Back Alley BBQ and Grill
Back Alley Woodfire BBQ and Grill is in the midst of a transformation. Originally a BBQ joint specializing in Asian-infused wood-fired meats, the "alley" part of the name was once a riff on the restaurant's inspiration, the flavours of the legendary Silk Road. Until last Wednesday, black bean cod, honey garlic chicken, 5-spice pork and lamb kebabs tempted diners to journey through the spices of middle Asia.
These days, finding a reason for the alley reference requires a bit more creativity. While founders Frank and Irene Hsu still hold the reins on this spice caravan, they now share them with partners Marc Dufour and Romolo Salvati. For just over a week the new travelling companions have been traversing fresh continents together and trading the spices of the Silk Road for the cobblestone and basil-kissed breezes of Mediterranean lanes. Oh, and they side trip to Kansas, too.
It's a bit of a weird founding metaphor, but the menu of hand-pulled pastas, Neapolitan pizzas and Midwestern US BBQ works well, and is tasty enough to encourage forgiveness for new servers who stumble to explain it. Daily specials are erased from the blackboard as soon as we order them, hinting at an internal disorder that in no way effects the genial atmosphere or delicious food. Front-of-house staff are clearly working out the kinks of a new organization, but each stumble is met with compensatory attention and a wealth of earnest care.
While we await our mains, our server saves us from being driven crazy by the open kitchen's yummy smells by serving us a plate of crusty wood-baked foccacia, earthy with whole grain, and pungent with fresh oregano. It is the perfect mix of charred and chewy, and is tasty enough to forgive our waiter for forgetting to bring it with a side of olive oil. Thankfully, he checks on us frequently throughout the evening, so it's not long before he obliges our request for oil. Although the textural play and earth-baked wholesomeness of this bread need no adornment, it still tastes good with a light olive slick.
We wish the Napolitano pizza were as crispy as the foccacia, but the stretchy dough of authentic zero-zero flour and sea salt, sweet San Marzano tomato sauce and plucky anchovies, plus a sprinkling of oregano from the restaurant's rooftop garden, leave us smiling. Pizzaiolo Romolo Salvati has drawn on his experience as a chef at Yonge and Lawrence's Trio and his authority as a Naples native to bring authentic Neapolitan pizza to Toronto. We like it.
Pork dishes are equally tasty. A Porchetta sandwich pairs dissolve-on-your-tongue pork slices with caramelized onions and fired-baked foccacia, proving that down-home USA and old-world Europe have plenty of values to share. Back Alley's ribs are simple, thick, and generously coated in a mild fennel and coriander-infused tomato sauce. Despite a welcoming crackle of blackened skin, the flesh within tastes like it spent a sea-soaked week tenderizing on the Italian coast before returning home to Kansas to slather in sauce.
The entrees we sample are sweet, so sides of pungent balsamic-coated salad and pickled red onion, carrot and cabbage slaw add welcome pucker to the soft kisses of the main dishes. Curiously, the daily dessert special, Macedonia di Frutta, also bears the tang of balsamic vinegar, a light smear on the plate adding acidic aftertaste to a luscious concoction of thick vanilla-speckled cream, fresh raspberries, blueberries, and mint. Paired with foam-thick cappuccino and the memories of whole wheat, fresh herbs, and rich tomatoes, Back Alley has taken me on an adventure from Naples to Kansas and back to Kensington . Like Dorothy of the ruby slippers, my favourite part is that each bite ultimately takes me back to the place I'm happiest: home.
Dinner with tax, tip and a pint of Blanche de Chambly: $47.