Hometown: Skokie, Illinois
Occupation: Chef and Partner, Smoque BBQ
Years worked as a chef: 8
Years lived in Chicago: 25
Awards: Michelin Bib Gourmand (2012-present)
Reader’s Choice Award for Best BBQ, Chicago Reader (2008)
“124 Best Dishes” list (brisket sandwich), Chicago Magazine (2007)
What do you love best about Chicago’s food scene?
I really like the fact that you can get some of the city’s best food in incredibly informal environments. I think that’s unique. Obviously, we have fancy upscale places here. And I like those. But there’s something more authentic to me walking up to a counter and for less than $20, getting something great. I think Chicago has more of that than other cities. At least that’s my perception.
If you had to name one personal favorite dish from Smoque, which would it be and why?
It’s hard to say. I think the brisket is very special. It’s not the straight Texas style. We’ve taken the Austin style brisket and made it our own. Everyone who comes should at least try a little brisket. But I also love our ribs and sausage. I may be the wrong guy to ask because only my favorites made it on the menu!!!
Describe Chicago’s BBQ scene and what it was like when Smoque first opened.
I don’t want to pretend that there was no BBQ here before we opened. You had the South Side-style spare ribs, tips and links. You had the North Side baked, steamed or boiled ribs with sweet BBQ sauce. And you had a few places that had tried to do a more traditional smoked BBQ, but I thought fell a little short in the execution. But something has certainly happened in the last several years.
Smoque has become a popular BBQ destination in Chicago, but what other BBQ joints in the city have impressed you?
There are a number of places I like. I like Lillie’s Q, I like Chicago q. County Barbeque is good. I also think that Smalls does a great job. (Editor’s note: Since publication of this interview, County Barbeque has temporarily closed.)
What other cuisines do you enjoy eating or cooking?
I love Mexican food and I love Cajun/Creole cooking. I love spicy food with big flavors.
Name the top restaurants that you think every visitor to Chicago should try.
The original Lou Malnati’s: It’s the quintessential deep dish Chicago style pizza. Lots of other great pizza, but if you want Chicago style, that’s where you go. And for me, there’s only one pizza on their menu: deep dish sausage butter crust.
Franks ‘n’ Dawgs: No specific sausage recommendation. I’ve loved everything I’ve ever had there. But don’t miss the brussels sprouts salad. We all miss Hot Doug’s and nobody will ever replace Doug, but this place will help you get through your grief. (Editor’s note: Since publication of this interview, Franks ‘n’ Dawgs has temporarily closed.)
Cemitas Puebla: Get the cemita Milanesa. Truthfully, I had never heard of a cemita until this place came along. It’s a crispy breaded pork cutlet with Oaxaca cheese, avocado and a house-made chipotle sauce that’s insanely good. All on a freshly baked, crunchy sesame roll that they are now making in house.
Honey Butter Fried Chicken: Again, everything I’ve had there has been great. Love the chicken, love the sides (especially the Thai curry creamed corn), love the vibe, love the owners.
Urbanbelly: Chef Bill Kim has transformed Asian food for me, fusing Asian with Latin traditions in ways that seem to elevate both of them. Try the Urbanbelly ramen and/or phat rice. Can’t go wrong with any of the dumplings.
Xoco: Fortunately, there’s room in my life for more than one Mexican sandwich. The ahogada at Xoco is incredible if you like the heat. Follow it up with an order of churros with vanilla ice cream.
What are your favorite budget, mid-range, and high-end restaurants in Chicago?
I’ve already mentioned most of my favorites. Most of my favorite places are lower-end street food-type places. At the high end, I really like goosefoot and Schwa. Alinea is, of course, in a class by itself. But truthfully, I don’t get to that kind of restaurant that often. I’m much more likely to head to Johnny’s for a beef sandwich, or Jimmy’s Pizza Cafe for a slice. Also, Snappy’s is a great little fried shrimp shack. Tiny little place—barely seating for six or seven people—but some of the best fried shrimp I’ve had.
Any great watering holes you like to visit often?
I have three kids, so I don’t get to bars very often. But I really like Hopleaf for a pint and some great food. For a glass of wine, I like Webster’s Wine Bar or Bread & Wine. Both have great wine selections by the glass and really good food to complement. Strictly for cocktails, I really like Maude’s Liquor Bar.
We have to ask: what’s your favorite Chicago deep dish?
Well, I live blocks from the original Lou Malnati’s, which to me, is the quintessential Chicago pizza, so that’s my go-to for deep dish. Butter crust sausage pizza is the only thing I’ve ever ordered and I don’t see any reason to order anything else. However, Pequod’s is an incredible deep dish pizza in its own right. I’d be hard-pressed to pick a favorite between the two. My best advice to people visiting Chicago … try both!
Since Eats Abroad is geared toward travelers, are there any restaurants or bars at Chicago’s airports or hotels you would recommend?
Rick Bayless’ Tortas Frontera at O’Hare is the only place I’ve ever eaten at an airport on my way back into town. Seriously, when do you ever get off the plane at your return destination and grab a meal at the airport before getting your luggage and going home? I think Tortas is that good and I’ve done it several times. In fact, truth be told, all else equal, I will book my flight on an airline that I know flies in and out of the Tortas terminal.
What’s your guilty pleasure and where in Chicago do you go to get it?
Sadly, most of my favorite foods are guilty pleasures, so I’ve already mentioned most of them. But like a lot of Chicagoans, I have a severe weakness for the classic Chicago hot dog. And honestly, there are precious few places anymore that are doing a great job with it. My favorites are Poochie’s and Fatso’s Last Stand. Both do great dogs and fresh-cut fries. If you go to Fatso’s, make sure to try the fried shrimp, too!
