In Montreal a few months ago, I came up against two conflicting interests. On the one hand, I had stopped eating meat as a sophomore in college. On the other, leaving Montreal with my vegetarianism intact meant foregoing the Quebecois ritual of indulging in a smoked meat sandwich at Schwartz’s Delicatessen—or, as it is known more formally, Chez Schwartz Charcuterie Hébraïque de Montreal. I wasn’t sure I could face my father’s disappointment if I returned home without being able to report back on his favorite sandwich.
Founded in 1928 by Romanian Jewish immigrant Reuben Schwartz, the eponymous delicatessen is synonymous with Jewish cuisine in Montreal. The house specialty is smoked meat, made by salting and curing beef brisket with spices. Schwartz’s uses a dry curing method similar to the one brought to Canada by Eastern European immigrants: the brisket is rubbed with salt and spices, left to soak for 12-20 days and then smoked for six hours. And, yes, it is different from pastrami, which is made from a higher-quality cut of beef rubbed in spices and refrigerated for 10 days before being smoked. The New York staple also gets more sugar and less pepper and other spices than the Montreal version.
Another bedrock of the Montreal’s Jewish culinary scene—and another variant on a New York classic—is the bagel. Split fervently into two camps, Montreal bagels and New York bagels each have their loyalists who argue fervently for the superiority of their preference. Montreal bagels, baked in wood-burning ovens, are thinner and crunchier than their American counterparts. Thanks to being boiled in honey-kissed water, these Canadian cousins have a distinct sweetness not native to Manhattan and are most commonly served sprinkled generously with sesame seeds. Among Montreal-bagel devotees, the question of where the best bagel is dished out typically boils down to two answers: St-Viateur or Fairmount. Located in the historically Jewish Mile End neighborhood, St-Viateur was the bakery where I got my bagel fix—still warm, chewy on the inside but with a nice crunch on the outside. Patriotism notwithstanding, more satisfying than any bagel I’ve had in New York.
But the bagel didn’t test my vegetarianism as did Schwartz’s. Did I cave in the face of a medium-fat smoked meat sandwich? I did. It seemed a familial obligation. Was the sandwich everything my father remembered it to be? It was. Rich and perfectly flavored—paired with the obligatory mustard and rye bread—the beef was delicious enough to make me wonder when I could schedule a return trip to Montreal for another excuse to crumble before a sandwich.
Turns out, I didn’t have to wait long at all. Several weeks later, I was visiting a friend in Brooklyn when we happened—based on my casual, totally offhand suggestion—to stumble into the Mile End Deli in the borough’s Boerum Hill neighborhood. Opened by Noah and Rae Bernamoff, a Montreal native and his wife, the restaurant specializes in smoked meat and other Jewish-Canadian culinary hallmarks, including the classic Montreal bagel. I had no choice, it seemed, but to go once again for the sandwich. I can’t say I regretted it.