990 De Maisonneuve Blvd. W.
Sun-Wed 7:30 a.m. - 2 a.m. Thurs. 7:30 a.m. - 3 a.m., Fri-Sat 7:30 a.m. - 4 a.m. Major cards. Licensed. 844-1000
"It was back in 1908 when Ben Kravitz and his wife Fanny produced the first smoked meat sandwich . . ."
So runs the copy on the cover of the menu at Ben's Montreal Deli (we'll forget the deleted apostrophe, shall we? No tongue troopers here.)
The folks at Schwartz's might debate the Ben's-centric view of the origin of the smoked-meat sandwich, but Elvis's father was in diapers when the original Ben's opened in the garment district of Montreal back near the turn of the century.
While the Ben's of today doesn't timewarp you back that far, you're at least in for an instant trip to the fifties, if not the forties. I'd warrant nothing has changed for at least three decadesnot the aging lemon-yellow formica on the support columns of the vast, hospital cafeteria-style room, not the 50s chrome siding behind the counter and definitely not the cracking padded seats of the spindly metal chairs. Obviously, the dinerteria look is a large part of the charm. Ben's is often mentioned in the same breath as Schwartz's and Snowdon Deli as the place to get authentic Montreal smoked meat.
If you're not a big fan of smoked meat, though, there's not a whole lot to recommend the place. There are no frills here. Order a "bacon-cheeseburger" and you'll get just that: a smallish hamburger roll, some fried ground beef, a slice of Kraft cheese and two strips of bacon. No lettuce, pickles, onions, nor the offer of any. All for $4.95.
The smoked meat sandwich deal is also a dilemma. The basic sandwich ($4.50) is just two slices of rye with a mound of warm smoked meat between 'emcondiments being your choice of yellow mustard, ketchup or vinegar. This is enough smoked meat to last me a week, but the next step up, the platter, ($6.95) with sides of fries, pickles and coleslaw, is only available with twice the amount of smoked meat. You can't order the smaller sandwich and get the sides unless you order them à la carte.
The menu is quite large, with spaghetti dishes (can't call it pasta here) served with chopped smoked meat (!), potato latkes and even smoked-meat fried rice and smoked meat egg rolls. My companion tried the cabbage rolls, which were stuffed with corned beef and rice and swimming in a generic tomato sauce. Like someone warned me before going: bring Bromo.
The smoked meat on my sandwich was warm and spicy, the fries were greasy, the coleslaw and the pickles were limp, but this is not Caprice de Ben's, this is diner food, preferably eaten while half-incapacitated after a long night clubbing, something I haven't done for, oh, about twenty years.
Sounds about right. Reviewed by Nick Robinson