Let’s talk about beef. Pastrami to be specific.
Doesn’t that look delicious? Doesn’t that look ridiculously, mouth-wateringly, delicious? You’d think I was showing you a picture from some great New York deli. Or, I suppose, I’d think that.
But this isn’t that. This?!? This isn’t even American. It’s smoked meat. It’s viande fume. It’s Canadian. It’s from Montreal. And my world is shattered.
And it’s not even a super famous place. It’s from a local chain called Dunn’s that was started in 1927 and, according to the people I talked with, it’s average. “Used to be better,” people told me (they sounded like New Yorkers where everyone says everything “used to be better”). But I’m here to tell you. It was plenty good.
Then we went to Schwartz’s. . .
The moment I sunk my teeth into that smoked meat at Schwartz’s, I had to reevaluate my entire world view. Half the reason I live in New York City is for the pastrami. But when I tasted that viande fume, I realized I was living a lie. I thought you couldn’t get pastrami like New York’s anywhere else in the world. But it turns out, Schwartz’s smoked meat is, dare I say, TASTIER than any I’ve had in New York.
The cut at Schwartz’s is almost identical to the cut at Katz Deli. It’s a thick, rough hand-cut. And they’re both piled high. Although Katz’s pastrami IS juicier than Schwartz’s, Schwartz’s spice rub just has more flavor. There’s more to it. I have to admit it: it tastes better.
Even the pickle and slaw are as good as crack.
And not only that, but there seems to be MORE places in Montreal for good smoked meat than there are places in New York City for good pastrami. I couldn’t believe it.
Right across the street, the Main:
It’s open later than Schwartz’s and, although it’s not as good, it is legit. You can see them smoking the meat right there in the restaurant and then displaying it proudly in the window.
Again, I was a happy customer.
And we treked out to what felt like an outer borough of Montreal for Snowdon Deli. The smoked meat there was a little different. And much juicier. They serve “regular” and “old fashioned” and basically it’s just the difference between corned beef and pastrami in New York. Here they are side by side:
It is so juicy it tastes as if the meat had been dipped in au jus or something before hitting the rye bread. It makes for a super delicious riff on what I’d come to expect as a classic Montreal smoked meat sandwich. And at Snowdon, the kreplach soup on the side might even have outshown the sandwich. It tasted . . . cozy. It made me feel like I was curled up inside . . . a womb.
If I were an old Jewish man (which I pretty much am in my mind and pretty much will be in actuality very soon), and I had to pick a city – New York or Montreal – to live out my twighlight years enjoying Jewish comfort food, I might just have to pick Montreal. Hey, I’m as surprised as you are. But I was clearly wowed by the delis there.
One thing I AM secure about though, is that I’ll take a New York bagel over a Montreal bagel any day of the week. That IS a debate that people are having, and I was very excited to taste a Montreal bagel for myself. So we walked through the snow to St Viateur:
But one bite and I knew I was living in the right place for bagels. I respect Montreal bagels. I appreciate that they’re hand-made and all. But they’re sweet, almost like a cake. And they’re dinky (which the people in Montreal I spoke with thought was a good thing, and I can see how you wouldn’t want a big ass bready thing for breakfast) but I prefer my big New York bagels.
I’m not saying they weren’t good. They are. But they are no Ess A Bagel.
I had to try Fairmount too in the interest of fairness. But again, I was not impressed (with anything other than the old school sign).
And neither was Melissa:
Hopefully, I missed out on some great Montreal bagel that’s less famous but more scrumptious than these places. I’ll make sure to try again next time I’m in that great city. I’ll have plenty of time when I retire there.
Eat Your Way Through NYC On A Famous Fat Dave Five Borough Eating Tour
Soul food in the South South Boogie Down Bronx with Tony Bourdain and Sweetness? I’m in. Watch the “Outer Boroughs” episode Monday night, September 7, Labor Day, at 10pm on the Travel Channel.
