The Best Smoked Meat Sandwich in the World
Some things stay the same
I am not going to indulge in the smoked meat vs pastrami debate. In Montreal, Schwartz’s on boulevard Saint-Laurent has arguably the best smoked meat sandwich in the world and leaves any pastrami sandwich available struggling to get another bite. There is no debate.
The sign above the door reads Charcuterie Hébraïque de Montréal Inc, in conformity with Montreal’s language laws, but nobody ever calls it that. We all just call it Schwartz’s — don’t call it Schwartz. It’s been on Saint-Laurent since 1928.
Saint-Laurent divides Montreal from east to west; it’s our version of the Mason-Dixon Line. On one side, the streets are named, for example, rue Sherbrooke Ouest, and on the other side of Saint-Laurent, it’s Sherbrooke Est. Traditionally, the French lived east, and the English lived west. The Jewish immigrants lived in the middle around Saint-Laurent. And that’s where Schwartz’s was — and still is— smack in the middle of one of the most vibrant cities in the world.
I first entered this venerable establishment with my then Jewish boyfriend (now husband) over thirty years ago, and I did not do well. We had waited twenty minutes in a line that snaked down the block to get in. The place was packed and noisy, and the decor — although calling it that is a stretch — had a 1950s time-stood-still feel. The walls were covered with photos of famous people — actors, comedians, journalists, politicians and prime ministers — who had eaten there.
We were seated at one of the long wooden tables lining the wall down one side — me next to a burly guy dressed in a lumberjacket. The menu was on the placemat, and I could feel the slight grunge on everything. It did not feel like my kind of place.
I was happy to order a smoked meat sandwich, although I probably asked for it extra lean. But I’m sure I asked for plain water instead of black cherry coke, which is an essential part of the experience. I wasn’t interested in a heaping plate of greasy French fries, although admittedly they looked delicious, or the large sour pickle.
But my downfall was I didn’t know how to kibbitz with the waiter who had probably worked there since the 1950s. He felt sorry for my boyfriend for landing badly in life with a shiksa, who did not have much of a sense of humour.
In the ensuing decades, I have become a convert. The smoked meat sandwiches are to die for — a heavenly treat. Thick hand-sliced hot smoked meat stacked high between pieces of fresh rye bread with a slight slathering of yellow mustard. You order it based on how much fat you want: lean, medium, medium-fat, and fat. The sandwich, beef brisket with the famous Montreal steak spices (invented at Schwartz’s by The Shadow, the broilerman, in the 40s), melts in your mouth, having been cured for ten days in their brick smokehouse oven, which has almost one hundred years of accumulated schmutz to improve the taste. The exact recipe is a closely-guarded secret.
A book and musical have been written about its storied history and the succession of flamboyant and colourful owners, starting with a gambler and womanizer, Reuben Schwartz. It was sold in 2012 to a consortium of owners, including the late René Angélil and his wife Céline Dion, for a purported ten million. We held our breaths, but thankfully nothing changed, and no franchises or decor updates happened. They did, however, start taking credit cards.
There is a God because about fifteen years ago, Schwartz’s opened a takeout option next door. During the pandemic lockdown, when all indoor dining was closed, we could walk to Schwartz’s — stand in line two metres apart — so the line went way down the block — and take out the medium-fat sandwiches (yes, I graduated), fries and cherry cokes.
I have had corned beef sandwiches at Katz’s in New York and pastrami ones at Langer’s in downtown L.A. Nothing has come close to a Schwartz’s smoked meat sandwich. It is truly a pièce de résistance. Put it on your bucket list, and trust me on the cherry coke.