Toronto's love with BBQ goes hand in hand with our perverse obsession with trashing virtually every establishment that claims to have "Southern BBQ" in the city. Heedless of the inevitable complaints, Highway 61 bravely opened it's doors to the public in February 2009. Since then the internet has been littered with comments questioning everything from the accuracy of the restaurant's name to the sweetness of the BBQ sauce. Perhaps that's the curse of the location? Highway 61's predecessor, Cluck
Grunt and Low was renamed "Up Chuck and Spew" by one clever foodie who encapsulated the city's harsh opinions of locally available BBQ. It was inevitable that Highway 61 would not go unnoticed.
The reality is that the restaurant is an two floor den of washed out wooden walls and classic music memorabilia. Inspired by New York's best known biker run BBQ joint, Dinosaur Bar-B-Que, Highway 61 does its best to wear a faded interior designed to match Monday night blue grass performances, classic rock lovers and a hangout befit the most discerning of bikers.
To co-owner, Kerry Knoll the culture of BBQ runs through his veins with an admirably fervency. His taste for well smoked meats and premium Ontario craft brews are only rivaled by his knowledge of both. It's hard not to respect the man who's taste for BBQ may be cultivated by regular BBQ pilgrimages to the US but is owed to his father, the creator of Highway 61's signature BBQ sauce.
"He worked on this recipe for days," remembers Kerry, "He emerged with a sauce that has close to 20 ingredients... it's similar to a Missouri style sauce. We have changed the recipe a bit, we cut out the sugar for one." It's a complex sauce with a kick in your face straightforwardness - unlike any other BBQ sauce I've sampled. Kerry adds,"We are unveiling a hot as well as a sweet version this summer."
For Nick Sinnett, the journey from chef to pit boss was one discovered on the road to BBQ in the States. "I tasted the best bbq in the world," Nick says, "We can't recreate that, we're in Toronto. We can't have an outdoor kitchen. What we do well is making BBQ that we love - a Toronto-style."
The third partner, Ken McGarrie delivers the fruits of their three Southern Pride smokers which is an assortment of Rowe Farms naturally raised meats on a giant platter called the B.B. King ($48.49) pork side ribs, a large beef rib, smoked chicken, pulled pork, brisket. Alongside, jalapeño corn bread ($2.49), Big Mama's Onion Rings ($4.49), Crispy Smoked Wings ($9.49/lbs) and Grandma's Baked Beans ($3.49).
It's the sauce that makes the smoked chicken wings work, without it they are too subtly smoked to make any real impact, this was the same for the chicken on a whole and the jalapeño corn bread was dry. However, it's impossible not to recommend the mammoth, thick-cut, battered onion rings or the homey baked beans infused with a subtle smokiness.
There's no impediment to the pork or the beef. Everything is tender and falling from the bone. The slow smoke permeates and elevates the sauce. There's no hiding it, the meat is made for the sauce there is no point in eating without it.
The summer brings a serious specials including Monday and Wednesday night live blue grass, with $3.50 pints, $4 Margaritas & Buck-a-Ribs (Wednesdays only), Sunday Southern brunch from 11am-2pm complete with a DIY Caesar bar and cottage boxes ($52.95-$65.95) featuring complete meals with all the fixings and cooking instructions.
At the end of the meal, it's easy to be a critic, but I can't say anything besides the team at Highway 61 has successfully brought their version of Southern BBQ to the city. The meat is good, the smoke is real and this is what you get when you cross Toronto style with some Southern roots - you get one hot plate of, "pull the heck over" bbq.