Bub City, a new southern-themed addition to the Lettuce Entertain You brood, is less Nashville than it is Nashville. You know, the TV show: the shiny Connie Britton and Hayden Panettiere vehicle, where nuance takes a backseat to the cheesiest kinds of pleasure. Prime-time TV actually provides a good sort of analytical tool to think about this new theme park of a restaurant, which is located on North Clark Street next to something called “Dragon Ranch,” a Billy Dec business that, I can only assume, serves spit-roasted lizard and baked beans from the can. I digress: actually, Dec’s thing advertises “moonshine and BBQ.” Somebody involved with Bub City had the eminently good sense to refrain from calling anything here “moonshine,” confident that simple whiskey would do.
Nashville is one silk stocking short of pure soap opera, and likewise Bub City maneuvers into that sweet spot just under over-the-top. On Nashville the villain is a slimy central-casting aristocrat, played by Powers Boothe, who swirls a glass of bourbon in one hand while he moves the levers of the city’s political machine with the other. At Bub City there is an appetizer called “giddy up fries.” In the women’s bathroom there is a mannequin pissing in a fake urinal. I’m told it’s startling. Diners eat off of ironic plastic imitations of classic paper plates, tacky and totally charming.
Over one meal, my companions and I wondered about the southern-nostalgia trend expressing itself, like a bad kudzu analogy, in restaurants on the north side of Chicago. We’ve already mentioned Dragon Ranch. With its roomy interior and kitschy decor, not to mention its cuisine, Bub City also recalls Barn and Company, Bob Zrenner and Gary Wiviott’s respectable Lincoln Park BBQ vendor. Pure romanticism? Hipster appropriation? The antivegetable vanguard? No matter—you probably don’t want to overthink this one, but on the other hand, one worries about oversaturation. Rapacious restaurateurs can ruin just about anything.
Not here, though. Bub City’s kitchen is overseen by Doug Psaltis, late of RPM Italian, whose menu is on the whole thoughtful, fun, and solid: a bevy of options to order from once your table draws straws to determine who has to say “giddy up fries” out loud. Those, by the way, are better than they sound, and better than they should be. Waffle fries are blanketed in gooey cheddar cheese and pulled pork; no complaints yet, but I further liked the sliced jalapeños sprinkled liberally atop. They’re such a powerful force that they make the dish taste, improbably, fresh. Close your eyes and pretend it’s a salad.
Or get a real salad. The El Paso incorporates corn and black beans with a creamy ranch dressing. It’s cool and acidic and a nice complement to all the heavier food on the menu, where veggies are otherwise scarce. There’s the de rigueur green beans (with “onion crunch”) and fried pickles; the kitchen also tries its hand at oven-crisped collard greens, so slick with oil it’s like licking the Gulf of Mexico. Coleslaw, meanwhile, advertised as “nice,” isn’t really—dressing too sweet, cabbage too pulverized. If you’re ordering off the “SIDES MATTER” menu you’d do better with buffalo tots, doused in hot sauce and sprinkled with blue cheese. They’re great.
And anyway, vegetables aren’t really the point. On the barbecue menu there’s brisket, several different kinds of ribs, pulled pork, and a couple intriguing outliers like lamb ribs with harissa yogurt and house-made pastrami. Various combinations are available: chicken and ribs, a mixed-‘cue platter. A smoked pork shoulder, for $75.95, “feeds the family,” though it’s unclear if that extends to the Clampett or Parton clans. Pulled pork, Carolina style, is just fine, as are the Saint Louis-style ribs, pink on the inside and available in half or whole racks. Brisket is madly tender—served as part of a combo, it somes swimming in a little cup of its own wonderful juices.
I recommend in particular the shrimp boil, which factors roasted corn and potatoes into a rich, slightly vegetal-tasting broth; and the chicken, fried to a good crisp and served with Alabama-style white barbecue sauce, which tastes of buttermilk and herb and beautifully offsets the bird’s spice. The kitchen does well with its sauces, in general: on the table you’ll find a sweet Kansas City (if that’s your thing), an earthy, Worcestershire-forward Memphis, and an aggressive hot sauce.
Speaking of sauce: lots of bourbon here. Whiskey-based drinks make up the majority of Paul McGee’s cocktail list. They require some perspective: these aren’t the sort of complex, nuanced libations McGee dreamed up at the Whistler, but on the other hand, McGee didn’t need anything at the Whistler to stand up to such heartburners as buffalo tots and giddy up fries. Here the drinks are simple and unchallenging—three prominently feature lemon, and are fairly sweet—and only one real stinker was encountered: the Manhattan, KS, whose sarsaparilla bitters imparted a medicinal flavor that was, mind you, less glass-of-Fernet medicinal than it was glass-of-Robitussin medicinal. Later this year McGee will open a tiki bar, Three Dots and a Dash, in the basement underneath Bub City. I’d be interested to see him stretch his legs there.
As befits a splashy River North destination, Bub City is mad busy. Having not reached whatever stage of adulthood it is at which you’re able to place dinner reservations, I once opted to come back another time (90-minute wait), once was seated right away, and once bided time (45-minute wait) at one of the restaurant’s two bars, where a friendly bartender gave us notes on the long, excellent whiskey list. It’s not bad, sitting at that bar, which is on the north wall. There’s a GIRLS GIRLS GIRLS sign above it. The bar frames an enormous American flag made of beer cans: Budweiser for red, Old Style for white, and Bud Light for blue. That hazy region between irony and honesty? It’s called business.