Restaurant A.A. review
Casse-Croûte Connoisseur: Restaurant A.A.
Words— JP Karwacki
It’s time to get out of the office and onto the streets to find some of the best in time-honored snack bars. Here’s another instalment in our Casse-Croûte Connoisseur series.
The Montreal neighbourhood of Saint-Henri has gone under the chef’s knife in the last two decades and as a result, an extensive culinary reconstruction has ensued. It’s now one of the highest concentrations of restaurants in the city. While new arrivals have come and gone, built and torn down, branded and rebranded, there are a small handful of members of an old guard on the main strip that have been here as far back as its veteran residents can recall. Restaurant A.A. is one of those few.
This diner is by far the most notorious in the ‘hood, and it’s come a long way since it first opened its doors in 1962. There are arguably some equally famous establishments nearby, if not even older than this one, but this is a crown jewel.
First a home to locals in its salad days, and then to seedier crowds who would roll through at all hours of the day for chow at its Formica countertop—watching Canadiens games by early evening and softcore pornos in the smaller hours of later years on a single RCA TV set bracketed in a back corner—it’s now more commonly recognized as the premier choice for late night eats, serving food from 8 a.m. to 5 a.m. every day of the week. The TV screen now broadcasts a more tasteful reel of primetime, movies, and whatever sports the staff feels like watching, but the popularity remains thankfully untouched.
Drop in for a snack on a Friday or Saturday after the bars close though, and you’re walking into an impromptu after-party of nighthawks that’d make Hieronymus Bosch’s entire Garden of Earthly Delights triptych look like a tame garden party, a kaleidoscopic crowd of patrons tripping over their own high heels, industry hobnobbers, rowdy cooks fresh off the line and liquored up. It can be just as popular the morning after, only quieter, with a hangover breakfast service filled with folks bitten so hard by the dog that no one speaks above a delicate rainfall’s decibel count.
Given its propensity to feed libatious crowds, the name has no association to Alcoholics Anonymous in the slightest. The name A.A. comes from its patriarch, André Annoussos. A native Greek who came to Montreal at the ripe age of 16, then speaking only his native tongue and his pockets coughing up moths, he washed dishes, cooked, and boarded in rooming houses until he’d saved up enough to open this mecca. Now an older man, he still continues to work the line nearly every day of the week, working with an unmatched fastidiousness and diligence toward his greasecraft. The establishment’s such a point of pride for him, he sports a gold ring on his left hand bearing his initials, as though wedded ‘til death does he part.
But enough about the folklore. What about the food? The menu’s a long one, an unfurled papyrus employing a wide variety of choices that blend together André’s Greek heritage with Quebecois fare, plus a touch of Chinese inspirations, all with more common repasts found throughout North America: Burgers (first smashed on the flattop and finished with a kiss on the grill), fries, and hot dogs (steamés by day and toastés by night). It is, however, in this appreciator’s humble opinion, the poutine that sets A.A. apart from all the others. It’s some of the best in the city, the perfect stratigraphy of a national dish: Taters twice-fried until golden and crispy, forming a sturdy scaffolding for plump-yet-squeaky cheese curds heaped on cold (and they must always be cold so as not to be turned to mush by the heat of the sauce), and finally a viscous ladleful of gravy. It’s a special Annoussos recipe that said to be made from fresh veal bones daily. Some don’t like the touch of cinnamon one tastes in this mysteriously delicious sauce and instead opt for a poutine Michigan style, served with an equally satisfying meat-riddled Bolognese sauce. Either way, it’s comfort food heaven, coming in combos with burgers and hot dogs that never run over $13. One warning: If you order a large poutine, prepare yourself for a meal fit for four.
There was a time when the restaurant was a Montrealer’s best-kept secret, enjoying a cult status that couldn’t be shaken by a single iota of bad press or word-of-mouth. Heard that someone said the wrong thing one night and got roughed up by a retired Hells Angels geriatric? Better to just not say anything other than your order, or take it to go, it’s worth it. Heard that they had a health code violation a few years back? Give them a chance, it’s worth it.
If only you could’ve seen the conniptions neighbours were prone to when, following the restaurant’s 50th anniversary, they unexpectedly closed to give the interior an extensive makeover. There was no explanatory signage, and with no social platforms to broadcast from, it seemed as though the whole situation had gone dark. The withdrawal symptoms from a lack of A.A. foodstuffs was palpable, a gloom that hung in the air. When they did reopen, replete with flat screens, fresh stainless, and a couple of areca palms for a pop of colour, there was a slight apprehension that too much had changed. It was the kind of superstition that any renovation or replacement of equipment affects in an avid gastronomic fan, as though the sweeping of a single speck of dust could dramatically alter the eatery’s path. Thankfully, the food stayed the same; it was just a hell of a lot cleaner.
Here’s to many more wonderful years of slung hash and bubbling fryers.
What to wear to hide the gravy stains