Interior British Columbia isn’t known as a foodie destination. However, if you travel on highway 97 just north of the 70 Mile House, you’ll find The Sugar Shack and some of the best poutine west of Quebec.
We are driving along the Gold Rush Trail in route to historic Barkerville when we happen upon this unassuming café. A friend had recommended The Sugar Shack’s poutine, Canada’s iconic, gut busting concoction of French fries, cheese curds and gravy. It’s lunchtime so we pull in.
Inside, we find chef and proprietor Robert Cinq-Mars hustling between his small kitchen and the front counter whipping up his specialties and bantering with customers. He’s talking with a young mother and her two teenaged daughters and frying up fresh, complimentary beavertails for the girls (more about those later). The teens, who turn beet red every time Robert looks at them, are giggling as they eat the pastry.
When Robert finally turns his intense gaze on us, he asks in a sonorous voice, “How can I help you?”
Tall with piercing brown eyes, wildly unkept hair, and day-old scruff, he’s roguishly good looking—the kind of man your mother warned you about. He informs us he’s French from Quebec (“Key-beck,” he says in his thick French accent.) He’s transplanted Quebeqouis, a French citizen of Quebec.
How did this Frenchman end up in this lonely outpost in interior B.C.? “After an explosion,” he tells us, he made the life change from carpenter to chef. “My daughter and I were involved in the explosion,” he says mysteriously, not offering further details.
When I look alarmed, he waves a hand dismissively. “We were both okay, but I needed to do something else,” he says. “So I came here and opened The Sugar Shack.”
“At first, I just sold the maple products, the syrup and maple sugars,” he continues. “Then I added the poutine and other things.”
I hear his poutine is good I tell him.
“The best,” he says grinning crookedly. “Real hand-cut potatoes, not frozen. Fresh cheese curds. I make my own gravy. Everything fresh. Everything made from scratch.”
I ask about the Montreal smoked meat sandwiches on the chalkboard menu. I’d assumed he had the famous pastrami-like meat shipped in, but he smokes it himself in a smoker the size of a small closet on the north side of the café.
“I got the recipe from an old Jewish guy in Montreal. He gave me almost the whole recipe. I think one ingredient is missing, but it’s still good.”
Poutine and Smoked Meat
We order a half portion of poutine and a Montreal smoked meat sandwich to share and retreat to a long blond log table and bench that Robert made. In fact, everything in the café is his handiwork, including the front counter that’s packed with maple products—syrup, sugar, candy, and buns and breads he bakes in-house.
He delivers a basket with a mountain of fries slathered in brown gravy and big chunks of half-melted cheese curd. Since the sandwich came with fries, he added the fries to the poutine and made us a full order. I take a bite—the fries are chunky and crisp with skins still on; the gravy silky and rich-tasting; the cheese curds creamy and melty-stringy with just the right fresh squeak. Now this is poutine. In fact, it’s the best poutine I’ve ever eaten, even better than poutine I’ve eaten in Quebec.
The sandwich is piled high with thinly sliced meat, pink, smoky, and sweet-salty with a perfect fat rim. It’s served on soft rye bread with yellow mustard and a thick dill pickle spear. When I bite in, I’m transported to the Jewish section of Montreal and famous Schwartz’s deli. I don’t know the ingredient Robert thinks this recipe lacks, but this is as good as any smoked meat in Montreal.
We eat every last sandwich crumb and sop up the last gravy-smeared fry. We’re stuffed.
“How did you like it?” he inquires at the checkout counter.
“Phenomenal,” I tell him, grinning like a school girl. “You are the Prince of Poutine.”
We ask about the maple products and, as he delivers his rapid-fire sales pitch, he pours me a cup of black coffee he spikes with maple syrup. It’s rich and strangely delicious. I order a second cup for the road.
As he brews my next cup, he stretches balls of dough and drops them into the deep fryer. When they’re golden, he spreads them with maple butter and hands us each one. “Elephant ears?”
“Beaver tails,” he says, smiling impishly.
They’re soft with a chewy tooth, more like bannock (First Nations fry bread). The sweet maple butter melts in my mouth.
We leave The Sugar Shack loaded down with three sacks of maple sugar and a bag of pillow-soft maple buns. As I sip my maple-laced coffee, I don’t care that our visit to the Prince of Poutine has cost us $50. It was a delicious journey; well worth every bite. – Bobbie Hasselbring, Editor realfoodtraveler.com, photos Anne Weaver, RFT Editor