Chicago: Gettin' Sauced at Honky Tonk Barbecue
"Maybe even better than the pork is a crunchy-skinned half chicken featuring what often seems like the impossible: simultaneously moist thighs, legs, and breasts."
Though my job is supposedly to find really great food experiences, I also have this really dirty habit of avoiding them. Usually it’s a mixture of procrastination or busyness, whereby I somehow miss the opening of a new spot, and before you know it, everyone, including my grandma, has blogged about how good the place is and how it’s become a Chicago classic—and then there’s no need for me to even try it.
Honky Tonk Barbecue in Chicago is one of those places. While my grandmother hasn’t yet Twittered me about the pulled pork, they’ve already won the usual accolades, not to mention that owner Willie Wagner garnered third place for pork shoulder at the 2008 Memphis In May World Championship Barbecue Contest.
So let me just jump on the smoking woodpile and confirm what everyone else has basically said: The meat here is sick. The pulled pork is succulent, wet, and smoky with a nice pink ring and a crunchy blackened bark. Unlike the meat at most spots around town, you do not need any sauce to flavor it. I usually make fun of the antisauce contingent, but truly, to sauce this delicate bit of pork candy is to commit treason against the state of pork perfection.
Maybe even better than the pork is a crunchy-skinned half chicken featuring what often seems like the impossible: simultaneously moist thighs, legs, and breasts. Once again, sauce is not needed, but Honky Tonk does offer three—a slightly sweet tomato-based sauce; a more vinegary spicy version of that; and garlic, black pepper, and mustard sauce. (The mustard sauce has chunks of fresh garlic and is probably one of my favorite local sauces, tomato or otherwise.)
The only real issue with Honky Tonk is the sides. Beans are good but are pretty much one-note sweet, cornbread is subtly corn perfumed though dry, and mac and cheese is relatively bland and would be better replaced by the Kraft blue box.
The northside barbecue joint Smoque has raised the game with its well-balanced, nuanced sides, and its brisket is juicier, so it still gets the edge as the best newer barbecue joint in the city.
That said, Honky Tonk is really good, and better yet, it’s in my 'hood, which means it’ll probably get the most mileage out of my stomach when it comes to smoky treats.