Empire Building: Larry Tucker’s World of Meat

I want to become the black Richard Melman,” Larry Tucker declares in his raspy, buzz saw voice. “I’ve got all these ideas, like fusing East and West Indies food together in my new place, N.N. Spice Island.”

His old place is N.N. Smokehouse, a celebrated Lakeview joint. Although Tucker’s new venture (which opened July 27) is cross-cultural and multinational, the old serves up the definitive American cuisine: barbecue.

Not those burgers you burned on your Weber last weekend and doused with KC Masterpiece sauce. That was grilling. True BBQ is about meat that’s been massaged with a dry rub of mixed spices then cooked long and slow by low, indirect heat until it’s thoroughly flavored by the smoke that suffuses the meat. Every region in the barbecue belt has its specialty: pork ribs with tomato-based red sauce in Kansas City and Chicago, pulled pork with a vinegar-based sauce in the Carolinas, beef brisket in Texas, pulled pork in a red sauce in Tennessee–often mixed with chopped coleslaw.

Chicago may be considered a rib town, but relatively few places outside of black communities make genuine barbecue. Most restaurants parboil or prebake the meat, then finish it on a grill. You get a mushy texture and little real smoke flavor this way–losses no sauce can compensate for. Tucker’s culinary gift to the north side is the real thing: great ribs, Texas brisket, and Tennessee pork shoulder, as well as chicken and turkey. His sauce is a slightly sweet, complex, red potion with good spice but little peppery heat–a family recipe he claims is 100 years old.

Tucker grew up on the south side, and his crosstown journey to N.N. Smokehouse and N.N. Spice Island was convoluted. “I started cooking at five, with my father. He did most of the cooking at home,” he says. “I was always interested in cooking. I even started a little catering business when I was 12.” His first restaurant job–at age 14–was at the Tropical Hut, a white-owned rib joint on the far south side, not far from where he was born. Later he studied art at Columbia College, then got into a management program for the Rustler’s steak house chain. He held a series of chef’s jobs at long-gone Rush Street and River North restaurants, including the posh, haute-Italian Doro’s (now Cafe Luciano). After a stint in Miami, he became the opening chef at the original Ditka’s, where he created its signature grilled pork chop.

He opened his first restaurant in 1988–Minnie’s, a Jewish-style deli in Lincoln Park, where his two partners were Italian and Jewish. “My father worked for Jewish people,” he says. “I knew all about Jewish soul food.” When the partnership didn’t work out, he got the idea of returning to his barbecue roots.

When he opened N.N. Smokehouse in 1991, Tucker installed one of the city’s few commercial smoke cookers: a five-foot cube of heavy-duty steel with two chambers. The larger one holds the meat on a revolving wire rack; the smaller one is the firebox, where he burns nothing but hickory. The heat and smoke flow from the small to the large chamber, but not a shred of meat is exposed directly to flame or glowing coals. This is the classic system used throughout the American barbecue heartland. (Most local barbecue joints use a tall, single-chamber, glass-walled pit that smokes the meat while shielding it from the live coals.) Only after eight or ten hours in the cooker does Tucker glaze the meat with a bit of sauce and put it on the grill for a few minutes to caramelize and crisp. If you like it hot, there are bottles of spicy Thai and Philippine sauces on the table, a touch inspired by Tucker’s wife, Nida, who’s Filipina.

N. N. Spice Island is as much a return to Nida’s roots as his own. She’s the first “N,” the second is for narra, a Philippine hardwood. The double storefront (formerly Rancho Luna) is painted in a splashy mix of colors and highlighted with vivid murals depicting Jamaica and the Philippines.

The restaurant features a style of Pacific and Caribbean cooking Tucker calls “stick barbecue,” in which marinated and grilled sticks of chicken, beef, pork, shrimp, or veggies can be dressed with your choice of ten sauces: Indonesian, Thai, Chinese, Japanese, Jamaican, Indian, Philippine, “tropical,” tamarind, and “Tucker barbecue.” The menu suggests which flavors go best with which meats. A $9.99 order consists of three six-ounce sticks and eight sauces.

There are also savory pancit (Philippine noodles), tangy pork adobo (tender brown nuggets glazed with vinegar, garlic, and pepper), crisp, cigarette-sized Shanghai egg rolls, Jamaican meat patties, and jerked chicken. There’s a moist, aromatic Cuban seafood paella, and, on Saturday and Sunday, Cuban roast pork with black beans.

Now that he’s opened his second place, Tucker only needs another two dozen to catch up with Melman.

N.N. Smokehouse is at 1465 W. Irving Park, 773-868-4700; N.N. Spice Island is at 3314 W. Foster, 773-478-7190.

The Dish

Dellamarie Parrilli, owner of Hoxie’s at 1801 W. Lawrence, closed her two-year-old barbecue place on July 22. Parrilli says that health problems resulting from a dog attack in mid-June made it impossible for her to continue operations. The business is currently up for sale. –Don Rose

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jim Newberry.