Shane McCartney brings a little bit of Southern American cooking to James Street North every time he opens a new restaurant. But before he expanded up and down the street, McCartney’s started with 282 James Street North. To this date, Saltlick is McCartney’s favourite restaurant he owns. It was only natural to interview McCartney in the place where it all started.
McCartney picked up cooking through extensive research and reading. While other cooks were learning from others, McCartney was teaching himself.
“I learned and I studied it for a long time. I never had anybody show me how to do a brisket, I kind of just read a lot, watched a lot, went down South and experienced it and then I came up with my own method,” said McCartney.
One method McCartney uses for preparing briskets is injection, which refers to the addition of a mixture of sauces to give the meat more flavour. The exact mixture varies from cook to cook, so even among those who inject, the outcome is not the same.
Self-teaching seems to be a theme with McCartney, who built the smoker that smokes the meat day and night at the back of Saltlick. Rows upon rows of meats hang from the smoker, smelling like a campfire and warming employees in the cold months.
Shane McCartney has also learned with his stomach. “I go down south quite a bit. Last time I went to Memphis, Nashville, Baton Rouge and New Orleans and I ate my way through there.”
While he loves the food from the South, Hamilton is home. To McCartney bringing that kind of cooking here is a happy compromise.
282 James Street North
Before Saltlick was Saltlick, it was a deli. Before that, McCartney worked for a corporation opening restaurants for them. He was living above the James Street North bar, the Brain, and commuting to Toronto, where he worked as a chef. Five years in, he was offered a job as a cook for Jack and Lois, a retro diner that is a three minute walk away from Saltlick. McCartney watched the food scene grow in Hamilton from the heart of it all. When an opportunity to buy a piece of land on the street popped up, he claimed it and hasn’t looked back since.
“I flipped this place from a deli into Saltlick. I opened Knead Pizza and our new place, Bar Sazerac, so I am pretty invested in this street,” said McCartney.
A street bustling with new and old restaurants, James Street North harbours its own community of chefs. McCartney can attest to that. “We all know each other. The community is so small; the chances are that the staff at Lake Road Restaurant worked here once or visa versa. Everyone kind of just bounces around,” he said.
Food for the family
At Saltlick, it is all about the quantity. Perhaps not the place for picky eaters, Saltlick serves food family-style. Everyone at one table orders the same food that comes out on a large wooden slab and gets passed around.
At other restaurants, you may find yourself torn over several options. There is no chance of lamenting a missed option at Saltlick, where you can order from three to five meats and two sides to share for the whole table.
“The food here is very ‘me’. I am big into four, five ingredients that are really powerful on their own and are put together nicely [and sourced] as local as possible. I enjoy eating several small portions. A steak and potatoes is boring halfway through it, so it is nice to move on to some other flavours,” said McCartney. “The big part of this place is about sitting with your friends, sharing in the experience together. You are forced to share, which is the way most people grew up on their Sunday evening.”
The customers who eat at Saltlick might as well be eating in McCartney’s home kitchen – he eats the same meals at home. “It was a selfish idea because as I was saying, this is the way I want to eat,” admitted McCartney.
Where there’s smoke
McCartney brands Saltlick as the modern version of a Southern smokehouse. A Southern cooking staple is smoking. Although it originated as a method for storing meats for extended periods, smoking became a delicacy in the food industry for its flavour. The time the meat spends heating in the smoker breaks down the connective tissue and renders out the fat.
“I go down south quite a bit. Last time I went to Memphis, Nashville, Baton Rouge and New Orleans and I ate my way through there.”
“We use all-natural charcoal as our fuel source and then we use post oak and cherry for our flavour. We don’t use any propane or any gas or anything like that,” said McCartney.
Flavour is time, as smoking is an around the clock process. Briskets take 12 and 13 hours, pork 18 to 20 hours. The process pays off, with many customers’ favourite item on the menu being the brisket. McCartney himself loves the ribs.
“The ribs are the best ribs I have ever had, and I am not just saying that because they’re mine. We use back ribs, which are a really meaty cut. So you get a nice big mouthful of flavour.”
History and tradition
Saltlick’s unique décor features an amalgamation of old and new. The painting of a ham with the word “Ont.” written over is a pun on Hamilton and appropriately represents the meat restaurant. The Atlantic Fish sign hanging over the front windows, not so much. Saltlick has never offered fish, so the sign is an odd choice. As it turns out, the piece of land McCartney bought used to sell fish.
“When I purchased the building, the last business that was in it was Atlantic Fish. That sign was on the outside but I cut it down and put it in here. It is a little bit of history. The butcher block over there is from a little Italian deli that was here in the 40s and 50s,” said McCartney.
As for the display at the front of the restaurant that features toy cows grazing in a pasture, it was the original eel tank. Where Atlantic Fish had live eels, Saltlick has fake cows. “I don’t know why I decided to keep it. You don’t see these any more,” said McCartney.
The story behind the name for Saltlick is a bit more personal for McCartney. “When I was a kid and I grew up on my uncle’s farm, the first job I got to do was drive the tractor around and deliver all the saltlicks throughout the field. We were going to call it a meatery at one point, but we decided to go with smokehouse because it was a real direct approach.”
“The big part of this place is about sitting with your friends, sharing in the experience together.”
For those looking for bold flavours and shared meals, Saltlick is the place. For those who are already a fan of McCartney’s work, it will not be long before he comes out with something new, and likely Southern-inspired. More recently he opened Knead Pizza, his only non-Southern themed restaurant, Big Tobacco that does low country, shrimp and grits on Hess and Bar Sazerac that mimics a New Orleans oyster bar on James Street North. The next one? “It would be cool to have a pizza, records, beer, and pinball place,” said McCartney.