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Nothing says summer like flavourful, falling-apart eats cooked with nothing but love, time and wood smoke. Why else would a whole slew of brand-new, true-blue BBQ joints open up shop in the city, just in time for the mercury to crack the hundred-degree mark? Though back-to-basics Texas-style BBQ is all the rage in the city right now, Toronto has long been home to dozens of talented pitmasters dishing out darn good eatin’. So grab your lemonade and your moist towelettes and dig in.
Between the two of them, Jon Lucas and Jay Moore have cooked at the Harbord Room, Ursa, Momofuku Shoto and Sushi Kaji, but it’s safe to say their latest project ain’t exactly fine dining.
J & J Bar-B-Que, their new standing-room-only joint in Kensington, is even more stripped-down than it needed to be – they’ve ditched the apothecary-chic interior of Thomas Lavers, the space’s former tenant, for granny-floral wallpaper and a massive pile of white oak chunks at the front of the restaurant. But this being a Central Texas-style barbecue place, the chefs are confident their food will do all the talking for them.
“It’s a very pure form of barbecue,” Lucas says of their chosen approach. “There’s not a lot of sauce, not a lot of sugar, not a lot of crazy rubs – paprika, garlic powder, yada-yada. It’s very simple. It’s about the meat, and about technique.”
“I like barbecue cuz it’s sort of like sushi or pizza or something, where you just need a few ingredients,” adds Moore. “Either you do it really well or you sort of fuck it up. There’s no way to hide.”
Adopting a style beloved by barbecue purists doesn’t limit the menu options. A wide slate of mains are available by the half-pound, from brisket ($14) and ribs ($32/pound) to roast beef ($10), turkey breast slathered in drippings and butter ($12), and even delicious slow-smoked cabbage for the vegetarian crowd ($5).
They also get repurposed into sandwiches ($12 each), including an artery-popping brisket version stacked on two jalapeño-bacon Danishes. Sides include a potato salad topped with a sprinkling of Hickory Sticks ($2.50 small, $4 large) and jalapeño-cheddar cornbread ($3), made in-house (as is everything else, save for the complimentary Wonder Bread).
If you’ve got any room left after that, there’s a slew of fun cookout-ready desserts, including classic -banana pudding topped with Nilla wafers ($3.50), freezies made out of Texan Big Red soda ($2), sweet ’n’ salty marshmallow bars made with Ruffles and pretzels ($3), and – my personal fave – watermelon slices coated in rib spice ($3).
Everything’s made in small batches, in the grand tradition of Texas smokehouses, so once they sell out, they shut the joint down for the day. So far, they’ve never made it past 4 pm.
Their brisket has pulled in the most rave reviews, with good reason: smoked for 16 hours over white oak, it’s moist and flavourful. The ribs have a nice, firm texture – they don’t fall off the bone, and Lucas says they’re not meant to.
“A proper rib should be like, you take a bite and your bite comes cleanly off the bone, but the rest of the rib stays on there.” Sure enough, I take a bite and leave a perfect semicircle with my teeth.
But all of that, for me, takes a back seat to the house-made sausages (both $5). The Hot Guts is a beef sausage laced with tons of black pepper and pork fat for extra juice – “just enough that it doesn’t split,” Lucas says. The Mac ’n’ Chz sausage, meanwhile, is exactly what it sounds like, oozing with gloriously, unapologetically fake American cheese and soft noodles.
“That’s inspired by Jay Moore’s white-trash childhood in Peter-borough,” Lucas says. Adds Moore: “You know that macaroni loaf? That disgusting bologna studded with macaroni and cheese? We wanted to recreate that.”
And, of course, it’s the best thing I’ve eaten in ages. ’Merica!
Roncey’s favourite smokehouse is all about pleasing a crowd, with a broad, family-style menu that makes concessions for big groups, vegetarians, pescatarians, brunchers and the under-12 set. The menu moves with the seasons, particularly sides (chilled asparagus is a nice antidote to summer meatstroke), but the meat at the core of the menu stays steady. Their signature is three varieties of pork ribs that run the gamut of sweetness, stickiness and spice – try the herb-crusted dry ribs, which come tender and pack huge savoury flavour.
Must-order Pork ribs, three ways ($12 for ⅓ rack to $30 for a full rack) saucy, peppery brisket ($8 for 4 oz/$13 for 7 oz) duck-blueberry pancakes at brunch ($16).
Forget Texas and Kansas City – at Anthony Rose’s backyard BBQ shack on Dupont, it’s a Muskoka cottage cookout all year round. Basically, if you could fit it in a cooler or throw it on a grill, it’s here. Rose goes right for the nostalgia with hits like Frito pie ($12) and mammoth s’mores sandwiches ($8), but allows for Toronto-appropriate global spins like jerk-spiced rainbow trout ($24) and pesto-rubbed ribs ($20 half/$39 full). Would you be happy with a just sandwich? Head down to new sister spot Little Big Crow (behind Rose & Sons at 892 Queen West) for a BLT or a fried chicken club.
