Schwartz's Deli - Montreal, Canada
Schwartz's Deli is to Montreal as Philippe's is to LA--institutions whose histories are wrapped around the story of the cities themselves.
And when you're in Montreal, it's perhaps just as important to pay a visit to Schwartz's to eat a towering smoked meat sandwich as it is to come to the Notre-Dame Basilica to marvel at the soaring architecture. They're both religious experiences.
Though, I must admit, you are more likely to moan "Oh my God!" involuntarily as you bite into your sandwich at Schwartz's than you will taking selfies at Notre-Dame.
Before your pilgrimage, I suggest being prepared with clothing appropriate for the weather forecast. It's probably wise to dress in layers, as you will be outside on the sidewalk, either blinded by an intense sun, buffeted by a frigid wind, or worse. As I waited in a queue with equal numbers of regulars and tourists, I felt the tips of my fingers freezing but also got sunburned on my neck. I've heard there's always a line to get in, even during the bleakest of Quebec winters.
When we were finally seated, it was inside a cramped room with walls covered by framed newspaper articles and old autographed photos. I sat shoulder-to-shoulder with the same people who waited in the line with us outside. The tables are six-seaters and the goal of the wait staff is to pack every available spot as though they're packing eggs in a carton.
But the service was warm as it was efficient. Our server put his palm on my shoulder when he asked if I wanted anything else after delivering our cans of soda, vinegary coleslaw, hot fries, and teetering sandwiches mere minutes after we ordered them.
Though comparisons to the corned beef sandwiches of New York's Katz's Deli and its kin are inevitable, I saw a sign at Schwartz's that said "It's not corned; it's smoked." I haven't done the research to really understand the differences, but I can tell you that the smoked meat sandwich I ate was ethereal.
It was flavorful, just salty enough, and with just slightest hint smoke and pastrami-like spicing. But it was the tenderness that amazed me. The hand-carved slices of rust-colored meat didn't just melt in the mouth, it seemed to evaporate. I felt as though I was breathing in beefy brisket air more than I was chewing it.
And as I did, I moaned, "Oh. My. God!"
3895 Saint-Laurent Boulevard
Montréal, QC H2W 1X9, Canada
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