Friday, March 9, 2012

BBQ in Ottawa

I've declared it many, many times but I'll reiterate: I LOOOOOOOOOVE Barbecue. And I don't mean grilling a steak over charcoal, because that isn't real Barbecue. Real Barbecue involves cooking meat with indirect heat and smoke. As I've already mentioned a bunch of times (mainly in January 2011 with these two posts), I enjoy smoking/BBQing tremendously. But I'll be the first one to tell you that I'm not nearly as good at it as I should be - I still struggle with getting the tenderness and moisture levels right in my food. So, it's no surprise that I am always on the lookout for tasty slow-cooked smoky goodness whenever it comes to town.

Come June, Ottawa gets its annual visit from the Meat Fairy in the form of Ribfest, which just happens to be on the Sparks Street pedestrian mall, which just happens to be one street north from where I live. Imagine walking through two blocks of slow-smoking pork and chicken every day to and from work. It's a bit crazy. Unfortunately, it's also damned expensive: 22 bucks for a full rack of ribs, and that's just the ribs. Also, the line-ups are completely ridiculous and it's very much hit and miss when it comes to quality. I had a couple of half-racks last year that had the fall-off-the-bone tenderness, but were a big ol' sad trombone when it came to flavour. To be honest, what I really love about Ribfest is the Pulled Pork. It's better value than the ribs (6-7 bucks for a pulled pork sandwich), and pulled pork is a lot harder to screw up flavour-wise. I failed to notice an earthquake hitting Ottawa in June 2010 because I was too enrapt in my sandwich...

But Ottawa isn't exactly what you'd call a Barbecue mecca. At least it wasn't until some new culinary establishments hit town over the past year or so. The first of these was The Smoque Shack, which opened in August of 2011 on York Street, just past the corner of Dalhousie in the former digs of Caveau Szechuan. It was a bit of a revelation of tasty goodness, but I'll get more into that later. In November, Fatboys Southern Smokehouse opened up a few blocks away on Murray Street. Finally, in January 2012, the Mill Street Brew Pub opened up near the War Museum. In this post I'll be looking at all three establishments, but I'll be giving a special look at Mill Street in a future post, it deserves a fair bit of special attention for more than its BBQ offerings.

So in this post, I'll just be focusing on Smoque Shack and Fatboys.

Smoque Shack

There was a lot of excitement for both Kari and me heading into our first trip to Smoque Shack since it was the first time Ottawa had a proper Barbecue joint, or so we hoped. I figure it was around October, about a month or two after it had opened and we were hearing good things. It helped that Kari knew one of the owners, Warren, from his stint as Executive Chef at the now-defunct Sweetgrass.

We entered where we first saw the bar, it was a nice relaxed set-up, probably good for a quick lunch drink and nosh. They sat us in the back of the house where the majority of tables are located. The ambiance and atmosphere was a good mix of casual sports bar and slightly trendy. The clientele ran the gamut of hordes of university kids getting ready for a night out, first dates and 3-generational tables; no one really seemed out of place.

Our server came out to take our drink order and to my delight, it turns out Smoque Shack is a Mill Street purveyor, something that made me quite happy as I loooooove Mill Street's beers. It was here that Kari first tried Mill Street's Vanilla Porter and the love affair continues to this day...

A pint of Mill Street Vanilla Porter cures all ills...
Next came the menu, and what a menu it was! So many selections! And to my surprise, not only is Smoque Shack all about the BBQ, Warren also played up his Jamaican background by adding Jerk Pork and Jerk Chicken to the offerings.

The menu is set up in (what I guess is) the traditional BBQ/Soul Food way where you get your meat and add sides as you choose for whatever their cost. Example: You can get a half pound of Pulled Pork for 8 bucks, then add sides like Mac n' Cheese for $3.50 or Sweet Potato Fries for $5. So, it allows for satisfying a simple meat craving, or having a full-bore pigout. All depends on hunger and budget.

Now, what first grabbed our attention was an entry from the "Snack and Grazing" menu: Rib Tips. "Marinated and fried up crisp, served dusted in our special seasoning or tossed in one of our signature sauces: Hot, Pirri Pirri, Sweet Chili, Memphis Red Sauce, BBQ, Jerk Sauce". Yeah, this had to be in my mouth... So, as our server came back to take our order, we asked what sauce would be best and he suggested we stick with the simple BBQ. Thank you Mr. Server for that! It was soooo good! I seriously have to talk myself out of ordering the Rib Tips every time I go just for the sake of trying all the other tasty items on the menu! Imagine little nuggets of rib meat with just a bit of crunch from deep frying. They're not the same texture as actual smoked ribs (they're a bit tougher, but not in an unpleasant way), I guess you could say they're a porcine version of chicken wings. Regardless, should you ever go to Smoque Shack, I cannot recommend these enough to you. EAT THEM!!!!!!

Rib Tips, must eat, soooo goood!!!

Now, since then, I've had all kinds of different goodies from Smoque Shack. I've had their brisket, which was heavenly (coffee-based BBQ sauce? Yes please!). I've had the Jerk Pork, which was perhaps a little tamer than the true authentic melt-your-face Jerk that a few friends of Caribbean descent have made for me in the past, but still delicious. Also had their chicken and pulled pork, both super-tasty as well. Oddly enough, I haven't yet tried the pork or beef ribs. Maybe due to cost, maybe because I just wasn't in a rib eating mood. Or maybe just because the goddamn Rib Tips keep calling me back... Either way, I will try their ribs next time I go and give y'all an update or comment.

