Whether you prefer biting into a fatty or a lean sandwich, skipping the pickle or asking for extra, getting it with a side of ‘slaw or nah — there’s no denying that Montreal smoked meat is an iconic dish.
Smoked meat is one of a handful of foods that is truly, enduringly emblematic of Montreal, along with poutine and bagels — one of those dishes so inextricably linked to the city that some people travel to Montreal specifically to eat it. It’s a working-class food with working-class origins, part of the foundation upon which Montreal’s haute-cuisine reputation has been built.
Usually, but not always, in a sandwich, Montreal-style smoked meat has been around longer than any of us (but don’t worry, if you get one, it will be fresh).
Here’s a rundown on smoked meat and where you can enjoy the best of the best of this classic meal across Montreal.
What is smoked meat?
Montreal smoked meat — viande fumée — is a dish comprised of entire beef brisket, including the fatty parts of the muscle. The meat is oftentimes mistaken for pastrami. However, New York City-style sandwiches use the naval cut, which is leaner.
The meat is dry-cured, rubbed with spices and then marinated for anywhere from a few days to a month. It’s then smoked for up to 10 hours before being sliced and served.
In order for smoked meat to qualify as a proper dish, it’s usually served on rye bread coated with a light layer of mustard along with a side of pickle, coleslaw and French fries.
Why is it called Montreal smoked meat?
The rich history of the traditional dish began with Jewish delis serving this kosher-style meat across Montreal as early as the late 1800s. Although the exact details remain a mystery, it’s generally agreed that Montreal-styled smoked meat has its origins in the Jewish diaspora from Eastern Europe.
Who put Montreal smoked meat on the map?
While smoked meat’s true origins in Montreal are often debated, a few names are credited for putting it on the map.
Benjamin Kravitz, the founder of Bens De Luxe Delicatessen and Restaurant, which opened in 1908, is one. Kravitz and his wife are said to have fled Lithuania in 1899. The two then began serving smoked-meat sandwiches using a family recipe. Their restaurant was a massive success, open 22 hours and serving nearly 8,000 people a day, including some well-known people such as Bette Midler, Leonard Cohen and Pierre Elliott Trudeau. (It closed in 2006 to make way for downtown development.)
Reuben Schwartz is another big deal in the who’s who of Montreal-styled smoked meat. A Jewish immigrant from Romania, Reuben founded Montreal’s legendary restaurant Schwartz’s Hebrew Delicatessen. The must-try spot has been serving up delish brisket braised in a mix of fine herbs and spices since 1928.
What kind of meat is Montreal smoked meat?
Montreal-styled smoked meat is made up of an entire beef brisket. It’s either lean or fatty, depending on the sections used.
What is special about Montreal smoked meat?
Montreal-style smoked meat has a superb taste thanks to a mix of herbs and spices, including whole peppercorns, coriander, mustard seed and garlic.
The presentation of the dish is also iconic. The smoked meat is piled high (and we mean high), so much so that it’s tough taking your first bite. But the mess is totally worth it.
Where you should get smoked meat in Montreal
Montreal has many delicious choices to choose from when you’re in the mood for a classic smoked meat sandwich. These are the places totally worth trying out for Montreal-style smoked meat.
- Address: 3895, boul. Saint-Laurent, Montreal, QC
- Why You Should Go: Schwartz’s is considered to be one of the oldest delis in Canada and offers massive portions and remarkable flavours that make it a Montreal landmark.
- Address: 1057, ave. Bernard, Montreal, QC
- Why You Should Go: The deluxe order offers you a towering smoked meat sandwich, pickles, fries and a drink of your choice. The only thing that matches the greatness of the sandwich is the restaurant’s decor.
Smoked Meat Pete
- Address: 283, ave. 1, Île-Perrot, QC
- Why You Should Go: This old-school diner offers not just a delish sandwich, but a full-on experience. You can often catch live bands performing at this spot only 30 minutes outside of the city.
Main Deli Steakhouse
- Address: 3864, boul. Saint Laurent, Montreal, QC
- Why You Should Go: Main is an old-school deli that specializes in smoked meat sandwiches served with homemade coleslaw and pickles.
- Address: 1116, rue Sainte-Catherine O., Montreal, QC
- Why You Should Go: Situated right in the heart of downtown Montreal, Reuben’s is known for its classic smoked meat sandwich and steak selections.
- Address: Various locations across Montreal
- Why You Should Go: This chain of Jewish delis serving Montreal-style smoked meat can be found all across the city — making it much easier to find a spot for you to enjoy the prized dish.
La Belle Province
- Address: Various locations across Montreal
- Why You Should Go: Now, now…hear me out. La Belle Pro is not to be disparaged and definitely deserves a mention. If you’re looking for a quick taste of Montreal’s iconic sandwich for a reasonable price, you can’t go wrong at Belle Pro, babes, you just can’t.
This article’s cover image was used for illustrative purposes only.