Montreal Smoked Meat in Toronto
Hello everyone - I'm finally airing my beef with Toronto Smoked Meat. I know this topic has been covered ad nauseum but I haven't had my two cents yet. When I first came here, I got recommendations from Torontonians in the 'know' and I realized that a smoked meat sandwich is almost double the price here than in Montreal ($6.50-$10.00). The next beef is that 99% of "deli's" here slice the meat with a machine (which is a sin in Montreal). Most places should take their meat off of the menu immediately. I'm not sure who is worse: The deli's claiming that they sell Montreal Smoked Meat or the people recommending these places.
My expertise: Like most Montrealers, I'm addicted to Smoked Meat and as a low estimate, I must have had 36 sandwiches per year X 25 years = 900 sandwiches PLUS 50 sandwiches in the past 13 years on my return trips to Montreal = approximately 950 Montreal Smoked Meat sandwiches in Montreal (from over a dozen locations). With respect, I doubt if most critics on the internet or in Toronto newspapers and magazines share my level of experience. Also, I'm at a level that I used to bash deli's in Montreal who didn't serve proper Smoked Meat sandwiches, for example, you couldn't pay me to eat smoked meat from Chenoy's. So please be forewarned about what's coming. If you're from Toronto and you're sensitive, please go to the next post or have a stiff drink, then proceed.
I tried them all (with the exception of Caplansky's, I'll explain later).
Katz'on Dufferin: (claiming Best Deli in the world, or something to that effect) They don't have "Montreal Smoked Meat" on the menu, however, you could probably get better tasting deli meat at Dominion. I had a Pastrami Sandwich, walked along the cafateria line, watched them slice the meat on a machine as I cringed, and proceeded to taste, well, absolutely nothing. I never ate a piece of meat before that had absolutely no taste. It may as well have been tofu painted pink. How was the tenderness? Actually, very tender. It was the most tender tofu I ever had.
Switzer's in Brampton (near the airport location): They are really proud of their product. I mean really proud. The owner couldn't stop raving to me about how he has by far the best Montreal Smoked Meat in Toronto. These people are fully dillusional. Their sandwich cannot be chewed. The meat is so tough, I could string the slices together and make a nice belt out of it. True story: I ate half of the first half and threw 3/4 of the sandwich under my car. I paid $8.50 for the sandwich and didn't have the heart to put my digestive system on overload trying to get this meat through my system. You have to be sadistic to actually swallow this sandwich.
Moe Pancer's on Bathurst: What could I say? I don't even know where to begin. Fist of all, this place is a Toronto Institution and "The place to go for deli" (self professed and confirmed by many Torontonians). I tried their Montreal Smoked Meat sandwich (which by the way, got rave reviews on Zagats who called it "home-made"). Pancer's has the review on their menu and on their website. I would like to meet the representative from Zagats who recommended this sandwich. Either there was a payoff involved or s/he was on hallucinogens when he ate the sandwich. Their sandwich, which cost me $8.15 was completely INEDIBLE. Probably the toughest "Montreal" Smoked Meat I have ever had. It is almost un-chewable. The meat is beyond a joke - I looked around me to see if there was anyone from 'candid camera' who was seeing my reaction to biting into their sandwich. I can't believe anyone would recommend this sandwich. Please, anyone who recommended this place for Montreal Smoked Meat, do everyone a favour and critique other foods and leave the Smoked Meat and deli to the experts. Back to the sandwich: The meat had the tenderness of biting into tough corn on the cob. I took two bites, got meat stuck in between all of my teeth that bit into the sandwich (you know, the way corn on the cob gets stuck in your teeth) and proceeded to throw the remaining 80% of the sandwich into the trash can. I was truly too embarrassed FOR the owner to march back into the place to demand my money back. What would I say? "Sir, your sandwich is completely inedible, please refund my $8.15, and I demand that you either take this item off your menu or change the meat". I'm not one to create a scene, so I opted to let the public know on this board. On the plus side of this place, their corned beef is delicious. It's home-made and tastes home-made. Their Zagat's review says "best corned beef in T.O., no, ANYWHERE". That's quite a bold statement from the most respected food critics in the world, wouldn't you say? The fact is: It's a delicious sandwich - a typical corned beef sandwich that you would find in most jewish deli's in Montreal. Which is a humongous compliment to Pancer's. Obviously, the Zagat's critic was never in Montreal. If you're ever in Montreal and you love Corned Beef, go to the Brown Derby - that's most likely the best ANYWHERE. If the critic ended with "best corned beef in Toronto", there would be more credibility. Great corned beef sandwich, and actually worth the $8.15 per sandwich relative to other deli sandwiches in Toronto.
