Along with bagels and poutine, Montreal style smoked meat is synonymous with our culture and has been a staple in our food culture since the early 19th century. It is not only particular to Jewish culture but for all Montrealer’s of different nationalities across the board. The origins of Montreal Style Smoked Meat have been disputed endlessly and has been a source of many discussions, arguments and writings in the last century.
Many Montreal restauranteurs have tried to lay claim to the invention of the smoked meat sandwich. Among patrons there has been a multitude of discussions on who makes the best smoked meat in Montreal and why it is better than all the competition. Stop right there. This issue is totally subjective. We all have a personal preference and tastes, that’s what makes us different. I believe it all depends on where you had it first, the quality and the total experience.
A few facts that I am sure of is that like its American counterpart the pastrami sandwich, the origins of the Smoked Brisket is definitely from Jewish Eastern Europe descent. The earliest recording of Montreal Style Smoked Meat in our history books goes as far back as 1884. The recipe was brought over to Montreal by a Romanian butcher by the name of Aaron Sanft who made smoked brisket in his kosher shop for local Jewish families. The process involved curing a slab of Beef brisket and marinating it in brine and Montreal pickling spices * then cooking it by a smoking and/or a steaming process. I believe it is Montreal Steak Spices that give it its distinct flavors. Our Montreal Steak Spice contain more peppercorns, coriander, mustard seeds and garlic than the American Pastrami and is less sweet in taste.
The first recorded deli to serve smoked meat in Montreal was Ben’s delicatessen in 1908, started by Benjamin Kravitz and family. Schwartz followed soon after in 1928, serving their take on smoked meat sandwiches. Unfortunately, Bens closed in 2006, but it remains in the heart of many Montrealer’s who remember it as a late-night dining fixture downtown Montreal. I first remember going there with my dad as a young girl. He was an avid lover of smoked meat, when working downtown on weekends, he would take us along for the ride and we would always make a pit stop at Ben’s to get a fix. Later on, in his life, it was Chenoy’s in the West island that he visited frequently and vigilantly every time he was in the area.
Over the years, Smoked Meat has taken on a deeper meaning and roots in this city. Every generation has passed on its love for the cured meat down to the next generation. We all have memories of our favorite spots and hangouts where we would indulge in a good Smoked Meat with friends or family. My found memories happened in the 80’s. As teenagers we would always go to Dunn’s Deli after a movie at the Loews Theatre on Ste Catherine Street. We would sit there for hours and discuss movies over a sandwich or a large slice of their famous cheesecake. Times have changed, there is no denying. Places have come and gone, and life does go on. Montreal has seen lots of changes in the last century but from the old haunts, there is undeniably one place that stands apart and still remains stronger and that is Schwartz. Though time has elapsed Schwartz has kept things relatively the same, except for the prices. Over the years it has amassed quite a cult following, not only with the locals but with tourists alike. It is today the most popular if not the most famous of the Montreal delis serving delicious smoked meat sandwiches. As I was saying, depending on who you speak to in Montreal, everyone has his personal favorite and particular preference.
Things to know before heading out to sample some Montreal-style smoked meat. They are typically hand sliced and served with rye bread and yellow prepared mustard condiment. Who may be asked to specify the type cut you would prefer. This varies from lean to medium fatty or Old Fashioned which is a little thicker and very fatty. Whichever way you cut it, it comes down to one thing, tenderness of the meat, the flavors of the spices and the quality of the soft rye bread it comes sandwiched. I prefer medium fatty, plus a side order of coleslaw, pickle and cherry coke.
Here is my list and personal take of some of Montreal’s Smoked Meat joints, on and off island.
1. Schwartz’s- A must visit for any Montrealer. You are not a true Montrealer if you have not been here at least once in your life. A great place to bring the kids to show them a piece of Montreal history. Check out the wall décor. What to expect. Décor relatively unchanged. Long line up, crowded seating, but speedy service. Eat and get out is their motto. No time to linger, people are waiting. Bring cash, no Interac or credit accepted. You can request your sandwich as per your liking, dry, medium or fatty. Get medium, best of both worlds. The meat is tender and perfectly spiced with true Montreal Steak spice flavors. The rye bread is soft, the coleslaw and pickles are a must. There is a cost for each item ordered. Two sandwiches, fries, pickles, coleslaw and coke will cost about $40-$50 with tip included. Convivial dining, packed like a sardine can, don’t expect ambiance and or private table, you will probably be eating with strangers, a good way to hone on your social skills.
2. Dunn’s Famous– is the second oldest and famous smoked meat deli in the city. Platters are more expensive about $ 15.50 each but include fries, coleslaw and pickle. A cheaper option than Schwartz. You can try to ask for medium, but usually served as is and tend to be on dry side. Plus, they are open 24 hrs. and have various locations, downtown on Mansfield, West Island and Laval. Has more of an ambiance and separate table seating, no line ups and a more extensive menu. Love their club roll.
3. The Main Deli- literally across the street from Schwartz, competitors since 1974. A good choice if you do not want to wait in line. Table & booth seating and friendly service. They do fatty smoked meat well and it stays between the bread. Its juicy and not greasy, but lacks a little in flavor compared. Started by Peter Varvaro, the family also owns Smoked Meat Pete in Ile Perrot and Delibees in Pointe Claire. The process was basically the same as all the other Jewish Deli’s. But after Peter Sr death in 2013 it was bought over and they stopped smoking their own brisket, they also have gone organic. Plus: healthier choices, with all the old traditional favorites. A must the Smoked meat poutine, latkes & varenekes.
