earned an underground reputation for one particular dish: poutine (rhymes with “routine”). French for “hodgepodge,” poutine is a Canadian take on cheese fries. Deep-fried potatoes are sprinkled with fresh cheese curds, then drizzled with brown gravy and served in a bowl. Though it originated in Quebec – where even Burger King offers a poutine option – the dish is now popular throughout the country.
My first bowl of poutine isn’t really a culinary awakening – fries are fries in any language – but I can see the appeal. It’s high-calorie, comfort food: perfect after a day of skiing in the mountains or – judging from poutine’s popularity in pubs – a night of drinking in the city. And, with the Olympics around the corner, the best thing about poutine may be that it’s open to all cultures. Popular alternatives to the traditional gravy include peanut satay, Alfredo sauce and curry.
So, anyone else have a high-calorie Canadian favorite?
P.S. If gravy fries aren’t your thing, check out my post on Tourism Vancouver about the city’s authentic sushi scene.
- Getting There:
- Vancouver’s Granville Island neighborhood is located just beneath the busy Granville Street Bridge, along False Creek inlet. To reach Granville Island from downtown, cross the Granville Street bridge and follow signs to the Granville Island Public Market.
- Getting Around:
- If arriving by car, get to Granville Island before noon to avoid trouble finding a parking spot. The island itself, with its shops, restaurants and sidewalk performers, is best explored on foot. The Backstage Lounge – home to what many consider the city’s best poutine – is located on the water, just behind the Public Market.
- When to Go:
- Most shops, restaurants and markets are open seven days a week. Weekends and holidays are the best days for people watching and to catch free outdoor performances.
- If you plan on trying the poutine at the Backstage Lounge, make sure to get a table outside. The patio offers views of the inlet and the downtown skyline.