Joint ventures: Kingston now embracing 'low and slow' movement of barbecue

Colin Burtch, chef and co-owner of the Kingston Brewing Company, introduced a barbecue-focused menu shortly after taking ownership. Peter Hendra / The Whig-Standard

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Low and slow starts to grow

Barbecue. The noun, not the verb; what you eat, not what you use to cook it on.

“Barbecue may not be the road to world peace,” celebrated chef Anthony Bourdain once said, “but it’s a start.”

Over the past few years, the Kingston area has seen a boon in things cooked “low and slow.” And what better time to eat said barbecue in the summertime.

Here, we take a look at four who are introducing Kingstonians to all things barbecue.

Stone City BBQ

One wouldn’t think that opening a takeout barbecue joint beside a car wash would be ideal, but Stone City BBQ’s Kevin Reichert would disagree.

“The best barbecue is always in the weirdest spots,” he laughed.

The spot — which used to be the Snack Shack, a popular desitnation for students from La Salle Secondary School across Highway 15 — was one for which Reichert had waiting for two years to open up.

It wasn’t the high schoolers’ business he was after, but those who worked at CFB Kingston nearby.

After all, it was being just five minutes from the base at Trenton that sustained his first restaurant, Primitive Cuisine.

“I knew that they would be here,” he said of the regulars who found him. “I recognized many familiar faces, and they recognized me, too.”

That there’s lots of new homes going up and the new bridge doesn’t hurt, either.

In fact, Reichert took an unconventional route to get to his unconventional locale.

He started his career working for telecommunications company Nortel in its information technology department.

“I was the guy who did the knowledge management and the support of all of the techs that did the internal technical help desk,” he said.

The Simcoe, Ont., native soon found himself travelling to other cities to conduct training, and one of those spots was Raleigh, N.C.

Whenever he went somewhere, he would always ask his host for a recommendation of where to eat.

“It was just a crappy plaza in a crappy area and it looked awful. Everything was yellowed from smoke. It was kind of weird looking and stuff. Kind of sketchy. It smelled good, though,” Reichert recalled. “And then they brought the food out and it was like, ‘Holy crap, this is good.’”

So whenever he found himself in Raleigh or Plano, Texas, his free weekends would see him “toot around looking for barbecue.”

The best barbecue he’s ever eaten wasn’t at some established place, but from a truck parked alongside the road with a smoker hitched to it.

“He would just set up, cook up, sell out, pack up, go home,” Reichert said. “And it was like, ‘Wow, this is really good.’ ”

So when Nortel folded, he moved to Prince Edward County, where he and his father built a smoker using two old propane tanks.

When it came time for the annual Maple in the County festival, Reichert decided to take part. The only stipulation was that he had to incorporate maple syrup, which he put in his sauce. He smoked between 200 and 300 pounds of pork for sandwiches.

“The first day it was gone in about four hours,” he said. “That sparked the ‘Huh, there’s a market here for this because people like it.’ And then I opened Primitive Cuisine in Trenton.”

He liked that in Canada, there wasn’t a barbecue culture like there was in the southern States, “so we can do what we want and nobody’s going to get upset.”

He uses sauces from the various barbecue regions: bold, savoury Memphis for brisket, sweet and tangy Kansas City for pork and chicken, he said. Alabama white and Carolina Vinegar and Carolina Mustard are among the other options.

Five years later, he sold the business to his junior pit boss.

He moved to Kingston in 2017 and then opened Stone City BBQ in November 2019.

As a take-away joint, the lockdowns of the pandemic didn’t really affect his business, he said.

“You order, pick it up, and go home.”

Reichert said he sells true blue barbecue, and he has regulars who drive from places like Peterborough to pick some up.

It’s pretty common for him to sell out everything he had in the smoker, he said.

“Barbecue is the slowest, most inconvenient fast food ever,” Reichert suggested. “It takes forever to cook, it doesn’t take long to throw a sandwich together, and when it’s gone, it’s gone.”

Smoke ‘N’ Barrel

It was a trip to Memphis five years ago that Tommy Hunter discovered southern barbecue.

