I visited Montreal for the first time fourteen years ago. I thought I knew a lot about Texas barbecue back then, but I knew nothing of Montreal-style smoked meat beyond what the guidebooks said. The general advice was to visit Schwartz’s Deli (established 1928), by far the city’s most famous purveyor. Or you could try Main Deli—nicknamed “the Main”—across Saint Laurent Boulevard if the lines at Schwartz’s are too long. I braved the line at Schwartz’s and left Montreal with good memories of one of its culinary staples. But I still didn’t have a real understanding of how its smoked meat, or viande fumée, was prepared, or how it differed from its close cousin, New York pastrami.
Last month, I flew back to Canada with a larger list of places to try. I didn’t get to all of them, but I was able to compare seven smoked-meat sandwiches in and outside Montreal proper. This time I asked a few more questions too.
I wish I’d stopped in at Main Deli (established 1974) during that first trip. A documentary had just been released about the founder, Peter Varvaro, who died in 2013 (the restaurant is now under new ownership). Birth of the Smoked Meats followed Main Deli’s process, from the brisket delivery to a sandwich piled high with hand-sliced smoked meat. Cooks injected the briskets with a salt solution, stacked them tightly in a plastic barrel to cure for ten to fourteen days, then hung them in a smoker to begin cooking. Even back then, wood wasn’t part of the smoking process, and it isn’t in most of Montreal’s delis today. The smoke flavor is generated from fat dripping onto gas flames or a hot metal plate at the bottom of the smoker. After smoking, the meat is steamed for a few hours until tender, then sliced and served.
In his 2009 book Save the Deli, author David Sax called Montreal smoked meat “the bastard child of pastrami and corned beef.” It’s cured and smoked like New York pastrami, but instead of using the the beef navel plate, it uses a cut familiar to Texans: beef brisket. It’s more delicately flavored than Texas smoked brisket or New York pastrami, and less sweet than the latter. Because of the lack of wood and the meat’s thick coating of seasonings like black pepper and coriander, the smoke flavor isn’t all that powerful. Like Texas brisket, Montreal smoked meat is too tender for mechanical slicing and is therefore hand-sliced. It’s usually available on a platter, but is almost always consumed between two slices of untoasted rye bread with yellow mustard.
That’s still the way it comes at Main Deli, but the restaurant no longer brines or smokes its own meat. It sends its spice mixture to Mello Foods, a Montreal company that processes a variety of deli meats, including eight flavors of Montreal-style smoked meat. I ate the brisket with a couple of friends who joined me on the tour before I knew of the new process. We agreed it tasted more like salty cuts from a grocery store deli than the others we tried. The meat still makes for a fine sandwich, but it would take a seriously long line outside Schwartz’s for me to make a return trip to Main Deli for smoked meat.
Then again, you could drive out to the western edges of Montreal for smoked meat. The city of Montreal sits on Montreal Island between the Prairies River and the Saint Lawrence River. Across the bridge on the western edge is Perrot Island, where Peter Varvaro Jr., son of the Main Deli’s founder, opened Smoke Meat Pete in 1996. It’s about a 45-minute drive from Schwartz’s. Not quite as far, just beyond the Trudeau International Airport, is Delibee’s in Pointe-Claire, which was opened by Peter’s brother Phil in 2000.
Smoke Meat Pete is widely praised for its roadhouse vibe. There’s table service in the evening while live bands play. During the day, it operates much like a Texas barbecue joint, with customers lining up to place their orders at the register. There’s even a Dairy Queen across the street in case you want a Blizzard or an Orange Julius while you wait. Now, that’s what I like about Île Perrot. Pete has a huge menu that includes steak, chicken, liver, and pork ribs. The poutine, a Montreal staple of fries topped with cheese curds and gravy, comes in a rare Italian version with a scoop of marinara. I didn’t try it.
But I did try the smoked-meat poutine, which was covered in a generous layer of shredded smoked meat. While the fries were likely crisp at one point, they were inevitably limp after being doused with a ladleful of hot gravy. They’re to be eaten with a fork, and quickly. I enjoyed the simple smoked-meat sandwich with a potato latke on the side instead of fries. It wasn’t too salty, and it showed sure signs of having been hand-sliced. I had read in Save the Deli that the briskets are “hard-wood smoked for eight hours,” but I couldn’t confirm the use of wood in the smokers here through electronic correspondence or three separate phone calls with the staff.
