Stockyards owner/chef Tom Davis (left) works out back at the smokehouse while Chris Pilsworth preps in the kitchen.
STOCKYARDS (699 St. Clair West, at Christie, 416-658-9666) Complete dinners for $30 per person (lunches $20), including all taxes, tip and a house-made limeade. Average main $13/$8. Open Tuesday to Friday 11:30 am to 9 pm, Saturday and Sunday 11:30 am to 8 pm. Closed Monday, holidays. Unlicensed. Access: steep ramp at door, washrooms on same floor. Rating: NNNNN
Sorry, churrasco of St. Clair, but your days as the downtown king of barbecued chicken are over now that feisty Stockyards has grabbed the crown. Located just a block from the popular Portuguese churrasqueira and open all of a month, Stockyards is already being hailed by the 'cue cognoscenti as the best barbecue in town. Problem is, until pit boss Tom Davis is happy with the set-up, his chickens and ribs are only available Tuesdays, Fridays and Sundays.
Air-dried and grain-fed, his magnificently shellacked 2-pound-plus birds ($13) get infused with the house's garlicky cumin rub for 24 hours before being smoked upright for seven hours, a process that renders most of the fat and turns the remarkably moist meat pink. Evans's tart Kansas City ketchup-based sauce is served on the side as persnickety purists insist.
The cavalcade of awe-inspiring 'cue continues with 2-and-a-half-pound St. Louis-cut racks of meaty side ribs ($25/$13 half) laced with just enough fat to virtually disintegrate on contact.
Slow smoking works wonders on pork ribs, but it tends to toughen up beef side ribs. Stockyards' Butcher Shop-sourced mammoths are no exception ($8 each), though not nearly as over-marbled as the ones we've run into lately from Rowe Farms.
Sides can be problematic, too. Since the storefront inherited from Ciccio's pizza joint isn't really conducive to dining in situ - although there are a half-dozen or so swivel stools at a short lunch counter opposite the grill for those who choose to do so - most do takeaway.
Straight out of the fryer, jerk-spiced onion rings are crisply battered, and skinny fries are kosher-salted and deliciously brittle (both $5, and, like the rest of the card, available daily). But unless you live around the corner, by the time you get them home they're either as soggy as cereal or hard as rocks.
Better to go with Davis's tasty dairy-free and picnic-proof potato salad ($4) in olive oil, thyme and lemon balm vinaigrette now that he's retired his ridiculously rich scalloped sweet potato flan ($5, secret ingredient: Gorgonzola!) for the season.
But there's more than just chicken 'n' ribs coming out of that smoker under the blue tent in the laneway out back. Stockyards' pulled pork sandwich ($8) is an epiphany on a plate, the lightly sauced lean smoked meat almost falling apart of it own accord. Both the sandwich bun and coleslaw accompaniment ($3.50 à la carte) are intentionally plain to keep the spotlight strictly on the star of the show.
Get Stockyards' stuff in bio-degradable takeout containers. Cool off with Stockyards' limeade.
Brined in salt, then marinated in buttermilk for a day, nuggets of maple-glazed Southern fried chicken ($7) cleverly spill out of a waffle cone wrapped in a second of sustainable bamboo. Paula Dean, y'all, would approve. Davis refuses to reveal what's in his exceptionally beefy 6-ounce burgers ($7) other than ground chuck and brisket, but I'm guessing mastodon. Wash them down with house-made limeade laced with Thai mint ($2.75).
Like a lot of cutting-edge local cantinas, Stockyards has jumped on the charcuterie bandwagon. Sold by the pound ($15) or sandwiched between slices of deli-appropriate rye bread ($9), Davis's hand-sliced interpretation of pastrami ($15 pound/$8 half) may be more rustic than Caplansky's Toronto-centric take, but it's just as labour-intensive: dry-cured for a fortnight, desalinated for a day, rubbed with coriander seeds, allspice and black pepper before being smoked over apple wood and hick'ry embers for 9 hours and steamed for a final three. That's some dedication!
"I really admire Zane Caplansky," says first-time restaurateur Davis. "I like to think we're doing the same thing: keeping tradition alive."