“That visit basically turned into a southern food tour for four days,” said Hunter. “So right there I was like, ‘Kingston needs something like this.’ And then I started doing my research on barbecue, and found out there are seven different styles of barbecue in the States.”

He would then spend nine weeks, in six separate trips, touring the seven regions, sampling the different styles, he said.

“And then I went about trying to find the best of all the styles as I built my menu” for what is now Smoke ‘N’ Barrel restaurant in the city’s west end.

Wherever he went, he would take out his camera when he sat down to eat.

Sometimes he’d take pics and leave, other times he’d be there for three days hanging out with a pit boss or “hanging out in their kitchens.”

“I put my research into it to make sure we were bringing a little bit of each authentic region to Kingston,” Hunter said.

While some would say brisket is how you would judge whether a barbecue joint was good or not, he was interested in the accompaniments.

“For me, the sides are just as important as the barbecue, or almost, and the baked beans and mac ’n’ cheese,” said Hunter, who also owns Tommy’s diner downtown. “Mac ’n’ cheese is essential to barbecue. And banana pudding — you’ll find that in all seven regions.”

The restaurant on Fortune Crescent was to open in early March of last year, but was a month behind. When they opened in April, the province was in the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic. So instead of offering sit-down dining, they could only offer takeout. Still, “we hit our stride pretty quickly.”

Hunter’s finding that there’s a learning curve for diners when it comes to barbecue.

“Canadian barbecue, it’s all sugary, molasses-based sauces, which I hate,” he said. “And a lot of people struggle with the fact that our meat isn’t served hot, it’s served warm.”

That’s because, he said, most restaurants refrigerate their ribs, for example, then warm them on the grill while lathering them in sauce.

Fittingly, he said, their most popular sauce is their Mackinnon Maple, which combines the Bath brewer’s Red Fox beer with maple syrup.

While Smoke ’N’ Barrel has only been open indoors sporadically, Hunter did discover one thing: all of the church pews he bought for seating were wildly uncomfortable.

“They looked really good, but what a terrible idea,” he laughed, adding that the restaurant is now under renovation as a result.

As for the ‘Barrel’ in the restaurant’s name, it doesn’t stand for something wth which you might build your smoker.

“It’s my business, and I really like barbecue and I really like whisky,” Hunter said.

“I open businesses with things that I enjoy.”

Matt James’ Old Style Barbeque is serving authentic central Texas barbecue at Mackinnon Bros. farm in Bath this summer.

Old Style Barbeque

Before he moved back to Canada four and a half years ago to revitalize his partner’s family farm located north of Kingston, you were more likely to find Matt James in the kitchen of a high-end restaurant in Los Angeles or Boston than serving up authentic central Texas barbecue in Bath, Ont.

Originally from St. Catharines, Ont., the dual citizen travelled south when he turned 18 to work in kitchens in the United States. In addition to his stints in L.A. — which led to a four-year stint as personal chef to a royal family in the Bahamas — and Boston, James also worked at the Wynn Hotel in Las Vegas and in Martha’s Vineyard. In all, he spent about 20 years in, as he called it, “frou frou fancy fine dining.”

It was his last American stop — working as a culinary director for Apple computers in Austin, Texas — that stirred his interest in what has become Old Style Barbeque.

“Living in Austin, that’s kinda where I fell in love with barbecue. And I spent seven years in Austin,” James said. “It was a thing that you did — if not Thursdays, Fridays, Saturdays, Sundays, then at least Saturdays and Sundays — travelling around central Texas and eating barbecue.”

After find a 250-gallon steel barrel in the farm’s barn, he turned it into a smoker, and started catering events in Prince Edward County in 2019 until landing a steady gig this year at Mackinnon Brothers family farm in Bath, where they make their popular craft beer, Friday to Sunday afternoons.

For James, authenticity is key. He called it Old Style Barbeque to pay homage to the men and women who, in the days before refrigeration, smoked leftover meat in pits and then sold it on weekends.

“First and foremost it’s distinguished by the holy trinity, which consists of brisket, handmade sausage and ribs,” James said, adding that only Matty Boy Barbecue takes a similar approach to his.

