Before the pleasure of Central Texas barbecue, there is always pain. For the pitmasters who make a life's work of the region's meats, there's the pain of the heat and the labour, the punishing hours and the necessarily failure-riven accretion of experience and skill. The smoke-scented, salt-and-pepper crusted, prodigiously juicy beef brisket that is the measure of Central Texas's best barbecue pits starts out tough and collagen choked; when cooked in the sear heat of a wood fire, it is prone to Naugahyde dryness and chew.
The pain for Central Texas barbecue's customers is a different sort of pain, and you can see it first-hand of late in the daily lineups outside an industrial building in Leaside. The pain for the customers at Adamson Barbecue, which since its launch last April has opened for a few hours each weekday, only at lunchtime and only until the meat runs out, is the pain of anticipation.
The smells of smouldering oak and sweet, rendered beef and pork fat hit even before you enter. Once inside, you watch and wait as owner Adam Skelly holds court at the shop's cutting counter, pulling giant racks of spare ribs, fat house-made sausage links, wobbly hunks of pork butt and, most importantly, whole beef briskets, from a holding cabinet, and then slices and portions them onto butcher paper-covered trays, one single order at a time.
Try as I might, I can't think of many other meat-based experiences that elicit such powerful pangs of hunger and impatience. On the plus side, the pleasure at Adamson is more than equal to the pain of the wait.
The barbecue here, especially in the past few weeks, is pretty good by Texas standards, and, by Toronto standards, perhaps the tastiest stuff around. Those ribs are thickly crusted with salt and pepper and stained pink from smoke, but they're tender, too, with just a hint of pull, and only lightly sweet; this being Texas barbecue, they don't come thickly slathered with sweet, sticky sauce. Adamson's sausages, which day-shift cook Matt Pelechaty makes from pork and brisket trimmings, come on strongly at first with smoke and salt, then with the firm, dry snap of their hog casings and the gush of molten juice. The pulled pork is very good. The turkey breast is smoked turkey breast. I've never entirely seen the point.
But that brisket, which sells by weight at $25 a pound (the price just went up from $22), is by far the standout. At its best, it's as soft as ribeye and nearly as smoky as a rust-perforated wood stove. The slices are capped with buttery fat, and they're juicy enough that you'll wish you had a special bib just for your chin. The brisket's glossy black crust is little more than salt and black pepper, kilned by convection; Adamson's brisket tastes richly of beef instead of candied sauce.
At its worst, consistency has been an issue, that brisket is comparatively meek-tasting and pot roast soft. Even then it's still some supremely delicious beef.
Mr. Skelly and his girlfriend Alison Hunt, who is the restaurant's general manager and partner, started the business in 2013 as a catering company called Stoke Stack BBQ.
As the business grew, they moved into the space in Leaside, a 3,000 square foot industrial building with plenty of room out back for firewood, and a growing collection of enormous, trailer-mounted offset smokers, fashioned from 500-gallon propane tanks. They've barely been able to keep up.
Adamson's lunch business accounts for a couple dozen briskets on its busiest days, and Mr. Skelly and Ms. Hunt often need another 20 to 60 briskets daily for catering jobs. Their smokers are heated only by wood, without aid of gas or electric burners. (This is key with Central Texas barbecue.) If you happen to sit out back of the restaurant, on what was once a loading bay, you can watch as Mr. Pelachaty splits oak logs and tends to the smokers' fireboxes, aiming to hold them at 102 C . That tending is a 24-hour job.
Adamson's whole briskets go into the smoker at 11 a.m. Around 7 p.m., they're sufficiently crusted that Mr. Skelly wraps them tightly in butcher paper, which helps to keep them moist. They don't come off until around 3 a.m. To watch Mr. Skelly unwrap one, straight out of the warmer, from its grease-stained butcher paper, is one of local carnivory's more religious experiences. My own faith has only grown of late.
Since opening in April, Mr. Skelly has struggled to source enough of the right brisket, he said; anything less than USDA Prime isn't marbled enough to hold up to smoking, and the meat from some packers is better than from others; the good stuff is in perpetually short supply. That supply has started to stabilize, however, and the brisket has noticeably improved.
And until recently, he used sugar maple, which isn't exactly native to Texas barbecue, and doesn't lend a lot of flavour, instead of oak logs, which are, and do. The difference since he made the switch a few weeks ago, is like eating at an entirely different, and better, restaurant.
Now for the pain. Parking is limited, to put it mildly (there is no real parking lot, and tow trucks have been scooping customers' cars off the street, apparently). You need to get there by 11 a.m.; any later and you're liable to leave without eating.
And if you're the type of barbecue hound who thinks it's a good idea to smother lovingly smoked meat between industrial white sandwich bread and then drown it in sauce, be warned: There is a two-sandwich-per-customer limit here. If you order a sandwich, staff might (quite reasonably) scowl.
Adamson's side dishes, which include an aggressively pedestrian coleslaw, underwhelming potato salad and chalky, insipid beans (they taste mostly of canned tomatoes), aren't even remotely worth your time or stomach space. (For what it's worth, the sides in Texas's best barbecue pits are frequently awful, too.)
And though the company has a phone number to keep would-be customers abreast of its ever-limited meat supply, it is all but useless in my experience. "Thanks for calling Adamson Barbecue," it says, in a plucky, twangy, female voice. "There's still meat left, so git yer butt down here." In the past week, at least, that message has played around-the-clock, including when the restaurant is closed. (Mr. Skelly said he plans to change that right away.)
It's worth noting, as well, that a second Texas barbecue place opened just a few weeks ago: J&J Bar-B-Que, in Kensington Market. I haven't been yet (it's far too early), but I have been hearing good things.
You could avoid the trip to Adamson for all these reasons, or you could submit to the pain – or more accurately perhaps, the minor inconveniences – of Texas barbecue. I'd highly recommend the latter approach. Git yer butt down there, like the lady said.