Where Toronto Eats: Electric Mud BBQ

Art work by Michelle Cheung for Novella Magazine

At Electric Mud BBQ on 5 Brock Avenue, there is a poster of ‘California Girls,’ three women (or girls) scantily clad in ’80s high-cut leotards either in the process of getting dressed or undressed — it seems to be a choose-your-own-adventure type of a fantasy — in a steamy locker room. Similar looking women, similarly dressed, in various stages of summer-induced (di)stress, hold beers and stare at you in a procession of equally inane posters throughout the establishment that’s also home to crosses and metal insignias of various sizes. Blues and rock play off a vinyl on a turntable at the back of the bar that merges with a semi-open kitchen. The chairs are metal — humble, if you’re feeling that way, or uncomfortable, if you’re sitting down. The combination of the kitsch and purposefully ‘backcountry’ décor attempts authenticity — not an accumulation of Americana but a slice of America itself. The owner(s) understands that dining out is more than the sum of the foods; that the contemporary dining crowd is looking for an experience, the ethereal, the affirmation.

It is as if the so much time and effort were spent on the mounting of the vintage neon beer signs around the main dining area that they had none left for the barbecue.

The ribs are available by 1/2 racks and are sticky and sweet, on the right side of fall-off-the-bone. But there is no depth of flavor, a quality expected in good barbecue by the mere fact of its process. Instead of the flavorful fattiness, the ribs retain no other flavor than grease after the initial sweetness. Considering how even less time-consuming methods of cooking meat, such as braising or quick searing as in yakitori, retain a touch of the fire and smoke, perhaps barbecue without it is a kind of an achievement in itself. The only thing that distinguishes Electric Mud’s ribs from those of a corporate steakhouse’s is their price, $17.99.

Not much can redeem a barbecue joint from bad ribs, save the redemption by the plentitude and greatness of fixings. No such luck here — the mac and cheese, made with cheddar and served with bacon and breadcrumbs, is runny and bland; the coleslaw and pickles are unmemorable. The spicy pork rinds with pimento cheese, as satisfying as they are, fall short of saving grace. The ribs’ mediocrity haunts the rest of the dinner.

To make sure that this poor state of affairs is not an anomaly, I went back three times at different times and on different days. What surprised me more than Electric Mud’s ability to hide any trace of the ribs having ever been inside a smoker were the lines. All three times people waited on line to get a seat. With its neon cross outside and a graffitied wall, Electric is very much at home in Parkdale, a block away from an angry vegan fast food chain (its sign reads, ‘BE AN ADULT. BE VEGAN’) and next door to a would-be-middling neighborhood microbrewery-pub. Much like its neighbors, all due accolades to the establishment seem due to the fact of its existence: that it remains open is both a curiosity and an indication of how much the fastidiously acquired veneer of a barbecue joint can withstand the reality of objectively bad ribs. From the outside, the place is ostensibly a locus of barbecue and barbecue culture. Yet it’s clear from the food that there’s little love in it.

Manufactured identity requires the presence and affirmation of others. The customers and reviewers of Electric provide those services to the establishment — you can tell by the way the male staff addresses male customers as ‘brother’ and the hostess’s frustration at a visibly frustrated couple waiting on line: They are certain of their status as purveyors of fine barbecue. I wonder if the existence of Electric does the same for the customers and reviewers of the city. As to what affirmation one may find at Electric other than that even good, simple things can so easily be ruined, I’m not sure.

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