Honky Tonk BBQ brings the best of smoked meats to Pilsen and beyond
BY DIANA NOVAK ◆ Staff Reporter August 20, 2013 12:46PM
The beef brisket sandwich is featured on the menu of Honky Tonk BBQ at 1800 S. Racine Ave. | Alex Wroblewski/Sun-Times
Is the drive to 18th Street too far for you?
Here are some stellar barbecue joints around the Chicago area that are as authentic as Honky Tonk BBQ:
Fat Willy’s has a traditional approach to barbecue as Honky Tonk, and it definitely has the “joint” feel — but don’t leave without having a Hogarita and some mac and cheese. 2416 W. Schubert; (773) 782-1800; fatwillys.com.
This old timeybar received a Bib Gourmand rating from the Michelinjudges in 2011 for its ribs. Seeing as they’ve been serving them up since 1932, it’s safe to saythey know a thing or two about authentic barbecue. 1655 N. Sedgwick; (312) 266-1616;
Updated: August 21, 2013 11:02AM
Barbecue may not be what Chicago is predominantly known for — and there may be no definitive Chicago-style — but that hasn’t stopped a serious influx of barbecue restaurants from popping up in the last 10 years.
Most of the places have a trendy edge, a catchy name — more restaurant than joint. But Honky Tonk BBQ in Pilsen (1800 S. Racine) is definitely a joint.
“A funny story from a patron, [they said] ‘I was in New Orleans last week, and I was in a tavern and I felt like I was right back in Chicago [at Honky Tonk],’” said owner and barbecue master Willie Wagner.
After decades of recreational grilling for large crowds, Freeport, Ill.-native Wagner left his day job as a commercial printing salesman and opened Honky Tonk BBQ in 2007, downstairs from the apartment where he has lived for the past 25 years with his wife, Elizabeth.
“We have a charmed life. She owned the building. It was a caterer and a florist in separate storefronts; we took over the caterer first and then the florist,” Wagner said.
Wagner cooks in small batches in the restaurant’s tiny kitchen, and while he says there is nothing that makes his food distinctly Chicagoan, it seems there is nothing un-Chicagoan about a whole lot of meat.
His pulled pork won a trophy at the 2008 World Championship Memphis in May barbecue competition. But his menu also includes brisket, hot links, rib tips and whole smoked chicken.
Wagner makes three kinds of ribs — trophy-winning ribs, actually — but Viking Beef Short Ribs, only available on Friday and Saturday, are described as “steak on a stick” on the menu. There’s no sauce — diners can add their own — but Wagner said the richness of the meat is the point.
“It’s very, very rich. If you like prime rib you like short rib even more,” Wagner said. “When you’re the chef you get to put your favorite food on the menu.”
There’s no question that bacon is a favorite food — it’s clear in Wagner’s “Bacon Candy,” a maple syrup-shellacked, thick-cut piece of quality bacon.
The candy could be a gateway drug for the restaurant’s music offerings, very much in the “circular style” of “If You Give a Mouse a Cookie”: You’ll taste the bacon, you’ll find beer goes really well with it, you’ll string one beer into another and notice that the music at Honky Tonk is coming from a live band — and a different one every night.
“It’s kind of American roots music, from the ’30s to the ’60s, jazz, blues, rockabilly, rock and roll,” Wagner said. “American food and American music.”
Wagner said there is a crowd that comes just for the music, played out on the small, square stage in the middle of the restaurant. During a recent weekend, he said a group of around 10 people came in Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights to hear the different bands.
“Without the music, you can only eat so much of one restaurant’s food... but the music is a different flavor,” Wagner said.
Whatever brings you to Honky Tonk, Wagner and his wife ask that you adhere to a policy that keeps the joint in check: “Have fun, don’t be mean.” It’s printed on the menu.
“[It means] you can’t please everyone [so] don’t be that one out of 100 people who is unpleasable,” Wagner said.
But if bacon candy and live music doesn’t please you, what will?