Are there any foods native to Chicago that you particularly like and that visitors should try to find?
I hate to say it because I know how touristy it seems, but you’ve got to get Garrett’s Popcorn. I think they renamed the Chicago Mix to the Garrett Mix, but it’s still the Chicago Mix to me. And it’s still the only food that causes me to put my entire fist in my mouth. Be warned, whatever size bag you get, that’s how much you will eat in a single sitting. It simply cannot be put down.
Finally, what would you say is the one thing any visitor must see or do before leaving Chicago?
That’s a tough one. When I travel, it’s all about the food. I’d spend my entire trip eating, and the more I ate, the more satisfying the visit would be. But I do think a trip to Chicago that is spent entirely downtown is a wasted trip. Get out and see the neighborhoods. Chicago is full of neighborhoods with different textures and different vibes. See as many of them as you can. That’s what’s great about Chicago. It’s not just one thing. What makes it great is everything collectively.
Chef Sorkin’s Shortlist:
Smoque BBQ, 3800 N. Pulaski Road (Irving Park); BBQ, lunch and dinner Tuesday-Sunday, closed Monday.
Lillie’s Q, 1856 W. North Avenue (Bucktown); BBQ, lunch and dinner daily.
Second location: French Market, 131 N. Clinton Street (West Loop); lunch and early dinner Monday-Friday, closed Saturday-Sunday.
Chicago q, 1160 N. Dearborn Street (Gold Coast); BBQ, lunch Monday-Friday, dinner daily, brunch Saturday-Sunday.
County Barbeque, 1352 W. Taylor Street (University Village/Little Italy); BBQ, lunch and dinner daily.
Smalls, 4009 N. Albany Avenue (Irving Park); BBQ, lunch and dinner Tuesday-Saturday, closed Sunday-Monday.
Lou Malnati’s, 805 S. State Street (South Loop); Chicago-style deep-dish pizza, lunch and dinner daily.
Second location: 439 N. Wells Street (River North); lunch and dinner daily.
Third location: 1120 N. State Street (Gold Coast); lunch and dinner daily.
Fourth location: 1235 W. Randolph Street (West Loop); lunch and dinner daily.
Franks ‘n’ Dawgs, 1863 N. Clybourn Avenue (Lincoln Park); sausage sandwiches, lunch Tuesday-Sunday (also dinner Friday-Saturday outside of winter months), closed Monday.
Cemitas Puebla, 817 W. Fulton Market (West Loop); Mexican, lunch and dinner daily.
Second location: 3619 W. North Avenue (Humboldt Park); lunch and dinner daily.
Honey Butter Fried Chicken, 3361 N. Elston Avenue (Avondale); American, lunch and dinner Wednesday-Sunday, closed Monday-Tuesday.
Urbanbelly, 1400 W. Randolph Street (West Loop); Asian, lunch and dinner daily.
Xoco, 449 N. Clark Street (River North); Mexican, breakfast, lunch and dinner Tuesday-Saturday, closed Sunday-Monday.
goosefoot, 2656 W. Lawrence Avenue (Lincoln Square); new American, dinner only Wednesday-Saturday, closed Sunday-Tuesday.
Schwa, 1466 N. Ashland Avenue (Wicker Park); new American, dinner only Tuesday-Saturday, closed Sunday-Monday.
Alinea, 1723 N. Halsted Street (Lincoln Park); molecular gastronomy, dinner only Wednesday-Sunday, closed Monday-Tuesday (tickets must be purchased in advance).
Johnny’s Beef & Gyros, 2300 N. Lincoln Avenue (Lincoln Park); burgers/sandwiches/salads, lunch, dinner and late night daily.
Jimmy’s Pizza Cafe, 5159 N. Lincoln Avenue (Ravenswood); pizza, breakfast and lunch Tuesday-Sunday, dinner daily.
Snappy’s Shrimp, 1901 W. Irving Park Road (North Center); seafood, lunch and dinner daily.
Hopleaf Bar, 5148 N. Clark Street (Uptown); tavern, lunch and dinner daily.
Webster’s Wine Bar, 2601 N. Milwaukee Avenue (Logan Square); wine bar, open daily.
Bread & Wine, 3732 W. Irving Park Road (Irving Park); new American and wine bar, dinner Tuesday-Saturday, brunch Saturday-Sunday, closed Monday.
Maude’s Liquor Bar, 840 W. Randolph Street (West Loop); French, dinner only daily.
Pequod’s Pizza, 2207 N. Clybourn Avenue (Lincoln Park); deep dish pizza, lunch, dinner and late night daily.
Tortas Frontera, Terminals 1, 3 and 5 at Chicago O’Hare International Airport (ORD); Mexican, breakfast, lunch and dinner daily.
Poochie’s Hot Dogs, 3602 Dempster Street, Skokie, IL; Chicago hot dogs, lunch and dinner daily.
Fatso’s Last Stand, 2258 W. Chicago Avenue (Ukrainian Village); American, lunch and dinner daily, late night Monday-Saturday.
About the Chef: A native of the Chicago area, Chef Barry Sorkin – like a lot of people – had a fondness for backyard grilling. Over time, he realized he was, in his own words, “pretty good at it.” Sorkin had also developed a passion for BBQ itself, traveling to cities famed for their grilled meat scenes and in turn, often wondering why Chicago didn’t have a prominent one of its own. He decided to take matters into his own hands, and in 2006, Sorkin and his co-founders opened Smoque BBQ.
Smoque’s offerings are heavily influenced by the BBQ of central Texas (“The rich smoke flavors that infuse their brisket and beef ribs and sausage is hard to get out of your head once you’ve had it.”). And now, after being in business for most than eight years, Smoque has put itself on Chicago’s food map as one of the city’s go-to spots for BBQ.