What’s on the menu at the BBQ Eats Festival, a smoke-scented showcase of Toronto’s international barbecue scene
Saying “ethnic barbecue” in Toronto can be as messy as eating a rack of sauce-slathered ribs: first, what do you mean by ethnic? And while we’re at it, what do you mean by barbecue? But let’s look past the sticky semantics: Toronto’s BBQ Eats Festival (June 9-11 at Ontario Place) features “ethnic barbecue flavours from around the world,” and it sounds like Peak Toronto: a celebration of our culinary diversity, held during our slim wedge of an outdoor cooking season at a beloved, formerly shuttered landmark.
When Canadians say barbecue, they’re usually talking about grilling—think hamburgers and hot dogs quickly heated over gas grill flames—and not brisket and ribs smoked low and slow over a wood fire, which is what barbecue means in the American south. Good southern barbecue has taken off in Toronto, with places like Adamson Barbecue in Leaside.
But if southern barbecue is an iconic brand like Superman, we are the Justice League: a powerful assembly of smoking and grilling styles from around the world. And because we’re not beholden to tradition—no one is fiercely defensive about “real Ontario barbecue”—there’s nothing stopping anyone here from innovating, adopting and developing cooking styles from a cultural pool much wider than exists in Texas or South Carolina. There’s no reason that hickory smoked ribs with a spicy Vietnamese fish sauce glaze can’t become a Toronto thing.
Toronto’s motto, “diversity our strength,” is usually lip service to a Protestant town that was still closed on Sundays when I was a kid. But At the BBQ Eats Festival, a literal diversity of smoky, spicy, sweet, sour, charred, crunchy, squiddy, sesame, cheesy, garlicky foods (with halal, vegetarian and gluten-free options of course), is our strength. Here, then, are four dishes planned for the festival that best speak to the potential of “Toronto barbecue.”
Black Briik’s corn dog
Corn dogs are usually just a cheap wiener covered in cornmeal and fried. But chef James Chang is coating longanisa (a sweet Filipino pork sausage) in a jalapeno-buttermilk-cornmeal batter, then grilling it over charcoal for a smoky finish.
Chubby’s Jamaican Kitchen’s jerk chicken
Chef Donovan Campbell has gotten his hands on pimento wood to grill his jerk chicken. That’s only after three days of marinating in a secret jerk recipe that contains scotch bonnet peppers, onions, garlic, cinnamon, nutmeg and rum, among other things. It’s served with mango hot sauce and a tangy cole slaw of sweet beets and jicama.
Kinka Izakaya’s pork jowl skewers
Fans of ton toro (a.k.a. pork jowl or pig cheek) can enjoy the fatty slabs of meat marinated in garlic then grilled and coated in a yuzu-chili glaze. Though it’ll be a challenge for chef Ippei Awata to get the same effect with a gas grill as with binchotan, the super-hot white charcoal often used in Japanese grilling.
The Corner Place’s “japacorn”
Chef Charles Co straddles Mexican and Japanese cuisines with grilled, sweet corn-on-the-cob drizzled with crema, nori and furikake, the Japanese spice blend of salt, sugar, sesame seeds, seaweed, wasabi and bonito flakes.
Other barbecue contenders include:
Charcoal-grilled tuna poke with ponzu sauce and bamboo beer.
Chicken drenched in calamansi, garlic, soy sauce and Sprite.
Grilled skewers of chicken, squid or tofu marinated in gluten-free soy sauce with turmeric and cilantro.
Smoked ribs topped with salsa verde.
Dalia Food Co.’s beans
“Panuchos,” refried beans between two tortillas, topped with achiote-marinated chicken.
Free admission (Dishes range from $3 to $7). Friday, June 9 to Sunday, June 11. Ontario Place, 955 Lake Shore Blvd. W., bbqeatsfestival.com