THE BIG CHEESE POUTINERIE
Calgary, Alberta, Canada
Food style: Poutine, Pountine and more Poutine, fast counter service
Veg Scale: serves meat, vegetarian options, a few can be made vegan
Part of town: 17th Avenue AKA “The Red Mile”
Set in a small countertop atmosphere with rough wood planked walls and tables, The Big Cheese is a post punk option brimming with self-aware humor. Lining the rustic walls are framed black and white photos from eras past depicting the caricatured face of the place’s mascot superimposed within each setting. Conscious of the environment and their impact on it, they have well-labeled disposals encouraging you to recycle and separate your waste before you leave. Down the hallway and through to the back lies a peaceful enclosed patio from which to enjoy the fresh air while gorging on your poutine of choice.
Poutine, a very Canadian dish, some would even say Canada’s National Dish, is a sizeable portion of French fries smothered in thick gravy and topped with a glob of tart cheese curds. Not the picture of health, but health isn’t what I was after on my search for an authentic vegan poutine. I had heard a rumor that The Big Cheese in downtown Calgary had just that even though it’s not listed on their main menu, which is displayed on a quirky chalkboard above the counter. I had to know what to ask and ask I did! Not only do they have the ability to make a few of their poutines vegan, but they can also swap out the regular, locally grown Yukon Gold potatoes (GF) for their exotic cousin sweet potato fries! Inquiring further led me to the knowledge that they sauté their vegetables in butter so all the delicious-sounding veggie toppings were out for me, but would still be suitable for any vegetarian. I ordered small vegan versions of their Veggie Nacho Poutine (GF), which I built on top of the regular fresh cut fries, and the Yamtastic, a classic poutine atop crisp sweet potato fries. I learned too late that the sweet potato fries are not 100% gluten free, but it was such a minor amount that I was only slightly bothered after the meal.
The Nacho Poutine consisted of homemade chunky guacamole and fresh salsa plopped atop a stack of potato wedges smothered in vegan gravy and shredded Daiya mozzarella cheez. Sprinkled on top were slices of fiery jalapeños. Normally served with a large dollop of sour cream, they offered to give me extra guac and salsa as a replacement and they didn’t even charge me extra to veganize it! The potatoes became perfectly soggy under the weight of their toppings, making for a deliciously messy meal. The jalapenos added a delightful kick that was perfectly balanced by the creamy guacamole. In fact the further I got into the pile, the more mixed and messy it got! Forgo the fork and just get in there for an authentic experience and a finger-licking good time!
The flavor and texture of the delicious toppings on the Nacho Poutine dwarfed the traditional gravy and “curds” underneath so I was glad that I ordered the classic version for comparison. Unfortunately I found their version of a Classic Poutine left something to be desired. The sweet potato fries were very good, however a little too crispy for the traditional dish. The Daiya cheez was good as a curd replacement, but they didn’t put nearly enough on top to get the authentic consistency experienced by the traditional gob of curds plopped right in the middle of the pile. The gravy was by far the weakest link as I found it watery and overly salted without much flavor. I have made many types of gravy over the years, two of the big winners being Miss Isa Chandra’s Chickpea Gravy and Savory Mushroom Gravy from the vegan-cooking bible known as Veganomicon. These gravies are thick and creamy, each with its own personality, texture and flavor profile. The gravy made at The Big Cheese added nothing to the dish and as the make-or-break element, I highly recommend they work on their recipe. As a “voodie” (vegan foodie) I think it would be a shame if this is what vegans and non-vegans alike are exposed to as the height of vegan poutine. I know you guys can do better and I challenge you to do just that! I also encourage The Big Cheese to sauté their veggies in a more heart healthy option like coconut or avocado oil so that carnivores, omnivores and herbivores alike (every “-VORE” in fact!) can fully enjoy their offerings. I see the potential for this place to become a melting pot for the dietarily divided, where the meat lovers rub elbows with those of the conscious cuisine movement. Build bridges with your dishes, guys! Make peace, not just poutine!
I am an actor/writer/content creator based in Los Angeles. I travel extensively both as the host of the new vegan food travel show The Road Less Eaten and on my own. This blog will chronicle my journey around the globe as I hunt down all the vegan options in every part of the world, no matter how big the city nor small the town.
Copyright © Ally Iseman 2016. I own my awkward. Thanks for enabling me.