It was only a matter of time; I did a pizza challenge, I went on a quest for Montreal’s best poutine, but I never set forth to find the best smoked meat that my city could offer.
Montreal smoked meat is something to be proud of; it’s the type of delicacy that someone who isn’t from Montreal is almost always aware of, and must try at least once when they visit. It’s that often moist, succulent spiced beef brisket that if cured properly, could stand up to any pastrami or corned beef sandwich from the world famous delis in New York. The ingredients are simple; smoked meat, mustard, and rye bread. The funny thing is I dislike mustard on its own and usually only use it to cook, however, I absolutely love my smoked meat sandwiches with mustard, and wouldn’t eat one without a good dab because I think it’s absolutely mandatory. No one really knows for sure who started this mouthwatering concoction, but these sandwiches have become so popularized that when people discuss Montreal’s cuisine, smoked meat is almost always mentioned, as its as strongly rooted in our culture as much as poutine and bagels.
Prior to this challenge, it was a long time since I had a smoked meat sandwich. I was eating healthier after the New Year and started to get in shape. Then one day out of nowhere the craving came; I started longing for something fairly unhealthy, fattening, and extremely tasty. I never had a bad sandwich at Smoked Meat Pete’s before, so it was an easy choice.
Mixing deli with blues, Smoked Meat Pete’s is my dream restaurant. They play live blues music weekly and serve the juiciest, most tender smoked meat on freshly baked rye. As usual, my sandwich was unbelievable. There was really nothing that I would want to change, as everything was perfect from the seasoning, to the smooth moist meat that held it. Every bite was sensational, having just the right amount of mustard to promote that to-die-for taste that I was seeking. Alongside the sandwich were above average fries, and respectable cole slaw. All and all it was a perfect meal.
As I sat back and washed everything down with one last final sip of coke, I realized how great the sandwich I had was, and wondered if anyone can really top it? There’s so many places that sell smoked meat in Montreal, and everyone has a place where they say is the best. That made me think of an idea; I was going to test 5 other sandwiches and see if any of them could top or at least match Pete’s. I called up some friends and made a plan.
I let a few days pass to gain another smoked meat craving, which was just enough time to still have the fond memory of Pete’s in my head for comparison. We would be having three different sandwiches in one night, which would not only be tasty but a lot of fun, hopping from one restaurant to another eating smoked meat, fries, and cole slaw. Most people would probably think it would be a crazy thing to do, but I couldn’t think of a better way to spend a Saturday night with some good friends. On a last note, every sandwich would be ordered the way I like it, medium-fat.
I heard a lot about Delibee’s, which happens to be owned by the brother of Smoked Meat Pete’s. The owner used to work in his father’s deli, The Main, which is just opposite Schwartz’s, and at the tender age of 14, he learned everything in the restaurant trade. Both brothers used to work together but ended up splitting; Pete went to open Smoked Meat Pete’s, and Phil started Delibee’s. I heard that it was a local favorite, and because I was such a fan of Pete’s I had to try it. The atmosphere was very similar, minus the stage for the live music. Instead, there was a guy jamming on a bass guitar in the kitchen while the radio played blues, which was really cool to see while placing my order. The meat was juicy and moist like Pete’s, but there was a problem; it was lacking taste, as I didn’t really notice much seasoning and neither did my company. It was a bit of a disappointment because I was really excited about this sandwich but there wasn’t a lot of flavour coming from it. The fries however, were excellent and I enjoyed them a lot more than the smoked meat.
Next, we headed to Ettingers, a deli that continues the legacy of Saul Ettinger, who used to own Briskets and was very successful with it, opening 12 franchises all over Montreal and Ottawa and even becoming a staple at Montreal Expos ballgames.
Ettingers prides themselves on their home made smoked meat, claiming that its superior taste comes from it being un-pumped, meaning that the meat isn’t loaded with phosphates and nitrates, a technique that many delis use in processing their smoked meat to make it heavier in an effort to increase profit margins. I have to hand it to Ettinger’s, because their smoked meat is delicious. It had the taste that Delibee’s was missing and was successful on other levels, including the home made mustard that they use on the rye. There is room for improvement however, as I did notice that the meat was quite salty, a bit more saltier than I would have liked but I still enjoyed my sandwich very much. While it wasn’t the best I’ve ever had, it was certainly delicious, an outcome that was surprising because the place looks more like Baton Rouge than it does a deli. I was quite impressed with their sandwich and would definitely have it again.
