Chicago q

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  • Barbecue
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Photograph: Dave Rentauskas
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There’s a notion in this town, started and propagated by chowhounds, that in order for barbecue to be “authentic,” it needs to either be handed through a bulletproof turnstyle at a cash-only carryout joint or plopped down onto brown paper by the rough hands of a Southern pit master. That’s why Chicago Q, the newest entrant into the increasingly crowded barbecue scene, raised hackles right out of the gate for its swank Gold Coast digs. If there’s a restaurant in town that feels more like a Southern country club, I haven’t seen it.

There’s a notion in this town, started and propagated by chowhounds, that in order for barbecue to be “authentic,” it needs to either be handed through a bulletproof turnstyle at a cash-only carryout joint or plopped down onto brown paper by the rough hands of a Southern pit master. That’s why Chicago Q, the newest entrant into the increasingly crowded barbecue scene, raised hackles right out of the gate for its swank Gold Coast digs. If there’s a restaurant in town that feels more like a Southern country club, I haven’t seen it.

But holding the fact that Chicago Q is a beautiful and comfortable restaurant against it is asinine. If the barbecue is good, I couldn’t care less if I was eating it on the hood of my car or in the lap of luxury with a mint julep in hand; there are occasions for both. But when the barbecue is inconsistent and disappointing, as it is at Chicago Q, no cushy booth or well-made cocktail can soothe the pain.

And this conclusion is painful, magnified by high expectations born when I heard Lee Ann Whippen was coming to town. The Chicago Q partner and pit master is the brawn behind Virginia’s Wood Chicks BBQ joint and its competitive barbecue team, which has won more ribbons than a Triple Crown thoroughbred. Outside of this subculture, Whippen—a sort of country version of Farrah Fawcett—has gained a dose of fame via TLC’s BBQ Pitmasters series. And now she’s in Chicago, looking to up the ante with Kobe brisket and a slab of “competition” ribs that goes for about 35 bucks. Kobe or not, my brisket was left in the smoker way too long—the hunks of beef showed up dry to the point of crumbling on one visit and just vaguely tender on another. “Dry” seemed to be the theme of my first meal at Chicago Q, when the pulled chicken, pork shoulder, braised greens and even the cookies for dessert were all begging for a bit of moisture. Spare ribs, on the other hand (the straight-up standards, not the $10-more-expensive “competition” slab), proved just tender enough, with a good dose of smoke and a slightly sweet rub.

But I was still interested in the competition ribs, which servers told me had “a lot more ingredients and took a lot longer.” So on my second visit I ordered both, only to find that the house ribs were consistent with the first time I tried them: pull-apart tender, ringed with smoke, slick with fatty juices and a touch sweet. By contrast, I needed a knife to separate the bones on the pricier competition slab, and the sturdy meat took quite a bit more chewing. Pulled pork and chicken fared better the second time around, with noticeably more moisture and a whiff of smoke, but they still failed to stand out.

Regardless, the room full of upper-crust locals didn’t seem to mind the flaws, as they tossed their ties over one shoulder with casual-Friday recklessness and got to work on those upgrade ribs, ordering bottle after bottle of fat cabs and California chardonnays. This is Chicago Q’s target market, and very few are likely to abandon even mediocre barbecue in swank digs for better barbecue in shabby surroundings. Their loss.

By Heather Shouse

Venue name: Chicago q
Contact:
Address: 1160 N Dearborn St
Chicago

Cross street: between Elm and Division Sts
Opening hours: Lunch, dinner
Transport: El stop: Red to Clark/Division. Bus: 22, 36, 70, 156.
Price: Average main course: $20
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