Smoke-Filled Rooms

These days, Chicago’s best barbecue comes from a legion of savvy new pit masters. Our man on the case digs in and gets his hands dirty.

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HONKY TONK BARBEQUE is in pilsen and BYO, so it seemed appropriate to hit a nearby liquor store for a six-pack of Negra Modelo before climbing the steep steps to the old building. Inside it looks like a movie set. There’s a barn door and a wagon wheel light fixture, and two rooms of mismatched tables and chairs, a row of which appears to have been salvaged from an old theatre. Sometimes a room is rented out for parties; country bands play live on weekends.

Willie Wagner, the owner, went to Memphis to learn the local style. He started out using a portable smoker at local street fairs; now he cooks on two smokers—a Southern Pride and a Southern Yankee—with apple and hickory woods. The stars of his small menu, augmented with a few chalkboard specials, are the St. Louis ribs (spareribs trimmed of bone, cartilage, and brisket flap) and baby backs, both smoked with a Memphis-style dry rub. I love them so much that adding the house-made sauces on the table (one dark and rich, one more vinegary) is almost beside the point. The ribs are smoky, well textured, and flavor-packed.

Pulled pork and sliced beef brisket sandwiches are also respectable, served on ciabatta loaves so tender they quickly collapse. I ordered a side of baked beans with pork and grainy corn bread and primed myself for good bluegrass by a duo called The Northside Southpaws. This is the life.

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