Restaurant review: The Stockyards Review: The Stockyards Smokehouse & Larder
By Elli Davis, September 8, 2009
Address: 699 St. Clair Avenue West, Toronto, ON
Neighbourhood: Wychwood Park
- (Not rated yet.)
The Stockyards is a new kid on the block that's already been voted Toronto's Best Barbecue by NOW Magazine, scoring a perfect 5 out of 5 n's and making the tiny restaurant a real threat to the Portuguese churrasco at Christie and St. Clair, not to mention diverting takeout customers from the nearby McDonalds.
As someone who know how to make great chicken n' ribs, I'm always skeptical when I hear buzz about great barbecue. Cluck, Grunt n' Low at Bloor and Walmer had the best southern food and barbecue I've ever tasted, and they're out of business, while some of the pulled pork offerings I've had lately tasted like sawdust coated in sauce. In fact, that's the problem I have with barbecue joints in general. Coat any food in enough sweet, smoky sauce and it'll probably taste good. So I'm already a doubter, but definitely up for some nice greasy meat, when I grab three friends and head to the Stockyards.
We go to St. Clair West subway station and take the bus west, just past the stop that lets you off at the Artscape Wychwood Barns - a multi-purpose project combining artists' lofts with a greenhouse, historical museum and gallery space, indicative of the upswing of this neighbourhood. A big Starbucks at the corner just a few doors down from The Stockyards proves that despite the relative penury of the nearby shops, this part of the St. Clair strip has indeed arrived.
It's here, beside a tidy greengrocer and across the street from the World's Best Bakery (which is actually very, very good) that owner Tom Davis has set up shop. It's six thirty on a Friday night and there's a lineup to get in, as The Stockyards doesn't accept reservations. What we didn't know is that the restaurant only seats a maximum of twelve people - on stools, at two diner-style counters - it's the quintessential take-out BBQ joint. While one of my fearless companions pushes his way inside to notify a harried staff member that we're waiting to dine in, the rest of us take in the clean, understated storefront inherited from Ciccio's Pizza, the retro signage, and the interesting log furniture that provides a modicum of outdoor seating.
A bit of the Friday night rush clears out and we stand inside, squeezed beside diners who are hunched over paper-lined cast iron pans of barbecue. The din is incredible - the phone rings off the hook with pick up orders, there's a long queue waiting to pay, and we watch the cooks working the grill yelling high-spirited orders to each other. The likelihood of getting four seats together seems very slim, until a young woman sitting at the narrow counter catches my arm.
Though I haven't seen her in years - Gail and I get to chatting right away. "All the people I work with, swear by this place," she says.
I ask her why there's no food in front of her and she explains that as a vegetarian, she's already eaten before her visit. I make a mental note to check the menu and sure enough, the only veggie options here are sides. Gail says she won't eat the fries because they are fried in lard. She also points out that tonight is rib night - an event that takes place three times a week at the Stockyards, on Tuesdays, Fridays and Sundays, the days that they run their smoker. It's good to have a guide, because the restaurant has a frantic feel, though there's method to the madness as the staff brown-box endless take out orders to accommodate the crowds.
When a vacant space opens up at the big counter, directly across from the cooks, we nab it and put in our orders, then go to the front to pay. Somewhere in all the confusion, we forget to tip; the Stockyards has an interesting mix of wait-service and takeout that might be compared to the burger chain Licks. We get our own drinks from the cooler; my friend has a homemade lime-ade infused with mint that she pronounces 'delicious' ($2.75) Fortunately none of us are drinkers, as The Stockyards doesn't yet have a liquor license four months into business.
"So has it been busy like this from the beginning?" one of my friends asks a guy in the back, who turns out to be the owner, Tom Davis. A tall, energetic man, he's friendly and businesslike and smiley - as well he should be, admitting it's been 'crazy' from the start.
"Do you have any plans for expansion?" my friend asks. Tom smiles and shrugs. "Not at the moment, this is enough!"
A conversation ensues around the smoker. Tom explains that while some places use an electric 'set-it-and-forget-it' smoker, his is the real thing. When asked if he has to man it twenty-four hours a day, he says, "No, I've rigged it now so that you don't have to. But we still smoke out there three days a week starting in the morning, and it'll be going all through the night."
The results of all this effort - succulent chicken, pulled pork and ribs - are displayed in the heated server at the front of the restaurant, enticing yet more people to come in off the street and get their weekend BBQ fix.
Food arrives almost immediately, except for the buttermilk fried chicken ($12) - the menu even cautions a 15-20 minute wait. Turns out that's because fresh thyme leaves are being picked off their stems and added to the spice mix, and then the chicken is battered and fried for a result that rivals anything I've tasted commercially. The salty crunch of skin surrounds juicy, perfectly cooked meat. Sides of skinny fries - twice fried, Belgian style, for that perfect shoestring crisp - and coleslaw are impeccable. Instead of the overly vinegary, acidic shredded cabbage that usually passes for this often overlooked side, real attention is put into the creamy handmade slaw, right down to the fresh cracked black pepper.
The Stockyards Fried chicken plate
The same attention to detail is found in the seasonal sautéed greens ($3.50) which consisted of a huge bowl of string beans, perfectly cooked to retain their crispness and dressed with a light chili-spiked oil. Ditto for the simple green salad with sherry vinaigrette ($6) which my partner pronounces as 'amazing' - the dressing is tart, sweet, light and perfectly spiced.
A half rack of ribs ($13) is too much for one person to eat - we're not talking about baby back ribs here. There's a joyous lack of sauce on the ribs themselves (this smoky chipotle-style preparation is served on the side for dipping) but the dry rub is excellent - a spicy, smoky infusion all through the meat. Again, fries are perfectly cooked.
The pulled pork sandwich ($8) comes on a 'classic store bought bun' according to the menu, presumably so there are no surprises from folks expecting home-baked ciabatta to come with everything (this is available for the porchetta, and rye bread for the home-made pastrami). The pulled pork is well spiced, juicy, and actually smoked, not braised as is common in Toronto.
Apparently Davis has never cooked professionally before, but has spent 15 years researching and experimenting with smoking. Obviously it's paying off. Ribs are cooked for approximately eight hours, the pork shoulder for 12 hours. All the food is exceptional, with textures from fall off the bone tender to perfectly crisped. But there are challenges.
Ribs usually run out by eight p.m. and the restaurant is only open till 9 pm, which makes sense in view of the lack of nearby parking (exacerbated by summer and streetcar construction work) which makes the restaurant difficult to access by car. Takeout necessarily loses some of its charm as fresh hot dishes cool off and lose crunch. The fabulous culinary experience at a ridiculously low price is affected by the chaotic atmosphere (although the staff was charmingly attentive, especially given how busy they were) - not a place for a romantic bite, unless you are looking for an overcrowded New York diner atmosphere.
If The Stockyards were to expand into a space that's big enough to spread out in - well, I would probably die of clogged arteries. So maybe The Stockyards is perfect the way it is.