I can’t wait to go to Coney Island this summer
by Aidan Morgan
So. The other night I’m at the bar and I bring up the presence of a poutinerie in Regina. A straight-up, no-nonsense, fries-and-curds poutinerie. A friend of mine who’s spent substantial time in Quebec jolted himself from his neurodegenerative beer fug and focused both eyes on me.
“Is it real poutine?”
“It seems real. I mean, I ate some.”
“Do they use cheese curds?”
“Of course they do.”
“Chicken or beef gravy?”
I stumbled on this one. Real poutine, I suddenly realized, needed more than genuine curds to qualify as authentic. Suddenly, gravy specificity was a factor.
“Um… beef, I think?”
My friend’s face crumpled in weary disgust. “Ehhhhh. Wrong.”
Food is a lot like grammar. No matter how much experience, skill and knowledge you bring to the game, somebody else always knows the game a little better.
I also knew that I could probably canvass poutine fans on Twitter and provoke ferocious arguments. Authenticity is always up for grabs, its story uncertain, its narrators unreliable (and often drunk), its roots ramifying into a fuzz.
And people, you don’t want narrative fuzz in your poutine.
I did a little bit of Googling to clear up the fuzz. Poutine originated in Quebec in the mid-to-late 1950s — either in Victoriaville, Drummondville1 or Warwick, or maybe elsewhere. The word “poutine” may derive from the English “pudding”, or it may not. And the gravy should indeed be chicken. Or turkey. Or veal. But apparently not beef or pork.
If there’s any lesson to be learned here, it’s to not put too much stock into the notion of “authentic poutine”. Variations on the original probably started to appear within hours of its inception. Poutines with lobster, pulled pork, foie gras and other outré toppings can be had. Gravy swapped for demi-glace, demi-glace switched with velouté, the whole dish thrown out and replaced with a steak. Whatever!
But some rules of poutine preparation exist, and for good reason. Cold curds thrown in just before the gravy, for example. Otherwise you might as well be serving a demented version of potato-cheese soup.
Whatever your feelings on the matter, Coney Island Cafe knows how to make poutine. Their chalkboard menu is ablaze with variations. Perogie. Pulled pork. Spicy Mexican. Italian Stallion (contains no actual Sylvester Stallone). Buffalo chicken. Cheese burger. Sweet potato. Honey garlic rib. The menu even features a Reuben and a “Ringer” poutine, which is a standard poutine lovingly enclosed in two layers of onion rings.
The regular poutine is $7.95; all fancy poutines are $9.95.
Poutines make up a relatively small part of the menu. Along with that crazy curd concoction, Coney Island Cafe serves hot dogs (including a chili dog, which one Knight of Appetite deemed worthwhile), burgers, salads, milkshakes (so many milkshakes — I tried the lemon, and it was delicious), ice cream, desserts and specialty coffees. It’s a place engineered for getting the most joy out of a summer afternoon, when you’re out for a walk or on your way to somewhere cool and you want to eat something fast and tasty and topped with gravy.
The atmosphere of the place is casual, with a combination of old photographs and lightly inspirational posters decorating the walls (also one of Sheldon from The Big Bang Theory, which makes for an interesting contrast). It’s certainly not hipster-ready: no fixies are pulling up at the corner; no jars of moustache wax are collecting in the lost-and-found box under the till. I was initially excited when the cook slapped the swinging kitchen door after he called out an order, but he never repeated the act. Swinging kitchen doors are made for slapping.
I’ve had a fair number of the poutines over the course of a few visits, and I think their offerings are hit-and-miss. The regular poutine is exactly right, with house-chipped and double-fried potatoes, cold curds and (beef) gravy with that unique, almost vinegary mix of poutine spices. For the record, I don’t care whether the gravy is beef or chicken or ostrich — it’s on par with other poutines I’ve had, and that’s good enough for me.
Things get dicier with the special poutines. The perogie and pulled pork poutines are wonderful creations, and the honey garlic rib poutine is a genius move. The perogie poutine actually looks kind of beautiful before you dig in and destroy the whole thing.
The spicy Mexican and Italian Stallion poutines, however, are bafflingly mediocre; the Mexican tasted like a box of Old El Paso taco mix, and the Italian toppings looked and tasted like they’d been troweled off of a cheap pizza. I’m going to try at least a few more of the flavours, but those two were so disappointing that I worry about what I’ll get (except for the Ringer poutine — there’s no way that isn’t incredible.).
I made a special trip just to try out the Elvis burger ($7.50), a patty with bacon and peanut butter. Everyone knows that peanut butter and bacon, when placed together, form a sweet-salty flavour combination that literally transforms into a tiny angry man who will punch your brain’s pleasure centres into submission. The burger itself wasn’t too bad (if a little light on the peanut butter for my tastes), but for $7.50 I expected a side of some kind. Instead, I was handed a lonely burger on a tiny paper plate. It’s rare that presentation actively interferes with my enjoyment of a meal, but this crossed a line from casual to indifferent.
Despite my uneven experiences, I’m happy that Regina has a poutinerie of its own. Coney Island Cafe’s menu is pure summertime, and I wish there were a beach and a boardwalk to go with it.
1. I once got lost in Drummondville in the middle of the night. As my partner and I were scratching our heads and poring over a road map in a quest to get the hell out of Drummondville, a band of teenagers in jean jackets and combat boots came and hovered by the van window. We asked them for directions, which they helpfully gave. As we folded up the map, the leader of the group cleared his throat and said, “Hey… do you guys have any weed?” We had none.
The Round Table
WHAT IS IT? Coney Island Cafe.
WHAT’S IT FOR? Lunch, dinner, incredibly heavy snacking.
WHEN’S IT OPEN? Sunday-Thursday, 11:00 a.m.-8:00 p.m.; Friday-Saturday, 10:00 a.m.-8:00 p.m.
WHAT YOU SHOULD DEFINITELY GET The pulled pork poutine! The honey garlic rib poutine! And a lemon milkshake!
AND A LEMON MILKSHAKE! I just said that!