The last place was Schwartz’s, the most famous deli in Montreal, and probably Canada. Over 80 years old, this landmark is what most tourists have on their dining list, and there are lines out the door daily to prove it.
Schwartz’s was just sold for an undisclosed amount to new owners, yet they promised to keep the food and staff the same. I’ve been to Schwartz’s a few times, and it was never my favorite because although the meat was very tasty, it was usually dry. This is something that I’ve also heard from friends and relatives whenever they recently returned from eating there. It was a long time since I’ve been to the super famous deli so I would be going in fresh. The place looked the same, and the sandwich was the same as I remembered it. The first bite was a bit juicy, but then, as usual, it was pretty dry even though I made sure to order medium-fat. Don’t get me wrong, the meat is very good, it just always seems to be dry and that’s not my preference. I know some people enjoy that, but I’m not one of them. I think the hype that revolves around Schwartz’s continues to draw large crowds, but there are far better sandwiches out there, for me at least.
I was quite full after this last sandwich, and knew that it was time to call it a night. The next few days had me feeling a little confused. I went on this really fun smoked meat run, but I wasn’t too impressed with the sandwiches, except maybe for Ettinger’s, but it still couldn’t compete with Pete. I knew right there and then that it was time to add at least a couple more sandwiches to the list.
Everyone knows Lester’s. Not only is it Jackie Mason’s favorite Deli, it’s world famous and has been a local favorite since 1951. When you walk inside, it’s easy to see that Lester’s is just as much as an “institution” as Schwartz’s.
Stepping foot into Lester’s really makes you feel like you’ve been warped back in time. This is the type of place that people have gone to with their parents to eat smoked meat in the 70′s, and 30 years later, they’re bringing their kids to maintain the family tradition. Lester’s smoked meat exceeded my expectations like you wouldn’t believe. This is the type of sandwich you’d request as a last meal if you had to go down that road. The meat was greasy, but it was incredibly tasty, smooth and juicy, becoming the perfect companion to the rye and mustard combination. The fries and cole slaw were both top notch, so I really have to give props to Lester’s for an unbelievable lunch.
For the final contender, I chose Snowdon Deli. Established in 1946, Snowdon Deli is known to many as having the finest smoked meat in the city. To some, it might be difficult to choose what to order at this deli, with over 130 menu items to choose from, but I was there for one choice only. I went for their old fashioned smoked meat which I found to be only average although I liked how they put a little more mustard on the bread than the other places I’ve been. I did feel that the meat was lacking; it didn’t have that deep smoky flavour I enjoy, so it tasted like it needed a small boost. Other than that the sandwich was good.
The end result: Delibee’s and Snowdon Deli both seemed like they needed some more seasoning, as it was clear that something was missing from both but a bit less with Snowdon Deli. Ettingers was pretty good but their meat was noticeably saltier than normal. Schwartz’s had that deep smoky flavor which was delicious but their meat was way too dry for my liking. Lester’s… Well Lester’s was simply outstanding. As an added bonus, they also have much less of a wait than Schwartz’s making it more of a desirable place for me to frequent.
Deli Bee’s: 6.0/10
Schwartz’s: 7.5/10 (although it was dry, the meat was very tasty)
Snowdon Deli: 6.5/10
Smoked Meat Pete’s: “You can’t beat Pete’s meat.
JarredReviews is my personal weblog. The opinions and experiences represent my own. If you read that I didn’t particularly enjoy a meal or restaurant, that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t try it and see for yourself. Restaurants can have an off day, people make mistakes, we’re all human. My writing is mainly so that you can find out about great restaurants that you may have not heard about, and also to give you an idea of what I enjoyed that you can experience for yourself. Food reviewing is very subjective and you must take this into account and use your discretion when reading any review; If I have had a bad experience somewhere, do not let that stop you to try the restaurant for yourself.