First a full disclosure about today's post - I really didn't come here. But colleagues of mine did and got me a sandwich, so I believe I can still talk about the Main Deli Steak House in Montreal. (Photo courtesy Trip Advisor/Canada.)
A couple months ago, I was working a dealer event in St. Louis with Costa, the V.P. for sales for Simaudio which is based in Montreal. I told him that I was going to be heading up to Montreal the following week for meetings at our head office. I mentioned that I was getting into Montreal around noon and that I would probably head to the iconic Schwartz's Deli for a Montreal-style smoked meat sandwich. (Click here to see my entry on Schwartz's Deli.)
Costa said, "If you want to stand in long lines (like we did) at Schwartz's and get hustled in and out of the place, then that's fine. But where the locals go to is right across the street. It's called Main Deli and I think they have better sandwiches than Schwartz's."
After Costa's recommendation, I looked up Main Deli and found that while it didn't have quite the long and savory history that Schwartz's did, it appeared that a lot of people liked the place more than Schwartz's. Main Deli was founded in 1974 by Peter Varvaro, a son of Italian immigrants who grew up running to get his family Montreal-style smoked meat sandwiches from local deli restaurants up and down Boul St. Laurent. Varvaro immersed himself in Jewish culture as a young man and learned the art of making smoked meat which originated in Romania. Peter Varvaro said that the secret wasn't so much in the spices and herbs that were used to help cure the meat before smoking, but rather the whole process of making the smoked meat - a family secret that was kept between Varvaro, his wife, his daughter and four sons, all of whom worked at Main Deli.
Varvaro's initial restaurant - Main St. Laurence Steakhouse and Delicatessen - was a small place along Boul St. Laurent, regarded by many locals as the main street of Montreal. In 1984, Varvaro moved to a larger, but still cozy place, right across the street from Schwartz's Deli. (see map). He renamed it Main Deli Steak House at that time. Peter Varvaro passed away in 2013 at the age of 81, but the family still owns - and runs - the restaurant.
Two of Peter Varvaro's sons have gone out on their own to open similar smoked meat restaurants in the suburbs of Montreal. Oldest son Peter Jr. opened Smoke Meat Pete's in 1996, giving the restaurant his nickname that friends called him when he was growing up working in the family business. And Philip Varvaro runs Delibee's, a full delicatessen that also serves Montreal-style smoked meat.
I found this little five minute plus video on Peter Varvaro, Sr. that was made before he passed away talking about smoked meat and what little he says about his process of making it.
On this recent trip to Montreal, it turns out that a couple of my west coast colleagues had taken red-eye flights to get into Montreal around 9:45 in the morning. Two other colleagues had gotten in around 10:30 a.m. I wasn't due in until around noon. I had suggested all of us go to Main Deli for a sandwich, but then I got to feeling guilty that some of them would have to be waiting around a couple hours or more for me to meet up with them. They all said they were up for a sandwich at Main Deli and suggested that I take a cab from the airport to meet them. Once again, I didn't want them to wait for me - especially the guys who had taken red-eye flights into Montreal and who were, undoubtedly, tired and ready for a nap. I said that I would just take a cab to our hotel and meet them there later on.
But my colleague, Ian, had a better idea. He said that they would go to Main Deli, have lunch, then come back out to the airport to pick me up - and bring me a sandwich. While I was disappointed that I couldn't physically go to Main Deli for a sandwich, I was somewhat humbled by the fact that they'd grab me a sandwich and come all the way back out to the airport to pick me up. I work with a great bunch of guys.
Right around 1 p.m. on a beautiful day in Montreal, the guys came around the pick-up lane in a van and picked me up. In a small sandwich bag was an aluminum-wrapped sandwich. It was sort of mashed and scrunched up, but there it was - a glorious pile of smoked meat sandwich slathered with yellow mustard placed between two thick (at one time) slices of white bread. I took a couple pictures of the sandwich in the foil. While I wish the sandwich looked like this one on the right, it didn't - thanks to the wear and tear of wrapping it up and traveling in a sack. (I got this picture of a Main Deli smoked meat sandwich from Yelp.)
The tender smoked meat was fabulous. The seasonings were very discernible on the outside bark of the meat. The overall flavor was outstanding. I pulled a couple slices off the sandwich as we were driving down the road and savored the taste and smell of the meat. I was in Montreal-style smoked meat heaven.
I have to hand it to Costa from Simaudio - he certainly had Main Deli and Steakhouse pegged. I probably did like it better than Schwartz's, which has sort of gone commercial over the past few years. (They're starting to sell Schwartz's packaged smoked meat in grocery stores around Montreal.) While I can't comment on what the inside of Main Deli was like (I should have had the guys take pictures for me), all I can say that even going down a freeway eating a smoked meat sandwich from Peter Varvaro's original recipe made me especially happy. I'd just love to get there in person at some point and get one hot out of the kitchen.