Centre Street Deli on Centre Street: The first two or three times I went there (mid-nineties), I was in heaven. Delicious sandwich, which actually released endorphins into my system, as it was relieving my addiction. The sandwich ($7.25), was tender, tasty, nicely greasy, spicy - everything you could ask for. Absolutely phenomenal. Then it went downhill. The next four trips there, I had the exact same problem with the sandwich: The meat was not trimmed properly before it was sliced. I kept getting the stringy fat in my sandwich (you know, the bite in your sandwich that has the consistency of a rubber band). I had to pull out the bite from my mouth and toss it. I had conversations with a 35-year professional Smoked Meat cutter (he's been cutting over 100 sandwiches per day for 35 years) who told me that if the brisket was trimmed properly before it was sliced, you would never get that "bad fat" in to your sandwich (as he shook his head in dissapointment). In my 950 sandwiches that I had in Montreal, I never had to routinely take a rubber-band piece of fat and meat out of my mouth while I ate my sandwich. After I had this experience four times, I stopped going there. There's a limit on how many chances I could give a place. The last time I was there, I bought my sandwich, opened up both halves, took out the parts that were supposed to be trimmed (20% of the sandwich), then ate the sandwich. I shouldn't have to do that, so I stopped going there. If people in Toronto enjoy swallowing unchewable balls of rubbery fat, all the best to them. I won't be back.
Pickle Barrel (several locations): Quick description: Non-Offensive. The meat is always very tender, the taste is 'good', and it has some good grease in it. The only negatives are that it lacks the 'old-fashioned' peppercorn flavouring and there's not a hint of fat in the meat. For some reason, it's almost impossible to get the sandwich hot when it gets to my table. They take the meat out of a steamer (you actually see the steam coming out of it), but when I get the sandwich, it's at room temperature at best. Since the meat isn't spicy, is a little blander than Montreal Smoked meat, and no hint of fat, I call it "Pastrami". SO basically, if you love pastrami, order Pickle Barrel's Montreal Smoked Meat - it's the best Pastrami in Canada. It's good deli meat, it's just not Montreal Smoked Meat. Why have I gone there so often? It's the choice of my uncle who came here from Montreal over 30 years ago, who was so offended by Toronto's "Montreal" smoked Meat, it's now his choice in Toronto as the "least offensive" in the city. He is a senior citizen so I have no choice but to break bread with him at his place of choice.
Coleman's, Shopsy's, Druxy's: I'm not going to bother wasting any of my time critiquing these places. Just avoid at all cost.
Mel's Montreal: Please folks. Please don't make me laugh. I think there is a way for us to ban the owner from having the name "Montreal" in his restaurant permanently removed. Having Montreal in the name of the restaurant is misleading, false advertising. Their smoked meat is so far from authentic, I can't even continue writing.
Downtown deli's or take-outs with huge signs saying "we serve Montreal Smoked Meat": Avoid at all cost.
Dunn's downtown King Street: Nothing like Dunn's in Montreal. I went there once, it was really busy and the sandwich wasn't piled with any craftmanship whatsoever. It was as if a teen-aged helper grabbed a pile of sliced smoked meat and placed it in between slices of bread. It took over 30 minutes to get my sandwich and the way it was piled made the meat less tender (the meat has to be cut with precision and piled with precision to get optimal tenderness) - They missed the boat, I never returned. The taste of the meat as I recall was "ok". That was a few years ago, I wouldn't be surprised if they went out of business.
Wolfie's (Sheppard/Bathurst): I actually found this place on chowhound under a thread that recommended "places to satisfy your Smoked Meat addiction, but nothing close to Schwartz". It's interesting that in 13 years, not one person ever named this place to me. I always got the usual recommendations (Pancer's, Pickle Barrel and Centre Street). Back to Wolfies: I know why no-one recommended it. It's located in a desolate plaza, the place is a little bit of a dive and the owner closes the shop at 5 pm weeknights, completely closed on Saturdays, and closes at 3 pm on Fridays and Sundays. I guess the owner is religious / made enough dough to be semi-retired. I went there to check it out. Genuine Lester's Brisket, laced with black spicy peppercorns surrounding the entire brisket, steamed to perfection and piled high. The sandwich was 10/10 tender, served hot, nicely greasy, hints of fat in the sandwich, nice and spicy, (the meat hand cut upon request), and delicious. I'm shocked that I haven't even heard of this place before. It's three red lights away from Pancer's and no-one recommends it. Torontonians should be ashamed of themselves. Yes folks: I do understand that it's a standard Industrial Lester's Brisket that is served in 90% of deli's in Montreal. WHAT'S YOUR POINT? Isn't that what we want? For heaven's sake, outside of Schwartz, Abies, Briskets and Snowdon Deli, we're eating Lester's in Montreal deli's and diners. Let's not nit-pick. There are other deli's in Toronto who serve Leter's, however, they don't trim the meat properly, they don't steam and preserve the meat properly, don't cut the meat properly, don't serve the meat hot, don't pile it high, and don't stack it properly. At Wolfie's the guy "has it going on". In today's lingo: "He the man". Their meat is steamed piping hot, trimmed properly, cut to perfection, stacked properly, piled high, it has spice, great grease, delicious taste, and served steaming hot. By far, the best Montreal Smoked Meat sandwich I ever had in Toronto. BY FAR !!!! There's plenty of negatives about this place, however, if you stick to the topic of Smoked Meat Sandwiches, THIS IS THE PLACE.
