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November 18, 2011

Hunger Strike | At Lillie's Q, the whole hog is half-hearted

In the land of the BBQ, the simple pit master is king. It seems like the secret to successful barbecue is always some “simply” good meat, “simply” seasoned, and cooked to slow and “simple” perfection. Trial and error, time and experience are the currency of BBQ professionals. That’s why there’s always an air of apprehension regarding “new” BBQ restaurants like Lillie’s Q in Chicago. Sure it’s been open for over a year at this point, but compared to places like Uncle John’s on the Southside—probably open long enough that they were smoking dodos at some point in their history—it just doesn’t have that charred barbecue patina that only comes with wisdom and age. But Lillie’s Q has gone up against some tried-and-true BBQ masters in various cooking competitions and beaten them at their own game. Food & Wine named them Best New Barbecue in the Country. They even have a food truck. That’s a pretty impressive pedigree for a newcomer. So, while it was tempting to fall back on old-school Chicago standards, Wonder Bread and all, Lillie’s Q was worth a shot.

Now, the restaurant is not exactly subtle when it comes to conveying their carefully calculated “simplicity.” The down-home, barnyard aesthetic is beaten into your brain much like the captive bolt pistol that ended your porky friend’s life. Drinks are served in mason jars and food on metal trays covered in butcher’s paper. An exposed porcelain sink makes for a strange “decoration piece” which left at least one patron awkwardly standing near it debating whether or not to wash his hands. Overall though, the space does a good job of making you want to relax, clear your mind, and prepare for BBQ glory.

The menu is pleasantly straightforward and traditionally Southern. It is sincerely refreshing to see fried pickles, boiled peanuts, and hush puppies served as appetizers without any pretension or attempt at being “updated.” There’s none of that small-plate bullshit or need for the waiter to explain the menu. Same goes for the selection of meats: pulled pork, chicken, hot links, tri-tip, ribs, and a noticeable lack of unnecessarily ambitious organ meats. I’m no authority on Southern cooking, but the “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it” mentality is definitely in overdrive here, right down to the “whole hog dinner” you can reserve with two days notice. The menu claims it feeds 6–8 people. All I could think was challenge accepted.

Side dishes, while about as generic as they come, did their job filling the area of my abdominal cavity not otherwise reserved for barbecued meats. Sweet potato fries, made even sweeter with a brown sugar and maple syrup aioli, could best be described as dangerously addictive. Thankfully the baked beans are not overly sweet and not too “gloopy,” though their intense BBQ flavor had me convinced that I could smoke a piece of meat just by breathing on it. Grits, green beans, and collard greens were all pork-enhanced in some way or another, helping to round out the usual list of BBQ side suspects.

But I wasn’t here for steak, damn it, I was here for some cue, and the tri-tip lacked any distinctive BBQ quality, giving the impression that it wasn’t even smoked. Hot Links were like super-sized Slim Jims, so lean and peppery that I thought they surely replaced all of the fat with whole peppercorns. Even the pulled pork, which seems like a no-fail option, erred on the side of blandness. It was a little dry and desperately lacking some fatty juice, to the point where it could have passed for pulled chicken.

All of this could have potentially been avoided. I’m usually not one to complain about the temperature of food at a restaurant, and, honestly, it’s not really even something I notice most of the time. But in the case of Lillie’s Q, the meat was straight-up cold. I’m a realist, and I understand that the meat isn’t being carved gyro-style right off the animal, but the kitchen could at least turn the temperature up on the heat lamps or something.

At Lillie’s Q, sauce is indeed the boss, saving the meat from the brink of utter disaster. They have two mustardy-vinegary Carolina style sauces, two more traditional smoky sauces, and the mysterious Ivory Sauce, similar to ranch, but more spicy and exotic, and less Hidden Valley. All five are at your table, within reach of your greasy hands.

It is difficult to make a final judgment call about Lillie’s Q. Normally I rip into restaurants for inconsistency, but here I have seen glimpses of true BBQ beauty. Even as I sat, desperately tearing at the tough meat before me, I couldn’t help but recognize how amazing it can be. Lillie’s Q has clearly mastered the art of spice and sauce, which is a feat unto itself, so if they want to sell their bottled goodness by the barrel, I’ll be first in line (for now I’ll have to settle with 16 oz at a time). twenty, thirty, maybe fifty degrees were all that stood between me and BBQ nirvana—so close, yet so far. Good barbecue, above all else, is just a matter of patience and attention to the details: time, temperature, technique. Add a hint of mystery, a dash of secrecy, and call it a day.

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