This Won’t Do
There’s a Dunn’s delicatessen on the perimeter of Ottawa’s Byward Market. It’s the best smoked meat sandwich in the capital by default since Nate’s, lovely, glorious Nate’s on Rideau Street pulled its shutters down over its window display of briskets and gallon jars of pickles and peppers forever.
The baseball jersey cursive Dunn’s wordmark is embedded into the brick above the door. What follows reads OPen 24 hrs. The p descender aligns with the bottoms of the balance of the letters giving the appearance of a stray cap. This typographic crime has always annoyed me. Also, my last visit to this restaurant had been infuriating. My waitress was in a tizzy, distracted equally by a visiting male suitor and her iPhone. Am I so difficult? Was it wrong of me to expect at least an iota of service and the correct order? And saints preserve us, if the kitchen resembled the toilets…
While contemplating a late meal at Dunn’s I recalled the oft-sputtered adage of a former colleague, an advertising account executive: ‘Go pound sand. Just fucking ram it.’ And anyway, we were due in Montreal in two days’ time; better smoked meat there and I had big plans for the Main Delicatessen. I elected to go next door to a place called Milano which I since understand to be a modest chain operation and based mostly in eastern Ontario. Something new.
I opted for a very manly 13-inch, pizza oven toasted sub. The layered meats were ham, turkey and salami. The sandwich was topped with grated cheese, crisp romaine lettuce, ripe tomato slices, pickles and a light, mayonnaise dressing. I returned late the next night for a massive wedge of Milano Chicago-style pizza. The quarter-pie slice was liberally sprinkled with hot Italian sausage and a reggae trio of hot pepper rings: red, gold and green. It was to die for, especially once my intestinal cramps kicked in about four hours later.
Globalization and international branding have lead to an insidious First World uniformity. There’s no escaping golden arches and green mermaids. You wonder about the ambitions of regional operations like that of our friends at Milano and Dunn’s. (Dunn’s has already failed in Alberta, the company bizarrely electing to open stores in three star hotels noted only for their proximities to the Calgary and Edmonton international airports despite an unbroken business model and legacy of downtown delis.) The micro level isn’t all that different. If you’re from somewhere else, a place noted for a signature dish, chances are there’s somebody from your old hometown trying to approximate it where you live now. Your taste buds are never too far from where you grew up. Still, everything tastes better at source.
Things got weird in Montreal. Three blind mice struggled along boulevard St-Laurent. Ann, me and my sister Anne made our way uphill into the wind and snow of one of those Montreal storms that turn the sidewalks and gutters into a sea of muck. Our destination was the Main Deli, just beyond Pine Avenue and across the street from the Montreal Hebrew Delicatessen, better known as Schwartz’s. When we got there, there was no there there (apologies to Gertrude Stein). Had it closed? Had it moved? Was this some kind of twisted cosmic joke? We trekked another block north. I peered around in consternation. I wished I was a movie star so I could scream ‘Noooo!’ in slow motion.
My sister said, ‘Well, there’s always Schwartz’s.’ And I thought, Well, technically yes, there is and it’s better than Dunn’s and it’s a Montreal institution, but they cram you in there like future veal cutlets and, quite frankly, I’ve always found their brisket a little dry, even a bit stringy and I used to get a kick out of sitting in the window of the Main Deli and watching the sheep line up to get into Schwartz’s when the better sandwich was just a quick traffic dodge away and anyway, apparently the new ownership group involves Celine Dion’s husband, so, no, it just won’t do. I said, ‘You said you liked a place along here called Coco Rico’s?’ ‘Portuguese rotisserie,’ Anne affirmed. ‘We’re standing in front of it.’ We were indeed, just two doors down from Schwartz’s.
There are no tables in this joint. The room is long and narrow. The right-hand wall features a counter with just enough space for your elbows and a paper plate, high stools are lined up beneath it. There’s a cafeteria barrier on the left side and behind that is an array of stainless steel barbecues pierced with spinning spits. The smell of the roasting potatoes, chicken, pork and ham is deliciously overpowering.
Ann and Anne both ordered pork chop sandwiches served on fresh, white, flour-dusted rolls. I chose a ham sandwich because I worry about the amount of salt in my diet. These are basic delights: meat and bread. There are no other options, no cheese, no garnish, no chain sandwich artist in polyester - just a carver with a sharp, glistening knife. The Coco key is their condiment, a spicy, rich sauce quite unlike anything I’ve ever tasted before in my life. It is red flavour. As Coco Rico’s menu is not extensive, the sides are naturally limited. We shared a massive, crunchy dill pickle and a Styrofoam bowl of what seemed to be scratch macaroni salad. The miniscule unisex toilet was immaculate.