Follow your nose. It always knows. Where there’s smoke, there’s goodness. And where there’s smoke, that usually means barbecue.
McHenry County has had a long history with barbecued food, but recently it has seen a proliferation of new ’cue joints popping up.
“Barbecue is just plain delicious,” said Roy Slicker, president of the National Barbecue Association and owner of Slick’s Que Co. in Bend, Oregon. “People appreciate the variety of chicken, pork and beef at a barbecue restaurant. They appreciate the range of sauces and seasonings. And they can be messy and not get in trouble. ... Barbecue is comfortable, not stuffy.”
Even though ’cue is about as comfort food as food gets, Slicker said there are a few things people should know to better appreciate the food.
At any great barbecue restaurant, pits (smoke houses) should already be going first thing in the morning so the meat can be cooked over a low temperature for several hours.
Most barbecue sauces are tomato-based, but if you see Carolina-style, it will be heavy on the vinegar.
“The meat should stand on its own in terms of flavor, moistness and tenderness,” Slicker said.
“I recommend that someone try the meat first and see if they want to ratchet up the heat or the intensity with sauce. Traditionally, sauces were meant to be more for dipping than as gravy. And when you load that fork up with ’cue and sauce, leave a little room for coleslaw if you like it. The cooling crunch is a fabulous combination. ... I call it ‘bite engineering.’
“Even if you don’t come from a traditional ‘barbecue state,’ don’t hesitate to try a new place,” Slicker said. “Barbecue pros are turning up everywhere. It’s exciting.”
“The more the better,” said Crystal Lake Rib House Owner Dave Faccone of the new barbecue restaurants recently opening in McHenry County. “With all the different styles and techniques, it’s better for all of us.”
According to Max Good, vice president at amazingribs.com, an authoritative website about grilling and barbecuing, “If all you’ve ever had is ribs at a chain restaurant, you’re really missing out.”
“Smaller restaurants get a magic quality from slow cooking and smoke.”
Here are five veteran and new barbecue joints to try:
The Texan BBQ
101 N. Main St., Algonquin
She’s the queen of the barbecue scene in McHenry County.
Roxy Radd, owner of the Texan BBQ in Algonquin, has been serving brisket, pulled pork, baby back ribs and more since 1984.
The Texan BBQ was opened because Radd said her husband couldn’t find good barbecue after he came home from business trips to Texas.
With a smokehouse at the restaurant, Radd said she has “three guys who oversee the cooking process.” Smoking most of their meats for about 12 hours, Radd said she uses hickory wood because “it gives it a real good flavor.”
The three most popular dishes are the beef brisket, baby back ribs and the pulled or sliced pork. She believes so deeply in her best-selling dishes she gives out free samples.
“You just have to try it,” Radd said.
Radd stressed everything is homemade: beans, cole slaw, mashed potatoes, even her “Texas-sized” corn bread muffin.
3102 W. Route 120, McHenry
Hickory Pit in McHenry is the latest in a long line of McHenry County restaurants from the Archos family.
“My cousin, who owns Bimbo’s [Ristorante in McHenry] saw a need for it,” said Peter Archos, general manager of Hickory Pit.
“He enjoyed barbecue and wanted to bring a high quality barbecue spot to McHenry.”
We try to be a cut above the rest and serve the best quality food at an affordable price, he said.
The most popular dishes are the brisket, pulled pork and ribs.
The brisket is a must-try because “we nailed it,” Archos said.
“The rub’s good, the beef is moist and tender, and I went my own route when I made the recipe. I cooked it three, four, five different ways before we got it right.”
Archos said Hickory Pit smokes most of their meats for 11 to 13 hours. “We use hickory and throw in a little cherry. It’s nice to do a little blend because it creates a different flavor,” he said.
Smithwood Bar & BBQ
6517 Main St., Union
Smithwood Bar-BBQ on Facebook
Tina and Dave Smith, owners of Smithwood Bar & BBQ – opened in March – are the new kids on the block. Their inspiration? Dave grew up eating barbecue in Kentucky.
While their most popular dishes are traditional barbecue fare, such as pulled pork, brisket and ribs, the Smiths also offer “off-beat dishes.”
Smithwood’s most unique meal is the Pig in a Spud, described as “a baked potato filled with cheese and topped with pulled pork.”
One of the most popular specials is the Barbecue Bomb: a wrap filled with brisket or pulled pork, cowboy beans and macaroni and cheese.
Their meats are smoked on site, using apple, hickory, pecan and cherry woods.
BBQ King Smokehouse
125 E. Calhoun St., Woodstock
Jason Szmurlo, owner of BBQ King Smokehouse, is a fast-talker who has a big passion for the food he serves at his restaurant, just off the Woodstock Square.
Having run a catering business for eight years, he brought his simple barbecue philosphy to the Smokehouse: “Take a good cut of meat and smoke it with all-natural wood and charcoal.”
“I don’t have any restaurant experience, or culinary experience,” Szmurlo said. “I looked up stuff in books. I put things together, and it tasted good.”
Good enough, in fact, to earn him fifth place in the first barbecue competition he entered.
He also took second place out of 16 teams when he competed in a past Chicago Rib Fest.
With cook times at four to 16 hours, the meat at BBQ King Smokehouse is smoked low and slow every day. When it’s gone, it’s gone until the next day.
The most popular traditional barbecue dishes are Szmurlo’s ribs and brisket. A must try is the Pretzel Bomb, which is a heap of pulled pork covered in macaroni and cheese and barbecue sauce and served on a pretzel bun. A King Mac comes with pulled pork covered in macaroni and cheese and topped with BBQ sauce and crispy fried onions.
He smokes his pork and brisket for 12 to 14 hours over a hickory fire in a smoker he has in the restaurant.
“We just need to get people in here one time and they’re like, ‘holy cow,’” Szmurlo said.
Crystal Lake Rib House
540 E. Terra Cotta Ave., Crystal Lake
Peer pressure made him do it.
Dave Faccone, owner of the Crystal Lake Rib House in Crystal Lake, was running a rib house with a strong reputation in Chicago.
Then some friends in Crystal Lake started complaining that they wanted his ribs closer to home.
In 1999 he opened the Crystal Lake Rib House, and he likes to think of himself as a member of the community as he’s become involved in not only the business side of things, but also other fundraising and community activities.
“We’re the local place,” Faccone said. “We want people from the community to see things from the community on the walls.”
The most popular dishes at the Crystal Lake Rib House are the ribs, the pulled pork and rib tips.
“I love rib tips,” Faccone said.
“I like the visual and the scent of them. You get all that rib meat with less work. They’re like the rib version of wings. A lot less work to eat.”
All of his meats are smoked on the premises, using fruit woods and “a little hickory.”By CHRIS MORDI firstname.lastname@example.org