Must-order Cornbread with chili-maple syrup ($12), ginger-soy salmon poke ($16), juicy “J.W. Bird” Cornish game hens ($27).
Down-home BBQ hounds would likely look at Carbon Bar’s gleaming marble-laced interior and $15 margaritas and cry sacrilege. But when it comes to flavour, chef Hidde Zomer’s ’cue credentials are unimpeachable – his wide-ranging and ever-changing menu, with its touches of upmarket Mexicana, also features the finest BBQ ribs and brisket in the heart of downtown. Lest you fear that sides would be an afterthought, the chef’s even trekked to South Carolina for tips on how to perfect his skillet cornbread.
Must-order The pitmaster platter (pork ribs, beef brisket, fried chicken and sides, $30/person) cornbread with maple butter ($8).
Three years on from opening, you no longer have to queue for 90 minutes to enjoy the roughshod charms of Colin Tooke and Ben Denham’s little-bit-country, little-bit-rock-n-roll Parkdale kitchen. Not that the food ain’t worth it, mind you – their ribs are sticky-sweet and fall off the bone, their fried chicken stands up with the best, and they keep the bourbon and cheap beer a-flowin’.
Must-order Pork side ribs ($17.99), fried chicken ($11.99), BBQ pork or brisket sandwiches ($7.99), buffalo-fried cauliflower ($9.50), “crack rolls” spread with pork-fat-laced butter ($4.99).
Cherry Beach doesn’t exactly have a thriving food scene, unless you count all the sawdust folks are inhaling over at BATL’s axe-throwing grounds.
However, Lawrence La Pianta – who worked in film location scouting before he became the BBQ pitmaster at Aft – had his eye on the Port Lands for a long time.
It helped that the area was on the verge of a major transition, with the Canary District ready to spring up to the north. But mostly, moving there had to do with the absence of neighbours to complain about the non-stop wood smoke.
The neighbours they do have, however, are thrilled with the new arrival. Less than a month out from opening in what was previously a nondescript diner called the Cherry Street Restaurant, the spot is well populated with officers from the cop shop up the road, staff from the Battle Axe Throwing League (whose target hangs inside the shipping-container bar out on the patio) and members of local rec sports leagues. Most of them get special discounts, GM Ron Lee tells me: “You take care of the right people.”
But I’m willing to bet that even if this weren’t the only joint in the area, Cherry Street would be packing ’em in. Years spent on the competitive grilling circuit and collaborating with BBQ greats from around North America inform La Pianta’s recipes. His sweet, cured baby backs are borrowed from his fave spot in St. Louis. His unearthly 12-hour-smoked brisket ($13) is crusted with tons of pepper and salt, like they do it in Texas. Pulled pork ($9) is smoked, tossed in its own juices (your portion comes resting in a half-inch-thick bed of fabulously greasy pork fat), then finished with a drizzle of sweet KC-style sauce.
“But if I wanna rock a jerk baby back, I will,” he adds.
“Is my brisket salt and pepper? Yeah. Am I going to hashtag anything #texasbarbecue? No. I’m in Toronto. I’m Toronto BBQ.”
And so, La Pianta follows his muse wherever it leads, introducing a weirdly addictive queso-dip-inspired mac ’n’ cheese (all sides $4.50), borrowing from the Italian recipes of his youth for vinegar-based slaw and potato salad, introducing fun drinks like cherry-bourbon floats, and tweaking his slow-smoked chicken ($7.50 quarter/$14.50 half) with an orange-juice-based marinade.
He then throws out a sentence that has probably never before been spoken by any BBQ chef: “My broccoli quinoa salad with goddess dressing is delicious.”
La Pianta also introduced a griddle-smashed brisket burger ($11) to the menu. Cooking the patties takes time away from the otherwise slice-and-serve style of the kitchen, but I’d say the extra hurdle is worth it – with its melt-in-your-mouth patty and orange sauce, it’s what a McDonald’s burger wants to be when it grows up.
And who’s to say Toronto BBQ doesn’t include a fancy Big Mac? “I had a conversation with a pretty prominent guy in the States, and he was like, ‘I’m so envious. My family’s been making the same BBQ for 85 years, because if I change something, there’ll be a revolt, whereas you can do whatever you want.’”
Fittingly for a spot on the Danforth, Greenwood borrows its recipes from the northeastern sector of the barbecue belt. Memphis and South Carolina are the two duelling banjos on pitmaster Warren DeSimone’s menu: dry-brined ribs and flash-fried, sauced rib tips from Tennessee, a fantastically juicy, sauce-free pulled pork from SC, and BBQ sauces for both (vinegary-sweet and mustard-based respectively). The great beer list and plethora of vegetarian options are a nice bonus.
Must-order Platters with pulled pork, ribs, brisket and wings ($42 small/$69 medium/$125 large) crispy, tender rib tips ($12) a creamy-sharp mac ’n’ cheese that threatens to upstage the whole menu ($9 side/$15 full).
