The South Rises: Chris Nuttall-Smith on the best barbecue joints in the GTA
The city’s latest southern-inspired restaurants are serving up smoky, tender, chin-dribbling barbecue. Who cares if it’s not authentic? It’s good
After two long and selfless weeks of debilitating meat sweats and overconsumption-related shortness of breath, a host of minor but nonetheless traumatic flossing injuries and at least three grossly inopportune bouts of smoky, tangy, disconcertingly succulent belching, the one thing I know for certain is that the GTA, once lamented for its lack of good southern-style barbecue restaurants, has plenty of excellent choices now.
A wave of new places has upended the city’s long-held notion of barbecue—ribs that came boiled, grilled and slathered in torrents of sticky ketchup-based sauce, to cite just one common example—and replaced it with something that comes much closer to the low-and-slow smoked southern ideal.
THE CRITIC’S TOP FIVE
The Stockyards Smokehouse and Larder
699 St. Clair Ave. W., 416-658-9666
Toronto Life review »
299 Roncesvalles Ave., 416-532-7700
Big Bone BBQ and Wicked Wings
207 Eagle St., Newmarket, 905-853-9888
Paul and Sandy’s Real Barbecue
4925 Dundas St. W., 416-233-7032
Toronto Life review »
Buster Rhino’s Southern BBQ
7-2001 Thickson Rd. S., Whitby, 905-436-6986
Toronto Life review »
On the heretofore middling restaurant strip called Roncesvalles, Barque Smokehouse is one of the newest spots. It’s also one of the best. Barque is named for the peppery, wood-smoky, deeply caramelized crust that’s a characteristic of southern barbecue, and the name isn’t an affectation. David Neinstein, Barque’s pit master, makes whole-smoked chickens that are moist and full-flavoured from brining, smoke-stained a deep, telltale pink under their skin (southern barbecue first-timers often mistake the colour for undercooking) and imbued to their cores with the taste of smouldering pecan and apple wood. His brisket, rubbed down with chunky cracked peppercorns, salt and a touch of sugar, is much moister and more charactered than the usual. (I wasn’t surprised to learn that Neinstein reveres the brisket at Schwartz’s deli in Montreal.) His beef ribs are pleasantly creamy and nicely crusted at their edges, while the baby backs are tender but with a little chew left in them, and properly dry, but in a way that sets your mouth to prodigious watering. (An aside for barbecue arch-geeks: he cooks them in a gas-heated, wood-burning Southern Pride smoker, which he had trucked in from Alamo, Tennessee.) At their best, they were punchy and tangy from a black pepper dry rub, but only enough to balance out the meat. This is all the more impressive considering that Neinstein had only two months of experience cooking in restaurants when he opened Barque in April.
Neinstein, who is 32, worked in advertising and did an MBA at the University of Windsor before he committed to opening a restaurant in 2009. Jonathan Persofsky, his 30-year-old business partner, who runs the front of house, was a project manager for a hospital software firm. While this sort of resumé would almost certainly spell sudden, painful death at most other kinds of restaurants, the barbecue business is full of quick studies. With luck, money and (to be sure) a little skill, weekend hobbyists can, and often do, rise to the top of the competitive barbecue circuit in just a couple of seasons.
In the spring of 2010, Neinstein spent eight weeks working at Head Country Barbecue, a respected smokehouse in Ponca City, Oklahoma, where he learned the basics of commercial barbecue and helped cater enormous events for such vital southern U.S. institutions as the National Rifle Association. He also became a certified judge under the Kansas City Barbeque Society (from the judge’s oath: “I accept my duty to be an official KCBS certified judge, so that truth, justice, excellence in barbecue and the American way of life may be strengthened and preserved forever”) and toured some of the South’s standout joints.
At Barque, he’ll need to work out a few issues over time, particularly with consistency. One night I ate there, Neinstein was experimenting with cinnamon on his pork ribs (a mistake), and another time the ribs had far too much chili on them. That said, I’m glad he’s trying new things rather than merely aping what he had down south.
The flip side to barbecue’s relative accessibility is that it attracts more than its share of authenticity-obsessed blowhards—middle-aged white men, generally, with thinning ponytails and greasy T-shirts—who argue about barbecue the way Star Wars fanatics argue about messages hidden in the control panel of the Millennium Falcon. Barbecue is easily one of the world’s most fractious cuisines; the debate over what constitutes authenticity has raged through the American South for more than a century. Should real barbecue feature just pork ribs, or whole pigs and shoulder? Do you chop the shoulder once it’s cooked or pull it? Do mutton and brisket qualify as barbecue? (Outside Kentucky and Texas, most barbecue enthusiasts would argue no.) Is authentic barbecue done over coal, or over mesquite, hickory or fruitwood? Even way up here in Toronto, anybody who’s been to the South for, oh, say, 12 hours or more seems to have a strident opinion, which they’ll gladly declaim with a put-on overbite and a hint of J.R. Ewing twang.
And so Neinstein and Persofsky have wisely aimed to get the few universal, indisputable southern barbecue basics right—cook meat slowly, over low heat, using wood for smoke—and dispense with the authenticity debate altogether. While their barbecue will appeal to the fanatic demographic, the restaurant is built squarely with everybody else in mind.
Barque is bright, clean and modern, with brick and distressed concrete instead of the usual barnboards and sloppy tableside rolls of paper towel. There’s none of the standard Dixie kitsch or faux secret family recipe folklore printed on the menu. The nearest thing I heard to the blues when I ate there was “Gold Digger” by Kanye West and Jamie Foxx.
