Even in the dead of winter, it's in an Albertan's blood to barbecue for dinner despite the temperature. However, there is a large difference between charring chicken thighs and potatoes on the grill and the attention to detail that is found in serious Texas-style barbecue. Hayden Block is succeeding in embodying the latter with its delicious, south-of-the-border cuisine.
In what was formerly The Yardhouse, a floundering watering hole for the past several years, Hayden has brought plenty of buzz in the Kensington neighbourhood. Not only is it a new dining option for an area that so desperately needs more culinary diversity, but it is also the first barbecue eatery to come along in years.
The concept is nothing groundbreaking. It's Western-themed room – complete with a bull's skull mounted behind the bar – is filled with plank tables, friendly enough servers, a high-volume atmosphere and brown-liquor cocktails that encourage you to mix, mingle and eat platters of well-made barbecue. The main thing you're meant to do here is have fun: You know, be a little loud, spill barbecue sauce on your white shirt and have one too many drinks.
The bar relies heavily on a list of more than 100 whiskies from around the globe and cocktails such as the boozy, sunset-hued Old Besse. A combination of Alberta Springs whisky, amaro, orange-blossom water, ginger and dandelion and burdock bitters, the drink is shaken over ice, poured into a coupe and garnished with dried dandelion flowers. Although many drinks are full of dynamic ingredients, the bartenders are more interested in keeping drinks flowing than keeping patrons waiting through multiple, time-consuming cocktail steps.
It should go without saying that this is not the place for your veg-head friends. They could fork into the simple and fresh watermelon salad, the sweet, smokestack corn or bite into crispy-on-the-outside, briny-on-the-inside deep-fried pickles while others gnaw on the bony remnants of juicy, smothered-in-house-barbecue-sauce chicken wings, but the smoke and slow-cooked meat aromas that waft throughout the room is more appealing to those with carnivorous tendencies.
The beef short rib prepared at Hayden is truly unique, served up bone-in with a robust spice rub. I don't often reach Fred Flintstone excitement levels when it comes to big slices of meat, but this is the best, gloriously carnivorous plate I've enjoyed this year.
The smoked turkey breast is nearly as impressive as the short rib, especially when smothered in the house-made, spicy vinegar barbecue sauce. The pork spare ribs round out third place with its tender texture, the meat easily pulling from the bone as all good ribs should. Bringing up the rear was a painfully dry half chicken and a few mini jalapeno cornbread pucks that crumbled between my fingers. To wrap things up in true Southern-style, Hayden's pecan pie is big and unforgivingly sweet and buttery, so best to share it with your friends.
The only downside is the communal table setup, which is only real seating option aside from saddling up to the bar. This doesn't bode so well during peak dining times. Interspersed seating of twos or threes with spare seats in-between make it hard for groups of four or more to find a spot quickly. The servers are reluctant to ask a pair to slide left or right to make the groups fit. It's like watching someone play a game of Tetris – you know that you could do better.