In Montreal everyone has an opinion of their favorite smoked meat sandwich from a local delicatessen. I asked a cab driver late one night about Snowdon and without hesitation she said to go to Schwartz’s. Others I asked said the opposite. Each place smokes an estimated 10,000 pounds of meat per week. The practice of smoking meats dates to ancient times as a way of preserving it. Ashkenazi Jewish communities in Eastern Europe were well known for smoking meat in the 19th century and it has since been generally considered a trait of Jewish communities, particularly in North American delis.
In the United States smoked meat is generally considered pastrami, though this is somewhat inaccurate. Pastrami differs in seasoning, flavor, color, and consistency to smoked meat. Jewish smoked meat is more closely related to a roast brisket as prepared in Bessarabia and Romania. In Montreal, smoked meat from a Jewish deli has become the most symbolic food of the city, however, ironically the meat is not kosher. Montreal smoked meat is always sliced by hand in order to maintain temperature and whole briskets are almost always kept on hand. It’s served on rye, usually with a spoon full of mustard and pickle on the side.
On a recent visit I matched up the two. Just for kicks I went to Mile End, a new Montreal style deli in Brooklyn, after my trip to Canada and tossed it into the mix. Here are the results:
Schwartz’s(Montreal, Quebec): Since 1928 Schwartz’s has been serving smoked meat to hungry diners in the center of Montreal. Lines form early and run down the sidewalk for a seat at the old school diner. My impression: Good, but I expected more. The meat was a little bit dry and could use some more seasoning and the bread tasted like it was sitting out for too long. The fries were great though. 3895 St Laurent; Montréal, Quebec; tel: 514-842-4813; www.schwartzsdeli.com.
Snowdon Deli(Montreal, Quebec): Snowdon is a bit out of the way of the center of Montreal and the atmosphere is that of a 50’s diner with two colors, grey and white. It’s been open since 1946 though for a reason. My impression: The bread is better than at Schwartz’s and the meat was juicier. I still would prefer a bit more seasoning (it had even less than Schwartz’s so it was almost like ham), but overall good. Fries were even better and tasted as if they were fried in beef fat. 5265 Blvd Décarie, Montréal, Quebec; tel: 514-488-9129; www.delisnowdon.ca.
Mile End (Brooklyn, New York): It takes gumption to open a Montreal style Jewish deli in Brooklyn. Though that’s exactly what Montreal native Noah Bernamoff did. My expectations were low for Mile End. I thought it sounded gimmicky. Walking up I saw a restaurant that was much smaller than either Montreal deli I visited. Most of the business was being done in a walk up window for takeout, though the atmosphere was definitely a little bit more stylish than the other two. My impression: While the price was about double for a smoked meat sandwich, just looking at the 14 oz of brisket (they also sell 7oz) I could tell it was going to out do the others. The outer rim of the meat was crisp and black, but the inside was unbelievably moist. You could still see the fat running through it. The quality of the beef was much better and it showed. While I admire Snowdon and Schwartz’s for keeping their recipes for decades and growing their following (and I would eat at both places in a heartbeat again), make me choose and I’m going to head to Mile End every time. 97 a Hoyt Street, Boerum Hill, Brooklyn; 718-852-751; www.mileenddeli.com.
Writer and photographer Nicholas Gill is the editor/publisher of New World Review. He lives in Lima, Peru and Brooklyn, New York. His work has appeared in publications such as the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, CondeNast Traveler, National Geographic Traveler, Afar, and Penthouse. Visit his personal website (nicholas-gill.com) for more information.