This is a terrible time to open a barbecue restaurant. Making consistently good commercial barbecue and making money at it is a notoriously difficult endeavor in the first place. But whether by coincidence or kismet, some half-dozen smoke joints have opened up this summer, making the odds of any individual one’s success all that much worse. I’ll be surprised if more than half are still open by this time next year.
Charlie McKenna, the chef at Lillie’s Q Urban Barbecue, certainly looks good on paper, with a pedigree in both fine dining (Tru, Avenues) and barbecue (his family owns the original Lillie’s Q in Destin, Florida, and they’ve been successful on the competition circuit). This Wicker Park arm of the family business has many of the traditional restaurant amenities the other doesn’t, along with an abundance of Disney-esque accents—framed black-and-white photos of rural blacks, George Jones on the sound system, gleaming meat-hook light fixtures—to remind you you’ve stepped into (cue banjos) The South. There’s even a granny in a country kitchen who figures in the folksy creation story of McKenna’s five sauces.
But despite all the set dressing, the air inside and out seems scrubbed of the telltale alluring aromas of smoking flesh, and likewise a few of the crucial meats lack a proper smoke infusion. This is particularly true of the pulled chicken and pulled pork, respectively the most unforgiving and forgiving of meats when it comes to barbecue. Chicken cooks quickly and dries out easily. Pulled pork (the category in which McKenna triumphed at 2007’s Memphis in May barbecue competition) is just the opposite, yet here it’s mined of all the wonderful fat and connective tissue a low, slow smoking should render into glistening porky goodness. It’s puzzling that both are so overexhausted and in need of the lubricating effects of Grandma Lillie’s sauces. And these, from the Carolina to the Hot Smoky, are hobbled by excessive sweetness—with the exception of the mayo-based Ivory, which one server recommended for the fries, no doubt to counter the liberal sprinkling of barbecue rub.
Maybe it’s a case of overrestraint. It actually works for the beef tri-tip, an unorthodox cut for barbecue—fantastic, lightly kissed with smoke and served in rosy pink slices. And baby back ribs are neither gnarly nor wobbly and in the running for some sort of beauty contest, shellacked with an unnecessary but photogenic glaze of camouflaging sauce.
The nonbarbecued items, too, are showily cloaked in “southernness” (which surely must annoy the folks at the Southern a few doors down). Take the list of moonshine-based cocktails served in canning jars. Unaged whiskey is only slightly more useless as a cocktail base than vodka, contributing little more than booze power and a light corn flavor that’s obliterated by more characterful elements such as lemonade or, ridiculously, Maker’s Mark. (Why drink corn liquor when you already have bourbon? Because it allows you to pretend you bought it from a hillbilly?)
There are some more honest interpretations of southern food, including the cold, chunky pimento cheese, chile-amped cheesy shrimp and grits, and a juicy corn-and-bean-studded Brunswick stew. But the most important thing in any place purporting to make barbecue isn’t the sides, the sauce, or the figurative southern twang—it’s the meat. In the case of a few items, Lillie’s Q is doing it better than anybody else in the new crop, and given its other comforts—the lack of which keep many north-siders away from joints like Barbara Ann’s and Uncle John’s—it’s probably better than it needs to be. —Mike Sula
Like Lillie’s, Avondale’s Pork Shoppe has an attractive conceit to set itself apart from the pack. Barbecue has traditionally been made with the cheapest, toughest cuts of meat. So what if you took those same cuts from locally, nonindustrially raised animals and applied the same loving treatment in the smoker? The former owners of Tizi Melloul are sourcing pork from downstate’s esteemed Slagel Family Farm—but turning it into dry, stringy pulled pork, dessicated, overrubbed baby backs, and pork belly “pastrami” served cold with long white streaks of fat, all of which fail to realize the potential of these happily raised pigs. Beef options such as Texas brisket (also available on a taco) and “quick smoked” steak, like the pulled chicken, pick up no flavor from the woodsmoke. Beef pastrami is occasionally available, there’s a small drinks selection confined to beer and whiskey, and the usual array of sides is served in small aluminum pie pans—including a decent chile corn bread and a sharp white-cheddar mac ‘n’ cheese that unfortunately was the best thing I ate here. —Mike Sula
Opened on a shoestring budget with a repurposed Imperial pig roaster as smoker and walls paneled with reclaimed barn wood, Rub BBQ Company has the feel of a southern country barbecue shack. Anchored by Jared Leonard—a surprisingly humble pit man, ‘que guys not being known for that quality—and his wife, Amanda, Rub is establishing itself as a neighborhood hub on an otherwise lonely stretch of Lunt in West Rogers Park. Dry-rub Saint Louis-style spare ribs are meaty, with just enough chew to let you know that Leonard isn’t a student of Chicago’s fall-off-the-bone school, and while they’re light on smoke, they’re long on pork flavor. But brisket seems more braised than smoked, and the pulled pork, though tender, is bland. The sauces—traditional tomato-based tangy and punchy citrus-chipotle, with a hot in the works and available by request—are served on the side so as not to overpower the subtly sweet 14-ingredient rub, which has hints of celery seed and coriander.
Among the sides, standouts are crunchy house-made slaw, meaty beans with an almost one-to-one ratio of house-seasoned sausage to legumes, and a delicious custard-filled corn bread with whole kernels that seemed to be on every table. Desserts include seasonal cobblers, a shockingly rich Texas sheet cake, and an enormous chocolate chip Bar-B-Cookie, baked to order and served with vanilla bean ice cream and chocolate sauce on top. Prices are reasonable, and service is warm, friendly, and efficient. Rub is BYO with a liquor store a short walk away on Western. —Gary Wiviott