Back when University Village was called Little Italy, the space County Barbeque now occupies was home to Gennaro’s, a buzz-you-in, Italian red-sauce joint popular since the 1950s. “I definitely couldn’t even get into that place,” says Erick Williams, now partner, chef and pitmaster at County Barbeque.
The spot is the newest project from restaurateur David Morton and chef Michael Kornick, the team behind DMK Burger Bar, Fish Bar and Ada Street. (Kornick also helms River North’s MK, which celebrates its 15th anniversary this year.)
At the new restaurant, housed in an impossible-to-miss building painted entirely in plaid, Williams is focusing on pan-regional barbecue. “I learned how to make barbecue from my uncle, who was from the South,” says Williams. “But this is American heritage barbecue. I’m specifically not identifying with a region.” Proving his point, Williams smokes up St. Louis spare ribs ($13), Texas brisket ($10) and Chicago tips ($10).
Perhaps because County Barbeque is in a student neighborhood — UIC is just a few blocks away — pricing seems tuned to tighter budgets: generous sides, like collard greens and cheddar grits, are as low as $3, as are some shots of whiskey, while average entree prices float around $10. Ready to dig in? Here’s what else to expect at County Barbeque:
Finesse: Despite student pricing on the menu, Williams brings a fine-dining approach to barbecue. Delicately breaded fried green tomatoes ($6) are served with goat cheese, while vinegar is prominent in his slaw (which accompanies most entrees) because, Williams says, “barbecue sauce is sweet, so we balance that with sourness for depth and intensity of flavor.”
Say yes to whiskey: Dark liquors pair well with barbecue, and many of the spot’s specialty cocktails, like the rye smile ($9), feature whiskey. Beer is also a no-brainer for smoked meat — there are 10 on tap, all available by the pint and pitcher.
Burn ’em!: Burnt ends ($11) are brisket points, rubbed and slow-cooked to render out fat and build crusty outer “bark.” The result: small, crisp packages of lushly smoked deliciousness.
But my date is a vegetarian: There’s hope in sides like blackened cauliflower ($4) and seared kale ($4), as well as a few salads. For those interested in introducing meat to their diet, the veal brisket ($12) is a “good entry point,” says Williams. “It’s like a lighter version of beef brisket without as much fat.”
Better with bacon: County Barbeque’s Bacon Bar seems like an idea that’s long overdue. A whole section of the menu is devoted to bacon, including bacon deviled eggs (3 for $3) and the humorously conceived bacon and barbecue parfait ($3).
Soundtrack: Barbecue is urban-country crossover food, and our server described the playlist as “gritty, with Hendrix, Chuck Berry, you know, awesome guitars — but definitely not country.”