Poutine: The best fast food when travelling

It's got chips, cheese and gravy - and it's messy. What's not to like about poutine?

Montreal's La Banquise is famous for one thing: that mess of chips, cheese curds and gravy known as poutine. No wonder there's a queue snaking right out the door and down the street on a Friday night. The 24-hour greasy-spoon in the bohemian Plateau Mont-Royal neighbourhood is on every poutine lover's radar because it serves an extraordinary 31 varieties. Here, you could order the standard-issue La Classique – but why would you when chips can come slathered with everything from pulled pork, slaw and sour cream (La Boogalou) to that other Montreal culinary obsession, smoked meat (L'Obelix)?  

It takes 20 minutes for me to shuffle inside and breathe the hallowed air. Unsurprisingly, it smells like a chip shop. The name translates as "ice floe" – a reference to the eatery's origins as an ice-creamery back in 1968. Things took off for La Banquise in the 1980s when it turned into a snack bar and added two poutines to the menu.  

Many regulars swear the best variation is La T-Rex, which piles beef mince, pepperoni, bacon and sliced hotdog sausage onto the chips and curds. Who am I to argue? I devour the gooey pile of meatiness, washing it down with an apricot-scented St-Ambroise ale from a Montreal micro-brewery. Outside the window, those still waiting in the queue peer in at the fast-food greatness emerging from the kitchen.

A few days earlier – for poutine shouldn't really be consumed for consecutive dinners – I tried another joint not far from La Banquise. Ma-Am-M Bolduc, on the other side of Parc La Fontaine, is a cosy neighbourhood eatery serving 11 poutines. My bourguignonne topping – a stew of beef, onions, mushrooms, garlic and red wine – is lukewarm but tasty. Forkfuls of Greek salad provide nutritional counterbalance. I found this place with the help of montrealpoutine.com, a website rating the city's poutine outlets.

But who came up with the crazy idea for poutine in the first place? Its origins are contested but a widely accepted version is that it started in 1957 in Warwick – a town between Montreal and Quebec City - when a takeaway customer asked a chef to pop his squeaky cheese curds and fries into the same bag. Gravy was later added to soften the curds and - voila! - poutine was born.

Outside the window, those still waiting in the queue peer in at the fast-food greatness emerging from the kitchen.

Nowadays, some chefs elevate the fast-food institution to haute cuisine.  In Toronto, I've enjoyed pizza piled high with roast duck and poutine. One Montreal fine-diner serves poutine with lobster.

In Quebec City's hip Saint-Roch neighbourhood, I resist a pub spruiking poutine with pork leg and mustard sauce. But I'm intrigued when I find "mountain poutine" on the menu at The Fairmont Banff Springs in western Canada. The skillet of chips is layered with pulled pork, the whole lot slathered with a smoky speck gravy. It's good – but not great. "Is this cheese … mozzarella?" I ask my waitress. When she confirms my suspicions about the "curds", I sit back with satisfaction. I'm now officially a poutine connoisseur.

Katrina Lobley travelled courtesy of the Canadian Tourism Commission.