THUNDER BAY -- Poutine - a hot messy pile of French fries, topped with cheese curds and smothered in gravy. No, says Brigitte Tremblay, owner and chef of La Poutine, Thunder Bay’s most authentic poutinerie. “It’s a sauce, not a gravy, and there’s a big difference,” says the Montreal chef.
The further away from Quebec poutine gets, the more likely it is covered by a thick, beefy gravy, according to Tremblay. The real stuff is “thinner and sweeter, so that it brings out the flavour of the potato,” she says.
The Quebec-native moved to this area in the 90s, marrying and settling in Red Rock, Ontario. Over the next decades, she worked as the area’s only caterer and opened some restaurants, of which the Nipigon Drive-in was her last. In 2016, she decided to search for greener pastures (or more customers) and opened a poutinerie in Current River in October.
Business was good, with a devoted following enjoying sit-down meals. Unfortunately, the sale of the building her restaurant occupied and subsequent rent hike forced her to move elsewhere, and she settled on St. Paul street, across from Damascus Donair. The new place, which opened in January 2018, has fewer seats but lots of foot traffic. The size of the place also allows her to interact more with her customers, which she likes.
When she started La Poutine, Tremblay reluctantly made a big pot of gravy alongside the traditional poutine sauce in a small pot, knowing people expected gravy. However, after giving customers samples of both and letting them choose, she is proud to say that her gravy pot has shrunk drastically and now the sauce is far more popular.
Although her definition of poutine is quite specific (a specific kind of potato, fried twice, with sauce and curds from Quebec - no mozzarella or gouda please!) her menu is quite large, with a variety of toppings, some quite extravagant. There are 40 kinds on the menu, divided into sections (poultry, pork, beef, vegetarian, vegan, seafood etc.) and countless items on the “secret menu” - she does a special every week, such as surf and turf, eggs benedict, or chicken and waffles, so if you remember what it is, you can order previous weekly specials as well. She also has gluten-free options, with a separate fryer reserved.
You won’t find any Thunder Oak cheese curds here, because Tremblay gets her cheese curds from Quebec. However, most of her other ingredients, from the potatoes to the pierogi and tomatoes, are local and she smokes her own meats with her own spice-mix.
If you’re confident in the size of your stomach, try the challenge - if you polish off her 1 pound burger with 2 pounds of fries and a giant milkshake in half an hour, you get your photo on the wall, your meal for free and a 10 per cent discount for life. If you fail, you also get your photo on the wall; the wall of shame - don’t worry, you will have plenty of company.
Right now, Tremblay is focused on her current location and building capital so that she can expand to a second location or get a food truck for public events and catering weddings. “I want to enjoy what I’m doing,” she says. “I’m not in the business to be stressed, I’m too old for that. Sure I work long hours, but I’m having fun!”