I was traveling with one of my European manufacturers over a three day period not long ago and we were in Chicago seeing one of my dealers. The dealer has a condo in the upscale Gold Coast neighborhood of Chicago where he has some displays and will put up clients when they come to town. We met at the condo one evening and ended up going down the street to a barbecue place that he talked highly about - Chicago q.
Chicago q calls themselves an "urban barbecue restaurant" and is owned by chef/partner Lee Ann Whippen and developer Fred Latsko. Both are somewhat famous in both of their fields - Whippen has been featured on The Learning Channel's BBQ Pitmasters and on the Food Network's Throwdown with Bobby Flay. Latsko is a major developer of prime real estate in the downtown Chicago area.
Lee Ann Whippen is sort of an anomaly in the barbecue business. You don't see a lot of ladies running their own barbecue place. But she got her start in the business as a hotel catering manager for 15 years before she started Wood Chick's BBQ Catering Company and Wood Chick's BBQ Competition Team based out of Chesapeake, VA in 2002. Whippen and her team won a number of regional barbecue competitions in the Southeast and was the 2009 Grand Barbecue Champion in Virginia.
Pictured right - Lee Ann Whippen
In 2010, Latsko offered Whippen an opportunity to move to Chicago to open Chicago q. It meant that she had to eventually close her Wood Chick's restaurant in Chesapeake, but she still enters some national competitions from time to time. Whippen won the Grand Champion honor at the Safeway National BBQ Battle in Washington, D.C. in June of 2012 and won second place overall at the 2013 World Food Championships held in Las Vegas.
Chicago q is located just south of the corner of Dearborn and Division street in the heart of the Gold Coast's entertainment district. (see map) The place is far from being just a barbecue "joint". As you enter the restaurant, you go into the bar area you find an upscale lounge with leather seats, contemporary lighting and a lot of dark wood furnishings.
The dining room is a long narrow room with the kitchen in the back. You can see the workers through a big serving window. Lush leather seating for both booths and tables offer an upscale barbecue dining experience. There's an upstairs dining area for private functions and receptions. I took a peek up there before we left and it was very nice.
There were four of us that evening - my dealer and a client of his, my manufacturer and myself. We were seated in a large booth in the corner of the dining room and given menus. After a short while, our server for the evening, Daisy, came over to greet us. Right off the bat, my dealer said, "Hey, let's get a couple orders of the smoked chicken wings going."
Chicago q also has a somewhat impressive beer menu as well as an even more impressive menu of bourbon, rye and Scotch whiskeys. I ordered up a Capital Supper Club lager, one of my favorite beers and something I didn't expect to see on the menu.
The chicken wings are dry-rubbed and cooked low and slow in Chicago q's smoker. Now, I'm not usually big on smoked chicken wings, but these were absolutely delicious. The chicken meat was most and tender, easily falling off the bone when pulled. The rub spices had a definite spicy flavor to them, but nothing oppressive. Along with the smoked chicken wings, we also got bowls of spicy bread & butter pickle slices that were excellent, and housemade potato chips that were lightly sprinkled with the housemade rub they use on their meats. But compared to the smoked chicken wings and the spicy pickle slices, the potato chips were just all right.
Three of us went with barbecue - I had the American Kobe beef sliced brisket with a half-rack of Chicago q's St. Louis style ribs. It featured three long slices of the brisket and seven or eight meaty rib bones. Some pickled red onions came on the side and I got a bowl of French fries on the side. The brisket was fine - tender and moist - but it was missing something that I like in my brisket. It didn't have much of a smoky taste and it was more like well done roast beef than brisket. The ribs had a plentiful dusting of the rub spices from Chicago q and were also tender and moist. The bones were rather small, though, and didn't yield a lot of meat. But what pork I did get off the bones was very good.
My dealer's client went with the q burger. The classic American style burger features a huge beef patty char-grilled and topped with Swiss cheese, bacon and cole slaw and served on an onion bun. Quite seriously, I almost got that when I was reading about it on the menu. But I had to do the barbecue. The beef patty was - quite probably - 3/4's of a pound and the client couldn't eat the whole thing. He ended up taking what was left home for him. "I can have the rest for breakfast," he said. "I'm not about to let this go to waste."
My manufacturer colleague got the smoked half-chicken. I couldn't get a picture of it as he was clear on the other side of the rather long table in the booth, but the four large pieces covered his plate. It looked similar in style to the smoked chicken wings in regard to the rub spices on it. He, too, couldn't eat the whole thing but since we were traveling he didn't take any of the left overs with him.
There were four sauces that were brought to the table. Chicago q's original sauce is a sweet and tangy sauce that is pretty mild. They had a spicy barbecue sauce that was a little more forward in taste and left a bit of a spicy aftertaste. I tried a bit of the vinegar sauce on one of the rib bones, but didn't like it as much as the spicy barbecue sauce. And Chicago q also has a mustard barbecue sauce that I didn't try because I really don't like mustard-based barbecue sauces.
I have mixed feelings about upscale barbecue places. Chicago q was very nice and the food was quite good. But I sort of like the downhome feel of a good ol' barbecue joint a little bit better. Barbecue is messy and I sort of got the feeling while eating at Chicago q that you couldn't get too messy with their barbecue. Would I return if I had the chance? In a heartbeat! But I'd still feel more comfortable in a casual and folksy barbecue joint.