Quebec isn’t just another province in Canada: it has it’s own language (Quebecois French, which, as my French colleagues like to point out, resembles Continental French, but has a distinct vocabulary and accent), it’s own culture, and, particularly, it’s own cuisine. In particular, it’s rather hard to drive through Quebec without noticing all the businesses advertising poutine (I’ll get back to the topic of poutine in my next article), Montreal-style bagels, and Montreal-style Smoked Meat (aka “viande fumée”, or even, if being a strict Quebecois French constructionist, “boeuf mariné”).
Which brings up the question of “What is Smoked Meat?” It’s really a specific style of prepare beef. Several references claim it’s basically “pastrami”, which is closer, but isn’t quite right, either. However, it shares the basic preparation style with pastrami: the meat is spiced, cured in a brine, “smoked” (which is really more of a roasting step than a proper smoking) and, finally, steamed it until the connecting tissues within the meat break down into gelatin. Where it differs from pastrami is in the spicing and smoke, the result being something approximately halfway between corned beef and pastrami, leaving a bit more of the natural beef flavor. The best description I’ve heard is “the flavor of pastrami but the mouthfeel of corned beef”. If you like a good pastrami, you’ll like smoked meat, although it’ll be a matter of taste which one you really prefer.
As far as getting smoked meat, Montreal is full of delis that specialize in it. And one of the classic places to get it Schwartz’s Deli (err, Schwartz’s Charcuterie Hebraique de Montreal according to the signage, due to Montreal’s fairly strict French language signage laws) on Avenue St Laurent. A fixture at this location for over 80 years, Schwartz’s is well-regarded by both locals and tourists as one of the go-to places for a thoroughly good “viande fumée” sandwich (although it’s worth mentioning for the purists out there that Schwartz’s is “Kosher-style” but not strictly Kosher).
It’s popular enough that you need to go to Schwartz’s expecting a wait (our wait was only 15 minutes, but we showed up at 2pm, well outside the lunch rush), with a healthy queue outside the door, but you can gaze in the window at the hanging sausages, pickled peppers, and whole smoked briskets. Once you get inside, you’ll find a narrow restaurant with tables on the left and a service counter on the right, filled to the brim with people eating viande fumée.
The menu is pretty simple, focusing on viande fumée (in sandwich form, or you can get a plate of it), a few other sandwich types (turkey, for example), and a few different steak options (liver steak and entrecote, for example), but really, the sandwich combo is where the action is, and what most people order: a viande fumée sandwich with a pickle (I prefer the half-sours) and cole slaw on the side.
The sandwich comes with several slices of thick, rough hand-cut beef, juicy and piled onto rye bread just high enough that it still looks like a sandwich, but you just won’t be able to actually eat the whole thing without making a mess. My viande fumée sandwich at Schwartz’s. The meat is tender, slightly spicy, beefy, and delicious, with the juice slightly soaking into the bread. As far as the sides, they are just about perfect. I love a good half-sour, where “cucumber” meats “pickle” right in the middle, and the half sour at Schwartz’s delivers. The cole slaw is vinegar-based, and nicely complements the sandwich as well. Washed down with a can of black cherry soda, and you’ve got a great meal.
It’s worth noting as well that Schwartz’s has always shined for me in their service. The servers are friendly, prompt, and helpful, but don’t try to rush you out the door the second your sandwich is done (although don’t dally, the folks still waiting outside will appreciate your seat!).
So, for a good sandwich in Montreal, head to Schwartz’s.