The window of Schwartz’s, a storefront cafe opened as a steak place in 1928 by Rumanian immigrant Reuben Schwartz, is filled with smoked meat – piles of briskets packed with coarse, black spice. You’ll likely have time to admire the display, because the line waiting for a counter stool or chair at one of the communal tables in the 60-seat storefront nearly always stretches out the door.
“Is your smoked meat corned beef or pastrami?” we ask our waiter.
“Neither. It is smoked meat,” he answers, explaining that Montreal’s way with brisket is to cure it a week or more, smoke it several hours, then store it in a steam box packed with spice a few hours more. The result is a pillow of beef striated with fat and fragile enough that it must be expertly hand-cut with a knife because an automatic slicer would disintegrate it.
Schwartz’s counter men assemble each sandwich with meat piled up so high that the bread perched precariously atop one half invariably tumbles off as you seize the other half to eat. Smoked meat retains the soft flavor of brisket; and its exact nature depends on how you order it. Schwartz’s offers lean (but warns against that as too dry), medium, and fatty. Medium is juicy; fatty is wildly succulent.
One thing that makes Schwartz’s smoked meat sandwiches good is the bread. It is old-style rye with a leathery crust and muscular crumb. The thump of the automatic bread slicer cutting loaves sets the beat of a delicatessen melody, the libretto of which is never-ending chatter among exuberant customers.