Things were looking good when we lined up at Toronto’s Adamson Barbecue.
Even from across the order counter one could discern a convincing smoke ring between the moist barque and glistening fatty meat of the brisket the pit-master was slicing thickly, and mounding – Texas-style – on a butcher paper-lined cafeteria tray. Next he added spare ribs and turkey that seemed to be seasoned exactly right – with little more than salt, pepper and smoke. Smoke that had dyed the sausages nearly red, and left their casings looking dried and brittle – poised to pop and gush with the rendered fat within. Last, he added pulled pork, which jiggled enticingly, flaunting its tenderness as we walked our tray to the table.
My friends and I had stopped in for lunch at Adamson’s Barbecue, in a desolate pocket of the Toronto suburb of Leaside, but there was a Lone Star flag hanging on the wall, and Texas was on our minds. Specifically, the odyssey we had undertaken there last summer to a string of barbecue meccas like Franklin, Snow’s, Pecan Lodge, John Mueller’s and Terry Black’s. “Legit Texas Barbecue” is what Adamson’s promises on its website. Legit Texas barbecue is what we wanted. We tucked in.
Looking back, it was a shame I started with the pork, for it wasn’t tender – but overcooked to mush, and had a mild but off-putting whiff of incipient rancidity about it. Next, ribs – also overcooked, with far too much pepper in their rub. The sausage was authentic, if a little springy. The turkey breast was good, its brine subtle, the flesh moist. The high point – such as it was – belonged to the brisket, which pulled apart exactly as it is supposed to. But for all that it delivered in texture it was missing something big – just as was everything else on the table. Smoke.
Yes, really. Because for all the talk of Adamson’s 50-year Oyler smoker, they are not loading it up with white oak, the preferred wood of the Central Texas barbecue they aim to emulate. Instead, they are using the cheap substitute of sugar maple, which doesn’t deliver even a faint whisper of that sweet, smoky umami magic that makes Central Texas barbecue such a beautiful thing. Calling your product real Texas barbecue and going about it this way is pretty much like claiming to be the only authentic Roman restaurant in town, and then swapping out the expensive guanciale in your spaghetti carbonara in favour of cheap processed black forest ham. It’s just wrong.
“Not bad for Toronto, but not very good,” one of my tablemates volunteered, accurately. And then we compared calendars, looking for some coincidental free time for our next – and suddenly pressing – trip to Texas.