Smoke This

Michael Nagrant / 06.22.06

I’ve spent a lot of time waiting in line for food. Last year it was 3.5 hours for life changing oysters and softshell crab at Uglesich’s in New Orleans, and just last week it was a half hour at Hot Doug’s in Chicago seeking French fries poached in duck fat.

So, when I was researching where to eat for my Montreal trip, I didn’t blink when I saw pictures of hordes of people snaking out the front door of Schwartz’s Deli. I shrugged and reminded myself, if it’s worth eating, it’s worth waiting for.

Yet, last week, when I pulled up in front of Schwartz’s, or officially Schwartz Charcuterie Hebraique de Montreal (the office of French nomenclature does not allow possessives, and therefore simple monikers like Schwart’z Deli, in fear that Montreal will slide down the slippery slope toward anglo cretinism), there was no line.

At first I panicked and thought, my god, it’s closed! I’ll never eat the famous smoked meat that has attracted the likes of Hank Aaron, Tim Allen, Angelina Jolie, Guy Lafleur, and Celine Dion. Indeed, it was not closed. It was just 10:30 in the morning, and while I’ll eat a goat eyeball for breakfast, most normal folks wait until lunchtime for a little deli.

I walked up to the counter and surveyed the décor which is straight up Route 66 diner style awash in fluorescent lights, yellowed news clippings, and the residue of age. It’s all vinyl stools, white ceramic, formica, and wood. A counterman courts a dowagers hump by hunching over and hand slicing pound after pound of juicy pink smoked meat, aka viande fume. I hated the name. It might as well be called smoked protein? Lack of specificity is only acceptable in generic grocery store brand names, not for quintessential sandwiches.

But that’s what you come for. Don’t get distracted by chopped liver or juicy pickles.

Schwartz’s offers their smoked meat lean, medium fat, or full fat. I opted for the medium fat, because I’m starting to look like Britney Spears post pregnancy, and it couldn’t hurt to turn down the gluttony. On the other hand, if you think about ordering it lean, they should kick your skinny Lara Flynn Boyle booty out of the joint. I also ordered a Cott’s Black Cherry, which is like the Doc Brown’s Cel Ray of Quebec, to wash down the sandwich.

Nestled in crinkly butcher’s paper, the succulent, tender meat was piled high between two pieces of rye and glued together with a quick slather of yellow mustard. People always say you eat with your eyes first, well, don’t forget the nose. Man I could smell my first bite.

Despite my crankiness, smoked meat turns out to be an apt name. It’s a separate animal, not completely identifiable as corned beef, pastrami, or brisket. Rather it is a peppery flecked tender cut that reminds you of all three. It’s like smoky braised brisket, a touch of spicy pastrami, and a hint of corn beef. The Cott’s was pretty good, but it’s less a classic drink pairing, and more about nostalgia. I’d rather have a Cherry Coke or a nice thick egg cream drawn off a vintage Bastian Blessing swan neck soda fountain.

The smoked meats really incomparable to anything you might find at great deli stalwarts like Langers in LA, Katz or Carnegie in New York, Manny’s in Chicago, or even Zingerman’s in Ann Arbor. It’s not necessarily better, just completely different. If you don’t live near Montreal, you can order smoked meat by the pound at

Now that I’ve got the fix, I expect I’ll be surfing the web a lot more. The best part is I can stay in my pajamas and avoid long lines.

Schwartz’s Deli is located at 3895 Boulevard Saint Laurent in Montreal. Phone is 514-842-4813.