BACK ALLEY WOODFIRE BBQ AND GRILL (188 Augusta, at Baldwin, 416-979-5557) Complete dinners for $25 per person (lunches $15), including all taxes, tip and a domestic lager. Average main $12/$8. Open Sunday to Thursday 11:30 am to 9 pm and Friday and Saturday 11:30 am to 10 pm. Closed Monday. Licensed. Access: barrier-free, washrooms in basement. Rating: NN Rating: NN
On the rare occasion that I'm asked for advice by a restaurateur, like Seinfeld to poor Baboo, I tell them to focus on what they do best.
The cardinal rule of the hospitality industry is to keep the punter happy: You want fries? No problem. Pizza? We've got a microwave. How else to explain the presence of grilled chicken Caesar salad on almost every menu in town?
I'm looking forward to Frank Hsu's Back Alley, the just-launched barbecue joint in the Market sandwiched between House of Spice and Amadeu's. Hsu's known for Young Lok Gardens (the first Chinese restaurant on Spadina when it opened in 1969, it appears on page 254 of Margaret Atwood's Lady Oracle), which he shuttered six years ago after moving to Village by the Grange.
He's turned the former grocery store into a family-style spot that'd be more at home in some anonymous Markham mall than in cutting-edge Kensington. Nothing wrong with that - it'll be swarming with tourists in the summer when its three large street-front garage doors are opened. I hate to spoil the fun, but there's so much avoidably wrong with Back Alley, I could write a book. With diagrams.
First, the good. On both of my visits the servers were extremely gracious and well informed. And the rotisserie-style chicken's not bad, though it's way pricey at $12.49 plus sides for a half bird when a whole one goes for nine bucks at most Dundas or College churrasqueiras.
Now, the bad. Because all Back Alley's meaty mains are cooked in domed, wood-burning brick ovens, timing is crucial. Hefty pork ribs ($12.99) stand up to the oven's high temperature, but skinny bulgogi-style beef ribs are disastrously overcooked, as are quails ($10.99). Gristly lamb shoulder chops ($8.99) share the same unfortunate fate and taste too much of the grill.
All mains come with a selection of sides from Back Alley's globe-trotting steam table - surprisingly crisp broccoli spears and sliced carrots, a few passable slaws, bean salads and spoon-grade greens topped with February-pink tomato, unspeakably beige fried rice with frozen veg (insert customary rant here), soy-sauced chow mein noodles and partially deep-fried home fries.
One need only go next door to discover how Portuguese-style potatoes are properly prepared.
We'll be kind and merely mention the existence of smoked chicken pizza ($7.99), vegetarian spring rolls ($3.99), crème brûlée ($3.49) and bacalau ($12.95/$8.95). It's exactly this kind of all-over-the-map, keep-everybody-happy (without quite pulling it off) approach that's holding Back Alley back. After all, who'd go to Swiss Chalet on the Danforth for Cal-Ital pizza?