Laura Bliss is a staff writer at CityLab, covering transportation and technology. She also authors MapLab, a biweekly newsletter about maps (subscribe here). Her work has appeared in the New York Times, The Atlantic, Los Angeles magazine, and beyond.
Frango churrasco is the go-to takeout in a historic immigrant hub.
Bagels, poutine, and smoked-meat sandwiches have their place in Montreal’s must-eat canon, but no trip is complete without a crispy heap of frango churrasco doused in danger-orange piri-piri sauce. That’s Portuguese rotisserie chicken, charred in special abundance in the city’s bohemian Plateau neighborhood. It’s a multi-sensory takeout feast.
First, you must choose your weapon. In the Plateau, a historic hub for Montreal’s Portuguese immigrants, there at least five frango-specializers located roughly within a single square mile. “Romado’s is the legend,” a local friend whispered to me about one spot that’s served up lip-smacking platters since 1994. A man waiting in an out-the-door dinnertime line at Ma Poule Mouillée (French for “my wet hen”) told me the spicy sauce was “just superior” there. At Rotisserie Portugalia, the quality of the birds is supposed to blow all others out of the water, according to another Montreal native—but you have to call in your order before arriving. Still others are afficionados of Coco Rico on Boulevard St. Laurent, which opened its doors in 1970.
Romado’s is probably the best-loved spot, as lunchtime queues make evident. The sight of the meat lures you in: Peek-a-boo kitchen windows facing Rue Rachel let passersby ogle its preparation. Over a massive coal-fire grill, ten or more birds at a time spin clamped and flattened inside steel rotisserie cages, exposing every inch of meat to flame. Assembly-line cooks poke the coals and release the chickens when they’re perfectly seared, transferring them to wide chopping blocks where they’re expertly whacked to order. You might ask for a small breast portion, a few drumsticks, or an entire chicken—none of these will run you more than $10.
Whichever eatery you select, there are certain requisite accompaniments. Say yes to the hot sauce. Every place has their own secret piri-piri-based recipe (none, I have found, are excessively flaming), and most slather it on with a four-inch paint brush. For contrast, you’ll want the meat nestled on salad—romaine and tomatoes with a generous squeeze of mustardy dressing. And don’t resist the standard avalanche of french fries, cooked in chicken fat and tonged onto your meal from a huge steel mixing bowl. These are crucial, and not just because you’re in carb-loving Montreal; fries sop up the spicy, oily juices at the bottom of your styrofoam container. This is messy, addictive food. Don’t forget the napkins.
A much-needed post-meal walk may lead you to notice just how plentiful poultry is around here, even where you can’t eat it: bright-colored rooster figurines stand in shop windows; crowing cocks are pictured on storefront signs. These are Roosters of Barcelos, a common icon of Portugal—another mark the Portuguese have left in the Plateau and in neighborhoods slightly north. In fact, the Plateau and Mile End communities are immigrant palimpsests; Portuguese laborers started to settle there in the 1950s, beckoned by Canada’s post-war construction boom and to flee their country’s quasi-facist regime. Over time, these families took over the properties of longtime Jewish residents who were leaving the Plateau/Mile End for the suburbs (and to Toronto, to escape threats posed by Quebecois separatists during the Quiet Revolution.) As they gained capital, entrepreneurial Portuguese workers opened up businesses and restaurants in some of these spaces, often drawing on a certain finger-licking chicken recipe made famous in the town of Guia.
But the influence of those Eastern European Jewish immigrants, who dominated these neighborhoods in the early 20th century, can still be seen in the Plateau/Mile End’s many deli counters, bagel shops, and subtle architectural details. And now a similar transition has taken hold for the Portuguese: Many families, now upwardly mobile, have left the city for the suburbs in recent years. Today the neighborhoods are home mostly to artists, students, and tech workers from all over the world. But you’ll still hear Portuguese spoken on weekends, when families return to town for a trip to church and a mound of spicy chicken. In line they bump elbows with Montreal’s francophones, anglophones, and tourists of all origins and tongues. At the rotisserie spots, eaters need know one word in common: picante.
Did we leave off your favorite chicken spot? Tell us in the comments.