It didn’t take long for a perspicacious 14-year-old acquaintance of mine to sit down and absorb the vibe in County Barbeque before she declared, “It’s so fake.” I’m guessing Michael Kornick and David Morton are hoping UIC underclassmen are less world-weary.
Veteran chef Kornick (MK) and steak house scion David Morton have so far collaborated on a craft-burger joint (DMK Burger Bar), a simulated fish shack (Fish Bar), and a speakeasy (Ada St.), so it isn’t surprising they’ve decided to tackle, however late, yet another of the dominant restaurant trends of the last half decade.
Inhabiting the walls of Little Italy’s erstwhile red-sauce joint Gennaro’s, County Barbeque is adorned with Warholesque American flags, red flannel banquette backs, and a mounted buck head staring vacantly over the proceedings. It’s a compact, overearnest expression of Kountry Kitsch that feels about as genuine as a Dukes of Hazzard lunch box and as cynical as Steely Dan covering “Freebird.” Hee-haw.
When that sort of effort is spent creating a fantasy to complement the food, you wonder how much energy is left over to spend on barbecue itself. To be fair, University Village has so far escaped barbecue saturation, and who’s to say the students and professionals that orbit the school and medical center don’t deserve their rib tips, their Texas brisket, their Kansas City burnt ends, and their Saint Louis spare ribs? But you see what’s happening here. It’s a regionally nonspecific barbecue restaurant, which is basically another way of saying it’s a restaurant with a fear of commitment to a particular style—a blunderbuss approach that might deliver something for anyone. Or not.
To its credit—and as a testament to the confidence Kornick and Morton must have in chef Erick Williams—all the barbecue offered here arrives at the table unsauced (unless it’s on a sandwich).
Ballsy. Or expedient. Anyway, no amount of sauce could disguise the textural weakness of the ribs. It’s unfortunate, because they’re crusted in an appealingly thick, crunchy, dry rub that yields pink, smoky meat that’s mush nonetheless, as if it’s been steamed or boiled. “Texas” brisket seems to come from a different tradition altogether. Its collagen and fat are broken down, and it’s tender enough, but there’s not even a hint of smokiness to it, as if it’s been braised for a Seder. For these you’ll want to avail yourself of the three sauces—a mustard-based Carolina sauce and two tomato-based house sauces, one spicy, the other not so much.
Burnt ends are typically the coveted by-products of dedicated brisket smoking, the irregular edges of the encrusted, fatty meat. But at County Barbeque, “burnt ends” are produced intentionally. There’s also something called pork burnt ends, which are really just dices of the outer edges of some lean cut—and certainly aren’t the by-product of anything on the menu.
Less complicated meats take to Williams’s process much better. Rib tips are appealingly gnarly and oozing with hot fat. A sagey (but small) pork sausage and respectably fiery hot link explode with juices. And his technique is kindest of all to the chicken, a one-piece leg and thigh lightly rubbed, lightly smoked, and similarly juicy.
Oddly, while County Barbeque prepares nearly every barbecue style known to man, pulled pork is left out. (What? No snoot?) Perhaps that’s to concentrate on the fading bacon zeitgeist with a number of small bites like bacon deviled eggs, sliders, rashers dipped in grits, and a BLT made with fried green tomatoes.
Those tomatoes—also available as a side of three perfectly crispy, tart, peppery battered disks with a dollop of goat cheese—show that Williams, who got his start and rose to executive chef at Kornick’s MK, is a perfectly capable chef, just not a pit master. Nearly everything tasty at County Barbeque never saw the inside of the smoker. That includes a sizable pork shank, braised and fried until its exterior is crispy, and a number of sides including sweet collard greens, garlicky sauteed kale, cheesy grits, and vinegary coleslaw. It’s a telling sign at a place purporting to do barbecue when the sides are better than the main attraction. Barbecue is rocket science compared to making a good corn pudding or blackened cauliflower. In all, though, portions are small (most meats are about seven ounces) and prices are commensurate, including cheap pours of decent whiskey and sweet, light cocktails in juice glasses—which will certainly appeal to the captive student population in the neighborhood.
County Barbeque is a place to nibble around the edges of a facsimile of several regional barbecue cultures—not the place to immerse yourself in a credible interpretation of any one of them. I mean, it’s one thing for a restaurant group to try its hand at burgers, fish, and cocktails, but if you’re going to pretend you can do all that as well as something as difficult as low-and-slow barbecue, well, you might as well be smoking pole.