A couple of years ago, I spent a weekend in Canada, basically surviving on a diet of nothing but pilsner and poutine. It's a miracle I made it back alive, because poutine — a traditional French Canadian dish consisting of fries, cheese curds and brown gravy — is every bit as unhealthy as it is delicious.
Problem is, it's not easy to find poutine (pronounced poo-teen, and stop snickering) here in the States — at least, not this far south. That's surprising. You would think, given the number of Canadian snowbirds who winter in Florida, that Tampa Bay would be overrun with gastropubs and greasy spoons serving this seemingly easy-to-replicate dish.
Oh, sure, there have been attempts. The Refinery built its reputation in part on its decadent poutine, while Datz used to serve an egg-topped breakfast version. But both of those beloved joints retired the dish long ago, leaving hungry Canucks out in the cold.
So can you find good poutine in Tampa Bay? Canadians may roll their eyes at the notion, but this hoser dug up a few dishes worth a try.
When you think Canada, you think hockey, right? So it stands to reason that the Tampa Bay Times Forum would serve poutine during Lightning games. They do, but there's a catch: It's available only on game nights in the exclusive fourth-floor Chase Club, which is open only to Chase Club season ticket holders (those who buy individual Chase Club seats aren't allowed in the fourth-floor lounge). If Montreal Canadiens fans catch wind of this, the Forum might be facing a riot.
You'd expect quality French-ish fare at Tampa's swanky Mise en Place, and you wouldn't be wrong. Long one of Tampa's premiere destinations for both date nights and downtown's heavy hitters, Mise en Place gussies up its poutine platters with ooh-la-la toppings like lobster and kobe oxtail at dinner and braised short rib at lunch. That last one is a more American take, drenched in hearty red wine thyme gravy with globs of tangy cheddar curds oozing over fingerling potato wedges — it's almost like a stew. All are on the appetizer menu, but one plate is rich and filling enough for a meal in and of itself.
Tampa foodies seem to love anything that comes from a food truck, and one of Tampa's most popular rolling eateries is Wicked 'Wiches, which has been featured on the Cooking Channel's Eat Street. One of their standout menu items is lobster poutine, a paper dish of fries doused in bisque and feta cheese. It's beyond rich and will test the tensile strength of your plastic fork, but it's definitely worth the effort. (One caveat: Locating a Wicked 'Wiches truck can be a challenge, as they rarely update their weekly locations on Facebook and Twitter, but they do tend to pop up at most larger food truck rallies.)
Ybor City's Carne Chophouse sells a starter plate called Cheese Fries Poutine, but the emphasis here is decidedly on the cheese fries, and not the poutine. Gooey, globby and ginormous, it's not unlike a loaded-potato app you might find at a chain like TGI Fridays — cheese sauce (not curds), bacon, scallions and a fried egg atop a platter of golden fries, with a side dish of brown veal gravy in case you'd rather dip than drizzle. It's a gigantic portion — one order is more than enough for a gut-busting meal — and at only $6.95, that makes it one of the better bar-food bargains in all of Ybor City.
Finally, Frenchy's has been a Clearwater Beach institution for so long, you've probably never questioned why it's called "Frenchy's." That's the nickname of founder and owner Michael Preston, a Quebec native who grew up speaking both English and French. While the menus at most Frenchy's locations consist of typical Floridian beach fare, Preston does pay tribute to his Canadian roots at Frenchy's Original Café, where you can order a starter of poutine for $6.95. That, mind you, is the simple version — fries, cheese curds and brown gravy — but every now and then, you might catch them dishing out a wholly unique Canadian-Floridian hybrid: Grouper poutine. That would be poutine topped with a giant fried grouper filet.
Betcha can't find that in Montreal, eh?