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The South Rises: Chris Nuttall-Smith on the best barbecue joints in the GTA

The city’s latest southern-inspired restaurants are serving up smoky, tender, chin-dribbling barbecue. Who cares if it’s not authentic? It’s good

Barque Smokehouse

(Image: Jess Baumung)

After two long and selfless weeks of debilitating meat sweats and overconsumption-related shortness of breath, a host of minor but nonetheless traumatic flossing injuries and at least three grossly inopportune bouts of smoky, tangy, disconcertingly succulent belching, the one thing I know for certain is that the GTA, once lamented for its lack of good southern-style barbecue restaurants, has plenty of excellent choices now.

A wave of new places has upended the city’s long-held notion of barbecue—ribs that came boiled, grilled and slathered in torrents of sticky ketchup-based sauce, to cite just one common example—and replaced it with something that comes much closer to the low-and-slow smoked southern ideal.

THE CRITIC’S TOP FIVE

Number 1

The Stockyards Smokehouse and Larder
699 St. Clair Ave. W., 416-658-9666
Toronto Life review »

Number 2

Barque Smokehouse
299 Roncesvalles Ave., 416-532-7700

Number 3

Big Bone BBQ and Wicked Wings
207 Eagle St., Newmarket, 905-853-9888

Number 4

Paul and Sandy’s Real Barbecue
4925 Dundas St. W., 416-233-7032
Toronto Life review »

Number 5

Buster Rhino’s Southern BBQ
7-2001 Thickson Rd. S., Whitby, 905-436-6986
Toronto Life review »

On the heretofore middling restaurant strip called Roncesvalles, Barque Smokehouse is one of the newest spots. It’s also one of the best. Barque is named for the peppery, wood-smoky, deeply caramelized crust that’s a characteristic of southern barbecue, and the name isn’t an affectation. David Neinstein, Barque’s pit master, makes whole-smoked chickens that are moist and full-flavoured from brining, smoke-stained a deep, telltale pink under their skin (southern barbecue first-timers often mistake the colour for undercooking) and imbued to their cores with the taste of smouldering pecan and apple wood. His brisket, rubbed down with chunky cracked peppercorns, salt and a touch of sugar, is much moister and more charactered than the usual. (I wasn’t surprised to learn that Neinstein reveres the brisket at Schwartz’s deli in Montreal.) His beef ribs are pleasantly creamy and nicely crusted at their edges, while the baby backs are tender but with a little chew left in them, and properly dry, but in a way that sets your mouth to prodigious watering. (An aside for barbecue arch-geeks: he cooks them in a gas-heated, wood-burning Southern Pride smoker, which he had trucked in from Alamo, Tennessee.) At their best, they were punchy and tangy from a black pepper dry rub, but only enough to balance out the meat. This is all the more impressive considering that Neinstein had only two months of experience cooking in restaurants when he opened Barque in April.

Neinstein, who is 32, worked in advertising and did an MBA at the University of Windsor before he committed to opening a restaurant in 2009. Jonathan Persofsky, his 30-year-old business partner, who runs the front of house, was a project manager for a hospital software firm. While this sort of resumé would almost certainly spell sudden, painful death at most other kinds of restaurants, the barbecue business is full of quick studies. With luck, money and (to be sure) a little skill, weekend hobbyists can, and often do, rise to the top of the competitive barbecue circuit in just a couple of seasons.

In the spring of 2010, Neinstein spent eight weeks working at Head Country Barbecue, a respected smokehouse in Ponca City, Oklahoma, where he learned the basics of commercial barbecue and helped cater enormous events for such vital southern U.S. institutions as the National Rifle Association. He also became a certified judge under the Kansas City Barbeque Society (from the judge’s oath: “I accept my duty to be an official KCBS certified judge, so that truth, justice, excellence in barbecue and the American way of life may be strengthened and preserved forever”) and toured some of the South’s standout joints.

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