4. Snowdon Deli– opened circa 1946 by the Morantz family. A staple in the Jewish community around Decarie Boulevard and frequented by generations of local families for years. Their smoked meat sandwiches are paler in comparison to the other top Montreal Deli’s, best known for their catering and other types of sandwiches and desserts and breakfast. Menu has all the Jewish favorites and more. Busy environment but good and friendly service. Parking difficult.
5. Lester’s– A local Outremont choice since 1951, it is great and fine for the locals who do not want to venture to lower Main. The sandwiches are nowhere close to Schwartz. The smoked meat is industrially processed and can be chewy. Lacking in flavor and spice, it seems watered down. A family run place, that is accommodating, the locale is cozy with private seating and banquettes. Best known as set location for many local Quebec films.
6. Smoked Meat Pete’s– Off Island on Ile Perrot -Opened in 1976, by Pete Varvaro Junior from The Main Deli, it has been a favorite with West Islander for years. Drawback, drive across Bridge to Ile Perrot, not accessible by bus or metro. Locale is small and seating not comfortable and tight. Bar atmosphere in evenings, gets very noisy with bands performing on certain nights. Smoked Meat is good but tend to be on fatty side, also popular for their ribs and burgers. Service slow.
7. Reuben’s-a competitor of Dunn’s, opened in 1976, it has been serving the downtown crowd alongside Dunn’s for 40 years. With the changing times and demand for modernization it has streamlined its menu and space to include more than just Smoked Meat. You can find basically anything on their menu, from Asian, Mexican, and Italian food. Does not have the old school charm of other Jewish deli’s and it lacks in authenticity. Food is mediocre at best.
8. Le Roi du Smoked Meat on St Hubert in Rosemont-Petit Patrie has been there since 1954. Talk about retro and kitsch, this place is really stuck in a time warp. It is still popular with the local shoppers on St Hubert Street and over the years has seen its ups & downs. This was a local spot and pit stop for me in my 20’s while shopping. It has a special place in my box of memories and even though it was not that long ago. It feels like a thing that should be buried in my past. I would not go out of my way to eat here; the smoked meat quality is industrially processed and quite generic like Lester’s. But it is the cheapest around at under $ 8.50.So, if you are in the area give it a shot.
9. Jarry Smoked Meat-Opened in 1974 on the border of St Leonard. It is another diner that is open 24/7. Serving all kinds of classic Montreal dishes and is popular with the East end late night crowd, Good thing prices are affordable. Again, their smoked meat not prepared onsite and is industrially processed. Depending on when you go, it could be a hit or miss. Nothing here screams authentic or fun. I like their club roll and is usually what I have when I am in the area and someone suggest eating here.
10. Chenoy’s– first opened in 1936 on St Laurent and Marie-Anne by Mortimer Chenoy. Through the years he franchised and opened other locations in West Island, Laval and Brossard. In 2010 most of them closed, except for the Dollard des Ormeaux location which is in limbo as the building is up for sale. Morty passed away in 1999 but sold his half of the business in the mid 80’s to his partners the Sigounis brothers. The location did well up until the late 90’s but has been in rapid decline since. The décor is old and outdated, the place is virtually empty and their signature smoked meat is not worth the drive to West Island or even worth your money. The last time I was there, I was told by the waiter that they never put mustard on smoked meat, not sure which planet he was from. Not a good experience.
11. Le Fameux Smoked Meat & Deli – on St Denis has also been prominent place to have smoked meat in the Plateau Area for the last 60 years. Famous more for its 24/7 hrs. than its food, it hits the spot for many St Denis late night revelers. Open since 1957, it never had a reputation for having good smoked meat. It is just a basically a quick pit stop for just anything fast food basically but has Smoked Meat on the menu. Not worth a try.
12. Delibees-in Pointe Claire is owned by the Phil Varvaro, the third half of the Varvaro clan from The Main. A small, cozy restaurant that serves mile high smoked meat sandwiches and other deli specials. Its focus is mostly on smoked ribs & chicken and submarines. A little off the beaten track, it is a good place for the locals and definitely better than Chenoy’s. Worth the trip and closer than Smoked Meat Pete.
There are many more deli’s, fast food restaurant all over Montreal that offer Smoked Meat sandwiches in its generic form. They can be had at places like the Belle Province, Lafleur, Valentine, Nickels (Marcel Lauren location only), and many more located in every corner and area of Montreal and its suburbs.
Nothing shouts Montreal history like a good Smoked Meat made with care the old-fashioned way. It is the root of a fantastic piece of our culture. Over the years, with so many places that have come and gone, we must pass on our traditions and history to the next generations. No matter what nationality you are. It is the thread that binds the essence of what it means to be a real Montrealer.
• The difference in the preparation method between Montreal Smoked Meat and USA- pastrami, is Montreal smoked meat is cured with Montreal Steak Spice seasoning which contains more cracked peppercorns, coriander, garlic salt and mustard seeds,. Montreal smoked meat is made with variable-fat brisket, whereas pastrami is more commonly made with the fat-marbled navel/plate cut. Montreal smoked meat is typically served with a light-rye bread sandwich accompanied with yellow mustard. While some Montreal smoked meat is brine-cured like corned beef for a couple of weeks, with spices applied later, many smoked meat establishments prefer dry-curing directly with salt and spices, than smoking it in special smoking chamber and steaming it to reheat before serving.