Reviewers can’t seem to say enough good things about The Stockyards Smokehouse and Larder; The Star puts it at 3.5 out of 4 stars; NOW Magazine goes all the way to a perfect five “n”s; and Eye Weekly agreed (a couple weeks later) with a five-star review. So much attention has been paid (deservedly, I’m sure) to the porchetta sandwich, the pulled pork, the pastrami, and the ribs that I thought I would focus on a less noticed corner of the menu: the burger. I have eaten a lot of burgers in Toronto (some quite bad) and I think I know a thing or two about them. With this plan in mind I took myself last week to the Stockyards for a lone burger.
Foodies (and food snobs) should prepare themselves for a swift turning up of the nose but please bear with me. The closest comparison–especially in terms of general characteristics–to this burger and fries duo is the McDonalds Big Mac. Shocking, I know. What I mean is that the bun is sesame seed, the patty is relatively thin and (I’m pretty sure) cooked on a flat-top griddle, and the fries are one step on the thinness scale from shoe string.Similarities end there. The patty tastes freshly ground–the grind should be a bit coarser–and is cooked with some pink remaining (unfortunately into the realm of medium-well). This may sound a little gross but my true test of a burger’s flavour is to judge what taste lingers well after it’s finished. Big Macs and Whoppers fade to chemicals and salt, five minutes after a Craft Burger I could only taste ketchup, but after a Stockyards burger I’m left with slightly-minerally beef and the faint aftertaste of pickles. The fries look at bit like McD’s but are darker (double-fried probably) and therefore have a more distinguishable flavour and texture difference between potato and crispy outside.
I guess it would be more fair to clarify that the Stockyards burger shares a common ancestor to the stuff served from under the Golden Arches. It is a relationship between cousins and definitely not parent and child. The both have their roots in the California diners and drive-ins of the first half of the twentieth century. Too bad that the burger landscape in Toronto is so barren that the comparison to McDonalds springs to mind first.
The reviews of this place are a little inconsistent about the proprietor’s food service experience. I’m willing to buy into the idea that this is his first venture for very good reasons. Excellent restaurants run by veteran cooks tend to reflect a lifetime of cooking food for customers. The food is often inventive, challenging and delicious but it always seems to be part of a conversation that the chef is having with his mentors, his competitors, reviewers and his past. Fine and good. Given the choice though, I’d rather eat the food created by a lifetime eater who serves what tastes great and leaves the conversation between diner and food.
At the top I make references to the other reviews of the Stockyards and feel I should mention one point. In his otherwise good review the Star’s Corey Mintz devotes his first five paragraphs to ranting about the logistics of getting to the Stockyards at St. Clair and Christie by TTC. For anyone concerned about this the easy solution would be to make the eight minute walk (gasp!) from St. Clair West station. I’d do it in all but the coldest February blizzards for more of this goodness but next time it will be difficult to try anything else on the menu.