Calgary’s Big Cheese Poutinerie

When it opened last spring, the Big Cheese Poutinerie had some mighty big mouths to fill, as Calgarians had been long awaiting a take-outlet with legit Quebecois style poutine. In fact, the idea seemed so obvious, so practical, it’s a surprise the 17th Ave. diner was the first of its kind in the city: an eatery dedicated solely to poutine.

To say that the foray was immediately successful is an understatement. Shortly after opening, Big Cheese co-owner Travis Burke claimed that the poutinerie was selling some 1,600 poutines/day. He says he took inspiration from mom-and-pop shops in Eastern Canada, particularly Quebec City. As Eastern poutine purists will tell you, the greasy spoons and hole-in-the-walls out there seem to have a distinct advantage in moving messy amounts of the dish over classier, sit-down restaurants.

In Calgary, though, diners seemed to adopt the opposite attitude, decreeing early in the day that Laurier Lounge, District and, to a lesser extent, Alberta King of Subs sold a poutine superior to Big Cheese. Such comparisons never seemed fair; established restaurants had the resources and the experience. Big Cheese deserves a chance. Good thing that Calgarians are nothing if not patient. With more than half-a-year to perfect its recipes, and with news that Toronto-based chain Smoke’s Poutinerie is franchising here shortly, it’s time to revisit Calgary’s only poutinerie and see how it measures up.

Big Cheese is a fun place, that’s what you notice immediately. The vibe is somewhere between BBQ stop and trophy shop, and the restaurant’s floor plan flows customers (or corrals them, depending on how you look at it) along a narrow side lane towards the back-of-the-house ordering counter. The giant menu perched high over the kitchen window lists a multitude of options, showing many of Big Cheese’s innovative strengths.

Rather than sell nothing but traditional poutine, Burke has taken the route of Calgary staples like Tubby Dog (just down the street) and injected fun recipes into a well-known platform. It’s easy to forget you came for a sloppy dish of cheese curds, gravy and fries when ordering here. If you’re not a purist, try the Notorious P.I.G. — a salty wonderland of Carolina pulled pork, double smoked bacon and Italian sausage — or the Cowtown, poutine with BBQ beef and caramelized onions. Along with a selection of pork-based poutines, Big Cheese’s menu offers chicken, vegetarian, beef, and “build your own” options. It also lets you make a traditional poutine with yam fries.

Ah, the frites. One frequent complaint is the fries. The spuds at Big Cheese are well cooked and, apparently, that’s how Quebecers like it (I like them a little mushier). Another criticism is there never seems to be enough gravy or cheese (even on the traditional poutine) to enjoy a gooey mixture of curds, fries and gravy, right down to the last bite. It may be to prevent the disintegration of the thin cardboard boxes the poutines are served in, but we all know what we’re signing on for here, so I say Big Cheese could stand to increase the grease.

If you haven’t been yet, the Big Cheese is definitely worth checking out. Watching its response to Smoke’s infiltration of the Calgary poutine marketshare will certainly be interesting.

Image courtesy of Big Cheese Poutinerie.

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