You don’t have to be Canadian to appreciate a steaming, hot bowl of comfort food like poutine amid the smoldering cauldron of a Miami summer.
But it helps to think like one.
Put yourself in this frame of mind: Torrential rains pound the 25 feet of driveway between your car and the front door. You rush through the downpour into a cold, air-conditioned house with soggy Chuck Taylors, shirt sticking to your back and hair matted to your forehead.
Waiting on the counter in a warm kitchen is a bowl of French fries right out of fryer, covered in chunks of salty cheese and smothered in rich, homemade gravy.
Replace the rain with snow. And then you’ll understand why Melanie Schoendorfer, Canadian born, makes this ode to comfort food on Sundays at Babe’s Meat & Counter, the Palmetto Bay butcher store and sandwich shop she runs with her husband, Jason.
“My last meal, if I had to pick, would be a heaping bowl of hot, fresh poutine,” she said. “It’s the ultimate hot, sloppy comfort food.”
Melanie would know a good poutine.
She grew up on her Italian immigrant grandparents’ sheep and goat farm in Timmins, Ontario (famously the home of Shania Twain). There, she learned to make all manner of smoked meats and sausages, using every part of the animal. And that’s why people drive across the county to stock up on meat at Babe’s.
Babe’s poutine is three simple ingredients with layers of flavor.
- Potatoes: The French fries must be thick cut, about a quarter inch, with the skin on, fresh from the knife to the fryer.
- Curds: No cheese sauce, here. Poutine requires lumps of cheese curds, a firm, fresh-made cheese that sort-of squeaks when you bite into it, where it gets its nickname as “squeaky cheese.” The curds have to be firm enough to stand up to the hot gravy. Babe gets its curds from Wisconsin after talks of a U.S. tariff on Canadian cheese has bumped up prices.
- Gravy: Babe’s buys an entire heritage-breed hog weekly. They use the meat to make things like house-cured sausages (fennel with cranberries is a favorite), bacon (coffee rubbed or smoked with herbs de Provence) and a seasoned, roasted pork they use in sandwiches like an Italian pork roll au jus and a killer Cuban sandwich. The stock from those roasts, heightened with Italian seasonings of Melanie’s youth, is what they use to make the house gravy.
Scoop the hot fries into a bowl. Top with cheese curds firm enough to stand up to heat. (They shouldn’t melt on contact.) And top with a gravy hours in the making.
Don’t even try to eat it with your hands.
“You need a fork,” Melanie said. “Some people slurp the gravy at the bottom. It’s really hard to share a poutine — unless you know that person very well.”
Loyalists are lining up for it, even as Babe’s market is still making a name for itself after opening in May. The Schoendorfers were well known at farmers markets, and at Joanna’s Market, where Melanie worked for 10 years, making her sausage for Babe’s after hours in the kitchen. She was getting so good that her husband of 14 years joked she was becoming “Babe Froman, the sausage queen of Miami,” a riff on a joke in the movie “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.”
“I wanted to eat it and I couldn’t find it anywhere else,” she said. “We do this because this is stuff we want to eat.”
People are noticing. In a span of half an hour on a recent Sunday, regulars (including ESPN senior investigative journalist and Pulitzer Prize winner Don Van Natta) and three separate groups of first timers crowded the 1,000 square-foot shop. Among them was Dean Ziff, son of the late Sunglass Hut founder Sanford Ziff, who drove 15 miles from Brickell with his son, after a round of tennis to buy steak for a cookout.
“You want to support a local shopkeeper whenever they’re good — and return and return,” Dean Ziff said.
Babe’s poutine grabbed Matthew and Dana March’s attention, after moving to Miami from Chicago, north enough that they were enamored with poutine. They ordered it out of nostalgia along with a pair of sandwiches.
“We were excited to see poutine on the menu in Miami. Thought maybe it would be too heavy on a hot, humid day, but it wasn’t. The gravy was light and the fries and curds were perfect,” Matthew March said. “It was a great addition to our amazing sandwiches.”
Poutine is not flashy. It’s not made for Instagram and it doesn’t photograph well. It’s mostly a yellow dish covered in brown sauce. But brown food — Italian Sunday gravy, Cuban picadillo, Indian masala curry — gets a bad rap.
Brown is the color of hours of flavors stewing together to create layers of taste. Brown is the color of love. And that love is why Melanie Schoendorfer makes it.
“I’ll say it: Our poutine is as good as anything you can get in Canada,” she said, “if not better.”