The blues and barbecue star at chef/co-owner Nick Sinnett’s rockin’ Highway 61.
HIGHWAY 61 (1620 Bayview, at Manor, 416-489-7427) Complete dinners for $35 per person (lunches $22), including all taxes, tip and a pint of Highway 61 lager. Average main $20/$12. Open daily 11 am to 11 pm. No reservations. Licensed. Access: barrier-free. Rating: NNN
Stretching from Thunder Bay to New Orleans some 1,700 miles south along the mighty Mississippi, Highway 61 is more than just an interstate. Like Route 66, this fabled freeway lives as much in the imagination as on a map, a swampy voodoo stew of blues, booze and barbecue.
The legendary roadway prompted Bob Dylan to write some of his most widely regarded songs back in the 60s. Blues guitarist Robert Johnson is said to have sold his soul to the Devil for a one-way ticket to immortality at one of its crossroads. And now, the mythic strip of asphalt is the inspiration for a roadhouse in not so rough 'n' tumble Leaside.
Bayview might seem a long way from the bayou, but Highway 61 fits this sleepy nabe like a pair of well-worn slippers.
Last home to the failed expansion of Bloor West chicken shack Cluck, Grunt & Low, the two-storey space retains its funky 50s furniture and retro vibe, but its barnboard walls are now hung with framed concert posters of blues greats like Led Zeppelin and Lynyrd Skynyrd. The sound system cranks out former Leaside resident Neil Young's Cinnamon Girl (he lived around the corner as a kid) for the umpteenth time.
Servers are well drilled and cheerful, dispensing advice on the intricacies of Highway's lengthy laminated card alongside free samples of the house lager ($5.99 pint). Sensible types, we settle instead for frosted Mason jars of iced green tea with bendy straws ($2.95), the last remotely health-conscious thing we'll try.
I'm a sucker for onion rings and always order them when they're on a menu. And I'm almost always let down when I do. Does the name McCain ring a bell? But 61's take on the diner classic are the real deal, thick rings of super-sweet Vidalia onion encased in remarkably crisp buttermilk fritter batter ($4.49 à la carte). Available as an optional side with every main, they're not to be missed.
Another starter, organic three-bean chili ($6.49), gets labelled "vegetarian-friendly," though why a professed herbivore would frequent a barbecue joint is a mystery to me. And I doubt any veg head would be converted to the dark side by 61's astoundingly tender pulled pork sandwich ($9.49 with one side) with the house's marmalade-like sauce correctly on the side even when it's sided with a basket of pre-salted sweet potato frites ($3.49 à la carte).
The barbecue is offered two ways, either dry-rubbed in the Texas style or basted with sauce as in the Carolinas. I opt for dry and a whole 3-pound chicken ($18.99 with two sides), pairing the bird with mini-muffins of not particularly spicy jalapeño cornbread ($2.49) and basic baked beans ($3.95).
We keep it sticky with the Memphis Minnie combo ($19.49 with one side), a sauce-basted quarter-chicken, three lip-smackin' baby back ribs and a heap of shredded unsauced brisket that, though "definitely not Montreal-style" as the menu accurately says, is rivalled only by Caplansky's. For a full-on sugar rush, side it with sweet potato and apple mash ($4.49). You won't need dessert.
Comfort food junkies get two of their favourites when Highway tops traditional shepherd's pie with conventional macaroni and cheese ($13.49 with two sides), a peppery purple cabbage slaw ($2.49) the perfect antidote to the puddle of oil found at the bottom of the dish.
But pass on collard greens ($4.49) unless you're a fan of stringy spinach strewn with bacon.
An even bigger car wreck, beef ribs from Rowe Farms - $13.95 for a just-under-a-pound slab the size and thickness of a steak - are so over-marbelized with fat, you could tile the Vatican with the leftovers.
A sad side of steamed broccoli and cauliflower ($5.49) only adds to the disappointment. I should have ordered onion rings.