Searching for Tony Bourdain

Foie gras taste on a Big Mac budget

smoke ’em if you got ’em

I’ll probably catch crap for this statement, but I’ve always thought of Chicago as both the New York of the Midwest and the northernmost city in the south.

Hear me out. Chicago has its own style of Blues, which was born in the Mississippi Delta and came to Chicago with such heavyweights as David “Honeyboy” Edwards, Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, and Buddy Guy. We have our own style of Jazz, which was born in New Orleans (my favorite city in the south), and we have festivals here that celebrate both blues and jazz.

We also have a hell of a southern/soul food culture. The father of southern food is, of course, barbecue.

I’ve had some damn good Q in my time, including in the Carolina Lowcountry, the Mississippi/Louisiana Delta, Memphis, and Kansas City. For years, I’ve considered the finest barbecue to come from a huge complex in Ocean Springs, Mississippi (my Habitat friends remember this place) called “The Shed.”

I’m sorry, Ocean Springs. You lost the top spot tonight.

Before M and I ventured deep into the Lincoln Park neighborhood of the city for an event I promised her long ago that we’d attend (the Chicago Parks District has Movies in the Park on a regular basis in the summer, and tonight’s feature was The Wizard of Oz. And to make it even more special, they showed it in Oz Park. Think I’m making this up?), we wanted to eat.

I thought of places in Lincoln Park that we’d wanted to visit, but nothing struck me. And then I remembered a place I saw in Chicago Magazine’s Best New Restaurants issue a few months ago. Wicker Park/Bucktown gained a barbecue restaurant, Lillie’s Q, owned by an award-winning pit master, Charlie McKenna. Among his awards are a victory at Memphis in May. The World Barbecue Championships.

Winning that contest is hard, my friends, and it earns the winner instant worldwide acclaim and respect. Therefore, I trust this guy to not serve us crappy food. I mentioned it to M, and she signed on immediately. The best part of this adventure is that the restaurant is just a mile down North Avenue from where I work, so we caught the bus.

The atmosphere is homey and comfortable, and almost reminiscent of a restaurant I remember dining in back in South Carolina. Which is exactly the kind of barbecue that Charlie knows best, being that he comes from Greenville, SC.

Our server (who was really good to us) gave us the rundown on the menu and helped us to narrow our choices: M ordered the tri-tip sandwich (smoked beef bottom sirloin) with a side of cornbread (with honey butter), and I ordered the pulled pork sandwich with a side of the house macaroni and cheese.

My love of all things pig is well-known, even unholy in its ferocity (I’d rather eat bacon that chocolate, unless the two are together, and then sometimes things really do turn out perfect). When our server laid the behemoth sandwich before me, I took a small shard of the pork off the sandwich and tasted it. And for a rare moment, I really could not speak.

I can hear a few of you laughing.

Lowcountry barbecue has very little in the way of seasoning. The meat speaks for itself. However, sauces in South Carolina, unlike most other sauces, are not vinegar- or molasses-based. They’re mustard based. I love mustard almost as much as I love pork (I won’t put anything but mustard on a hot dog unless I’m eating an actual Chicago dog), so this was bound to work out for me.

I doused my sandwich, also covered in cole slaw, with the Carolina Gold sauce (the place sells their five sauces–Ivory, Carolina, Carolina Gold, Smoky, and Hot Smoky–for $8 a bottle, and I may start collecting them upon my next visit), and bit deep. Between the nearly-perfect brioche bun (take notes, Silver Palm), the slaw’s clean crunch, and the pork and sauce interacting perfectly, I’m not sure which part of the sandwich was better. My macaroni was al dente, and to add to the perfect texture, it was smothered in white cheddar and bread crumbs and served in a cast iron crock.

I can’t speak for M’s sandwich because she ate it too damn quickly for me to try it, but her cornbread was downright sublime. The Tupelo honey butter was perfect and it gave the bread, also made in a miniature cast-iron pan, an even better flavor than it had by itself.

The menu reads like a greatest-hits album of Lowcountry favorites. Boiled peanuts, shrimp and grits, two-buck oysters on the half shell, smoked fried chicken, a whole hog roast (you don’t know how happy this makes me–whole hog is signature Carolina and I don’t think anybody else in Chicago does it) and even chantilly cream on the shortbread dessert (actually a southern biscuit), are among just a few of the highlights.

However, my favorite part (aside from the relaxed atmosphere and great food) was the prices. The place is cheap, and you get a lot for not very much. Eight bucks for a sandwich of that quality in this town is an anomaly.

If you’re in Chicago, you need to go to Lillie’s. And if you aren’t, ditto (they have a location in Destin, FL too). The critics rave about the place. And for a Midwestern boy with southern eating habits like mine, Lillie’s Q is a very dangerous find.

Rating: Food Porn and a half (I’m not building the altar yet, but I might have to if we keep going back.)

Lillie’s Q is at 1856 W. North Avenue in Bucktown.


1 Comment»

  Kevin Wilson wrote @

If you ever venture to the Austin, TX area I’ll show ya a place with BBQ so legendary the only day they’re open is Saturday. 8 am til sold out… I used to believe in God, now I believe in Snow’s

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