Say you’re the sort of person who calls a sandwich a “sando.” I’m the sort who will instinctively cringe at your oafish approach. That’s just one small thing that peeved me in advance of my time spent at Dragon Ranch. The new Asian-inspired barbecue joint is the creation of Rockit Ranch Productions, the same group that brought you such concentrated animal feeding operations as Rockit Bar & Grill and Sunda, as well as the militarized meat market Underground.
Not just another venue for CEO and “Emmy Award Winning Entertainment TV Personality” Billy Dec to shout out D-list celebrities with grammatically challenged Tweets, Dragon Ranch also is a latecomer to the midscale barbecue wave drenching town in recent times, this one marrying American barbecue with Momofuku-esque pan-Asian influences. The latter are no more focused than those at RRP’s other River North spot, Sunda—with a regrettable concentration on unaged whiskey.
Yes, Dragon Ranch’s grilled cheese, the BLT, the banh mi, and even the David Chang-style steamed buns are categorized as “sandos,” which is surely the most infantilized culinary term since “foodie.” A menu written in Fieriese is a good way to make a bad first impression (don’t get me started on “fix’ns,” which is what they call the side dishes here), particularly if a restaurant expects to be taken seriously focusing on the one American food that inspires more argument than any other. So, I was steeling myself in preparation for Dragon Ranch’s lineup of spare ribs, pulled pork, and brisket, said to be smoked on a custom-made rig. These are served in half and whole portions, along with rotisserie chicken and a half roasted duck—and some are available on a trio of sandwiches (you can’t make me type that word again).
Surprisingly, items featuring actual smoked meat (aka barbecue) make up only a little more than a quarter of the menu, which is also broken down into (ugh) “niblets,” the aforementioned sides, a couple of salads, and a bowl of tonkotsu ramen.
That’s another ominous sign. Smoking meat consistently well takes serious commitment—it’s wise to be wary of dilettantes. And the same should apply to purveyors of ramen. So let’s start there: no iconic bowl of soup has been more misrepresented in this town than ramen, but Dragon Ranch’s has some surprisingly worthy components that add up to a bowl better than most. As far as I know, this is the only kitchen in town making its own ramen noodles, and these are interesting if unorthodox; fresh, a bit undercooked, and floury, they generally do a nice job of swamping down a salty, dark, pork and chicken broth, graced by a soft-cooked duck egg with a molten yolky core and a superabundance of braised pork cheek. The latter throws the whole bowl a bit out of proportion, but overall it’s not a bad effort.
What does it have to do with barbecue? Nothing. But the fact is, Dragon Ranch’s strongest assets are those dishes that never see the inside of the smoker—and there are more than a few of them. Credit for that goes to the recruitment of Chicago newcomer chef Red Hauge, with assistance from sous Shaun Connolly (Moto, Nightwood, and the late Otom and Terragusto). None of these items are better than the mac ‘n’ cheese, served in a cast-iron skillet, a crust of chewy charred Parmesan sheltering long, fat rigatoni coated in a sharp and saucy blend of jack, Gouda, and two cheddars. The same formula is applied to a pimiento cheese spiked with pickled chiles and sriracha, to equally good effect. These and other portions are generous. A seemingly endless bowl of crispy pig ears are fried, pliable, and cut into manageable strips, with a requisite Asian nod in a potent togarashi aioli. Billowing sheets of deep-fried pigskin are dusted in sour cream and dill powder, an inspired combination that should be mass-marketed. One of the few non-barbecue-related sandwiches, a towering multigrain BLT with thick slabs of bacon, is something to return for, as is one of two desserts: a supersized s’more topped with a brick of charred meringue anchored on a gooey molten bed of chocolate.
Do any of these sound familiar? Mac ‘n’ cheese? Pork rinds? Crispy pig ears? Ramen? It’s a greatest-hits list of the trendiest Chicago restaurant dishes of the last three years. What these lack in originality they mostly make up for in composition and execution—even with the occasional Asian twist—though that’s not universally true. Many of the otherwise winning dishes are oversalted, such as the bed of greens below a terrific scotch duck egg jacketed with panko-rolled sausage, the heaping plate of Chinese water spinach with frazzled mushrooms, and the roasted sweet potato, bacon, and edamame hash topped with fried duck egg. You could float in the tonkotsu broth.
Maybe the intention is to get diners to drink more moonshine (we’ll get to that later). Salt figures too heavily in some of the barbecue, too, particularly the pulled pork shoulder, which, though juicy, is thoroughly defatted. The meaty spares, though glazed candy-apple red and pleasantly gnawable, are overcured, pink, and hammy. But these smoked meats aren’t too bad in general. The brisket took to the kitchen’s smoking method best, developing a light but distinct pink smoke ring. The chicken—grilled, not smoked—is pulled and rather dry and bland, something that can be mitigated when applied to the overloaded banh mi or the steamed buns with pickled daikon, chiles, carrot, and pea sprouts (assembly required).
All of that seems minor in comparison to the calculated, cynical, moonshine-focused beverage program that shares top billing with the barbecue. While white dog is a commercially viable product for start-up distillers, it is just a few degrees more interesting than vodka when mixed into cocktails, especially those in the $12-$14 range. Whatever inherent grain flavor is present in the pure spirit is obscured by the oversweet palette of fruit, honey, juices—and in one case chocolate syrup—at work here. Drinks like the “Honey Bunny” and “Yoshi’s Yuzu” obviate the obsolete, outlaw associations Rockit is attempting to invoke. About half of these are served in mason jars. To paraphrase David Allan Coe, if that’s country you can kiss my ass.
The glitzy commercial country soundtrack floating above communal tables set alongside the open kitchen could use some D.A.C. piped in. It’d be more convincing, but I’m sure it would scare off Dragon Ranch’s intended audience.