First stop – Schwartz’s Charcuterie Hebraique (3895 Boul. St Laurent), where you’ll find great heaps of something called smoked meat, sliced thin and piled on white bread spread with mustard, accompanied by a slightly obscene-looking pickle, some crisp, fresh French fries, and a can of cherry cola. Smoked meat is a Montreal speciality, somewhere between pastrami and a barbecued brisket (but still entirely unlike either), and Schwartz’s is where you’ll find the city’s finest – they’ve been at it since 1928, and are still in the original location. There’s always a queue snaking out of the door. This is not a restaurant you’ll be visiting for the decor, which reminded me of the dilapidated fish and chip shops I used to visit with my Grandma at the end of the 1970s back in England, all Formica tables and framed, yellowing newspaper cuttings. You’re here for the exceptional sandwiches and the meat, smoked daily and piled high in the window.
I’d been warned about unfriendly service, but we found that the staff were actually exceptionally helpful and friendly – try to sit at the bar, like we did, so you can watch the meat being prepared. Ask for your sandwich to come medium or fatty (a lean cut will carry less flavour), chomp down on your pickle to cut through the grease, and make sure that you order a cherry cola, which somehow happens to be the perfect liquid accompaniment for one of these fabulous sandwiches.
One world-beating sandwich joint isn’t enough for Boulevard St Laurent. Head for Chinatown, and about twenty yards from the pagoda gates you’ll find Cao Thang (1082 Boul. St Laurent – this is the same street you’ll find Schwartz’s on, but it’s a brisk walk of about ten minutes between the two). Cao Thang is a tiny shop – really a counter and a fridge – selling Banh Mi, a baguette stuffed with a gorgeous Vietnamese concoction of roast pork and pork sausage with lightly pickled carrots and daikon, a generous sprinkling of coriander and chillies, all sauced with a garlicky, savoury mixture that smells like heaven by way of Saigon. It’s only open for lunch, and there are no seats – we found ourselves sitting on cinderblocks in a carpark across the road and being shouted at by tramps, but so good was my mood once I had chunks of this transcendental (and absurdly cheap) sandwich in my mouth, they might as well have been singing light opera.
Banh Mi isn’t that uncommon in North America, although you’ll be hard-pressed to find one in the UK. The Cao Thang version is a fantastically good example though – crisp baguette (supplied by the excellent Patisserie Belge) moistened slightly in the middle by the filling. This is one of those dishes where you’ll find every bite tasting slightly different – this one full of coriander, the next chillies, the next sweet carrot shreds. (Don’t inhale sharply after a chilli-tasting bite. My friend James did and still hasn’t shopped coughing.)
This is looking like a great week for food. I’m starting to like this city very, very much.