Photograph by Amanda Ahn, dbimages/Alamy
Poutine just might be Quebec’s signature food. The messy pile of fries, gravy, and cheese curds isn’t new, but in recent years it’s experienced a renaissance, spreading across Canada and beyond. Gourmet versions have appeared in trendy gastro-diners and even the New York Times has jumped on board, celebrating poutine’s arrival in Manhattan.
The traditional take is still best for poutine newcomers. That means picking up a basic version—thick-cut, home-style fries, homemade gravy, and fresh curds—from a roadside chip truck. The trucks are found on busy city streets and along highways across the province.
Bagels in Montreal
Montrealers swear by their bagels, which are smaller and denser than their famous New York cousins. The Montreal-style bagel is wood-fired, and many of the city’s bagel joints do their baking within view of the seating area. Grab a table near the flame-filled oven for a perfect break on a winter day.
The two big-name rivals are St-Viateur Bagel and Fairmount Bagel. St-Viateur has several locations around town; the Monkland and Mont-Royal cafes are the most sit-down friendly. Fairmount has one 24-hour location, and its bagels are also available at many Montreal grocery stores.
Tire sur la Neige in Montérégie and Laurentians
Quebec is known for all things maple-related, but this is one of the province’s most distinctive offerings. Tire sur la neige, or sometimes simply tire d’érable, is a taffy formed by pouring still hot, boiled maple sap directly onto fresh snow. The result is a soft, flexible candy that begs to be eaten immediately.
Tire sur la neige is available at most sugar shacks. These visitor-friendly maple syrup production outfits are found across southern Quebec, with the highest concentration in the Montérégie region (on the south shore of the St. Lawrence, near Montreal) and the Laurentians.
Cheese in Eastern Townships
Quebec’s cheese scene is so vibrant that there is an entire route des fromages designed for cheese tourists. The route includes producers across the province, but if you have limited time, the Eastern Townships has a large number of options.
Part of the reason for the province’s thriving dairies is its legalization of young, raw-milk cheeses—the production of soft cheeses that have been aged less than 60 days is banned in much of North America. Ask about local specialties wherever you find yourself. Rather than copying famous French cheeses, Quebec’s producers have been creating varieties of their own.
Shish Taouk in Montreal
Shish taouk is Montreal’s street-meat staple. It’s a local variation on a chicken shawarma—marinated, boneless chicken, roasted on a vertical spit and then sawed off and piled on a pita with pickled veggies and hummus—and it is ubiquitous in the city.
There’s some confusion over the naming of the dish—shish taouk and shawarma mean different things in different parts of the Middle Eastern dining diaspora these days—so be sure to clarify what you’re ordering. If you just ask for “shawarma,” you’re likely to be served beef.
Smoked Meat Sandwich in Montreal
Don’t call it pastrami. Montreal’s sandwich of choice bears some similarities to the New York deli specialty, but there are key differences, too, in the process and spices used to cure the beef brisket and in the resulting flavor.
The undisputed king of smoked meat is Schwartz’s Montreal Hebrew Delicatessen. Schwartz’s has been slicing and serving since 1928, and it’s still in its original location on Saint-Laurent Boulevard. Pull up a chair, order a smoked meat on rye, and take part in an 80-year-old tradition.
Tourtière in Quebec City
Tourtière is a traditional Quebecois meat pie. The filling varies from region to region, but it often involves minced pork, beef, or wild game. The pies are sold in grocery stores across the province, but one of the best places to sample one is at Aux Anciens Canadiens, a restaurant in Quebec City that specializes in old-fashioned Quebecois cuisine.
In addition to its tourtière, Aux Anciens Canadiens also serves other classics: traditional pea soup, baked beans, pig’s knuckle ragout, and the essential Quebec dessert, maple syrup pie.
Couscous in Montreal
As the world’s second largest Francophone city, Montreal is a big draw for French-speaking immigrants. These days it's particularly those from North Africa and the one-time French colonies of the Arab world. More than 20 percent of the city’s residents claim Arab or North African origins, and the result is an impressive array of regional cuisines available to visitors. “Couscouseries” have sprung up, featuring Moroccan, Tunisian, and Algerian specialties. Many of them are clustered in the Plateau Mont-Royal area.
Haitian Tassot in Montreal
Tassot is a classic Haitian dish, made with jerked goat or beef, marinated in citrus juice. As Montreal’s Haitian community continues to grow (it made up 2 percent of the city’s population in the 2001 census), tassot is increasingly available, along with other staples of French Caribbean and Creole cuisine. One favorite Haitian option is Ange & Ricky, a no-frills spot near Jean Talon Market. Grab a platter of tassot, rice, and fried plantains to go.
Lamb in Charlevoix
Charlevoix lamb is one of a kind, and its producers have the law backing them up on that. In 2009 the region became the first in North America to have a food product legally protected: just like French Champagne or Italian Parma ham, only authentic Charlevoix lamb can be marketed as such.
The Charlevoix region extends east of Quebec City and north of the St. Lawrence. It’s a remarkably diverse area, mixing tidal flats with mountains, agricultural areas, and fjords, and it’s a designated UNESCO Biosphere Reserve—so even if you’re not much of a lamb eater it’s an area worth visiting.