My grandfather used to call hot dogs "pimp steaks."
He was a cab driver and, for the good part of three decades, spent untold hours driving up St. Laurent boulevard, at a time when it was known as the "hardened artery" of Montreal.
As far back as the 1920s, the Southern portion of St. Laurent was the city's de facto Red-Light District. Lined with pimps, prostitutes, brothels, strip clubs, and apparently cab drivers, it was a neighbourhood that employed every kind of night shift worker imaginable.
For those who couldn't afford a real steak further north at Moishes, their go-to was the "pimp steak" that could be found at any number of hot dog joints along The Main—like the Montreal Pool Room, which was, and still is, the archetype.
This part of St. Laurent has lost a lot of edge since becoming ground zero for the world's biggest comedy festival, but the Montreal Pool Room remains a fixture for anyone seeking a truly authentic steamie. It's the natural place to begin a steamie binge and to explore the history of the Montreal hot dog.
There, I meet up with Cléa Desjardins, my companion for the day, who, along with friends Andy Murdoch and Josh Davidson, created Steamy Week last year as an ode the poutine's often overshadowed companion. "We started steamie week to shine a light on a quintessentially Montreal food. Poutine has its place, and rightly so, but the steamie deserves a little bit of love," Desjardins says.
The Pool Room serves the classic "all-dressed" Montreal hot dog—a steamed bun and beef sausage topped with mustard, cabbage, onions, and, for the non-purists, relish. Originally opened in 1912 as a billiard hall, somewhere along the way they began serving hot dogs, and the pool tables were fashioned into hot dog tables. After the original Pool Room location was expropriated by the city in 2010, it relocated further up the street, right across the street from trans-friendly strip club Café Cléopâtre, appropriately enough.
Between 1947 and 2011, a municipal bylaw made it illegal to own or operate food carts and trucks in famously bureaucratic Montreal, so unlike New York or Toronto—or pretty much anywhere in North America, for that matter—hot dogs are not street meat. Instead, purveyors of meat tubes were forced indoors, where they could streamline production, add patates frites (French fries) to their repertoire, and perfect the steamie.
The name itself is the embodiment of the bilingual gymnastics characteristic of Montreal, something which isn't lost on an Oxford lit grad like Desjardins. "'Steam' is an English word. Steamé is the French version of 'steamed,' and 'steamie' is an anglicized version of the French word 'steamé' which comes from an English word. It's a totally franglais expression."
Next stop: Chez Paul in Pointe-Saint-Charles, a working-class area across town. It may be geographically far from the Pool Room, but there is a direct line between the two. "My uncle bought this place in 1955 and put pool tables in here, just like the Pool Room," owner Michel Lapierre says.
Much like the Montreal Pool Room, those pool tables don't get much action anymore. It's all about the dogs at Chez Paul, and there is only one kind. "I don't make toastés—just steamies, fries, and poutines," Lapierre adds, referring to the grilled equivalent, where the bun and wiener are fried (or "toasted") on a griddle.
"One of the charming qualities of the steamie is that there isn't really a huge difference in quality," says Desjardins. "If you blindfolded me and gave me five steamies, I don't think I would be able to say where they come from. Other than the cabbage or choux, there is very little variation. It's totally industrial meat." Yet the deceivingly simple mix of choux, onions, and mustard can be the subject of intense rivalries.
On our way out, we tell Lapierre that we are headed a few blocks away to our final destination: Paul Patates, the other Pointe-Saint-Charles hot dog joint named after a Paul. "We've been here since 1955, they've only been there for about 30 years. We're the original," he responds.
Sensing tension at the mere mention of Paul Patates, Desjardins and I head over to our last stop anxious to find out if the animosity is mutual.
Upon our arrival, manager Loretta Abraham promptly refutes Lapierre's chronology by pointing at the "Since 1958" sign on the door. "A guy named Paul opened this place in 1958 but it only lasted a few months," Abraham says. "The current owners, the Roy family, had Roy's Snack Bar two streets over. They closed it and decided to buy this place and just keep the name Paul Patates."
In fact, last year, tension between Chez Paul and Paul Patates came to a head during what local media called la guerre des steamés, or the war of the steamies. "We were pretty upset with the Journal de Montréal," Abraham recounts. "They were doing a special on steamies and we noticed that our hot dog got a really bad review but the hot dog in the picture wasn't even ours. My boss called them and it turns out there was a big mix-up, and they were wrong. To correct their mistake, the Journal de Montréal got a bunch of people to compare Chez Paul and Paul Patates and rate them. We won."
Journal de Montréal participants aside, Céline Dion apparently became hooked on Paul Patates when she was recording an album in the area during the 80s—so that settles that, Canada. "Céline used to record at a studio nearby and would come sometimes. We get a lot of francophone stars here." But Paul Patates caters far more to regulars than to stars. "There are a lot of regulars here. We're really well-known for our steamies and our spruce beer."
Any access to their on-site spruce production is strictly prohibited, because of "secret ingredients," I am told. What we do know is that water, sugar, yeast, and spruce oil are the main ingredients, and that the spruce beer is fermented in the bottle, which makes it kind of dangerous.
"People call from all over Canada to get our spruce beer," according to Abraham. "But because there is so much pressure in the bottle, we can't really ship it, and it only has a shelf life of one month. Even if I sell a bottle to someone who is leaving the restaurant, I have to crack it open first to get rid of the pressure. A lot of people grew up with this drink and it goes really well with salty, greasy food."
The spruce beer definitely had some kimchi-and-pine-needles taste to it, sort of like a Christmas tree. Not the nostalgic, Bing Crosby kind, but like the white Christmas tree from Goodfellas—old-school and funky. It paired quite nicely with the half-dozen or so hot dogs that I ate as I hit Montreal's steamie trifecta in the space of one afternoon.
My grandfather would be proud.