There was a void in my mouth, stomach and life after coming back from Texas a few months ago. Like most travelers, food is toward the top of the attractions list when visiting a new city. Similar to other BBQ meccas, barbecue is a way of life in Texas. To get food at the best spots in Texas, diners line up hours before the restaurant opens. Once the food is sold, that’s it. Returning home, I have been on a quest to find the best Chicago BBQ.
Chicago has some good BBQ spots, but after touring a few I noticed there was something missing. I expected a big smoker out back, but was surprised to find large electric smokers that resembled phone booths. The electric smokers are called Southern Comforts and allow you to regulate temperature and get smoke flavor from wood pellets instead of wood logs.
You won’t find one of these at Lone Star BBQ Bar (3350 N. Harlem Ave.) on the Northwest side of Chicago. Before I sat down, chef, owner and Texas native Lou Wise showed me the smoker. Right next to the black iron door was a stack of oak ready for the fire. As soon as you walk in the front door you can smell the unmistakable aroma of smoked meats. Oak imparts a more mild flavor to the meat than stronger-flavored woods like mesquite.
For those who have never had smoked meats like brisket, ribs, chicken thighs or pork, you need to give it a try. Smoking adds an immense amount of flavor (depending on the wood), but more importantly the method of cooking transforms cuts of meat higher in fat. Depending on the cut of meat, smoking can take anywhere from three to twelve hours. In that time, the fat melts away and adds moisture to the meat. No, you don’t have to wait three hours for your dinner.
Having started down my own path of smoking meats, I can attest that it isn’t easy. It requires years of experience to learn when to brine, when to use a dry rub, what heat should your smoker sustain, how to use indirect heat to melt the fat away. At Lone Star BBQ Bar they have the pit master chops to produce great products.
Let’s run through what I devoured before the smell of the smoked meat dissipates from my hands.
With Lone Star beer in hand, I started with fried pickles and some pickled veggies. Eating with a chef is a great experience. Most of the time I just conjecture how something was made. When you eat with the chef, you learn. When fried pickles are done well, they are fantastic. A double crisp quality from a crunchy breading and firm pickle. Lone Star BBQ Bar does them right with a corn flour crust that perfectly adheres to the pickle even after you’ve bitten into them. The pickled veggies were solid too. A mix of bell peppers, carrots, onions and cucumber spears are submerged in a hot brine. The result is a perfect balance of sweet and heat.
At the chef’s suggestion I went with the sampler platter. Calling it a sampler is by no means a reflection of the portions. This is a restaurant started by a Texan, so you know you aren’t leaving hungry. The sampler has brisket, ribs, a chicken wing, shredded pork and a hot link. Those are just the meats. You also get a homemade biscuit (with apricot butter), cole slaw and a side. The sampler is easily enough food for you and a date.
BBQ is nearly impossible to eat like a lady (my normal method). You are going to get messy. You are going to get sauce on your face and hands. That’s half the fun. Go primal and dig in to the myriad of delicious smoked meats. Everything was good. My favorites were the chicken and hot link. I’ll be reassessing when I eat the leftovers tonight.
The father and son team do it right at the recently opened Lone Star BBQ Bar. Lou trained at the CIA (the culinary one, not the spies) and has a long track record of opening successful restaurants that serve up delicious food in fresh ways. Their spot is right off Harlem Ave., but has its own parking lot and a patio with beer specials to match.
Get over there before there’s a line winding down the block.