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Walnut Creek Magazine

Craving a legit smoked pastrami sandwich?

Apr 16, 2018 06:12AM

We Jews love our deli, but when it comes to smoke meat, a delicacy of Jews from Montreal, it’s a different story. “It’s as if pastrami and corned beef got together, had a couple glasses of wine, turned on some Barry White, and made a baby.” So says Lex Gopnik-Lewinski, a Montréal native so in love with it that he used to smuggle it back to Berkeley from family visits in Montréal. Until it was confiscated by TSA. 

 Last month, the Bay Area got its first taste of Gopnik-Lewinski’s notorious meat when Augie’s Montréal Deli opened in Berkeley. Smoke meat is a Montreal specialty, originally brought there by Romanian Jews. According to Wikipedia, “it has taken such strong root in the city that both Montrealers and non-Montrealers alike identify it as emblematic of the city’s cuisine.” Although made from brisket, it’s not quite pastrami and it’s not quite corned beef, it’s the best of both.

While the flavor of it is very close to pastrami, the crumbly texture of the beef is what makes it so special. And even the turkey, when given a smokey treatment, is extraordinary. The pickles have a wonderful garlic bite, and the slaw hits the right acidic zip. As for the latkes, the rye adds a slightly sour note. Besides the smoke meat sandwiches, real Canadian poutine is on the menu (both meat and vegetarian) named after the owner’s children. The poutine (French fries) come topped with smoke meat crumbles and cheese crumbles. Diet food, this isn’t.

You can also get smoke meat on a salad rather than in a sandwich, this being California and all. There are trademark latkes, with rye crumbs used to hold the potatoes together, rather than the traditional flour or matzo meal. “I’ve never been a big matzo meal fan, and I kept noticing how the ends of these loaves of bread couldn’t be used for sandwiches. I’m a good Berkeley kid and I didn’t want to be wasting stuff and wondered if they could be breadcrumbs,” says Gopnik-Lewinski.

For Gopnik-Lewinski, who moved to Berkeley when he was 11, smoke meat was part of his family tradition. After he had that parcel of meat deemed contraband, Gopnik-Lewinski began tinkering in his own Bay Area kitchen, eventually ending up with a product he liked so much, he started doing pop-ups. In his Beauty’s Bagels Oakland pop-up home, plans started taking shape for opening a restaurant.

 Now that Augie’s is officially open, it’s important to know a few rules. Do not try to “Reuben-ize” or “California-ize” your sandwich. It comes the way it comes: meat on rye bread. “We have no avocado, no bacon, no lettuce, and no tomato,” Gopnik-Lewinski says. “The one concession I’ll make is to give customers their choice of mustard; in Montréal it’s traditionally yellow mustard only, but here we’ll offer deli mustard, too, but I’m not telling the Montréalers that.”

DETAILS: Augie’s is fast-casual, with counter service and long, communal tables. 875 Potter St. in Berkeley. Sandwiches range from $14.25 to $19.25, with a classic poutine $8.00.