And if you can’t catch it on tv, check out a “Missing Scene” of Tony and me heading up to Yankee land and Feeding Tree for jerk shrimp and homemade ginger beer right here on this series of tubes called the internet:
Also, click here to read Gettin’ Down In The Boogie Down about Sam’s, the soul food restaurant Bourdain and I will be eating at on Travel Channel Monday night.
www.FamousFatDave.com to book your own eating tour
We drank that whole boot of beer by the end of the shoot. So I really have no recollection of what transpired at Hiedleberg’s Restaurant in Yorkville. I know Tony convinced me to eat head cheese for the first time in my life and I loved it. And I know I ate a lot of pork off his plate because it was super delicious.
We also did a segment at Eisenberg’s Deli down near Madison Square (the fact that my last name is Freedenberg and the producers decided we’d eat at Eisenberg’s and Hiedleberg has got to be a total coincidence right?). We drank Lime Rickys and Egg Creams and spoke of New York past even though I’ve only been here for 12 years and I’m still discovering New York present. I can’t say for sure that part didn’t get cut. I do know that, unlike the episode I did with him two years ago, he’ll get my name right.
We also did a shoot in the Checker for the “Outer Boroughs” episode that should air this summer so look out for that. We did a mini Bronx tour and had some soul food, jerk shrimp, and rabe.
Check out www.FamousFatDave.com for eating tours at reasonable prices
Famous Fat Dave Video: Nathan’s Famous 4th of July Hot Dog Eating Competition Vs Eric Badlands Booker
Let me give you some advice. If you ever do a Nathan’s Famous hot dog eating competition, don’t do it for the FIRST time AT the original Nathan’s in Coney Island, WITHOUT ever training, AGAINST a legendary professional, ON CAMERA. If you do, you could end up looking foolish.
That’s basically what I did for the grand finale of the History Channel Dot Com Holiday Foods series. I went to the storied Stillwell and Surf location to take on the storied Eric BAAAAAAAADLAAAAAAANDS Booker in a mini three minute version of the 4th of July Nathan’s Famous hot dog eating competition.
Badlands has been a personal hero of mine for a number of years already, if only for the open mouthed poses he has mastered for the camera. But when I was told I’d be going up against him in battle, I did a little research. I knew he held some records, but I didn’t realize he held records for some of my favorite foods: cannoli . . . corned beef hash . . . candy bars . . . matzo balls . . . donuts . . . burritos . . . hamentashen! And it’s HIM up there in the middle of the big board staring at Tekeru The Tsunami Kobayashi, hot dogs at the ready.
I was intimidated to say the least. Badlands is a competitive eating Goliath, and I’m no David. I did spend a summer selling Nathan’s hot dogs at the Single A Cyclones ball park right next door to the original Nathan’s. And any hot dog I couldn’t sell, they’d let me take home for free to my endless bbq in the 2004 Summer of Awesome (as it came to be known). I’d eaten more than my fair share. Still, I thought I’d better train a little so as not to make a fool of myself.
As luck would have it, my best friend Greg bought me a sweet ticket to see my lowly Nats take on the mighty Phillies down at the ball park in Philadelphia the night before the contest. AND IT WAS DOLLAR DOG NIGHT!!!
It would have been the perfect opportunity to get some practice in. Never mind Badlands, I could see what I was up against internally. But the dogs in Philly have less snap than Nathan’s dogs. Nathan’s dogs, the ones at the flagship location at least (I don’t know why Nathan’s Famous would sully its good name by selling snapless franks in supermarkets and franchised locations the world over), are encased in real intestine so they taste way better but they’re harder to eat. It’s an entirely different experience biting through one of those.
I still should have tried eating one in Philly as fast as I could to see how I fared. Instead, I convinced myself that I’d die of nitrate poisoning if I ate a bunch of hot dogs the night before a hot dog eating competition, and so settled for a photo op with Greg, and only really ate two . . . slowly. Rookie mistake.
When the day came I was NOT prepared. After leaving Philly at 11pm, I had to stay up until about 430 writing a paper for school. I was on NO sleep. Aaaaaand I had a shoot early in the morning during which I had to eat a bunch of tacos (delicious tacos at Alma, but not the proper way to start my day).
