By Shelby Pope/Bay Area Bites
The Canadians are coming, and they’re bringing poutine. Smoke’s Poutinerie opened on Durant Avenue in Berkeley on Monday, Dec. 8 (as first reported on Berkeleyside in September). The first U.S. location of a popular fast food chain with over 100 stores in Canada, the restaurant only sells poutine, the gloriously nap-inducing Quebec dish of fries tossed with gravy and topped with cheese curds.
Why Berkeley for the first U.S. store? Ironically, it’s all because of a few enterprising Southern Californians. Los Angeles-based film producers Robert Parada and Danny Rodriguez went out drinking one night during a visit to Berkeley, and when they left the bar, they were struck by the amount of people — and potential customers — out late in Berkeley. Along with a third partner, they approached Smoke’s founder and CEO Ryan Smolkin with the idea of opening a Berkeley location of the chain, which they had tried and loved during a visit to Winnipeg.
The new shop has already tapped into the customer base Parada and Rodriguez observed — on the first day, there was a continuous line out the door. Open until 4 a.m. every day, Smoke’s location — two blocks from the Berkeley campus, in between popular bars and within spitting distance of the dorms — makes it evident who their target market is: hungry students and sloshed bar goers looking for something cheap and filling to line their stomach before the library or the next Golden Bear at Henry’s.
The red L-shaped shop in-between Jaguar Karaoke and the original Top Dog is tiny, has no tables, but does have counters to stand up and eat at. The store is loud, with lightning fast workers yelling orders over ’80s rock, and everything comes in a to-go box — perfect for eating en route to the next bar.
All the dishes are available in three sizes, a plenty filling “snack” size, the meal size, and a staggeringly large Wow Size (with toppings, it can weigh up to three pounds), best suited for those with an 18-year-old metabolism — or the people who compete in the Poutine eating competition Smoke’s hosts every year.
The menu is divided by what kind of meat you’d like on your poutine: chicken, pork, beef or steak. For vegetarians, they offer a meat-free gravy and options like the Veggie Rainbow, topped with guacamole, Sriracha, and sour cream.
The traditional poutine was immensely satisfying, in the indulgent way that only a pile of carbs and cheese can be. Served piping hot, the dish’s well-seasoned gravy smothered the crispy fries (larger than McDonald’s, small enough not to overwhelm the toppings), with Wisconsin cheese curds that squeaked when I bit into them.
A triple pork poutine was topped with a generous amount of bacon and a truly incredible amount of sausage, more sausage than on a typical medium meat lover’s pizza. The name promised three pork products, but I didn’t notice any pulled pork in the dish. Since all the toppings are piled on top of the fries, it’s up to you to disburse the toppings throughout the fries, but there’s enough gravy that the bottom fries are thoroughly soaked with gravy. It was rich, satisfyingly meaty and balanced: The gravy tasted good on its own, but didn’t compete with the salty toppings.
The Montreal poutine didn’t work quite so well. The Montreal smoked meat was subtly spiced, but plopped on the fries in a giant chunk with no way to disseminate throughout the fries. A flood of mustard in the corner reminded me why we eat fries with ketchup. A juicy pickle, nearly the length of the box, provided welcome contrast from the potato onslaught.
The Berkeley Smoke’s — the name and logo comes from the probably apocryphal figure that Founder Smolkin credits as the visionary behind the chain, who only communicates through Smolkin — is just the beginning of the company’s U.S. plans.
Smolkin is a laid-back guy (On the Berkeley store: “They [served] over 1,200 people yesterday. Over 1,200 servings out of that little wee shop. Isn’t that sick?”) but he’s serious about expanding Smoke’s: a Hollywood location is currently under construction, and he has plans for locations in Arizona, Vegas and New York.
While the core market for Smoke’s is the urban, 18-25 nightlife crowd (“I didn’t say the word drunk, but that might have something to do with it”), Smolkin emphasizes how other demographics, like young families, have been drawn to the chain.
“I’m a father of twin boys who are 8 years old — they decide where we’re going for dinner. They’re the ones that want the poutine and there’s somebody like me, the dad is like, we really shouldn’t, but you want it. You’re looking for the excuse to go have to get it.”
For others, he said, poutine is a daily habit. “Some see it as an everyday food, they’ll have it at lunch with a suit and tie on, and then they’ll come back at 3 in the morning with the tie wrapped around their head and two friends,” he said. “Then you have the other demographic, where it’s an indulgence and they treat themselves every once in awhile. It caters to everybody.”
Smoke’s Poutinerie is located at 2518 Durant Ave. Suite A, in Berkeley. The business can be reached by phone at 510-540-7500, and is open daily from 11 a.m. to 4 a.m. Entrees go for $10 or less. Find Smoke’s Poutinerie on Facebook and on Twitter @smokesberkeley.
Bay Area Bites (BAB), KQED’s public media food blog, shares visually compelling food-related stories, news, recipes and reviews from the San Francisco Bay Area and beyond.