Negatives about the place (not that I care because they have the best sandwich): Other than a pickle, thier sides are non-existent or not worth ordering. I ordered a $3.50 Knish, wondering how huge it would be for that price. I was served the largest microwaved "dough-ball" I ever had. No potato taste. I don't think there was any potato in the recipe. I was nicely ripped off, thank you very much. I didn't order fries because my stomach does have limits. The hours of operation leaves 90% of us unable to catch this guy cutting sandwiches. It's not a place that you could sit and enjoy your meal - the tables are 1940's style and seating area is un-inviting. I would leave it as strictly a "take-out and eat in car" place (or eat-in the park across the street place). One last note: I enjoyed my two sandwiches so much, I took 2 pounds to go. Without my consent, the owner cut slices from a cold brisket that he had in the fridge and sold it to me, when I got home, I was shocked to find meat that I could have bought at any supermarket in Montreal - cold, machine sliced Lester's meat. I wanted hot, steamed hand-cut meat. Frankly, I was pissed - $22 down the drain. If you get take out, make sure it's cut hot, by hand, and that you eat it within a couple of hours. If you refrigerate the meat, it becomes supermarket quality meat the next day due to it's industrial processed nature. Unless you have an industrial steamer to revive the meat, you'll find it DOA the next day.
Peter's on Eglinton (Mississauga): Frankly, it's too far for my to try their sandwich, especially since it's Lester's meat, like Wolfies. If they take the same care making their sandwiches as Wolfies does, power to you, if you live in the West end, enjoy. Since I found and enjoy Wolfies, and Peter's sells the same meat, there's no point for me to shlep to Mississauga for their sandwich.
Caplansky's: I heard all the buzz and I'm really excited to try their non-industrially processed, straight-out-of-the-smoker Smoked Meat sandwich. People have said that he's tweaking the recipe and it's inconsistent right now, even their fries are told to be inconsistent, so I'm giving it a few more weeks and I'm waiting for the right time to pop in to critique the man's sandwich. I am a little wary though, and I'll tell you why - the paper gave him a delicious amazing write-up, and we all know that Torontonian food critics have such agendas, it's not worth reading them. I trust chowhound miles before a newspaper write-up. You will hear from me after my visit though - for sure.
Enjoy everyone !!!
It may be that this thread should form the basis of a dissertation, but in the short-term I think it would be a fantastic article for a magazine like the Art of Eating. Montrealer70 and Embee, you are great scholars of deli and I'm grateful you shared some of your knowledge with us. I strongly encourage either one of your or both to pitch this topic to AoE. I would love to read about it further.
since i have never been to montreal i wont know what a real montreal smoke meat sandwhich is like but i do know which place i like to go to for a good sandwhich, that being the "montreal delli" in mississauga it is located on dundas road a few blocks west of the 427 highway. one sanwhich i like is the Philly Cheese Steak sandwhich and after having an original one from Pats Steaks in Philledelphia, all others are pale immitations. I would be interested to hear your thoughts about the delli on dundas if you ever try it. I have also tried peters on eglington and found it to be seriously lacking in taste and quality.
Caplansky's is awesome. As a fellow smoked meat aficionado, I'd recommend trying it now just to see where the tweaking leads to. The cabbage borscht is almost better than the sandwich, and the fries are dynamite. The coleslaw is also handmade and is mild and refreshing. They also now have a turkey sandwich...but who cares about that.
I'm definitely craving the caplansky's. Will probably go with the borscht next time instead of fries. I love borscht. they say the soup of the day varies, but each time I'm there, it's borscht.