A special note on their burger. I know, I know; getting a burger at a BBQ place seems a bit pointless. But to be honest, it was one of the best burgers I've ever had. There was a touch of chili powder in the meat and the patty was super-thick, but properly cooked and juicy (I don't care what anyone says about a 'rare' burger, pink in the middle of a burger is NOT a good thing!). Definitely something to try if you're in the mood for a burger.

And of course it has bacon!

The sides are also pretty good, but there are some hits and some misses. Their Greens are really tasty, as they use a variety of greens (kale, chard, etc.), not just collard greens. They cook them with bacon and there's tremendous flavour, but I still prefer the old school preparation with smoked pork hock that they serve at Jean Alberts. Other sides worth trying are the Mac n' Cheese (more bacon!) and Sweet Potato Fries (always perfectly crispy and really well seasoned).

Purple Greens?

So, that's Smoque Shack. Next, Fatboys.

Fatboys Southern Smokehouse

The anticipation for Fatboys opening was only a bit less keen than that for Smoque Shack. It's located on Murray Street just east of Sussex, right next to the building where Kari works (and I used to work for ten years, so familiar territory!). We went right after it opened, I believe its second week of business in December of last year. The interior is quite the marvel. It's a huge, almost warehouse-like location (which was a shock considering how small the space looks on the outside) with a grand open-concept kitchen. Where Smoque Shack has a cozy intimate feel, Fatboys is a bustling hive of activity. We met the owner who told us that the concept was to be as authentically Southern U.S. as possible, for good or ill.

As we sat down, a very young and cheerful young lady came up to take our drink order. Being a firm believer that good BBQ needs good beer, I asked what they had on tap. "Keith's, Bud, blah blah blah" I stopped her before she got going. "What sort of microbrews do you have?" I asked. The answer threatened any future visits from yours truly:

"I don't know what a microbrew is." Aaaaaaaand facepalm.

Now, I understand wanting to keep an authentic experience, but you should also know your potential clientele. This is Ottawa, not Florida, and no matter how authentic an experience you wish to give your customers, GIVE THEM THE BEST BEER POSSIBLE! We don't screw around in this town when it comes to our brewskis! (except maybe the idiot hipsters who have convinced themselves that Pabst Blue Ribbon is drinkable).

Anyway, with the disappointment accepted, I instead got a bottle of Busch beer (as in half of the Anheuser-Busch brewing company, the ones responsible for/guilty of brewing Budweiser). For a mass produced American beer, it actually wasn't too bad, but it sure as hell wasn't a Vanilla Porter or Steam Whistle!

So with this annoying, but not ruinous, strike against the experience, I was offered a bit of a tour of the facilities (the bonuses in a subtle mention of "I write a food blog" can be pretty damn cool at times!). We were shown the smoker up close and it was one hell of a contraption! Beats the hell out of my little amateur barrel smoker! Also met the "Pit Boss" and he seemed to know what he was doing - I was getting excited to try out what he was throwing down!

That is a whole lot of meat! - photo by kira_generika

So, back at our tables, we figured it was time to get on with the whole "shoving smokey meaty goodness in our mouths" portion of the evening.  Between the two of us, we thought it would be best if we shared The Kentucky Trio, which is a 1/4 lb. each of three different kinds of meat with three sides. After some debate, we decided on Pulled Pork, Memphis Pork Ribs (so dry-rubbed with sauce on the side) and Smoked Turkey (I've never had it nor seen it in a resto before). For sides we had Smashed Potatoes with gravy, Creamed Corn and Mac n' Cheese. Now, none of the meats came sauced, which is fine since they have squeeze bottles of a BBQ sauce, a spicy sauce and a mustard-based sauce. They were all pretty tasty, especially the spicy, but nothing that made me gasp in pleasure or feel jealous.

As for the meat, well, it was kinda disappointing. The Ribs were a bit tough and they had no flavour on their own. I understand Memphis-style ribs don't come with sauce on them, but that's when you need to ROCK the rub and this rub tasted of mundane paprika and that's about it. The same applied to the Pulled Pork, also under-rubbed and bland. I wish I could say the sauces saved either, but they didn't really marry well.

We tried the sides and they too weren't remarkable: the Creamed Corn tasted fake-ish, as did the Mac n' Cheese, but the gravy on the Smashed Potatoes was really good.

What saved the meal, thankfully, was the Smoked Turkey. It wasn't super moist in and of itself, but tender and DELICIOUS! Especially when smothered in a metric ton of gravy. I would go back just to eat lots and lots of it and slip into a happy tryptophan coma. But unfortunately, that's about all I'd go back for, although they do have live Rockabilly acts now and then, so that might be worth another trip.

Fatboys' Kentucky Trio - photo by kira_generika

So there you have it, a backgrounder on the meager state of BBQ in Ottawa. I commend Smoque Shack for giving this town what we needed, and caution Fatboys to step up their culinary game and add some Canadian flavour on their drink menu. From what I've read on restaurant review sites and food blogs, my opinion is fairly common. Hopefully improvements at Fatboys will happen and help make Ottawa's downtown a "two-awesome-BBQ-joints area". Mill Street has shown themselves quite adept at making smoky goodness, but I wouldn't quite classify it as a BBQ joint. And in the end, I still, ecstatically, have Smoque Shack's tasty goodness to keep me happy. And my smoker on the back deck, of course...

Happy snarfing of smoke-kissed carcasses of joy! 

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