It's hard to visit Montreal without hearing about La Banquise. The restaurant is hardly ever empty, and lines often stretch down the block as an eclectic mix of locals and tourists wait patiently for what are often touted as some of the best poutines — 30 in total on an ever-changing menu — in the city.
Its co-owners, Annie Barsalou and Marc Latendresse, term the spot a "success story." Many of the venue's most popular poutines have come to be through a painstaking process of trial, error and innovation, with the oldest item on the menu holding a particularly special place in Barsalou's heart.
The story behind La Banquise's oldest poutine
It's the more than 20-year-old Elvis poutine, comprised of fresh fries, cheese curds and gravy topped with ground beef, green peppers and mushrooms. "The Elvis poutine is our history of creating poutine," Barsalou told MTL Blog over the phone. "It was two guys who came from watching [the movie] Elvis Gratton," a classic Quebec comedy, who came up with the idea.
The two men requested poutines topped with the now-signature add-ons. "So I did it," Barsalou says. "And I said, 'You know what? It's gonna be tasty! So if you'd like to give it a name, that would be nice.'" The guests did the obvious: named it after the iconic film. Now, the Elvis remains one of the more popular items on the menu.
After this monumental, deeply québécois experience, La Banquise was never the same. From its humble beginnings as an ice cream shop, the restaurant grew to feature dozens of creatively topped poutines.
Lots of love and an ever-shifting poutine menu
"That was the moment we started to have a lot of content on the menu," Barsalou explained, "because at the beginning, we only had the regular [poutine]" and an Italian poutine covered in Bolognese sauce.
Some menu items remain the same, like the Elvis, and others rotate on and off the menu throughout the year. Barsalou credits her dedicated team for coming up with some of the best-loved, most innovative poutine recipes. "Our staff is very 'in it,' you know," she said, adding that they manage to craft new recipes using existing menu ingredients and draw inspiration from many other poutineries across Montreal and elsewhere.
La Banquise owner's (other) favourite Montreal poutine spot
Barsalou's favourite poutine place besides her own is a hard thing to answer, because she and her staff love trying other places, both for inspiration and just for a good meal. But she did name-drop a nearby restaurant, the Ma Poule Mouillé, whose poutine fame rivals that of La Banquise — an impressive feat for a Portuguese grill less than a block away from the 30-poutine decadence Barsalou calls home.
Although that seemingly boundless creativity is a key aspect of La Banquise's success, Barsalou says the freshness of ingredients is the most important part of making a truly great poutine. They receive ingredient deliveries six days a week to ensure that everything is perfect for the vast number of guests who line up for the food her team serves.
The best part of working at La Banquise
These countless visitors, who come from all over the world, sometimes with suitcases in tow, are Barsalou's favourite part of working in Montreal's food scene. Being open for 24 hours means that no matter the time, tourists flock to the restaurant just to get one last meal in before their plane takes off. "So we talk to people from around the world. That's something that you cannot have in Laval or Longueuil," Barsalou remarked. "So that's nice!"