Pork Ninjas’ Jason Rees is a connoisseur of regional BBQ styles (see this for a crash course), so it stands to reason that his pop-up kitchen in the back of a Bloordale craft beer bar would feature the best of all worlds. Rees repurposes his meats into sandwiches, tacos or platters, from Kansas City-style brisket (complete with burnt ends, if you’re lucky) to Alabama-style white gravy atop smoked chicken, with a whole gamut of house-made sauces, from mustard-flavoured to beer-spiked to brain-meltingly spicy, to set things off to your liking.
Must-order The pitmaster’s platter with a little of everything – bring a friend or two ($48) smoked, grilled chicken topped with knockout white gravy (pulled $14-$17, leg $17).
Location, location, location? Not always.
Adam Skelly’s BBQ lunch counter is located in a very un-hip, not-at-all-happening industrial cul-de-sac in Leaside. And yet every weekday at 11 am, in front of the pressed-chipboard counter, a line instantly appears.
“People are kind of voting with their feet,” says Skelly, who co-runs the spot with his girlfriend, Alison Hunt. Local plants provide a decent lunch crowd, but most of the folks in line are BBQ enthusiasts who drive in from elsewhere.
“We tried to find something more central, but we’ve got some really big smokers. In what’s considered a prime area – Parkdale, Kensington, the financial district – blowing smoke all day pisses off a lot of neighbours.”
The 15 hours a week of service time isn’t particularly diner-friendly either, but catering takes up evenings and weekends. Plus, he and two assistant pit masters already split a 24-hour shift schedule, making sure the brisket and ribs are smoked to perfection.
Fittingly, Skelly specializes in Central Texas BBQ, a style that’s particularly uncompromising: no sauce, just salt, pepper and smoke. “The meat you spend all this time slaving over while tending the fire should be the star of the dish, not a bunch of fancy sauces.”
Brisket, ribs, turkey breast, pulled pork and house-ground sausage are sold by the pound, as coleslaw-topped sandwiches or in platters. Their biggest seller is the Texas Trinity plate ($20), which features a quarter-pound each of ribs, brisket and sausage, plus two sides (beans, fluffy potato salad or slaw) and the traditional Texas fixings: white bread, pickles and onions. “It’s good value,” Skelly says, in the understatement of the year – I get maybe through a quarter of it.
The ribs are my favourite, maybe the best I’ve had, ridiculously juicy, with a remarkable sweetness imbued by sweet maple smoke – again, no sauce – and the meat flies right off the bone.
But Skelly says the brisket is the crowd favourite, and supplies almost always run out well before closing time.
“People say, ‘Can’t you just cook another brisket for me?’ And we’re like, ‘Are you willing to wait 24 hours?’”
What began as a “weekend BBQ” program after this spot opened in Riverside in 2013 morphed into a focus on all-smoked everything. The dinner menu (served until late – a godsend in this otherwise sleepy neighbourhood) offers the gamut of BBQ meats – brisket, pulled pork, pork side ribs, smoked wings and chicken. But weekends are still the best time to do the ’cue – that’s when they roll out platters ($25-$37) with your choice of two or three meats, plus sides like cheddar cornbread, potato salad and slaw.
Must-order Weekend BBQ platters, hefty brisket sandwiches ($15), smoked peach bourbon cocktails and Arnold Palmers to wash it all down.
Formerly a BBQ-oriented catering truck, Hogtown Smoke has been bringin’ BBQ to the Beaches with its bricks-and-mortar location since 2013. Though they put care and long hours into their brisket, Carolina-style pulled pork and ribs, these guys ain’t purist pitmasters – they also do mac and cheese balls ($13), fried “sausage nuggets” ($16), a “Jack’d Up” grilled cheese with Jack Daniel’s-infused pulled pork ($16) and even a chicken injected with tequila and lime ($22).
Must-order Burnt brisket ends ($18), pulled pork poutine with pepper gravy ($18) – and load up on the house-made sauces.
Tom Davis’s BBQ is so good, he makes you wait until Tuesday, Friday and Sunday to get it. Though the seasoned pitmaster offers a broad menu of Southern fare at this classic St. Clair West kitchen, he reserves his cumin-garlic rubbed, upright-smoked chicken (half $9/whole $15) and well-marbled side ribs (half $15/whole $30) for three days weekly. In the ’hood during off-hours? A pulled brisket sandwich with mustard and slaw or a roll, piled high with apple and oak-smoked pulled pork, oughta tide you over right nicely.
Must-order Ribs and chicken (obviously), smashed burgers ($7.50), chicken and waffles ($13 two pieces/$16 four pieces).
This Queen West spot makes major hay out of its close proximity to Trinity Bellwoods with a wide-ranging menu of BBQ staples. The kitchen, led by self-taught pitmaster Alex Rad, is fairly well rounded, offering popular pulled pork, full-bodied pork ribs and juicy chicken with a BBQ brush for DIY saucing tableside. Head to upstairs bar Kohl for a digestif. Does bourbon alleviate a meat coma? They’ve got 250 varieties on hand to try – test them for me and report back!
Must-order Buttermilk-battered onion rings ($5.90), pulled pork sandwiches ($9.90).