I was recently in Montreal for a conference for a few days and, as you might expect, eating was high on my agenda when not at panels. I had recommendations from some Canadian foodies, including a couple who know Montreal well, but I didn’t need anyone to tell me to go to my first port of call: Schwartz’s, the iconic Jewish deli that opened in 1928. I say “deli” but by law it’s been “Schwarz’s charcuterie Hébraïque” since 1977. And they’re known primarily for one thing: smoked meat. That is what I was there for and you’d better believe that is what I got. (In fact, I am not sure that I saw anyone there who was eating anything else.)
If you’re interested in the exact differences between smoked meat and pastrami take a look at this article on Serious Eats. I wish I could tell you that I found this to be clearly different from pastrami but I’m afraid I’m not well-versed enough in the genre to have been able to tell (though if I was eating this alongside good pastrami, say from Katz’s, their great North American rival, I might have been able to). I can tell you, however, that Schwartz’s smoked meat does indeed live up to its billing. You can ask for it lean, medium, medium-fatty or fatty; most people get it either medium or medium-fatty and I did not buck the trend. I got a sandwich “medium” with fries, a pickle and a Coke (this last is not conventional: you are properly supposed to wash this done with a black cherry soda but I’m not a fan of cherry sodas).
As you will be able to tell from the pictures below, it is only nominally a sandwich: there’s a ludicrous amount of meat between the two wedges of bread and you’d be a fool to try to eat it as a a sandwich proper. Unlike at Katz’s, however, the bread at Schwartz’s is not an afterthought—it’s just not what you’re there for. And you also are not there for a sandwich loaded with condiments. The bread comes with a smear of mustard and it’s best not to fool around further. The smoked meat itself was excellent—though a few parts were a bit too dry, they were more than compensated for by the fattier bits. The pickle cut through the heaviness of the meat nicely and, tradition be damned, the Coke was refreshing. If nicely done french fries can ever be redundant these perhaps were; if there’s a next time (and I hope there will be) I might get cole slaw as well/instead. Even without the fries, this is not light food by any means, but I walked 2.2 km there and 2.2 km back, which means I probably burned off about 10% of the meal.
As always, click on an image to launch a larger slideshow with captions.
There’s usually a line outside waiting for counter seats or tables (very close together) to open up, but I didn’t have to wait*. From what I could tell it’s not the best place to go in large numbers (it’s not a large place). If you don’t want to deal with the crowds, by the way, they have another outlet a few feet away from where you can get take-out. I’m glad, however, that I didn’t as the atmosphere inside was very enjoyable as well (and the clientele cut across most demographic lines). Despite how busy they are, everyone there is congenial and seems happy to be working there. While there’s no nonsense with the taking and serving of orders, the staff are gregarious, and display no impatience while moving people in and out. It’s rare to be in a place that busy and not feel stressed. It is cash-only, and if like me you’re the kind of tourist who has not bothered to change their dollars from US to Canadian you’ll be glad to know that you can pay in US dollars with a 10% surcharge.
This is the point at which some will expect me to weigh in on the Schwartz’s vs. Katz’s question. As noted above, I don’t have the best credentials for this debate, and it’s been a long time since I last ate at Katz’s. I will say that the first time I ate pastrami at Katz’s it blew me away in a way that the smoked meat at Schwartz’s did not, but that was probably because that was the first great pastrami I’d ever had. The bread at Schwartz’s is superior, however, and the overall experience is more pleasant (your mileage will vary on this depending on whether you prefer the vibe of New York or Montreal). And, of course, the question itself is a silly one: both places serve very good pastrami/smoked meat and both allow you to experience a juxtaposition of time past and time present while eating it. That should be good enough.
*I should also admit that I obliviously walked right in and sat down at the counter, not realizing that there was a line outside and that you’re supposed to wait there till called in—in my defense it wasn’t very long; and this being Canada no one yelled at me.