When I first heard of Honky Tonk BBQ, Willie Wagner’s Pilsen smokehouse that started making some considerable noise when it opened a few years ago, I knew it was time to get my oink on.
Besides the roll of paper towels and homemade sauces in squeeze bottles at every table, you wouldn’t wager your mother’s life that you were at a barbecue place. The colorfully painted exterior of this former Czech social club stands out in the delicious but unvarying procession of panaderÃas and taquerÃas that surround it on 18th street. Inside you can’t make up your mind as to whether you’re in a whimsical fine-dining establishment, the illegitimate love-child of a speak-easy and a honky-tonk, or Paula Deen’s living room. There’s live blues music and even a wall with art for sale on it. Elsewhere you can see a functional mechanical pony, a wagon-wheel chandelier, and paintings of Carl Porter, the serpent-handling preacher-man.
We started the night out right with a first course of bacon candy: thick-cut slices of bacon glazed with brown sugar, achieving the perfect balance of salt-and-sweet. This literal sweetmeat reminds the diner that bacon is a meat in its own right and not just a crunchy garnish for bland soups and salads. The pork-a-licious candy bars may make your heart hate you, but good luck putting them down.
Bread and other fixings are no joke at Honky Tonk either. Sandwiches come on an outstanding ciabatta roll with an intoxicating aroma of olive oil. The corn bread is freshly baked, replete with whole kernels — hit the bad boys with some butter and the taste is like edible gold. Most meals are perfectly accompanied by the house’s rich, slow-baked beans and crisp, lemony coleslaw, which, thankfully, cannot be mistaken for mayonnaise pudding.
But don’t overlook one of the best sides on the menu, the Texas Brisket Chili with Mac. These cheesy, al dente noodles are gloriously bestowed upon a bed of rich, thick, stick-to-your-ribs chili.
As satisfying as these dishes may be, Honky Tonk’s smoked meats are the real showstoppers, and they have the trophies to prove it. Every item has been taken to the next level. The chicken–a bird that most chefs think of as what people order when they don’t feel like eating–is succulent smokiness on a drumstick. The way it makes you feel the need to keep picking at it with your fingers is nothing short of flirtatious. However, don’t eat the skin–it’s not as crispy as it seems.
Although the thick-cut slices of juicy brisket and smoky, dry-rubbed ribs would be enough to allow any meat-lover to achieve BBQ nirvana, the piÃ¨ce de rÃ©sistance is undoubtedly their ridiculously flavorful pulled pork shoulder. The recipe has won back-to-back third place victories at the Memphis-in-May World Championship cook-off, proof that even as a town known for drowning slow-cooked meats in sweet BBQ sauces, Chicago can give meat some dry-rubbed loving too. It is sweet, moist and packs a punch of pork flavor that leaves you deliriously desperate for more. The occasional bite of fat melts in your mouth while the bark, the outer layer of beer-mustard dry rub blackened by seventeen hours of smoke, is like charcoal candy. Get it in a sandwich, gently drip some of the tangy vinegar-based sauce over the top, and bite into that loaf of suckling sublimity like it’s your last meal.
Lastly, you can’t forego dessert or coffee at Honky Tonk. With new and enticing specials available all the time, regulars include peach cobbler and banana pudding (the latter was such a palate-pleaser that only two words came to mind–monkey sex). Coffee is whimsically presented in a clear glass shaped like a cowboy boot.
It is reassuring to know all of these delectable options come at reasonable prices. Sandwiches can be had for under $10 and generously sized entrees for just over that. If you’re feeling adventurous, order the sampler platter for $30 and let your curiosity loose on this jungle gym of barbecued fun. The platter is more than enough for two or three regular human beings. It’s also worth noting that the service is excellent at Honky Tonk, and our server, Hector, was one of the most pleasant and helpful waiters I’ve ever come across.
“Sometimes I think of food as mere fuel,” said one of the people in my party.
“Not this,” interrupted another, “This warms your heart and soul.”
Yep. That’s Honky Tonk BBQ.
Honky Tonk BBQ, 1213 W. 18th St. Tuesday-Friday, 4pm-2am; Saturday, 4pm-3am; Sunday, noon-2am; kitchen closes at 11pm every night. (312)226-7427.