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There's a tiny "aquarium" smoker, the smallest model I've ever seen, in the window of month-old Crazy Bird Chicken in the East Garfield Park neighborhood. But Larry Tucker, a man once celebrated for barbecue back when it hardly existed on the north side, seems ambivalent about using it. "That was here, it wasn't part of my original concept. But it seems like I'm going to have to incorporate it because the neighborhood people come alive when they smell that smell." It doesn't have the capacity for a busy ribs operation, but he thinks he might use it for rib tips and jerk chicken.
I'll tell you who else came alive at that smell: a lot of the city's then and future food writers. At a time long before Smoque and today's other barbecue stars, when anything resembling real smoked meats scarcely existed on the north side, Larry Tucker's N.N. Smokehouse, which opened in 1992 using a Southern Pride smoker (the same as Smoque and others today), was a cult favorite waiting for the Internet to be invented so people had a place to talk about it. A 2000 Reader article talked about Tucker's ambitions to become "the black Richard Melman," as he added a second restaurant, N.N. Spice Island, serving Caribbean-style smoked meats like jerk chicken. It wasn't an impossible notion—Tucker has plenty of experience in the industry, notably at Ditka's, where he invented what remains the most celebrated menu item, a massive pork chop.
But it didn't happen, mostly because of a rancorous divorce from his Filipino first wife, Nida, that pretty much killed his restaurants in the process. He popped up from time to time—a mid-2000s place called L.T.'s Grill in West Town came the closest to reviving N.N. Smokehouse. Recently Mike Sula wrote about his return at a place called Ravenswood Q, though, as it turned out, by then he had already split with the owner. (He says the owner demanded his family recipes, presumably as the prelude to letting him go and getting somebody cheaper to execute them.)
"We were the first ones to do pulled pork and some of those southern things. I was there way before Smoque and Smokin' Woody's and all of these barbecue places. It would be interesting to see, like, if I was still up north, if we would still be in competition with those places," he says. I tell him that there's a popular place, Smalls Smoke Shack, that combines barbecue and Filipino flavors—as he did, twenty years ago. "It happened by accident. My [then-]wife brought Filipino food, and we did a barbecue, the night before we were going to open. And it went together so well that we went the next day and had the menus printed to include the pancit and different things like that."
A lot of time has passed since then, but he's held onto fans—when the landlord brought in a couple of experienced restaurant industry contractors to fix up the space, they both turned out to be old N.N. customers. And I've been lured here by Bob Reid, a Lakeview pastor who has used Larry's catering services for years and plainly hopes to see him make a go of this latest place. Today Larry is making us a feast on what he jokingly calls his chef's table, in back of the bulletproof glass and next to the freezer. And as the name suggests, the main attraction isn't ribs but fried chicken.
"My concept is we wanted to do a double-marinated fried chicken with excellent Southern homestyle sides like red beans and rice, collard greens, sweet potatoes, macaroni and cheese," he explains. "So basically, we're a little bit different from, say, a Harold's, with the homemade side orders."
But as it turns out, we're starting with ribs anyway—he made us a small order, mainly so we could test out a chipotle version of his family BBQ sauce recipe. Along with that he's made a big order of fresh-cut French fries, tossed with a bechamel sauce, cheese, and crispy duck bacon. (He never uses the word, so I'm guessing that "poutine" is not a known thing on the south side.) His second wife, also Filipino, Ruby—he wants to make the number clear, after seeing his ex-wives multiply in online accounts—pours us sweet tea, and he sings her praises as a partner in the business: "I have a wonderful, wonderful wife who's definitely a stand-up girl, and she's been a big plus, not only in my new venture, but also in life."
He brings out the chicken, which has been brined and then fried to a golden crisp with a thin coating. He uses vegetable oil in the main fryer—but hints that he may experiment with other oils for fries, mentioning Hot Doug's duck fat fries. "For years I've been saying I was going to open a gourmet chicken place. And about two or three months ago, I think it was the Tribune that came out with an article on all these gourmet chicken places on the north side, and I said, I have to get in this race," he says. (He doesn't mention it, but one of them, the Roost, is even next door to N.N.'s old location on Irving Park.)
But proud as he is of the chicken, he's also eager for us to try the soul-food sides that are rare at fried chicken takeout spots—collards cooked with smoked turkey, in line with the trend toward healthier soul foods, and red beans and rice (he says you have to use pork sausage in those). Most of the recipes come from his father's father, back in Kosciusko, Mississippi, though there's one of his mother's recipes that he wants but hasn't been able to pry out of her—sweet potato pie. "She's a church-going woman, but when I told her I wanted that recipe, she let loose with a lot of French I never heard her use before," he says.
The chicken lives up to his claims of juiciness throughout, while the collards are missing nothing by not using a pork-based pot likker—and they're even locally grown, they come from the garden of a friendly neighbor nearby. Which brings us to the neighborhood, on the edge of Douglas Park. Driving west on Roosevelt the area looked burnt-out, post-industrial, but getting closer to California it becomes an obvious bright spot for this section of town, with new social services and medical buildings and schools, and well-kept housing stock. "It's a great little area," he says. "This is a safe-zone area, we're three blocks away from the new FBI building, there's parking at night and on weekends. It's a nice little neighborhood that's on the upswing, and the neighbors on this block are friendly. They've really been supportive, and they're good people."
Crazy Bird Chicken, 1138 S. California, 773-801-0451, crazybirdchicken.com