You can take the boy out of the South, but you can’t take the South out of the boy. Well, at least not if you’re barbecue king Charlie McKenna.
McKenna is the man behind the custom-made stainless steel smokers at Lillie’s Q, where he cooks up mass quantities of baby back ribs, chicken, pork and more for the crowds that pack his smoking-hot Wicker Park BBQ joint. This competitive barbecue master and former fine-dining chef (Tru, Avenues) developed a lifelong infatuation with home-style Southern food after spending significant parts of his childhood below the Mason-Dixon Line.
“I was always in the kitchen with my grandmother,” says McKenna, a military brat who often visited his beloved grandmother Lillie in her Greenville, S.C. home.
The eatery’s menu — which features his award-winning peachwood-smoked meats, citified versions of countrified starters and sides, a few non-barbecue offerings and two down-home desserts — is “all inspired by my grandmother,” McKenna says.
[Well, with one exception: McKenna’s simply, but well-seasoned beef tri-tip. Cut from the bottom section of the sirloin, the dish is a nod to his father, Quito. The “Q” in Lillie’s Q and a master barbecue man in his own right, Quito McKenna learned to prepare this California BBQ specialty while stationed in Santa Maria, the nation’s tri-tip capital, his son says.]
Although McKenna’s menu celebrates his familial influences, only the tri-tip and two other dishes —Lillie’s fluffy meringue-topped Nilla Wafers banana pudding ($5) and her crumbly shortcake biscuits ($5), which are paired with seasonal fruit and sweetened fresh Chantilly cream — come from actual family recipes.
The rest are purely McKenna’s own interpretations. And this is where his fine-dining background peeks through.
Living high on the hog on a recent visit to Lillie’s Q, our group of three kicked off the evening with McKenna’s takes on two traditional Southern munchies — fried pickles ($5) and hush puppies ($5). The thick dill pickle rounds were enveloped in a flaky beer batter and served with a side of house-made buttermilk ranch dressing — no bottled Hidden Valley here. Virtually greaseless, the hush puppies were balls of deep-fried goodness flecked with scallions and red pepper and paired with McKenna’s creamy sweet potato dressing.
Looking for something healthy to set off our decadent appetizers, I sampled the Q Salad ($8), a toss of crispy Bibb lettuce, Southern caviar (aka black-eyed peas), tomatoes, avocado, red onion and homemade cornbread croutons. I lavishly dressed it with McKenna’s peppery-smoked tomato vinaigrette.
McKenna attributes his attention to the small details — such as those dipping sauces and dressings — to his high-end culinary training.
“We try to create things that go exactly with the dish,” he says. “I think of each dish as a dish in itself.
“It gives the guest a better experience and I get to come up with more stuff.”
Other than his father’s tri-tip seasoning, McKenna developed his own signature spice blends, rubs and barbecue sauces. His five house-made sauces pay homage to the various styles of Southern barbecue, and he serves his meats unadorned, so diners can experiment and choose their favorites.
“I want people to come to my restaurant and experience different regions,” he says. “I’m not pigeonholing myself into one region.”
“Ivory,” for example, is a unique (and divisive) mayo-and-vinegar sauce commonly found in Alabama. Although “it’s a love/hate one,” McKenna offers it to edify customers about the Yellowhammer State’s barbecue predilections.
McKenna also serves sauces from the two Carolinas: “Carolina” is a tomato-and vinegar-based sauce from the North, while “Carolina Gold” is its mustardy Southern cousin. Both sauces have strong notes of Christmas spice, and although he played it close to the vest, McKenna admitted that cloves were indeed part of his secret blend.
McKenna’s “Smoky” sauce is a traditional Memphis-style sweet ketchup-based blend. And my favorite, “Hot Smoky,” takes the Memphis sauce’s heat up a degree with the addition of cayenne pepper.
The Husband, The Girl and I had a fine time taste-testing the sauces with our various meat selections, which could be ordered as sandwiches or in half- or full-pound portions. (For an additional $1, meats are served “Southern style,” topped with McKenna’s crunchy slaw.) The Husband and The Girl’s pulled chicken sandwiches ($8) were darned good and featured ample-sized prime chunks of smoky chicken. The brioche bun proved superfluous as the chicken was clearly the star of the tray.
The aforementioned signature tri-tip ($10/$18) lived up to our waiter’s hype. A tribute to McKenna’s “100 percent German paternal grandmother,” the handmade hot links ($10/$18) built up a slow and even heat and gave me the perfect excuse to order another cold beer.
McKenna offers several nearly impossible- to-pick-from sides. The obvious choice was his bread-crumb topped corkscrew mac and cheese ($5), but the better — more decadent — option was his twist on humble grits ($4). Here McKenna eschews the instant grits of his childhood and replaces them with the coarse, top-quality, stone-ground kind. Buttery beyond belief, the grits arrived dotted with chewy bits of house-made bacon. Fresh and crispy green beans ($4) came awfully close to being health food, save for yet another ample sprinkling of that bacon.
But then again, who expects to eat healthy when chowing down on authentic Southern barbecue? As they say in the South, sometimes you just have to go whole hog.
1856 West North Avenue
Chicago, Illinois 60606