A place that has been on my culinary radar for a couple years has been Black Dog Smoke and Ale House, a barbecue joint located near the University of Illinois campus in downtown Urbana, IL. I had a morning meeting with one of my dealers in twin city Champaign and decided to head over to Black Dog for an early lunch before I hit the road.
Mike Cochran had been a bartender at the Esquire Lounge in Champaign since 1993. One of the co-owners was a guy by the name of Pedro Heller. Cochran got into smoking meats about three years later when he bought a small backyard water smoker. He started to work some shifts in the kitchen at the Esquire, and once a week he made ribs to sell at the bar. The ribs were an immediate hit.
Cochran began to dream about one day owning his own barbecue place. But for an area like Champaign/Urbana, there was no dearth of barbecue places. The people in Chambana really like their barbecue. Cochran knew that his barbecue joint would have to be different and he partnered with Heller with his plan to have his own style of barbecue in a restaurant that would serve craft beers from all over the Midwest. In February 2009, Cochran and Heller opened Black Dog Smoke and Ale House in what was the former Tod and John's, a tavern that was popular with the locals. The barbecue joint was named after Cochran's two black dogs, Lola and Oscar.
Cochran was influenced by many different styles of barbecue - Memphis-style with the seasoned rubs, Carolina-style with pork and vinegar-based sauces, and the sweet and smoky Kansas City-style barbecue featuring burnt ends. Cochran wasn't very big on adding sauces to his smoked meats, saying that the meat should stand on its own. But they offer seven different types of barbecue sauce that can be served with the meats.
Black Dog Smoke and Ale House is located on the corner of Walker and Broadway in downtown Urbana. (see map) They share the parking lot on the north side of their building with Bunny's, another popular and long-time eatery in Urbana. I could smell the wood smoke when I got out of my car.
It was just after 11:30 and they had been open since 11. When I walked in, the place was already packed and there was a wait at the door. A guy was manning the stand up front and he asked me how many there was in my party. When I told him, "Just one," he looked toward the bar and asked me if I wanted to have a seat at the bar. I had no problem with that whatsoever.
Black Dog is not a large place. There are some tall tables up front and a row of booths along the wall opposite the bar. The bar, itself, is an old ornate structure that looked like it had been made back in the 30's or 40's.
After I sat down, a personable bartender came up to greet me. He said, "Welcome to Black Dogs. We're out of burnt ends, catfish and ribs today. I hope you didn't come for those."
I said, "Already? You guys are out of the ribs already?"
"We got some smoking right now," he explained. "We had a catering job that came up that left us short."
But they still had pulled pork, brisket, smoked Polish sausage and smoked chicken available. They also have smoked salmon available at times, as well as smoked duck on occasion. Black Dog also features locally-raised grass-fed beef for their burgers, brisket burritos, Cuban sandwiches, vegetarian food items, as well as a slew of appetizers. For a cold beer, I ordered up a Bell's Two Hearted Ale.
They had a two meat platter on the menu that I ended up ordering. I got a couple sides with it and I ordered the pit baked beans, but was sort of torn between a couple of other things. The bartender said, "You can't go wrong with the spicy potato salad." OK, I'll sign up for that.
He asked me, "What kind of barbecue sauce do you want?" I asked what he had and he started to rattle them off - Georgia Peach, Hot Georgia Peach, Milo's Mustard, Carolina Red... I stopped him and asked if I could have a little bit of everything. He said, "For a two buck upcharge, we have a sauce flight that we serve." Sure! You bet!
The pulled pork, brisket and sides were served on a deep metal tray with wax paper covering the bottom of the pan. There was a healthy sized glob of pulled pork and about four or five slices of thick cut brisket. The sides were good sized and looked interesting.
The sauces were also served in a similar pan inside small plastic tubs. In addition to the ones I named before, there was a Carolina vinegar sauce, a Texas barbecue sauce, and a chipotle sauce. More on the sauces in a bit.
The pulled pork was moist and tender, and had a great smoky flavor. The brisket was not quite as tender as I like, but it was still very good. The rub on the bark of the brisket had a nice tangy appeal. Both the pulled pork and the brisket were well above average.
The pit beans, on their own, were good. But I mixed some of the Hot Georgia Peach and the Texas BBQ sauces in with the beans and they got zipped up in taste pretty well. But the highlight was the spicy potato salad. The bartender didn't steer me wrong - it had a zippy and tangy taste. There appeared to be hot peppers mixed in with the potato salad and it was some of the finest potato salad I've had. I really wanted to get the recipe for it.
The sauces were, well, interesting. If you're a regular reader of Road Tips, you'll know that I'm big into the different barbecue sauces, going more toward the sweet and spicy sauces (sometimes having to mix both together to get the desired taste), and not too particularly fond of the mustard or vinegar based sauces. Both the hot Georgia Peach and the regular Georgia Peach sauces were very good. The hot Georgia Peach had the nice mixture of sweet and hot that I like. It was just excellent.
I thought the Texas BBQ sauce was a little bland, but I did like the chipotle sauce. Mixed together, the combination was very good. The Carolina red was a vinegar-tomato mix that was all right, but not my favorite. And although I'm not fond of the mustard or near pure vinegar-style of sauces, I did try the Milo's Mustard (found it tangy, but a little sour to my taste buds), and the Carolina vinegar that was all right, but not my style of sauce. It's definitely an acquired taste.
For $12.95 for the two meat platter (a three meat platter is $17.95), plus $2.00 for the sauce flight, it was a lot of food for lunch. And good food. In 2013, Maxim magazine named Black Dog one of the top five hottest BBQ places in the United States. It's not that they needed more accolades - they were doing fine well before getting the national recognition. But in the fall of 2013, Cochran and Heller announced they would open a second - and larger - Black Dog Smoke and Ale House in an old railroad freight building in Champaign.
I liked everything about Black Dog, save for the fact that they were out of ribs on my visit. But the brisket and pulled pork were both very good, the sauces were, as I said, interesting, and they had a wonderful selection of craft beers from all around the Midwest. Getting in early doesn't always guarantee a seat and they may be out of some meat. But I'd go back to Black Dog Smoke and Ale House in a moment's notice.