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Chicago Q’s competition baby back ribs, brûléed mac and cheese, and homemade picklesOver in the Gold Coast, I wouldn’t be surprised if Lee Ann Whippen were also whispering sweet nothings to the farm-raised Duroc pigs in Chicago Q’s Southern Pride barbecue pits. A mainstay on the competitive circuit since the midnineties and the owner of Wood Chicks BBQ in Chesapeake, Virginia, Whippen looks more like a soccer mom than a BBQ goddess. But she lives and dies for the smoke. Mostly she lives: After proving her mettle by whupping Bobby Flay on Food Network’s Throwdown! she’s holding her own with the industry’s heavyweights on TLC’s BBQ Pitmasters. Now she’s hooked up with Table Fifty-Two’s Fred Latsko to transform the old bi-level Tsunami space into a Southern-clubby salon with big mirrors, dark wood, leather couches, and a private wine room.
In the topsy-turvy barbecue world, where grunge has long equaled credibility, polished details like a $12 valet are more than suspect; they’re practically immoral. But maybe the prime-aged setup signifies how seriously pit masters are taking the art of barbecue these days. As if to prove that fact, our waiter broke the record for longest explanation of How Our Restaurant Works. (Let me make it easy for you, fella: “We serve meat cooked over fire. Order a lot.”) The only potential confusion is that the menu offers competition ribs and plain old ordinary ribs; the latter cost $9 less and make you feel like a cheapskate for ordering. “A lot of heart and soul goes into the competition ribs,” Whippen says, adding to your guilt. “There are a few more ingredients and steps involved with the smoking process.”
Whippen’s kitchen uses five kinds of wood: hickory, apple, cherry, sugar maple, and white oak. You can taste the difference between them in the barbecue flight, a combo of lithe American Kobe–style brisket, pulled pork, and pulled chicken. (Any of which you can also get on a pretzel roll or mini brioche.) Or you can dig into a full slab of terrific regular baby backs—fierce, ridiculously meaty, and infused with apple tones from the wood and the rub. Couldn’t tell you if the competition baby backs were $9 better, because the kitchen ran out of them on a recent visit. (Guess they’re all out of heart and soul by 8 p.m.) A sumptuous layer of fat adhered to Whippen’s gorgeous competition St. Louis ribs, pushing the tender, shreddy meat to a level of decadence rarely seen in Chicago ’cue. Not a $33.75 level, but close.
Chicago Q might get a lot of guff for its prices, but much of its menu is reasonable. The excellent Cheddar-jalapeño hush puppies with house-cured bacon ($6.75), tempting brûléed mac and cheese ($5.75), and desserts such as the wonderful flourless chocolate soufflé ($5.75) would be pushing double digits a block away at Table Fifty-Two. And in the end, the cognitive dissonance of eating barbecue in a bistro space amounts to nothing. Chicago Q boasts gracious, attentive service and comfortable environs, and it happens to serve barbecue. Put another way: Just because the valet is $12 doesn’t mean the ribs are going to be lousy.
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Photograph: Anna Knott