Barbecue and soul food seem like they should go together as harmoniously as Peaches & Herb, but it doesn't always work out that way. In fact, there's a bit of a culture clash there. Serious pit masters couldn't care less about side dishes—fries and white bread are about as elaborate as they bother to get. And soul food places often look at true wood-smoked barbecue as a backwoods prima donna, demanding outsize space and attention while adding only a couple items to an already long cafeteria line. If they do offer "barbecue," it's likely to be the oven-baked kind.
So it's uplifting, to say the least, to walk into P&P BBQ Soul Food, a month-old spot on Division in western Humboldt Park, and see the squat glass aquarium smoker, full of ribs, links, and jerk chicken, standing kitty-corner to a steam table laden with smothered pork chops, meat loaf, pot-likkery greens, and sweet mashed yams. P&P just might be heaven for those who love south-side Chicago-style barbecue but yearn for a side vegetable that doesn't start with "Idaho."
Owner Patricia Ann Parker (whose initials give P&P its name) says she dreamed as a child of owning a little restaurant serving burgers—and candy. "I've always loved serving people, and I imagined myself sitting on a bar stool, talking to all my customers," she says. By the time she was actually able open her own place, her idea of what her neighborhood needed had changed. "I ate a lot of fast food, but sometimes you want real soul food, get off that fried food," she says. "You want that good home cooking, and everybody wants barbecue on the weekends."
Parker, now 51, grew up with five siblings in the Rockwell Gardens housing development on the city's west side. From the late 70s through the 80s she worked a string of jobs—at Motorola, at the post office, as a banquet server at the Palmer House—while raising two kids of her own. But by 1990 she'd developed a brain condition that affected her optic nerves; surgery to treat it was unsuccessful, and she was left blind. She went on disability, and it wasn't until this year that, at the urging of a family friend who'd owned two soul food restaurants, she drew on her savings to open her own. It's a family affair: her daughter Tara keeps an eye on the front door for her. Her sister Angela, who Parker says was always the cook in the family, helped develop the menu. Another sister, Michelle, manages the restaurant and handles the accounting.
I ask Parker which of them came up with the recipes. "It's a soul food recipe," she says, apparently perplexed by the idea that someone who doesn't know how to cook catfish or grits could ever learn from a piece of paper. "Every cook has their own way of doing it." After a moment, she allows that the greens are done her way, and the friend who guided her to her seat and is keeping her informed about what's going on around her suggests that the slightly spiced peach cobbler is hers too.
Experience matters more than recipes, a truism that's never more true than when it comes to barbecue. After investing in the same type of aquarium smoker used at Chicago barbecue temples like Honey 1 and Uncle John's, Parker wisely picked up an experienced pit man. Keith Archibald learned his trade at Joe's Barbeque & Fish in Austin before spending 12 years at Wallace's Catfish Corner, the popular west-side restaurant owned by former Second Ward alderman Wallace Davis Jr.
When I ask Archibald if he's the "pit master," he smiles and says, "Pit master, I like that," and I realize I've just accidentally promoted him. In fact, he's both pit man and grill man as needed. But when I praise his smoky, tender rib tips, he demurs, saying that he's still learning his pit and to come back in a few weeks or months, when he'll really have the hang of it.
That's how you like to hear a pit man talk about his new rig. But Archibald is already avoiding common pitfalls of commercial barbecue, producing juicy meat over a combination of oak logs and charcoal, with a forward but not overpowering smoke taste discernible even under P&P's typical tangy candy-red barbecue sauce. (The usual advice to order sauce on the side applies.)
Business has started off at a healthy pace, Parker says. "It seemed like the whole neighborhood was waiting. Every day people would stick their heads in and say, 'You ready? You ready?'" Then she lowers her voice—this is the moment when the single mother who's toiled hard all her life tries to get it into your foolish head how the world really works.
"I prayed about opening this restaurant, and I believe that God has a hand in everything," she says. "I believe that if you take one step, God takes two." Her family and friends busily serving customers, she adds, "Everything's fallen into place here. Everything just seems like it's been blessed."v
Care to comment? Find this story at chicagoreader.com. And for more on food and drink, see our blog the Food Chain.