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Lillie’s Q: Baby backs, homemade sauces, and Lillie’s Q Brew
What makes Memphis, Kansas City, the entire state of Texas, and certain parts of the Carolinas barbecue meccas, and Chicago a footnote? History, fanaticism, and good PR. Chicago enjoys plenty of the first two, but the third has always eluded us. If the rest of America associates any particular barbecue style with Chicago, it involves limp meat that collapses off the bone with less resistance than the French in 1940 and is doused in a tomato-based sauce so sweet they ought to give it away on Halloween. It’s safe to say our PR has been far worse than our ribs.
Then a funny thing happened. Last summer, piggybacking on the success of Smoque, Honey 1, and Uncle John’s, a fresh wave of pit masters launched restaurants within the span of months, the most promising among them Lillie’s Q, Chicago Q, and Pork Shoppe. Some dubbed the new spots “boutique barbecue,” a term both alarming and perplexing. The first word conjures up sterile images of high art and fashion, dainty and elegant; the second embodies big and messy, down and dirty, low and slow. Boutique and barbecue ought to be enemies. But there they are, chumming it up side by side, each annihilating the other’s meaning—a bona fide trendlet in this town, signifying . . . what, exactly?
Barbecue belongs in the hands of ordinary folks, where it can thrive in a smoky vacuum unfettered by fancy-pants chefs, trend sniffers, and critics like me. Charlie McKenna, the chef/owner of Lillie’s Q, may be a classically trained chef and a former kitchen soldier at Avenues and Tru, but neither distinction holds much currency in Barbecueland. So it’s reassuring to hear that he’s also a Southerner and ’cue competitor and already runs a Lillie’s Q with his parents in Destin, Florida. “My heart and passion were always in down-home country cooking,” he says. “I like to use those philosophies I learned [classical French technique] to bring Southern cooking to the next level.”
Rather than fall back on the usual cartoonish BBQ-shack porcine art, McKenna, 34, built his immensely popular Bucktown outpost to look like an American bistro: oak floors, dangling Edison bulbs, exposed brick, knotty pine tables. When the sceneyboppers and pork geeks aren’t drinking craft beers out of Mason jars and sampling Lillie’s five homemade sauces, they’re drooling on the menu, which starts with venerable low-country snacks like deep-fried pickles and boiled peanuts. You can identify the Southerners in the house by watching who sucks the juice out of the peanuts before eating them.
But my table, four pork-obsessed Jewish men one week after Yom Kippur and hence seeking something new for which to atone, did not go to Lillie’s Q for peanuts and pickles. Baby backs were our mission, and McKenna’s, buffed with a “Carolina dirt” rub, are world class. Their beautiful crust, tender-firm meat, and mind-blowing smoke immersion all raise the question: How? The answer is two enormous D.W.’s Kountry Cookers that were custom-built to ensure the charcoal and peachwood saturate the meat intensely and evenly. Order the tri-tip and you’ll see what that means. An obscure boneless bottom sirloin cut, tri-tip is sliced into supple pink strips that straddle the line between barbecue and steak. Even the pulled chicken, BBQ’s forgotten stepchild, is impeccably tender, without devolving into what purists call meat Jell-O.
McKenna may be proudest of his pulled pork shoulder, made with top-notch Boston butts. Mine arrived tinted orange and gloriously chunky, but underseasoned. It was the only time I felt compelled to add much sauce—in this case, the addictive Carolina Gold—which took a lot of work, because no matter how vigorously you pump Lillie’s heavy sauce jars, it’s hard to extract more than a few drops. Maybe that’s the whole idea in a place all about the meat.
Sides are far from throwaways, but don’t expect a respite from the pork orgy. Both the al dente green beans and buttery stone-ground grits incorporate crisp bacon cubes, and the tremendous baked beans, which have slab bacon in the mix, go even further: They’re cooked directly beneath the pork shoulder, soaking up drippings and smoke in equal measures. I half expected a snout to turn up in the irresistible sticky meringued banana pudding with vanilla wafers.
McKenna, who has quickly vaulted to the top of Chicago’s ’cue heap, bristles at the notion that he’s slumming it by working with smokers instead of chefs. “Barbecue isn’t as simple as most people think,” he says. “You can’t just throw it on the grill and eight hours later it’s done. A lot of passion goes into it. We inject it, we rub it. We slowly watch over it. We spend time with it and caress it.” Yow. Sounds like someone’s been listening to Barry White in the kitchen.
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Photograph: Anna Knott