Smoke Signals Bar-B-Q celebrated its first anniversary on October 1st, but in fact, the building blocks have been in place for the last decade.
Owner/chef Nicholas Chen-Yin made authentic central Texas barbecue in his backyard while working as a graphic and industrial designer full-time for 10 years before opening up his first restaurant.
It was only after a chance meeting with chef Craig Wong (Patois and Jackpot Chicken Rice in Toronto, Ting Irie in Dubai) that he decided to do it professionally.
Thank goodness, because it’s one of the city’s best spots for ’cue.
Here’s 15 reasons why:
In order to understand Chen-Yin’s “lifelong obsession” and staunch commitment to Texas barbecue, you need to understand the pit masters that changed the game, specifically Louie Mueller (pronounced Miller) in Taylor, Texas and all his grandchildren that opened barbecue offshoots.
Two barbecue gods worked with the family before venturing out on their own: Aaron Franklin(Franklin Barbecue) worked with John Mueller (one of Louie’s grandsons), and John Lewis was the pitmaster at la Barbecue – owned by granddaughter Leanne Mueller. Chen-Yin learned from Lance Kirkpatrick, the once longtime pitmaster at Louie Mueller.
Chen-Yin built his own smoker from scratch. Twice, in order to get it right.
He uses ash, oak and sugar maple, “all plentiful in Ontario,” and splits all wood himself (Smoke Signals goes through 5,000 pounds of wood a week). Proteins are smoked around the clock.
To make authentic Texas barbecue, Chen-Yin insists it’s got to be “in a cooker like this and burning wood. Someone is here tending fires.
“With Southern Pride, you fill it with wood chips, set the timer, go home. It’s not Texas, Carolinas or Tennessee. It’s not what we do. Here it’s a pit cook, burning wood. The flavour profile is night and day.”
So if you want the real deal, according to Chen-Yin, “Cherry St. Bar-B-Que, Adamson Barbecue, and us – we’re making it the way they’re doing it in Texas. And then in the Carolinas to a certain degree…I had the fortune of sitting down and learning a ton from Sam Jones and the Jones family from the legendary Skylight Inn in Ayden, N.C.”
Don’t go thinking it’s fancy fare though. Chen-Yin says, “BBQ is just BBQ. It’s not fine dining. It’s casual food you find anywhere (in Texas) with a blue collar feel.”
And that’s why he serves all his food on paper plates. “It’s on purpose,” he says. “It’s the salt of the earth food. I don’t want to lose that. I want this to be accessible food. That’s why we have communal tables.”
And that’s how they do it in Texas, y’all, so giddy up.
P.S. He custom made the tables, bar and marquee.
But just because it isn’t fancy to look at, doesn’t mean it hasn’t been superbly made. Chen-Yin has the talent and keen eye of a high-end chef. You’ll see.
Chen-Yin’s family is Chinese Jamaican, and his father is from Florida, and so growing up, he had a ton of exposure to the southern U.S. “That’s where the seed was planted.” He started catering and went down to Texas to learn more. What he gleaned from the style? “I don’t want (the restaurant) to be a sell out BBQ place.”
All proteins are smoked. Brisket and beef ribs: “this is how it’s done in Texas,” he says. “Everything else is a spin or elevation.” Sausages are “close to being traditional,” but you might not find Kimchee Brussel Sprouts ($7) on a Texan menu. “That’s my philosophy – you have a foundation and then you break it down.”
He takes great care with the ingredients, careful not to over rub the brisket – something he sees all the time, and says, “The sides should be as good as the meat.”
Chen-Yin uses only USDA Beef Prime. “This is the best for barbecue. Canadian beef is not good – it’s too lean.”
Pork and poultry, however, is Canadian – Ontario, in fact.
Beef ribs are only available on Friday and Saturday (because they take up a lot of space in the smoker) so make sure to visit one of these days.
It’s one of the few barbecue places that does incredible vegetarian dishes, including the Jerk Jackfruit Sandwich ($12) that he makes with smoked jackfruit, braised in jerk sauce with mirepoix and butter, topped with coleslaw, piled onto a soft bun. In the winter, he does a twice-baked yam in foil in firebox, loaded with cheddar and sour cream.
Things to know about this ’cue: BBQ is served at 150 degrees and everything comes up fast, usually in just five minutes.
Once you try it, you’ll be hooked. You’ll also be stuffed. Chen-Yin says, “It’s a badge of honour that we crush people.” Consider yourself warned.
Foodways Texas is an “organization founded by scholars, chefs, journalists, restaurateurs, farmers, ranchers and other citizens of the state of Texas who have made it their mission to preserve, promote and celebrate the diverse food cultures of Texas.” Membership is extended to very few. Chen-Yin was invited this past March.
In addition to the phenomenal fare (everything’s made from scratch except buns – purchased from from Martin’s Potato Rolls in Chambersville, PA – and bread), there’s fantastic drinks: beer (draught, bottles and cans $5-$15), wine (gls $7, bottle of sparkling $55), tequila ($7-$10), inexpensive cocktails ($8-$10), and impressive, extensive collection of bourbons ($7-$15), including Weller’s 12 YO, considered a “poor man’s Pappy ($15), Maker’s Mark Cask Strength at a mere 112.2 proof ($15) and Weller Antique 107 ($10). Recently added to the collection: Bookers Blue Knight, Colonel EH Taylor Single Barrel, Stagg JR, and High West Yippee Ki Yay.
Smoke Signals Bar-B-Q (1242 Dundas St. W.) accommodates 50 guests inside and 12 at The Pit Room outside (weather-permitting) for dinner Tuesday to Sunday and lunch Friday to Sunday for dining in. Takeout, catering and booking for private parties are also available.
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