One of my “only-in-Vegas” memories dates to a few years ago. It was after it had become clear that people from all over the world would stand in line in the heat just to glimpse members of the “Pawn Stars” TV show at their Gold and Silver Pawn Shop on a somewhat less tourist-friendly part of Las Vegas Boulevard.
I was doing a periodic update on places to eat in downtown Las Vegas. There were a couple of new ones then (apparently promising places that have since closed), but still, the pickings were pretty slim. Some enterprising soul had popped up a hot dog stand in the pawn shop’s parking lot, which seemed pretty inspired, since most of those line-standers probably would be happy to find a cold drink.
Only thing was, no one would talk to me about it. I stopped by, made a few calls, and it was as if the place didn’t exist — leading me to figure that it probably didn’t, on paper anyway. It vanished shortly thereafter.
Cut to today, after a few more years of downtown revitalization. Conventional wisdom has it that after the construction of Downtown Container Park, the “Pawn Stars” folks decided something similar would be a pretty good idea in their parking lot. And, sitting on the covered patio the other evening, watching a steady stream of vehicles come and go, it seemed like a pretty good idea to us, too.
Pawn Plaza, a much smaller version of Container Park, has all of the food sources you’d think would work in these surroundings: a doughnut shop, an ice-cream shop, a pizzeria and a barbecue restaurant with bar. But it also has something unheard of this far south of Quebec: a poutine restaurant.
Yes, poutine. In case you’re not familiar, it’s french fries topped with cheese curds and gravy. Yes, it’s pretty much a soggy mess, but like a lot of soggy messes it’s acquired a cult following in the half-century or so it’s been in existence, mostly in Canada, which explains a lot (kidding!). It’s acquired such a following, in fact, that there even are poutine chains, of which Smoke’s Poutinerie is one.
As you’d expect from a restaurant in a shipping container, it’s a tiny place. Line up at the counter, figure out what you want from the signboard above, watch as the employee drops the fryer baskets, and before you know it, your poutine is ready.
And you do have to figure out what you want, because one thing I haven’t mentioned is that there seem to be countless poutine variations, this being an extremely malleable genre. Smoke’s Las Vegas shop currently lists 27 varieties (in pork, beef, chicken and vegetarian), and there was at least another mentioned on the window, and they’re available in three sizes, though we stuck with “meal size.”
While poutine is rare in these parts for a whole bunch of reasons, we weren’t complete newbies, having had it in upstate New York a couple of years ago and as a novelty special locally, so we knew we’d have to go with a Traditional ($7.99) to get the measure of the place.
And yes, it was classic poutine, in all its dubious glory. The fries on the top were reasonably intact, but those on the bottom had devolved into mush, as we expected. The gravy, also as we expected, had salt as its primary flavor characteristic, which apparently is a requirement of authentic poutine. One thing we did like was that these cheese curds had been cut into smallish chunks, so instead of just being chewy, they were nice and melted all over the potatoes and throughout the gravy.
I suppose we were asking for a saltapalooza with the Montreal ($9.99), but I wanted to try the Montreal smoked meat. It was in plentiful supply, very thinly sliced and then cut into squares, and a pleasant, if salty, addition to the traditional poutine. But encountering something this salty, I suspected the triple pork (with pulled pork, bacon and sausage) would’ve made my ears ring.
Smoke’s is all poutine, all the time, with no appetizers or desserts. The lone employee behind the counter was pleasant and efficient enough, and our dining surroundings on the Pawn Plaza patio reasonably pleasant, if a little warm on a summer night (we noticed they have heaters for winter but sure would’ve appreciated a fan or a mister).
And the scenery, of course, includes that endless stream of vehicles, most of them rental cars, rental motorcycles or vehicles with out-of-state plates, coming by for a little reflected reality-show glory. If the whole experience isn’t an only-in-Vegas scenario, I don’t know what is.
Las Vegas Review-Journal restaurant reviews are done anonymously at Review-Journal expense. Email Heidi Knapp Rinella at email@example.com. Find more of her stories at www.reviewjournal.com and follow @HKRinella on Twitter.
Smoke’s Poutinerie, Pawn Plaza, 725 Las Vegas Blvd. South; 702-823-4555
The essence: All poutine, all the time — and we think poutine is something of an acquired taste.