Charlie McKenna isn’t a Johnny-come-lately when it comes to barbeque. ‚ He and his father tag-team on the competition BBQ circuit, traveling around the country - smoker in tow - to battle other die-hards over the merits of slow-cooked brisket, pork shoulder and baby back ribs. ‚ He’s a previous winner of the prestigious Memphis-In-May competition, and a frequent runner-up. ‚ When he opened his first restaurant in Florida, he wanted to honor his grandmother, Lillie. ‚ A true Southern cook, her recipes for shrimp and grits, pimento cheese and fried pickles quickly found their way onto the menu. ‚ Just a few months ago, McKenna opened his second Lillie’s Q, this time on a busy stretch of West North Avenue in Bucktown, in a space that has seen its share of temporary residents (remember Starfish anyone?)
Lillie’s is part of what we’re going to have to start calling “urban barbeque” joints. ‚ That is, rather than order from the other side of a bullet-proof glass and eat your food on your car hood (hey there, Uncle John’s), you get walls covered in subway tiles, illuminated by the now ubiquitous Edison lightbulbs, microbrews on tap and Coldplay on the soundtrack. ‚ But at Lillie’s, you also get pork shoulder (and surprisingly, smoked chicken) that yield easily to a fork; ribs that have just the right amount of dry rub before being carefully smoked over hickory and tri-tip that has the requisite pink smoke ring. ‚ Baked beans are smoky and sweet, laced with pork drippings and molasses; the house smoky sauce is also among my favorites in the city - I just had to buy a bottle of it on the way out last time.
Like Chicago q (which you’ll read about Friday), I went into Lillie’s pessimistic. ‚ I didn’t really want to love a fancy, clean-scrubbed, modern barbeque joint. ‚ I kept thinking of the great places in North Carolina and Kansas City and Texas, where I’ve had world-class ‘que served in plastic baskets and eaten on wooden benches. ‚ There was no way I was going to like this fancy-pants “urban” barbeque. ‚ But then it hit me: as long as they know what the hell they’re doing back in the kitchen (and more specifically, in and around the smoker), who cares how nice the dining room is? ‚ It only makes the overall experience that much more enjoyable. ‚ If you want to see exactly how they do it, watch here after 12 pm today.