Real barbecue is all the rage, and if you wonder why, you probably haven’t been to the ByWard Market at 6 a.m. to experience the perfume of Quebec maple charcoal and Ontario apple wood wafting out of the garage beneath the Smoque Shack. The menu covers a lot of slow-smoked territory — from Texas to Tennessee to North Carolina. There’s also the howlingly hot and spicy jerk barbecue of Jamaica, the birthplace of co-owner and executive chef Warren Sutherland. In fact, Sutherland’s story since leaving the Caribbean explains a lot about why Smoque Shack is one of the city’s most distinctive and delicious comfort-food joints. At first glance, it appears to be just a bare-bones watering hole, a fun and potentially rowdy student hangout with flat-screen televisions, all but indistinguishable from the touristy chain restaurants that surround it. But the proof is in the eating, and the difference is profound. From the meaty mains to the incredible accompaniments — golden crusted mac and cheese, homemade creamed corn, and a steaming saucer of tender-crisp greens bathed in a rich jus, among the many not to be missed sides — this food is what you get when you cross roadhouse recipes with the precision of an engineer and the high standards of a fine-dining chef. Sutherland went to culinary school in Vermont, a switch from the direction he was headed with his engineering degree from Michigan State (he even worked as an engineer for a year). Ultimately he landed in Ottawa with his partner, and together they opened Sweetgrass Aboriginal Bistro, a fine-dining restaurant — the first of its kind — that showcased native cultures and ingredients with a contemporary spin. Though that collaboration didn’t work out in the end, Sutherland’s love of combining culinary influences under one roof and his passion for authentic ’cue led to this latest carnivore heaven in the heart of the capital. There’s no need to play favourites — the menu promotes sampling and sharing. The Carolina-style pulled pork is popular, as are the St. Louis side ribs and the aromatic jerk chicken finished with beer, but for me, it all comes down to the beef brisket — brined, rubbed, and left to linger for hours and hours in the city’s first dedicated smokehouse before being basted with a brilliant and balanced coffee barbecue sauce. The beef ribs get the same glorious treatment but benefit from one extra blast of heat from the grill. The long journey ends when the glossy, sweet-smoky, gargantuan bones land on your table, begging to be picked up and devoured with abandon. As you walk out with sauce on your shirt and a smile on your face, the wonders of ’cue are not lost on you.
129 York St., 613-789-4245, www.smoqueshack.com.