One dark January morning, the manager of a Wendy's or a Burger King---or maybe even a Subway---woke up with a start, a bad feeling buzzing like an alarm in the pit of her stomach. When she got to work, she said hello to Justin. He made a funny joke, feet shuffling, eyes never quite meeting hers, a shrug playing on his shoulders.
At the end of his shift, Justin called her aside. "Two weeks," he said. He was giving his notice. She accepted with a tight smile and a quick "good luck," and went into her office. She closed the door and wept.
"What now?" she thought as she gazed at the empty shadow of the cash register before locking up for the night. At least that's what I imagine happened sometime in the weeks before Cheese Curds Gourmet Burgers + Poutinerie opened.
Well-versed in rapid-fire service with a smile, at the cash register Justin sets the tone. He's the Temple Grandin of this hamburger stand. He sends customers into what is essentially a packed corral, brightening moods and fending off tensions that could panic the herd. He makes lots of small quips, familiar and friendly, as my friend and I order a Honolulu burger combo with poutine ($13.75), a pork schnitzel burger ($8.75) and a large onion rings ($6). As we're funneled down the line, we hear the patient giggles of people behind us. And it's a long wait in that lineup. "Fast track!" is hollered a few times, takeout orders quickly ushered through in a clever tact that gives folks in the tiny dining room extra time to eat before the next wave crashes down, swamping empty seats.
"Two pigs in the air," calls a cook, two pieces of breaded pork soon flop onto the grill. The staff communicates with military precision over the sizzles and pops of the kitchen. When our turn comes up at the topping station, our burgers are quickly assembled by two workers, while another piles up our poutine and holds a bottle of honey high raining down on the onion rings.
In the dining room the tables are full. Some ding-dong hogs an empty four-top, while her friends stand 15 faces deep in the line. Curses fill the eyes of people who pass her in a search for seats, trays full. A nearby table clears and we drop like vultures.
The burger is OK. The patty is a little dry, but it's decently seasoned. I stick with the listed toppings of bacon, pineapple, cheese curds, lettuce and tomato. I don't love the combination. The tomato and pineapple add up to too many wet toppings on a flimsy bun and the sauce makes it soppier still, without adding much flavour. The curds are too heavy a match for pineapple. It tastes flat.
The pork schnitzel is still mostly tender, with a bit of toughness around the edges; better than we'd expected given the frenzied pace. Cheddar, peameal bacon, lettuce, tomato and caramelized onion jam top it: a nice combination that would have been better with red onion if they hadn't forgotten it.
I like the poutine. The demi-glace is mild, relatively light, and the hand-cut fries are fantastic: still slightly crisp even after a few bites when the once-squeaky curds are made delightfully stringy by the gravy.
The onion rings are the best: they are crunchy and firm, thick ribbons of sweet onion peeking through holes in the crumbly, burnished breading. That touch of honey gives the dish a fullness that makes it easily the most memorable thing we eat.
There's nothing gourmet about Cheese Curds---at this point that adjective is as accurately worthless as "artisanal" and "bespoke"---but it's a totally decent burger joint. The onion rings are definitely worth a trip back. Especially if Justin is there to keep the place from turning into a lunchtime slaughterhouse.
Cheese Curds Gourmet Burgers + Poutinerie
380 Pleasant Street, Dartmouth