It was a cloudy, calm Sunday morning in Copley Square, and even with roads damp from the rain, the Gravy Train slowly came together. This train had no locomotive and no caboose, only a group of 13 cyclists with a love for a Québécois specialty: poutine.
The Gravy Train had four stops to make on the way to crisp french fries doused in warm gravy and topped with fresh cheese curds: Roxy’s Grilled Cheese, Saus, Flat Top Johnny’s and Penguin Pizza. At the end of the day, participants would hold a vote to determine which restaurant has Boston’s best poutine.
Hosted by the Boston Cyclists Union, the Gravy Train was created to challenge the assumption that Boston lacks good poutine, and to continue the tradition of the BCU’s food-themed bike tours. Previous tours have included the “Ramen Ride,” “Taco Tour” and the ice-cream-themed “Game of Cones.”
“First, people who bike really love to eat,” said Jon Ramos, a volunteer event planner for the BCU. “Beyond that, we enjoy showing people good routes for getting around the city on a bike. We also like to show our support for the local businesses that make Boston a unique place to live and build business allies by reminding them that they have customers who arrive on bike.”
Talya Levitz, a graduate student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said she commutes on her bike every day from Jamaica Plain to Cambridge, and that participating in the Gravy Train would be a good way to meet new people who also bike.
“I just moved from Portland, Oregon, and there is a poutine food cart there which is pretty excellent,” Levitz said. “That is where I first heard about poutine. Then I did a road trip across the country, partly through Canada, and we ate a lot of poutine there.”
Leaving at noon sharp, the train embarked on a 14-mile journey across Boston. From Allston to Longwood, Haymarket to East Cambridge, the tour lasted approximately four hours.
Jason Rosenman, a firmware engineer from Cambridge, said he had previously been to Saus, Roxy’s Grilled Cheese and Flat Top Johnny’s. He predicted either Saus or Flat Top Johnny’s would come out on top in the competition.
“I know Saus has really good fries, so that might be a deciding factor, but … I really like the cheese curds and I know some people do poutine with cheddar,” Rosenman said. “It still tastes good, but it’s sort of not original. I’m hoping they do it with cheese curds.”
A couple from Medford, David and Kathryn Adams, had also been to some of the restaurants. David said he thought Saus would win, but he wasn’t sure; Kathryn said she didn’t want to make a prediction because she hadn’t tried restaurants besides Saus, which is close to her work.
“I’ve become a fan of poutine over the years and it was a good chance to help out the cyclist union and another way to get me out,” David Adams said. “I’m trying to make sure I ride even in the winter time.”
Around 4 p.m., the train pulled into its final station of the voyage: Flat Top Johnny’s. Located in East Cambridge, the casual bar and pub grub pool lounge was bustling when the bikers strode in.
Clustered around two wooden tables and seated on stools, the cyclists compared the restaurants. Overall creativity, fry crunchiness and curd quality were all discussed between sips of beer as the group awaited Flat Top Johnny’s take on a classic dish.
Whispered exchanges appeared to have Saus high up on the critics’ list. Servers brought around the final poutine and once the bowls were cleaned, the final vote began. In this democratic poutine election, the higher the score, the worse the restaurant did.
After double-checking the scores, Ramos announced the highly anticipated results: Saus won, with 23 points; Roxy’s and Penguins tied for second with a score of 27; Flat Top Johnny’s earned 43 points.
“I think it was a good, fair election,” Rosenman said. “The results ended up being similar to what I picked and what I thought would happen.”
Would he do it again?
“Oh yeah. For sure,” he said. “I think it was great.”