Never Heard Of It is a series of stories exploring Vancouver’s many informal hole-in-the-wall eateries. These are the places that don’t get much in the way of traditional media play as they tend to avoid the typical paths of PR, seldom fiddling over tweets, posting imagery to Instagram, or playing the Facebook game.
When you ask someone to name some of their favourite Canadian foods, Montreal smoked meat is usually in the top five. Eiran Harris (Archivist Emeritus of the Jewish Public Library in Montreal and foremost expert in the history of Jewish smoked meat), pinpointed its genesis to a man by the name of Aaron Sanft who immigrated from Romania in 1884. Sanft’s first product was likely an attempt at making “pastirma” a kind of cured meat with a lineage that can be traced all the way back to 95 BC Armenia. In Sanft’s time, pastirma – or pastrami as it has become known – was imported primarily from New York. Pastrami epitomized Jewish deli meat in Montreal until the early 1930’s, when Sanft’s creation became its own distinct, locally legitimate style.
New Jerseyite Michael Estrella immigrated to Langley 23 years ago to become a minister at a local church. Soon after reporting for duty, however, this arrangement quickly fell apart. After a few years in various jobs, he and his wife found an old radiator shop for sale on a corner of a repair-shop strip in an industrial area that they gutted and converted into a restaurant. He told me that he came from a restaurant-owning family and that it was a lifelong dream to open up his own place. He grew up on New York-style Jewish deli food and thought that a real Montreal-style deli seemed like the thing to do in his adopted country. In September of 2011, Estrella’s was born.
The housemade smoked meat is the star attraction. To learn how to make it, Estrella briefly apprenticed at Dunn’s in Montreal. In the restaurant’s early years, they were his sole supplier, but he soon created his own recipe and had it made at the same Montreal plant that made the meat for Dunn’s. He wasn’t truly satisfied with the quality of this imported product and about five years ago he re-developed the recipe and process and brought the manufacturing closer to home. He now uses grass-fed, hormone-free, Fraser Valley beef that is cured and smoked locally.
Making Estrella’s smoked meat is a multi-stage process. Brisket is brined for three days, then cured with a dry spice rub for a couple more. It is then air dried in the fridge for a day, and finally smoked over hickory for a few hours. Estrella starts his day by steaming the brisket for about 3 hours so that by lunchtime it is ready for cutting and serving. Traditionally, Montreal smoked meat is cut by hand and if you have ever eaten at a Montreal deli, you’ll note that these cutters are considered craftsmen. Estrella has opted to cut his brisket mechanically, using a hot roast beef slicer. He tells me that meat cutting is a dying art and it is difficult to find anyone locally who is interested in learning the craft.
The sandwiches come in sizes that range from “Petit” ($7.49) all the way to the jaw-inspiring “Oh Canada” ($18.99). The meat is stacked on locally baked Jewish light rye bread. You can order your meat lean or fatty – or a mixture of both. You can make it a Reuben by adding cheese and kraut for $1.50 each. Pair it with a Cherry Coke, Montreal-made kosher pickles and one of their very good poutines (made with Fraser Valley cheese curds) for complete the authenticity picture.
Estrella’s Montreal Deli | 604-539-9988 | 5932 200 Street | Langley, BC | www.estrellasdeli.com