About montrealer70's comments on Caplansky's inconsistency. Yes, it's an issue, but hardly a major one. I've had three sandwiches so far. The best was the second. A fatty with perfect texture (i.e. tender, but just enough resistance to make it interesting) and flavour (in my opinion, not an expert on deli meat, but a decent sample size in my history). My last sandwich was 7-8 weeks after the G&M article. And it was still very good.
You commented on price a couple times in your review. It's a $6 sandwich ($11 for the meal, with pickle soup or fries). Hardly a risk to feel ripped off.
Bottom line, Montrealer70, do yourself a favour and head over there. I can't wait until my next visit.
Oh and my wife enjoyed the smoked turkey. I thought it was a bit dry, but whatever.
Too bad you didn't get out to Peter's on Eglinton it is great. Humongous portion sizes and as you mention using Lester's meat. My favorite is the Montreal Deli on Dundas just West of 427. Their old fashioned platter is just the right size for me, probably Lester's meat as well, and great Montreal style service. Wait staff that can get you in, served, and out as quickly as you would like . . . without being rushed.
While I don't tend to get as upset about things as Montrealer70 I have to mention that I can not find one darned thing that I like about Katz' deli. I've gone all of twice because I had business in the area and it is where someone wanted to go for lunch. Both times the meat was dry and you really needed to wash it down with something. . . anything. . . but the tiny glasses they give you for cola ain't big enough . . . you need a big gulp.
Oh. . . I should mention, if it makes a difference, I am an ex-Montrealer
I had a meeting in Etobicoke and finally got down to the MONTREAL DELI on Dundas Street, West of the 427. I went in to take out an old-fashioned Smoked Meat Sandwich. I walked in and was greeted with a huge smile by the hostess, who directed me to the cash to get take out. I ordered my sandwich (one regular-sized old fashioned smoked meat sandwich, hand-cut, medium fat with yellow mustard - $6.50). As I waited for my sandwich, the waitresses took turns passing by me and smiled at me when passing each way getting their orders. Either my after shave was doing it's thing or this really is the Montreal Deli. I've never seen such warm service in Toronto since my arrival. I looked through the menu and I really wanted to try half a dozen selections (including the breakfast). The atmosphere was that of a warm brunch-serving restaurant whose country-inn decor and warm staff would fit in perfectly in the Laurentians. I really felt at home. Another good sign about the place is that it was packed in the early afternoon!! A rarity in Toronto. I find that 90% of casual restaurants are dead between 2:00 and 5:00. Not here. The place was hustling and bustling with patrons.
Now to the sandwich: Definitely Lester's Brisket. Delicious - dripping with grease and tender, as I would expect from Lester's. Perfectly piled and cut. As you know, I recommended the Wolfie sandwich, and this sandwich was identical with one major exception: The Montreal Deli Sandwich had at least 50% more meat in it. And I ordered the 'regular' sandwich. I can't even imagine how much meat they would put into the "heffer" sandwich for $9.99 !!! The regular sandwich was definitely a fresser on it's own. To put it into perspective, when I reached into the bag, I pulled out a hot package the size of a football. Unreal! Truly a steal at $5.75 plus tax as well.
One note that I have to make is that I decided from here on to order machine sliced sandwiches if it's a processed brisket. I find that it comes out a little more tender than hand-cut. There's really no point in hand-cutting the "perfectly tender" processed Lester's meat.
The whole point to "hand cutting" is that Fresh-Smoked Brisket has to be cut following the grain of the meat in order to be tender (as Embee describes below) - It cannot be done with accuracy with a machine. The next time I get a Lester's sandwich, I'm ordering a "sliced-thin" by machine.
Obviously, for the 'real deal', you have to go to Caplansky's in Toronto for Smoked Brisket. If you're in the West-End and time is an issue or the trek to little Italy gets you down, the Montreal Deli gets my seal of approval for your fix.
Although I could get a Lester's sandwich at other locations (Centre Street, Wolfies), I will be back to the Montreal Deli. I like the atmosphere and I want to try other menu items as well. This will be more than just a take out smoked meat sandwich place for me. I love the atmosphere.
On a final note, as traffic was starting to be an issue, I had to boot out of the West End to avoid the 401 parking lot otherwise I would have tried Peter's on Eglinton. I know that they use Lester's, so I take everyone's word that it's delicious and they pile it high (although West-enders could debate over who piles it higher). I will make my way there some day, but it's far for me so it may not be soon. I also checked out their website (petersoneglinton.com)and they have a full menu that looks very appetizing. I'll get there some day.
I made a discovery today about the fat in Smoked Meat Sandwiches and I'm adding a new post on the bottom called "How to order your fat" to share my findings.