By the time I got to Coney, I was so nervous. And worse, I felt like a pretender to the throne. People train for years, fight through dozens of qualifiers, suffer through endless heartbreak before they get to compete at Nathan’s against the likes of Badlands Booker. And here I was, a rank amateur, getting a shot at the champ just because I had cameras with me. Shame washed over me when I saw the big man approach.
But anyone who knows Badlands Booker knows he is a great guy. Truly a gentle giant. He greeted me with a “What’s good Famous?” and immediately put me at ease. Even the sight of dozens of hot dogs didn’t really effect me because I was having such a blast with Badlands mugging for the camera and such.
However, when I met the EMT on hand, I got nervous again. It’s funny that even though I should have felt better that there was a trained medic who would be just feet away while we competed, it made me more ill at ease. I guess I was thinking about how dumb I’d feel if I choked on a hot dog.
Badlands told me it’d be a good showing if I ate five in the three minutes we had. I decided I could down 7, at which point Badlands said, “Oh it’s like that, then we’re ON.” That’s how inexperienced I was. I didn’t even know I was challenging the pro when I was challenging him.
I stupidly decided NOT to dunk my hot dogs in water on the logic that dunking is gross and I could eat more if I was actually enjoying them. The competition began, with three cameras set up, a four person film crew, Ryan Nerz – author of the hilarious “Eat This Book” – announcing, the EMT standing by, and about 20 onlookers gathered round. And on my very first bite I immediately realized, “There is NO way I’m gonna eat 7 hot dogs.”
The bread expanded rapidly into every corner of my mouth. The bite I took must have been far to big. I couldn’t swallow if my life depended on it. But I only had three minutes to compete and Badlands was chomping through two dogs and buns (dunked) at a time. So, prematurely, I dunked my dog and took another big bite. Now it felt my whole head was filled with wet bun and chewed up hot dog. There was nowhere for it go. It just went in circles around my mouth. It was not pleasant. And I was making a fool of myself.
After a full minute I hadn’t even finished one. By the time I recovered from the original bite, half the competition was over. I managed to nearly choke on a couple of occasions too because I’d be chewing all that wet bun up front and a stray piece of hot dog would try to escape down my throat. I felt like I could end up like the little girl Moonlight Graham had to save in Field Of Dreams. That’s not how I wanted it to go down.
When three minutes were up I’d eaten less than 3 hot dogs (and I’d chipmunked the last 3/4 of a dog, Major League Eating lingo meaning I had just shoved it into my cheeks) while Badlands swallowed ELEVEN. That’s a really good pace for him considering the real competition is four times longer and his personal best is 30 and a half.
When I finally downed my chipmunked hot dog, I said, “I’m not even full,” and Badland responded with “You wanna go again?!? Let’s GO.” With that, we were off for, as Ryan Nerz put it, “An unprecedented one minute overtime.” None of that part made the cut for HistoryChannel.com so I’ll tell you, I managed just one more hot dog while Badlands downed another FIVE. What a pro.
Badlands had been semiretired from the competitive eating circuit when I met him. He’d lost 120 pounds (then gained another 40) he told me. He’d gone from an XXXXXXL Nathan’s tee shirt to an XXXXL. Everyone wanted to know if he was going to get back into the game. Last week, I heard he won a qualifier in Camden New Jersey and he will be ON STAGE tomorrow at the 4th of July Nathan’s Famous International Hot Dog Eating Competition. I’d like to think I had a little something to do with it.
Missed the video link at the top? Here it is again: Famous Fat Dave Vs. Badlands Booker At Nathan’s
(Post-competition it’s a classic Badlands pose)
(Badlands Booker you’re my hero)
(Badlands, Melissa, me, and a lemonade)
(Badlands, Ryan Nerz, Me, and the Crew. Thanks History.com)
Visit www.FamousFatDave.com for five borough eating tours where the original Nathan’s Famous is a classic stop