In 2013, a Jewish deli named Tock’s opened up in Shanghai. The city has a remarkable Jewish history of its own, but this place has nothing to do with that. Tock’s is a Montreal-style deli founded by Montrealer Richard Tock. He teamed up with his nephew Brian and partner Mira, who oversaw operations in Shanghai. They smoked their brisket in house and supposedly sourced proper cheese curds. In addition to welcoming homesick North Americans, the smoked meat sandwiches were a surprise hit with the Chinese. The restaurant won many local foodie awards, and our smiling Prime Minister even went there last year to do his feel-good poster boy selfie-and-smile routine.
But then all hell broke loose.
CLOSED IN DECEMBER 2016
There’s a second-wave Jewish deli thing going on in Montreal these days.
The original wave dates from the first half of the twentieth century. With the mass migration of Jews from Central and Eastern Europe, Yiddish became Montreal’s third language This period gave us two iconic Montreal dishes. First, the local take on the bagel: sweeter, chewier, eggier, and tastier than the New York version available in most of North America. The second dish is smoked meat brisket, a local take on pastrami, but less sweet, with more pepper, also better. Some institutions survive from that period, namely Fairmount Bagel; Schwartz’s Hebrew Delicatessen; Wilensky’s; and a slew of others. Some have disappeared, like the iconic Bens, which, even if I miss it more than any other restaurant in this city, had lots more going in terms of atmosphere than quality of food. Many Jews left the city in the second half of the twentieth century, and Toronto became Canada’s Jewish capital.
The deli seemed on the way out, but has since experienced a nostalgic revival of sorts with the rise of hipster-foodie culture. The opening of New York’s Mile End deli in 2010 put Montreal Jewish cuisine in the international spotlight. Since then, a new generation of Montreal Jews has been redefining the old classics at great places like Hof Kelsten bakery, Fletchers’ Café, and the annoyingly popular Arthurs Nosh Bar with its New-York-City-style line-ups (to which I say “Fuck this, I’m going elsewhere”).
Patate Mallette is legendary for many reasons. They’re known for the best poutine on Montreal’s south shore. They also serve poutine to go in a hot-dog bun. And, if you eat in house, the poutine sauce is served separately in a teapot, allowing you to add it gradually so the fries don’t turn to mush. Genius!
I have yet to visit their legendary riverside location in Beauharnois, but caught up with their food truck at a town fair in rural Quebec.
This seasonal “shack à patates” an hour east of Montreal lies off the highway to Quebec City in backwoods Saint-Liboire. I’ve taken the Saint-Liboire exit many times over the years, since that’s where you can find the cheapest gasoline between Montreal and Quebec. But it’s worth driving beyond the gas station to the town itself. After some 5km through cornfields, you will arrive at an undiscovered gem: Cantine Dave & Dan.
Located just 40 minutes south of Montreal, Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu is Quebec’s seventh largest city, with just under 100,000 people. It’s slightly more interesting and slightly more underrated than other cities in its league, but don’t get too excited. There’s a striking cathedral, some nice brick architecture in the city centre, a few interesting shops, and some good cycling trails along the Chambly Canal and Richelieu River. The city is surrounded by farmland and a massive dystopian-looking military complex.
People here seem fond of bad puns. A pool-hall/steak-house is named “Sharkcoal.” A bar advertised itself as being “au BAR de l’eau.” Some artisanal veal purveyor was proud to say “ça VEAU la peine.” But the most inexplicable of all bad puns in town was local fast food legend Chez TI-PITate frite (which combines the hillbilly nickname “Ti-Pit” with the popular Quebecois word for potato: “Patate”).
Cinko is one of a slew of $5 restaurants popping up around town. They serve cheap food that is a notch above your usual fast-food fare, and make up for their slim profit margin with comparatively pricey cocktails. Cinko has an original menu, nice colorful interior design, and the place mats have been replaced by old vinyl records (in my case Genesis’ And Then There Were Three, an early glimpse at some of the horrors that Phil Collins would inflict on us during the 1980s–it was a pleasure to render it unlistenable by scratching away at it with my utensils). The actual background music was even less inspiring than my 70s prog rock placemat, consisting of the same dated 4/4 MC Mario beat that did not change for the entire duration of our meal. Thankfully, the volume was kept low.
There are two poutines on Cinko’s menu: one made with sweet potato fries that has become less interesting now that it is no longer served with the braised beef gravy it used to be served with, and the bizarre tempura green bean one that I review below.
Ancienne-Lorette, on the fringes of Quebec City (and briefly part of it from 2002 to 2006), has a history dating back to the 1600s, but it is mostly known as the uninspiring suburb by the airport. When I asked a friend who lived there to tell me the most interesting thing about the place given its nearly 400 years of history, he didn’t mention its massive church.