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Honky Tonkin'

By Chuck Sudo in Food on Aug 21, 2007 3:30PM

2007_08_honkytonk_prime.jpgLately we've dedicated more than a few sentences about Honky Tonk BBQ, the new Pilsen-based barbecue restaurant officially opening in late September. We even announced that they were doing a sneak preview of their menu last weekend. Having sampled their 'cue while making our rounds on the street fair circuit we had a lot of questions, mainly about the true quality of the meat.

Our questions on that subject were answered after our visit to 1213 W. 18th Street (phone number 312-907-7895) Friday night. When Honky Tonk BBQ officially opens on September 29, our feeling is that the word-of-mouth regarding the barbecue here will earn this place a loyal following and curious visits from foodies and BBQ aficionados. We were telling some Chicagoist staffers that we think Honky Tonk BBQ's product is better than Honey 1, on a par with Smoque. But we still had a lot of questions, so we paid a return visit Saturday to talk with owner Willie Wagner to see if he had some time to answer them.

The affable, likable Wagner did, and then some.

2007_08_honkytonk_willie.jpgWagner, a longtime Pilsen resident, has been making his barbecue for over fifteen years. He also has the mobile rotisserie smoker that's been making its way around the street fairs ready for added duty. Wagner says his meats are always fresh, never frozen; and that he's a fan of Memphis-style barbecue. "I think that Memphis barbecue, between the wood and the sauces, tends to be sweeter. There also isn't a lot of sauce on the meat, which I think allows people to taste that the wood's adding to the meat," Wagner told us. "It stands on its own, I think." Wagner uses mainly applewood for smoking, with small amounts of oak and hickory added for some spice. He also adds no water to his meats. "I'll smoke my ribs for a couple hours, then wrap them in foil and put them back in the smoker, letting them cook in their own steam." He slow smokes his briskets for around twelve hours, then wraps them and cooks them for another two. "I've found that anything longer than fourteen hours tends to make the brisket too soft. They just become mush," he said.

2007_08_honkytonk_dinner.jpgWe had absolutely no complaints with the half-slab of spare ribs or the small beef brisket sandwich. We were able to cut into the meat with a spoon and pull the bones from the meat on the former. The beef brisket was unbelievably juicy; a side of horseradish made for the perfect complement. Both the ribs and brisket were steeped in applewood. Hours after we finished eating, we could still smell smoke on our clothes and hands. Another wonderful side was the mixed-green salad with Michigan blueberries, walnuts, jicama, and goat cheese. We also ordered a side of baked beans, a steal at $1. The total cost of this meal was $22, and we got to enjoy it in the comfort of our home.

That's the other major thing diners will find out about Honky Tonk BBQ: it's very intimate. Right now, Wagner is sharing his two-room space with a theater troupe. The main room only seats 24 people, but Wagner hopes to have some window seating built before the hard opening and eventually expand Honky Tonk into the other room, for extra sit-down dining. Once word-of-mouth hits, a sizable amount of Wagner's business will come from carry-out orders; until he can expand dining into both rooms, seating will be at a premium here.

Wagner wants to getting a liquor license for Honky Tonk BBQ. Until that happens, it'll be BYOB. "I envision some nights where we'll have fixed-price dinners, with your choice of a wine, or a bottle of Shiner Bock." Otherwise, the laid-back Wagner is content to go with the flow regarding this new venture, with the ultimate goal of making Honky Tonk a destination spot. "I'm not locked into this rigid plan for the place. If we find something that works that we hadn't planned on, then we'll go in that direction. I can change directions pretty easily." Until then, he has a lot of work to do. On our Saturday visit a new 10-burner stove stood in the middle of the kitchen, ready to replace the currently in use. There's also the matter of hiring staff, and placing finishing touches on the restaurant before the opening.

So far, Wagner says it's falling into place better than he expected. "I've got Fulton County Line playing music for the opening, and I'm pretty confident people will come by just to see what the fuss is about."