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A unique deli in the world: Montreal's Main Deli Steakhouse

Updated on November 22, 2016
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It's easy to understand why Montreal has world-class cuisine. It's a very old city, as Jacques Cartier was the first European to set foot on the island surrounded by the extremely important waterway of the St. Laurence River in 1535. First Peoples, then the French, Scots and other ethnic groups settled the area, including Jews from all over the globe beginning in the 18th century. That mix makes for a complex stew!

Today, Montreal combines a fierce love of localvore produce and meats, along with heritage recipes done in sophisticated and flavorful ways. But their cuisine isn't pretentious. Young hipsters, working stiffs, bikers, artists, students and the rest are out and about, savoring the flavors of the city.

"The Main" is St. Laurence Boulevard and was the original place where Jews settled in Montreal. Its history meets today in the gourmet shops and delis. While deliciousness is all around, there's something extra special about Main Deli Steak House.

They specialize in a very Montreal dish: smoked meat. It's in the same vein as corned beef, but oh so different! Main Deli Steak House carefully and slowly hot smokes brisket and cuts a thicker slice than you usually find in corned beef. Think, the thickness of thick-cut bacon. Like a corned beef sandwich, though, it's also served on thin slices of rye bread with yellow mustard. It's a little less salty than corned beef, smokier (natch) and with bit more chew. This delicacy was perfected by Peter Varvaro -- who isn't Jewish, but grew up on smoked meats in the neighborhood -- in 1974. Varvaro looks exactly like my late father. I showed some of the staff a photo of him dressed as a chef and they were shocked! Main Deli is still owned by family.

They've got a decadent fusion item on the menu: French-Canadian fave poutine with smoked meat! That's fries, gravy and smoky goodness.

They have other home-style dishes, too. I hadn't had kreplach soup since my Bubbie Sonia made it . . . and she died in 1983. I'm told -- and I believe it, now that I cook -- that it's just too labor intensive for restaurants to make. They have wonderful kreplach at Main Deli, though their chicken broth is a little thinner than I remember my grandmother's being.

Speaking of soup, they have a head cook there who kinda has a "no soup for you" vibe going, but he warms up (if that's not too terrible a pun for a cook) to a wide smile and banter.

Varvaro opened Main Deli -- talk about chutzpah! -- across the street from much more famous Schwartz's. Schwartz's has lines around the block, but really, Main Deli makes a better sandwich. Main Deli's fans include the late Leonard Cohen, Celine Dion and Al Pacino. They're open every day until 5 am, so that's perfect for after a night out on the town!


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