The first thing the young, pretty servers offer when you sit down is a glass of sparkling wine. Neinstein and Persofsky have enlisted help in constructing a small, decent wine program that’s centred on bold but food-friendly wines (the effort is commendable, but I’d stick to the short list of whiskies or the very good McAuslan beers on tap). Neinstein was also smart enough to hire a crew of actual chefs to execute the non-barbecue parts of his menu. So there’s a decent coconut and corn soup and a very welcome spinach salad with chèvre and toasted pecans. There are good house pickles, and every order of ribs comes with vegetarian sides—expertly blanched carrots and green beans, for instance. (This would qualify as heresy in most barbecue places, of course, which makes it all the better.) There are made-to-order house beignets with smoked pineapple for dessert, and a superb pecan pie that doesn’t overdo the sweetness, with a dollop of Greg’s roasted marshmallow ice cream on the side.
Tim and Lee Rombos, the brothers who own and run Big Bone BBQ and Wicked Wings, way up north in a Newmarket strip mall, have been in the business for more than 15 years. Along with Phil Nyman of Dipamo’s on College Street (now called Phil’s Original BBQ), which was once the city’s standard bearer, the Rombos brothers are local barbecue pioneers, and they’ve got the competition trophies to show for it. Big Bone BBQ makes the best smoked chicken wings I’ve ever had. They’re skinless and simple: marinated with lots of salt and pepper, smoked, then finished on the grill. I don’t particularly like chicken wings, but I couldn’t stop eating these.
The pork ribs are also great, deep-smoked with the requisite layer of pink under their sweetish, candy-crunchy crusts. The vinegar- and tomato-based house barbecue sauce is tangy and just slightly fruity. It’s good. The sides, by contrast—too-rich coleslaw, ho-hum beans, pasty, hygroscopic cornbread—taste like they came off the back of a food service truck, though the restaurant’s management neglected the opportunity to disown them, insisting that they’re house-made, when asked. The room, with its unfinished, retail-warehouse ceilings, is fun, busy (beware the lunchtime crowds of junior high kids on full hormonal orange alert) and deliciously smoky, and Ye Olde Barbecue decor isn’t all that distracting once the food arrives. That said, Big Bone’s slogan, “Everybody likes a nice rack,” is just borderline funny displayed on promotional posters around the room; it’s plain creepy printed on the soft-spoken teenage waitress’s T-shirt.
The best pulled pork I ate was at Paul and Sandy’s Real Barbecue, a family-run shop near the eastern edge of Etobicoke. The pork was fatty and dribbly, with a good caramelized crust and a choice of two thin, vinegary sauces. I’ve also had very good pulled pork at Drake BBQ, a few doors east of The Drake Hotel, though the last time I visited, the sandwich was dry and the meat didn’t taste like much of anything.
The stuff at Buster Rhino’s, in an industrial mall next to a power-generating plant in Whitby, was also excellent.
Even though I drove—meat-drunk, in many cases—to all four corners of the GTA in search of the city’s best barbecue, my favourite place is The Stockyards, just northwest of downtown. Much like Neinstein, Stockyards pit master Tom Davis didn’t start out as a chef. He was a server, for years, at College Street restaurants Xacutti and Teatro, among other places, and then worked the meat counter for his uncle John Rowe, of the natural meats empire Rowe Farms. Davis has never been to the American barbecue belt, he admits. Thirty years ago, a few days after his 18th birthday, he was busted with $40 worth of hash, so he’s barred from entering the U.S. without applying for a waiver.
Davis was adopted, and while he’s never met his birth father, he was always told his dad might be from the American South. Barbecue was his way of trying to forge a connection. Fifteen years ago, he bought a cheap smoker from Canadian Tire and started experimenting in his backyard. Soon, he designed and built his own. He opened The Stockyards, on St. Clair West, in 2009. The place has been jammed since its earliest days. Davis uses lump charcoal to bring his smoker to 225 degrees Fahrenheit every morning, then adds apple and hickory logs, which he splits himself. Three days a week, he fills the contraption with pork butts, beef brisket, bacon and pancetta, and three days a week—Tuesday, Friday and Sunday; it’s worth your while remembering this—he loads it with chicken and pork ribs. They emerge at exactly 5 p.m.
The ribs are perfect, better than just about any other pork I’ve ever had. They taste intensely piggy, smoky from the apple wood, and salty-sweet from Davis’s simple dry rub. Though I hate to concede a point to authenticity-obsessed fanboys, I think it makes a difference that Davis uses only split wood and charcoal, no electric burners or gas. (The only-wood-is-authentic camp is somewhat aggressive, I’m learning.) Davis’s sauce is vinegar-and-red pepper-based, but with puckery, fruity, caramel-rounded high notes from cider vinegar and a couple of drops of balsamic. I’ve never found moister, more flavourful chicken anywhere else in Toronto.
There are just 18 seats at The Stockyards, and barring an expansion, you’re unlikely to get one of them on a chicken-and-ribs night without a wait. Davis does a brisk takeout business, and he’s about to get some competition. Late this spring, an unknown, untested barbecue and charcuterie enthusiast named John Hardy III—a young man whose qualifications include a recent undergraduate degree in cognitive science and philosophy—announced plans to open a new smokehouse called Hardy’s: A Hogtown Brasserie down the street from The Stockyards. Hardy has built a custom smoker out of 55-gallon drums and is cocky enough to have claimed he can do better barbecue than Davis.
Who knows? Maybe he can. Davis doesn’t sound worried. “The best barbecue is whatever you’ve got in front of you,” he says. “I don’t know why he doesn’t just come in and say hello.”