by Mike Sula
In 1998 I was looking for an excuse to throw off the yoke of seven years of quasi-vegetarianism. It had been an instructive experiment, but it had run its course—I needed to sink my jaw into some animal flesh. I broke the fast at a North Center barbecue joint called N.N. Smokehouse, where I devoured a smoky, shmaltz-slick half chicken like I hadn't eaten in weeks. I was reborn. And while my perspective could've been clouded on my first visit by years of vitamin B12, creatine, and a docosahexaenoic acid deficiency, N.N. subsequently became a holy place for me.
Operating long before Smoque or Honey 1, or any of the less-impressive horde of big-budget barbecue spots that have proliferated in recent years, N.N. Smokehouse was something of an anomaly on the north side. Its owner, Larry Tucker, was actually smoking meat, low and slow, in an environment where barbecue meant ersatz boil-b-que or mushy, steaming ribs slathered in sauce. Apart from N.N., you had to be on the south side if you wanted real barbecue. When it closed a few years later it left a gaping void in the north side, and even though Tucker moved around from spot to spot, after that the magic was gone.
So I was both thrilled and terrified when Tucker reappeared at Ravenswood Q, just a few blocks west of where N.N. used to be, in the spot vacated by Cafe 28. The menu isn't as crowded with irrelevancies as, say, Old Crow Smokehouse, but there are enough nonbarbecue items—a turkey burger, salads, buffalo chicken egg rolls—to make me nervous that Ravenswood Q would suffer from the same lack of focus as most of the other newcomers. I was even more rattled when I walked through the door and smelled nothing.
The sides available with each order were a mixed bag as well: bland mac 'n' cheese, collards with nary a hint of vinegar or lemon, crispy hush puppies that are on the savory side, and a bowl of baked beans loaded with pulled pork.
And how was that half chicken? OK, I guess. This one was smoky, but a bit rubbery and wet. I've eaten a lot of barbecued chicken since 1998, and unlike that first revelatory one from N.N. Smokehouse, I left a good bit of this one on the plate.
Ravenswood Q, 1800 W. Irving Park, 773-472-1800, ravenswoodq.com