“And you always, always use side ribs and not baby back ribs. Side ribs have a little less meat on them, but there’s more fat, which means there’s more flavour. And the simplicity of a salt and black pepper rub and then white oak for the smoke.”

He didn’t want to just emulate the ‘holy trinity,’ “but also be able to heavily throw in my culinary experience and bring it to a higher-end level and have a standout, unique product.”

For example, he has been getting sugar snap peas from a farm down the road from Mackinnon, so he’s making a sugar snap pea salad with shaved red onions, feta cheese and pistachios tossed in an apple cider vinaigrette.

“It’s very simple, but it’s the texture, it’s the seasonality, it’s the acidity, the crunch that counterbalances the fat of the meats as well,” he said.

And he regularly offers his take on the ‘Texas Twinkie’ — a jalapeno that’s stuffed with bacon-jalapeno sausage (instead of the traditional leftover brisket) and cream cheese and then wrapped in bacon.

“They took off,” James said. “People love ’em.”

And produce such as cucumbers and cabbage grown on the family farm — he was selling it to local restaurants pre-pandemic.

James now stays on site for the entire three days, loading meat and wood into his now-encased 1,000-gallon smoker.

He sells out a lot — he has been doing more and more takeaway orders, too — and has tried to stagger cooking times so some people don’t arrive at the farm and are disappointed.

While he’s thought about the possibility of opening a brick-and-mortar barbecue joint, he thinks “wide open spaces are where it’s at” in the pandemic times.

“We’re pretty happy right now,” he said, “being at Mackinnon.”

Kingston Brewing Company

When a group of employees bought the Kingston Brewing Company half a decade ago, they wanted to put their mark on it.

One of the oldest brew pubs in Ontario, so they brought in a lot of other craft beers to join their own. And the Brew Pub’s beer memorabilia-filled decor are distinct, so they decided to revamp their menu.

While they’d had some smokehouse items on the menu for the past quarter-century, thanks to the pressure smokers located in the Clarence Street building’s basement, “we wanted to make it better than it was,” said chef Colin Burtch, one of the owners as well.

So they decided to try barbecue, which no other downtown restaurant was offering much barbecue at the time, with the exception of Dianne’s Fish Shack and Smokehouse nearby.

“That was a big move,” Burtch recalled. “We’d been here for 30 years and never really changed up the menu before, let alone shift it to focus on one specific thing. The weeks leading up to that menu change were pretty nerve-racking.”

Burtch, meanwhile, hadn’t travelled around the southern U.S. sampling barbecue like others have. He only tried it a few times on tasting trips to Toronto.

He did, however, own his own Oklahoma Joe’s smoker, which he used to cook meat for 225 people at his own wedding.

It was while judging a rib contest one year at Friendly Fires that Burtch came across a smoker that caught his eye.

“He told me what it was and where he got it from, and we had this guy build us a smoker just like that,” Burtch said of the seven-foot-long wood-burner.

After sampling a smattering of barbecue, they decided to lean toward Texas style, seasoning their briskets with a straightforward mix of salt and black pepper, adding a touch of paprika to that for their ribs.

While he may have been worried about how a place that has so many regular customers would react to the new menu — a lot of the pub’s most popular items remained — it turns out he didn’t have to be.

“It was crazy busy right off the bat. We were running out of barbecue,” explained Burtch, who said they went through five or six briskets each day when they started.

“It was tough because people didn’t understand how much time it takes to do the barbecue.”

After all, he said, there’s only so much room in a smoker and so many hours in a day.

They tried parking their smoker in the pub’s courtyard, but the smell of burning wood brought complaints from the residents of the apartments upstairs. Since the Brew Pub’s kitchen is relatively small, so they often do some of their cooking off-site and that’s where they kept the smoker.

And then the pandemic arrived and they reduced their menu.

“We’re not currently doing barbecue as we moved out of other space,” Burtch said. “We bought another building that, because of the pandemic, still isn’t finished. Eventually the smoker will get going again.”

For now, they’re just serving beer-braised brisket, but still going through a couple a day.

“The want for brisket,” Burtch said, “is still there.”