Smoked Meat Wars

The coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in San Francisco.
–Attributed (spuriously) to Mark Twain

I’ve always thought the above quote’s connection to Twain was dubious because he, an inveterate traveler, knew something about the winter weather in Montreal. But, no stranger to irony, Twain might have appreciated my latest truly profound observation: The best Montreal smoked meat I ever ate was in New York City.

If I didn’t offend my lantzmen up north with the last post, “Beer and Hockey” (June 22, 2013), this ought to do the trick. Decades ago, visitors from Montreal started a tradition of bringing me bagels and Schwartz’s smoked meat. Make no mistake: I relish a hefty pastrami sandwich from Katz’s on Houston Street or the 2nd Avenue Deli (with two locations, oddly, neither on Second Avenue); and although I’m partial to the fluffier Montreal bagel over the Gotham variety, a toasted bialy with a schmear of cream cheese suits me best of all.

For the record, as I understand it, smoked meat is prepared with the whole brisket whereas pastrami is supposed to be made with the leaner beef navel or plate. But the more important difference to me is the unique mix of salt and spices used to cure the meat and how long it’s aged, which largely accounts for the great disparity between good and bad smoked meat and pastrami.

Schwartz’s Montreal Hebrew Delicatessen, on Boulevard Saint Laurent in Montreal since 1928, claims to marinate its briskets “with a secret blend of fine herbs and spices” for 10 days, using no chemicals or preservatives. Now, I do savor the club rolls (cold cuts grilled on a bun) at Lester’s on Avenue Bernard and the Snowdon Deli on Boulevard Decarie, even the scaled-down “Special” at Wilensky’s on Avenue Fairmont. But when it comes to smoked meat, the gold standard for me was always Schwartz’s.

Mile End's Lean Smoked Meat

Mile End’s Lean Smoked Meat

That was until my latest delivery, and the comparison with the product from Mile End Delicatessen on Hoyt Street in Brooklyn (with a sandwich shop on Bond Street in Manhattan). To be fair, the vacuum-packed, thinly shaved meat from Schwartz’s takeout annex was at a disadvantage from the start in a contest with the plump, freshly cut slabs of Mile End’s pricier artisan-style beef. In my imagination, this — certainly not the rubbery pink slices that pass for viande fumee at many Montreal restaurants — is what it must have tasted like in the 19th century. Rich in flavor and color, not a crumb of the six ounces of Mile End smoked meat survived our four-person taste test that Sunday evening.

Montrealer Noah Bermanoff opened Mile End in the Boerum Hill section of Brooklyn three and a half years ago, and quickly became somewhat of a sensation in the grueling New York City restaurant scene. Well done, Noah. Soon I’ll be ferrying your smoked meat up to friends and relatives in Montreal.

Disclosure: I’m a philistine in deli circles because, whether it’s pastrami, corned beef or smoked meat, I always order the leanest available and slather the sandwich with spicy New York-style mustard to ensure moistness. Any nutritionist will tell you that there’s ample fat in every bite (especially for someone with coronary artery disease).

5 thoughts on “Smoked Meat Wars

    • Poutine — French fries smothered in a starchy, peppery brown gravy (which some in Quebec call barbecue-chicken sauce) and melted cheese curds — has been available at Mile End and other places in New York City for some time. Indeed, it’s becoming a global dish: I’ve seen it in food courts in downtown Beijing and ski-resort towns in Hokkaido, Japan. But don’t hold your breath waiting for a poutine review because I consider it an abomination.

  1. Schwartz’s is now a place for tourists. The last time I was in Montreal, the summer of 2012, the best place was Smoke Meat Pete, in Ile Perrot. Kind of strange, but there it is. There are also blues bands playing there most nights. The night I was there the band was okay, but the smoked meat was the best I’d ever had.

    I’ve got to agree about poutine. That’s not food; that’s fodder.

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