Montreal's best local eats
A guide to the French Canadian city's specialties and a comparison of rival shops.
MONTREAL - For a certain kind of traveler, no visit to a new city is complete without a bellyful of local culinary delights.
And though the Internet has made it easier to zero in on regional specialties, it also has amplified local food rivalries that can make it harder for travelers to know just where, for example, to find the best poutine in Montreal.
We braved those challenges in an effort to guide future travelers to the best local food specialties the French Canadian city has to offer.
Brined, spiced beef brisket that's hot-smoked and steamed is similar to but much more delicious than corned beef or pastrami. Eastern European Jews brought it to Montreal nearly a century ago.
The contenders: Schwartz's Montreal Hebrew Delicatessen (3895 Blvd. Saint-Laurent) and the Main (3864 Blvd. Saint-Laurent).
When we took our first bite from a stack of warm smoked meat smeared with yellow mustard and sandwiched between slices of ultrafresh seedless rye ($6.10) at the Main one morning, we couldn't believe our taste buds. Think of the most flavorful, tender corned-beef sandwich you've ever eaten and increase the enjoyment 10 times, and you have an inkling of what you're in for.
Could 80-year-old Schwartz's top this experience? It seemed unlikely given the high bar, but the line outside the door (something the Main lacks, thankfully) promised otherwise. Turns out their smoked meat sandwich ($6.30, cash only) is almost exactly as good as the Main's, especially when you request the fatty meat.
The verdict: We love both, but one of us thinks Main is a tiny bit better, and the other says it's Schwartz's. But it's like deciding between sublime and sublimer.
This is a melange of hot fries topped with cold cheese curds and warm gravy that was invented in Quebec about 50 years ago and that has spread across the country, even to Canadian McDonald's.
The contenders: Patati Patata (4177 Blvd. Saint-Laurent) and La Banquise (994 Rue Rachel East).
Some places, including La Banquise, serve elaborate variations on the basic theme, but we decided to go for the classic first.
The tiny Patati featured a funky decor, a handful of counter seats, and a couple of high tables that encouraged us to get our poutine ($4.50) to go. We opened the small foam-clamshell box to find crunchy, browned, skin-on fries topped with thinnish but meaty gravy, lots of squeaky curds, and a couple of kalamata olives.
Our order at the large, multiroomed, 24-hour La Banquise ($6.25) was much larger, featuring slightly sweet fries, as though some of their starch had turned to sugar, topped with elongated super-squeaky curds, and a meaty thick gravy.
The verdict: The fries are better at Patati, but the whole package is better at La Banquise.
This is marinated and rotisserie-cooked chicken with an optional chili rub and/or sauce. Though it's served by Portuguese Canadians, it's actually called African chicken in Portugal.
The contenders: Rotisserie Romados (115 Rue Rachel East) and Portugalia (34 Rue Rachel West)
Like the Peruvian or Colombian chicken wars that have emerged in other cities across North America, Montreal's Portuguese chicken fight is characterized by stiff competition (with some areas hosting three chicken joints in as many blocks), hardwood coal grilling/rotisserie cooking, and ultrasecretive spicing. Restaurants serve it plain or with spicy sauce, which can range from a reddish chili paste to a seriously potent rub of spices and red pepper flakes. After much asking around, we zeroed in on two places locals swear by.
When we arrived hungry at Romados, the grilled-chicken aroma was almost as enticing as the long line was off-putting. But within 15 minutes, we were up there receiving our half-chicken, rice, and salad, all covered in a pile of delicious fries ($7.99). We snagged a rare counter seat by the window, unearthed the sauce-dotted chicken from the potatoes, and enjoyed. Juicy, flavorful, and tinged with a smoky grilled flavor, but not as life-changing as we'd heard.
The counter guys at Schwartz's told us the best Portuguese chicken in town came from a little joint around the corner called Portugalia, where they butterfly and grill the chicken and paint it with a fiery paste. We loved the char and incendiary spicing on this bird, even if it was a little less juicy than at Romados. You can eat it there at the blue-tiled counter or take it on the run in a foil bag, as we did.
The verdict: If you love fries and milder flavors, go to Romados, but if you go for a bolder bird, as we do, hit Portugalia.
Deep-fried foie gras
Fatty goose or duck liver breaded and deep fried has become a bit of a local trend.
The contenders: Au Pied de Cochon (536 Ave. Duluth East) and Joe Beef (2491 Rue Notre Dame West).
Traditional pairings with foie gras tend to play its richness off a starch or sweet accent, or both. But in foie-gras-crazy Montreal, the chefs instead amp up the decadence with a dip in the fryer.
At the famed Au Pied de Cochon, we sampled the foie gras cromesquis ($3.50) that came out like chubby, warm dice with a stubbly panko crumb exterior and a rich, liquidy mouthful of foie gras inside. It was a perfect start to a meal of stuffed pigs feet, blood sausage, and duck-fat fries.
At the famed Joe Beef in the Little Burgundy area, we miraculously snagged an empty table one night and steeled ourselves for the infamous foie gras double down. Hipsters jammed the place, chowing down on roasted bone marrow and lobster spaghetti. Our main objective, however, was to try the two deep-fried slabs of foie gras, drizzled in maple syrup and sandwiched around cheddar, mayonnaise, bacon, and lettuce. We ordered the appetizer size ($17) and found that all the different elements overpowered the foie gras flavor to the point where the slabs might as well have been tofu.
The verdict: Skip the over-the-top double down for the elegant, understated foie gras cromesquis.