Diners who've mourned the lack of a go-to barbecue spot in Lake County since American Smokehouse closed five years ago might want to head to Long Grove, where two local chefs have turned from country-club cooking to country-style smoking.
While the slick, new Smokin' T's Bar-B-Que lacks the rustic charm and table service of the late, lamented Lake Zurich establishment, it is turning out some real, smoky barbecue.
"It's not from any particular region," owner Todd Stoner says. "It's just things that I've picked up in my travels that I've liked."
He's also added some unique twists. Instead of the typical, often dry and leathery, Texas-style beef brisket, for example, Smokin' T's serves smoked short ribs. Served sliced from the bone, the beef is juicy, tender and flavorful, with decent smokiness.
Smokin' T's also makes delicious chicken, half a bird on the bone with succulent, smoky meat and a crackling, crispy skin.
The ribs, meaty St. Louis-style spares, have great texture: nice and chewy but not too dry. I'd prefer smokier flavor and some spice, but these are very respectable ribs. (If you're a fan of saucy, Chicago-style, fall-off-the-bone meat Jell-O, though, they aren't for you.)
The only disappointment is the ho-hum pulled pork. Although supposedly smoked for 12 hours, the pork tasted pretty bland.
The meats, from JDY Inc. of Chicago, are smoked with hickory in a log-burning Southern Pride smoker from downstate Marion, Ill.
The pulled pork, beef and chicken come either as platters, with a choice of two sides, or as sandwiches, including a sampler of each. Ribs come with or without sides in half or full slabs. Combos can include any two meats, three or all four.
The restaurant also smokes turkey but serves it only in a chopped salad (with bacon, cheese, hard-boiled eggs, lettuce and tomato) and in a club sandwich with white, mayonnaise-based Alabama-style barbecue sauce.
Other salads include a "Popeye" spinach salad with apples, prosciutto, candied pecans and goat cheese in a red onion and currant vinaigrette; a Southwestern chicken and tortilla salad featuring smoked chicken and black beans; and an iceberg wedge with blue-cheese dressing.
Don't look for rib tips or hot links. If enough requests for something come in, though, Stoner says they'd consider adding it to the menu. Specials are offered on Saturdays and Sundays, and Mondays are chicken-wing night.
Stoner, a fourth-generation chef who grew up in West Virginia, says he's always been into barbecue. Before launching Smokin' T's in November, he and partner Tom Gescheidle went to Memphis, Tenn., for a three-day barbecue-sampling spree and took a class to be certified as Kansas City Barbeque Society judges.
Both T's (that's Todd and Tom) are grads of the Culinary Institute of America. Gescheidle left a job at the Exmoor Country Club in Highland Park to handle daily operations at Smokin' T's, while Stoner, who developed the recipes, continues to work as executive chef at Lake Forest's Onwentsia Club, at least until the concept takes off. They hope to expand to more locations.
Along with the barbecued meats, Stoner's dishes include family recipes for savory corn-and-chicken soup, full of morsels of smoked chicken and spaetzle-like Pennsylvania Dutch-style dumplings; baked corn pudding, a creamy casserole studded with sweet corn niblets; and smoky baked beans.
Smokin' T's also serves mild but good-tasting chili, full of smoked beef, pork and pinto beans, topped with shredded Jack cheese and served with sour cream. Portions are ample.
Other sides include macaroni and cheese, creamy cole slaw, potato salad, house-made potato chips and fries. Except for the fries, everything is made from scratch in-house, Stoner says.
"We feel our sides are as important as our meat. It has never made sense to me why someone would put such effort into their barbecue and not the sides or the sauce," he says.
I think they need to put a little more work into their sauces, which seem pretty undistinguished. The "Original," described by the proprietors as "a combination of all the great barbecue regions, vinegar and mustard from the South, ketchup and tomato-based sauce from Kansas City and the balance of heat and sweet from Texas," tastes even blander and sweeter than the typical barbecue sauce you find at most Chicago barbecue joints.
The "Memphis Mustard" has only a bit more zest, while the North Carolina-style vinegar sauce tastes, basically, like vinegar.
C'mon, guys, you're not cooking for the country-club set anymore. Turn up the heat!
The meats all come sauceless except for the ribs, which get a pleasingly light glaze of the Original, so you can take them home and dowse them with your favorite sauce.
Not that you need to carry out. Smokin' T's is no gritty barbecue shack. Housed in the spanking-new Long Grove Commons complex at Route 22 and Old McHenry Road, the pristine, counter-service spot has a 30-seat dining room with ceramic-tile floors, wood-and-iron chairs, and walls painted the colors of butterscotch and chocolate. Extreme close-up photos of food and quotations about barbecue provide tasteful theme decor. No kitschy anthropomorphic pigs here. The restaurant also has a drive-through.
You will need to get takeout if you want a beer with your barbecue. The restaurant sells refillable fountain sodas and a selection of bottled soft drinks. Because of the small dining room, Stoner says, they don't encourage BYOB patrons, who tend to linger without adding to the bottom line; they're waiting for customer feedback on whether to apply for a liquor license.
House-baked desserts consist of big chocolate-chip cookies, brownies and gooey butter cake, a St. Louis specialty that apparently doesn't travel well, as this cookie-like version tastes neither gooey nor buttery.
As well as dining-room and to-go service, Smokin' T's offers catering and a line of cryovac-packed, frozen, heat-at-home foods including smoked meats, soups and chili, plus barbecue rubs and sauces.
Smokin' T's Bar-B-Que
Long Grove Commons, 3976 Route 22, Long Grove, (847) 726-0726, www.smokintsbbq.com
Setting: Dressed-up counter-service spot in a strip mall at Route 22 and Old McHenry Road
Price range: Salads and soups $3.50 to $9.95; entrees $5.95 to $22.95; desserts $1.95
Hours: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily
Accepts: Major credit cards
Also: No alcohol; free parking; drive-through service; weekend specials; reheatable frozen products and catering available