ALL ABOUT THAT BARBECUE: INTRODUCING CROWSFOOT SMOKEHAUS
WORDS & PHOTOS BY CHRIS TIESSEN
‘I’m in heaven,’ I exclaim to my TOQUE mate, Cai, while I intercept a trail of grease dripping down my chin. I wipe my face clean and goin for another bite. And then another. This brisket’s like nothing I’ve ever experienced, I think to myself. The flavour’s familiar enough, mind you. After all, I’ve had great brisket before. Indeed, I sometimes think I’m addicted to the stuff. But the consistency of this piece of meat – so tender, juicy, succulent – sets it apart. And reminds me of what the brisket at Franklin Barbecue in Austin, Texas, must be like. Or the stuff at Louie Mueller’sin Taylor, Texas. Or Micklethwait Craft Meats – also in Texas. Or any number of other Lone Star state barbecue joints I’ve seen featured on YouTube food channels.
I’m about to cut myself another slice when Cai interrupts my seeming commune with the meat gods. ‘Hey’, she exclaims sternly, ‘save a bit for me.’ She’s right. How plebeian of me. I put down my knife and fork, swallow what’s in my mouth, take a sip of Elora’s ‘Elora Borealis’ Citra Pale Ale, and pause a moment to think about what all this means. I look down at the remaining brisket, and then up at Cai, before stating: ‘Well, I guess I can scratch that trip to Texas off my bucket list now.’
It’s early November. Lunchtime. And Cai and I have traveled the short trip from Guelph to the recently-opened Crowsfoot Smokehaus, located in the blink-or-you’ll-miss-it hamlet of Conestogo, founded by Mennonites in the 1820s, for barbecue. You know the stuff: smoked ribs, smoked sausage, smoked pork butt – and, of course, smoked brisket. Served on metal trays lined with beige waxed paper. Barbecue. My happy place. For certain the type of food you wouldn’t dare eat on anything less (or is it more?) than an empty stomach. The type of food that – once you’ve polished off your tray – will keep you satisfied for the rest of the day. Or longer.
I’ve been looking forward to today’s lunchat Crowsfoot for months – ever since Neil Huber, Ryan Lloyd-Crais and Willy Huber Jr of the Ignite Group of Brands (whose stable of restaurants includes Kitchener’s Graffiti Market and Rich Uncle Tavern, and whose other trademarks include Red Circle Brewing Co and Red Circle Coffee Co – both branded by TOQUE) let me know they were going to open a German barbecue place in Conestogo. After all, it seems like everything that Ignite Group Culinary Director Brian McCourt touches – from Graffiti’s flavour- packed Detroit-style pizza to Rich Uncle’s unimaginably delectable live fire duck wings – turns to culinary gold. I expect the same will be true with Chef Brian’s barbecue at Crowsfoot.
When we arrive at the restaurant (via some of the region’s most scenic roads that skirt the Grand and the Conestoga Rivers) Cai and I are awestruck by the operation. It’s massive – and reminds me more than a little bit of Blythe’s fantastic Cowbell Brewing operation. The wood-framed construction. Soaring cathedral ceilings. Efforts at environmental sustainability. (While Cowbell is working hard to become a net zero brewery, Crowsfoot features a roof covered in solar panels – to offset electrical bills and be fed back into the grid, no doubt.) We’re greeted at the host counter, which essentially divides restaurant seating from the place’s expansive wraparound bar (featuring what I can best describe as a wooden silo of craft beer and cider taps), and promptly taken to our table.
On the way, I spot regional sommelier Wes Klassen (or, to be fair, he spots me) of Purple Teeth Wine Consulting and head over for a quick chat while Cai gets comfortable at our spacious six-seater booth. By the time I join her, our attentive server has already delivered a couple of pints: Red Circle’s ‘Iron Horse Trail’ IPA for Cai and (the aforementioned) ‘Elora Borealis’ for me. It doesn’t take long for us to decide what to order. While there’s much more than barbecue platters on offer, we’ve come for one thing only: a barbecue platter. Served on a metal tray. With waxed paper and sides. And brisket.
I peruse the large barbecue section of the menu on my phone (a new COVID reality, to be sure) and place our order. ‘We’ll split a Smokehaus platter with four meats and three sides,’ I tell our server – who seems to be just a couple feet away from our needs at all times. ‘Let’s see – how about the smoked ribs, bratwurst, pulled pork butt, and of course the brisket.’ I pause, consult with Cai about what sides we’d like, and continue: ‘For sides, we’ll have braised red cabbage, tater tots, and spätzle [a traditional German egg noodle pasta]. And,’ I continue, ‘how about an order of pickle chips [dill pickle, cornmeal crust, spicy ranch] to start things off.’
While the food doesn’t take long to arrive, it certainly takes a while to eat. To be sure, it’s hearty fare – and we surrender to the meal well before we’re able to polish it all off. (Which isn’t a bad thing, since leftover barbecue is a treat in itself.) And while I’ve already shared my thoughts about the brisket, every morsel of meat – ribs, sausages, pulled pork – is phenomenal. Nearing the end of our meal, Chef Brian pays us a visit and explains what he thinks is central to the success of this operation. ‘It’s the smokers,’ he tells us. ‘They’re from J&R Manufacturing in Mesquite, Texas – considered the very best in the world.’
‘But what about the brisket?’ I ask.’ Where does such a divine piece of meat even come from?’ His answer blows me away: ‘We actually get our briskets from Creekstone Farms,’ Brian tells us. ‘The same farm that provides briskets to Aaron Franklin of Franklin Barbecue.’ Franklin – the Austin mecca I’ve watched so many YouTube shows about. Literally among the best of the best.
After lunch, once Cai and I have packed up our leftovers, Brian tours us about the kitchen. The expansive prep and plate area. The meat locker – stocked to the brim with all sorts of quality cuts. And the twin J&R smokers – truly a sight to behold, with large openings facing the kitchen (for placing and caring for the smoking meats) and much smaller openings facing the outdoors (where wood is placed artfully onto the fire). ‘Each smoker can hold up to seventy-two briskets,’ he notes. ‘We use them for smoking beans, mushrooms [for cabbage rolls], and vegetables for stock, too.’
We follow Brian outside and observe as he carefully positions a log on one of the smokers’ fire. ‘The fire never goes out,’ he tells us, ‘and the smokers are always in use. We load briskets and pork butts twice a day – at nine each evening, to be served at lunch the next day; and at four each morning to be ready for dinner.’ It’s back-stories like this that keep me curious about all the little universes that produce the products we enjoy with so little knowledge about how they’re made. I am fully engaged as Brian goes on: ‘We use a mix of fruit wood and hard maple for smoke and flavour. Every log has been cured for six months and must contain a moisture content of sixty percent.’ Brian looks up from the fire, adding: ‘We learned that the hard way – experimenting for weeks until we nailed it.’
And nailed it he has. As has the entire team at Ignite. With this sweet location a short walk from Conestogo’s historic Glasgow Street Bridge in the bucolic Woolwich Township countryside. The larger-than-life building. The excellent food. And especially that brisket.
When we set out for home I can feel how completely satisfied I am. And yet I’m already wanting more. Because, really, can you ever have too much barbecue?
1872 SAWMILL RD, CONESTOGO