Now that’s a sandwich.
At Dunn’s Famous Restaurant & Delicatessen, I counted well over a dozen tidy layers of Montreal smoked meat bulging from between light sourdough-rye slices. Six ounces of rosy meat make the bread a mere accessory, something to give your fingers enough traction to lift the whole mustard-smeared package. Take a bite, and it’s all about the brisket—rough-textured, remarkably light for such a mass of protein, meltingly tender, and oh-so-flavourful.
I’m happy to report that the “famous” Montreal smoked meat at Vancouver’s first Dunn’s Famous Restaurant & Delicatessen lives up to the hype. But the restaurant itself… Well, the meat is its best feature. Alas, there’s no charming deli atmosphere. The nondescript black-and-red décor, quilted booths, and flat-screen TVs scream chain restaurant–slash-sports bar. It’s something you’d expect to see in Anywhere, Alberta, not downtown Vancouver. The laminated menu also feels out of place, with a something-for-everyone approach: over 40 items including burgers, hot dogs, chicken wings, Salisbury steak, pan-fried salmon, and all-day breakfast. “It’s like a Denny’s,” the woman at the table next to me surmised to her partner, flipping through the menu. On the surface, yes.
But if you order right, Dunn’s is no Denny’s. With a handful of restaurants in Quebec, Dunn’s is based in Montreal and was founded in 1927 by Myer Dunn. Its claim to fame is its Montreal smoked-meat sandwiches, a variety of poutines, and cheesecake. While I’m no Montreal smoked-meat connoisseur, I’ve enjoyed my share of pastrami and corned-beef sandwiches at New York’s Jewish delis. So I asked Francis Lo, one of Dunn’s Vancouver’s two general managers, what makes Montreal’s meat unique.
“It’s similar to pastrami except that it’s a little heavier on spices, there’s a little less sugar, and it’s cooked longer than pastrami,” he says in a phone interview. The Vancouver restaurant orders 10-to-12-pound beef briskets from Dunn’s in Quebec, where the meat is brined and smoked for 17 hours. It’s then steamed locally for three hours before being cut on demand.
Lo says that his mother and her husband, as well as Vancouverites Cindy and David Heaven, enjoyed eating at Dunn’s in Montreal and wanted to bring the real thing home. (Lo’s step-brother, Stuart Heaven, is the second GM.) They opened the franchise in mid-November and flew out staff from Montreal to teach the West Coasters the finer points of meat cutting.
The six-ounce smoked meat sandwich at Dunn's Famous in Vancouver. Carolyn Ali photo.
What’s so significant about hand-cutting? Lo says it allows you to cook the meat longer than if you were planning to cut it with a machine, resulting in a more tender product. “If you try to slice it with a machine, the way we cook it, it will just crumble,” he explains. According to Lo, any “self-respecting smoked-meat place in Montreal” hand slices, and as far as he knows, similar smoked-meat eateries in Vancouver machine-slice their product.
Lo says that Dunn’s is known for its skilled meat cutters. “That’s the crux of what we do—the smoked meat has to be sliced perfectly and cooked perfectly.” Customers can request exactly how fatty they want their brisket. “A good slicer can cut a lean sandwich lean, a medium sandwich medium, and a fat sandwich fat,” he explains. “It’s a fine art, because there’s only so much of each part of the brisket, so you have to balance it out.”
I visited several times and tried several of the specialty sandwiches. All were outstanding. The regular six-ounce sandwich is a fair size, but don’t expect a monster like New York deli sandwiches. (At $10.99 with fries, coleslaw, and a kosher pickle from Quebec, it doesn’t carry a monster price, either.) Hungrier people will be happier with the eight-ounce Super Giant sandwich ($12.99), which is plenty hefty but still doesn’t approach New York proportions. The Reuben ($13.99) is bigger still as it’s stacked with sauerkraut and melted Swiss on dark rye.
I wasn’t impressed with the Québécoise poutine because it didn’t emit the requisite squeaks. It’s covered with a curious barbecue-flavoured gravy, which Lo says is the belle province standard, and Dunn’s makes it from its own beef stock. I also tried some of the more traditional Jewish-deli menu items. (The restaurant isn’t kosher.) The matzo-ball soup ($5.99) delivered light and fluffy matzo balls and a nice dill-flecked chicken stock but was far too salty. The latkes ($6.99), with their fine, pancake-y texture, weren’t worth writing Montreal about. While the “famous” citrus-tinged strawberry cheesecake ($7.99) was indeed delicious and fantastically creamy, I scraped off the cotton candy–sweet strawberry topping.
I’d stick to the smoked meat. If you’re not feeling like a sandwich, the meat also comes chopped and added to everything from nachos to mac and cheese, meat-sauced spaghetti to eggs Benedict. While Vancouver doesn’t need another sports bar, good smoked meat is always welcome.
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