John Lattuca, the owner and pitmaster at Old Montreal's Lattuca Barbecue, knows his brisket. "If you're gonna try barbecue in Montreal that's not mine, try John's," Dylan Kier, of Verdun's Blackstrap BBQ, recently told Eater. "His brisket is the real deal." Lattuca has the hardware to show for it too; he was named Jack Daniel's World Brisket Champion back in 2012. To help commemorate Eater Barbecue Week, Lattuca sat down to dish on his experience helming his own Montreal restaurant thus far, and the inherent challenges that come with trying to sell Texas brisket to a city weaned on a different kind of smoked meat altogether.
How has business been since opening last fall?
We had to make some changes quite early on, like switching from daytime to nighttime hours, but it is going well. It's reservations only now, but we do take some walk-ins. I must say it works really well. It lets me know how much to cook. I don’t want to compromise the product and serve yesterday’s barbecue. We only have 45 seats; with the terrasse opening it'll add 25 more. Now that we're back to summer we're also adding lunch, which means we’ll be doing two cooks a day.
"Montrealers are a little different."
What are some of the challenges of owning a barbecue restaurant in Montreal?
Montrealers are a little different. You have to take your foot off the pedal with regards to smoke. In Texas, you go out for beers with other restaurant owners and all you talk about is how to get more smoke [into the meat]. Here they don’t like it.
Why do you think that is?
We’re not used to it. We don’t have barbecue culture here. We think we do but it’s different, it’s a grilling culture. Barbecue is just starting. I do my barbecue Texas style. I cook with real logs and am constantly manning the fire every 15 minutes. It’s a labour of love.
I know you’re all about your award-winning brisket here at Lattuca; how has it been received so far?
I have a big selling job when it comes to serving brisket. There’s no craving, there’s no demand. If I had that sign in Kansas City or Texas I would have people lining up. People here don’t know what it is, but when I get the chance to put it in their mouths they love it. Most people are used to brisket being dry. Other folks think that brisket is just smoked meat. Creating a craving [for barbecue brisket] will take time but I think it's working.
So how do you go about selling brisket if it isn’t something people will automatically order?
In Texas there’s a plate called the Holy Trinity; brisket, beef sausage, and pork rib. I couldn’t get beef sausage so I decided to use beef ribs instead and call it the Montreal Trinity. In this city people love ribs, especially big dinosaur ones. After I created the Trinity, nine out of ten times people come back and say that the best thing on the plate was the brisket.
"In this city people love ribs, especially big dinosaur ones."
You mentioned last year that sourcing consistently good quality brisket was difficult, has that improved at all?
I do special orders and I buy in bulk. Because of this I can pretty much get what I want. I have really strict standards. Here in Montreal we go through a lot of brisket because we sell a lot of smoked meat. When you’re brining it you can get away with a subpar piece of meat, but when you are barbecuing, the environment is very harsh so you want the best quality product. For me the shape is really important. If you have a brisket that’s like an arrow, the tip will burn. If you get a flat one it will be juicier.
What makes the perfect brisket?
It has to be really juicy. Everything I do is about preserving moisture. I cook it Texas style, which means that the fat cap sits on top and caramelizes. I cut it Texas style also so you see the line separating the point from the flap, which makes it juicier. Overall it’s a combination of flavour, juiciness, and bark.
I’ve noticed there’s no barbecue sauce on the tables here. Why is that?
I think this is the only barbecue restaurant in North America that doesn't serve sauce on the table. I don’t think it’s about the sauce. It’s such a laborious process and now we’re covering it up with vinegar and tomato? It’s not bad but it’s not about the sauce, it’s about the meat.
"I think this is the only barbecue restaurant in North America that doesn't serve sauce on the table."
What lessons have you learned from your experience so far?
I need to tweak the menu because of where I’m located. If I sold poutine I would probably do really well, but that’s not what we’re about. The tourists want a certain ambiance, they want desserts, they want a wine list. I can’t get away with how it is in Texas, where it’s, 'These are the meats and if you don’t like it then oh well.' We’re adding brisket and pulled pork to the mac 'n' cheese and people seem to like that. We’re working on the vegetables, the salads.
If you were to do it again would you do it differently in any way?
If I had to do this all over again, I would get a much larger restaurant, minimum 150 seats. I don’t have enough space Fridays and Saturdays; I could fill 200. What I originally wanted was 45 seats with a lineup out the door. We didn’t want something too comfortable — just eat your food, and get out. However in this area people want to sit down and be served, so we had to adapt.
Being in the Old Port, who is your clientele? Do you find you are more popular with tourists or locals?
Most of my customers are barbecue enthusiasts. They come here to taste my brisket because they want to perfect it in their backyards. I would say that almost all of my business comes from referrals, mostly local, but tourists are starting to come.
"I try and stay away from the big smokehouse explosion sandwiches."
Your menu is arguably quite purist and simple, do you think that hinders or helps you?
We’ve got four meats, a few sides, and are working on adding some desserts. But I try and stay away from the big smokehouse explosion sandwiches. I find a lot of restaurants have to have a gimmick. I think my food is really good and if I have to sell it that way, maybe I should be doing something else.
15 de la Commune Ouest, Old Montreal
Open Thursday to Sunday, 5 p.m. to 11 p.m.
Reservations recommended; (514) 246-1680