We love poutine here at The Takeout. It’s a humble dish; in its basic and most popular form, this Canadian staple is just french fries doused in brown gravy, topped with fresh cheese curds. For all of its glorious simplicity, the dish will seemingly never be half as popular in the United States as it is in Canada. Even McDonald’s serves poutine up there, but down here, poutine can be unusually difficult to find. Luckily, at one American fast food chain, you can put together a DIY version that’s nearly as good as the genuine article.
You know I’m a Culver’s fan, and I’m not alone. There are nearly 900 Culver’s locations across the United States, spanning almost the whole country, save for some coastal states and a few unlucky ones in between. Former Simpsons writer and fast food enthusiast Bill Oakley recently visited the Wisconsin-based fast food restaurant for the first time and loved it (as evidenced by his 60-second review). He even called it “The best fast food of my life.”
Though it can be found across the country, Culver’s is a Midwestern chain through and through. Shake Shack and In-N-Out Burger fans, I see you and hear you, but this is our special place. Because the restaurant started in Wisconsin, the menu leans heavily on regional classics, like ButterBurgers (which are, yes, burgers with a generous dose of butter), and one key ingredient to a poutine: cheese curds.
There are other homestyle items on Culver’s menu, like crinkle cut fries, and for those who want slightly different sides with their burgers, you have the option of onion rings, pretzel bites, and most importantly, mashed potatoes and gravy. Conveniently, you can order the gravy as a side. I think you can see where I’m going with this.
To create a Culver’s poutine, all you need to do is order fries, cheese curds, and a side of gravy. If you’re so inclined, you can easily order those components a la carte and assemble them, either in the restaurant or at home. To my surprise, however, I learned that Culver’s will prepare it for you. I told the cashier that I’d intended to combine all the items at my table, and he immediately offered to do it himself.
It turns out that the cashier was franchisee Danny Ehle, who runs one of Chicago’s handful of Culver’s locations. He recognized the items in my order, which is why he offered to put it together for me, and brought it out when it was ready.
One big caveat here: The cheese curds aren’t the squeaky fresh ones that define a “true” poutine. The breaded fried curds were as good of a substitute as I was going to get, but that doesn’t mean they were a poor one. The hot crinkle cut fries drenched in beef gravy and topped with the chewy, stretchy curds all read the same way as a classic poutine, save a bit of excess breading and lack of squeakiness. I can assure you, it was no less delicious because of the difference. (And it’s still closer to a Canadian poutine than any American version that drowns the fries in melted mozzarella.)
Because he seemed familiar with the order, I asked Ehle whether people have come to his Culver’s to hack together some poutine before. He confirmed that I’m far from the first customer to try it.
“It’s funny, they have this look on their face,” Ehle said. “They say, ‘Do you know what poutine is?’ I watch Food Network, and I’m into that stuff. I know it’s a Canadian thing, and we’ve had people order it.”
Ehle lets customers know he’s happy to make the dish, even if it’s a custom request. Would every Culver’s location would be so accommodating? My location seems to be particularly friendly, which is great. No matter which Culver’s you go to, you won’t know unless you ask. Which you should. Politely, of course. And if they can’t, you can still order each item and build the dish yourself for well under $10.
When I asked Ehle how often people order hacked poutine, he said it probably comes up about once a year. “Maybe someone from out of town [orders it], someone from up north, but not it’s not very common,” he said.
Maybe I filled the yearly quota as that one guy who ordered it. But next time I’m in the mood for poutine and I can’t find one (why, America? Why?), I’ll be headed to Culver’s, where the staff will know exactly what I’m asking for.