Delibee’s is the dark horse of the Montreal smoked-meat scene. The place is quiet and unassuming with a logo modeled after the Filipino Jollibee chain’s toque-wearing bee. The restaurant is counter service, and I’d suggest ordering the smoked-meat sandwich combo. The meat has a distinct smokiness from the apple and maple woods used during the cooking process. The smoked meat is piled high, but the multiple layers yield easily with a bite through the sandwich. The rustically cut fries were the starchy highlights of the tour, and were the only fries seasoned with just salt and not a sweet seasoning mix. I liked the sweet vinegar slaw as well. The bonus is that Phil stands behind the counter ready to slice, and he’s so proud of his cooking methods that he’ll gladly explain how he produces some of the best smoked meat in Montreal.
Wood isn’t necessarily required to make great smoked meat. George Makridis worked for Schwartz’s Deli for thirty years before moving north to Laval to open George’s Deli in 1997. He retired in 2020, and his sons John and Mike Makridis now run it together. After I enjoyed a generously stuffed smoked-meat sandwich and the best smoked-meat poutine of my Montreal trip, I asked George if he’d show me the smoker. It was a pair of small metal cabinets with rods to hang the briskets from. He said they load the seasoned briskets into a blue plastic barrel for ten to fourteen days to cure, smoke them for at least four hours, then steam them to finish. The only smoke generated is from the fat that drips onto the hot floor of the cabinet smoker. It was possibly the best we had during our tour.
At George’s, there are many options to choose from, including smoked chicken, turkey, and duck. But the choices of deli items at Snowdon Deli (established 1946) is much longer and more diverse. “No other deli in Montreal carries the full range of traditional Jewish dishes that Snowdon does,” Sax explained in his book. The menu includes matzo ball soup, lox, and knishes. Karnatzel, or garlicky beef sticks, hang behind the counter, organized by level of dryness. A half order is still about a foot long, and makes a great appetizer. We didn’t have a juicier smoked-meat sandwich in Montreal, but just be aware that the dining room closes at 3 p.m. on weekdays.
On the north side of Montreal, in the Mile End neighborhood, you’ll find the bright yellow awnings of Lester’s Deli (established 1951). The restaurant doesn’t brine its briskets anymore, but it does smoke them. It was here, on the last stop, that I realized the slight differences between the sandwiches at these highly respected delis. I liked a few others better than Lester’s, but it’s not like the stark difference between pretty good and great smoked brisket you might find in Texas. At Lester’s, the side of fries comes with a miniature spray bottle of vinegar in case you like that sort of condiment on your fries. I definitely do.
Just like on my first trip, I started my tour at Schwartz’s. The lines might become unbearable, but at 10 a.m. on Friday, when the doors opened, there were just five people in front of me. The server tried to dissuade my poultry-loving wife from ordering the turkey sandwich. She insisted but, after eating the sandwich, wouldn’t recommend that anyone else do the same. A few deli staples like pickles, peppers, and frankfurters are available, as are whole smoked chickens and grilled ribeyes, but this is not the place to visit if you want a great many options.
It’s easy to complain about Schwartz’s being a tourist trap, but it’s not. If the food was bad, I’d call it a trap. But Schwartz’s still constructs a great smoked-meat sandwich. Like at most Montreal delis, the workers ask you how you want the smoked meat sliced. Ask for lean, and you’ll get the dry side of the brisket. Medium, which is the norm if you don’t specify, is built with slices from the center of the brisket, with fat on top and lean on the bottom. All the sandwiches I compared on this trip were medium. Asking for medium fat will add more fat into the mix, and asking for fat means you’ll get little more than seasoned fat on bread. No matter how you like the meat, be sure to ask for fries, whose excellence is almost guaranteed in Montreal. Get a Cott black cherry soda to drink too. It’s the sweeter version of the Dr. Brown’s soda so popular in New York delis.
Montreal knows what it has in smoked-meat culture, but it’s not as widely known as, say, Texas-style smoked brisket or New York pastrami. Mile End Deli in Brooklyn is one of the few purveyors in the U.S. of true Montreal smoked meat. Sax was confident in Montreal’s beloved smoked-meat culture when he wrote his book a dozen years ago. “If the deli is to be saved, a large part of the solution lies in the mysterious Montreal smoked meat,” he wrote. Here’s hoping this Canadian staple is a little less mysterious now. When you’re anywhere near Montreal, do your part to save deli culture by ordering a smoked-meat sandwich piled high with tradition.