3800 N. Pulaski Rd., Chicago, IL 60641
Web: Smoque BBQ
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"Fancy, plush leather chairs and modern area dividers let this McDonald's patrons relax in style, while Apple Store-like metal and glass walls provide a panoramic view of the area."
A restaurant you've probably never heard of before, even though it's been on TV. One that you may know by association with its older, more famous sibling. And a third that you'll know for sure, but probably have never seen quite like this. In this fourth and final part of our look at interesting Chicago restaurants, we briefly share the stories of Smoque BBQ - strongly recommended to us by a friend, and coincidentally featured on the Food Network - the Grand Lux Cafe, younger sister to The Cheesecake Factory, and finally, the surprising Rock 'N Roll McDonald's, home to mini-museums and a stylish second-floor Bistro. Each of these places is worth hearing about, and two actually offer some memorably impressive foods.
Let's start with Smoque BBQ, pronounced just like "smoke;" it's a restaurant that our Chicago-based friend wouldn't stop talking about after we took him to Dinosaur Bar-B-Que in Rochester. "I didn't want to say it while we were eating," he said four or five times after his visit, "but this place has nothing on Smoque." While we love Dinosaur, those aren't exactly fighting words in our book, as we're well aware that there are places outside this area that do certain barbecued items even better. That said, the Syracuse and Rochester Dinosaurs offer big, strong menus with plenty of legitimately great food. So Smoque had something to prove on our visit, and based on its reputation, we arrived expecting a large venue akin to one of the Dinosaur locations.
What we discovered was that Smoque was smaller than even the original Syracuse Dinosaur, with room for perhaps 40 people to eat at a given time, but it was surprisingly clean by barbecue restaurant standards, and certainly thriving. Dine-in and take-out orders are placed at a counter from a short, wall-mounted menu, fulfilled within five minutes, and tables are turned rapidly. Unlike Dinosaur, an evolved biker bar that at this point offers all sorts of different meals, drinks, and desserts, Smoque is literally a BYOB, nearly entree-only sort of place. There's one salad, one dessert, and five types of sides. The entrees are simple: ribs, brisket, pulled pork, chicken, and Texas sausage.
We tried all of them except for the chicken, sampling both the standard sauced Baby Back Ribs and the dry-rubbed St. Louis ribs, a Beef Brisket Sandwich, a "taste" portion of the pulled pork, and a full Texas Sausage. The total for all of these items, plus drinks, was around $30. Just out of curiosity, we also ordered a $1 side of cornbread, a dry-ish yellow muffin that was the only plain item of the bunch. Everything else arrived almost as picturesque as such things can be served - as just one example, the Brisket Sandwich was perfectly browned on its edges, dripping down the center with its sauce, and every bit as cool as the images on the restaurant's web site. The meats came with four large cups of sauce - some a thicker barbecue sauce, others a somewhat thinner brisket dip - which we cracked out after trying each of the items in unfettered form.
Looks were only a minor part of the appeal. One of us pronounced the brisket - smoked for 15 hours before being served - the "best sandwich [she had] ever eaten," as the meat was so surprisingly tender, smoky, and mildly spiced that it was unlike any brisket we'd had before, and almost buttery in consistency; the barbecue sauce on top was a nice addition. So perhaps we shouldn't have been surprised when the pulled pork also turned out to be the best we've ever had, a pile of mixed, shredded center and edge meat that had similarly been smoked to a state of sublime softness for 12 hours, and served with a judicious coating of sweet and peppery sauce. We'd put these items up against any we've had anywhere else, and our friend subsequently confirmed that these two picks had been the reason he'd shrugged off Dinosaur.
The two types of ribs and the Texas Sausage weren't as amazing: they were all good rather than remarkable. We've learned that rib preferences are determined as much by one's region of birth as anything else, but we preferred our half rack of moderately sauced Baby Backs to the dry-rubbed St. Louis Ribs; both were moist by rib standards, but nowhere near "fall off the bone" in tenderness, and their flavors were smokey, but otherwise surprisingly subtle. Some rib connoisseurs say that if a rib needs sauce, it hasn't been made right - we strongly disagree on this point - but in any case, we felt that both versions of the ribs really benefitted from Smoque's varied dips. The sausage was a single, decently-sized link that is apparently sourced directly from Texas, and served as juicy and fatty as one would expect - good, but in no way memorable. If you're planning a visit, we'd recommend a focus on the brisket and pulled pork, at most a sample of the ribs and sausage, and possibly over-ordering a little for a late night snack. Overall, though we wouldn't call Smoque amazing, it's a good to great place with some tender, tasty meat, and we'd definitely go back again.
Chicago's Grand Lux Cafe (600 N. Michigan Ave., Chicago, IL 60611, 312.276.2500) is a different story entirely, and we're not going to attempt to tell the whole thing here. Suffice it to say that we're fans of The Cheesecake Factory, and Grand Lux is its 10-year-old younger sister, which opened first in the Las Vegas Venetian Hotel and then spread to 12 additional locations scattered throughout 9 states. The decor, the menu, and the ambience are all similar to The Cheesecake Factory, but the food choices are a little more international and a little less numerous; only a handful of cheesecake options are available. The Grand Lux's Venetian location was touted as interesting at the time because it's open for 24 hours a day, right next to the hotel's casino, and offers a slightly more casual atmosphere than Cheesecake.
So why should anyone outside of Vegas care? Because some of the items are actually better than ones at The Cheesecake Factory. We mentioned in our Cheesecake review that Grand Lux's Caesar Salad was one of the very best we've ever had, and we stopped by the Chicago location to see if it was still as impressive as we recalled it being years ago. Good news: it tasted the same, with more flavorful, better grilled chicken than Cheesecake's, large dry bread slices as croutons, and plenty of romaine lettuce and delicious white Caesar dressing. Bad news: it didn't make for an exciting photo, because unlike the beautiful original - elegantly served with its romaine leaves entirely intact, ready to be sliced by the patron - it was pre-chopped, leaving only the croutons to be crushed by hand. This is still one of our favorite Caesars, but we were a little deflated by its presentation, and opted not to dive deeper into the menu. Perhaps next time.
Finally, even having visited locations of this restaurant all over the world, nothing we'd previously seen prepared us for the Rock 'N Roll McDonald's (600 N. Clark St., Chicago, IL 60610, 312.664.7940). Located on an unusually large lot in downtown Chicago, this particular McDonald's is a two-story restaurant with some architectural distinctions, starting with a freestanding miniature Rock 'N Roll museum in the middle of its parking lot, an oversized McDonald's location on its first floor, and a novel second floor that's referred to inside as the "Bistro." Escalators and an elevator connect the floors, which offer somewhat of a visual tour through McDonald's history. Go outside and you can look through the glass windows of the Rock 'N Roll building, which is sealed to the public; inside are a classic car and memorabilia from both Elvis and The Beatles, including gold albums, a Buffalo concert poster, and one of Elvis's guitars. Like the metal statues of Ronald McDonald and people that stand by the restaurant's front entry doors, the museum actually doesn't add much to the visiting experience - it seems like a half-hearted attempt to attract business from tourists.
Apart from the higher than typical prices, which offset 2005-vintage investments in rebuilding this location, there's also nothing special about the first floor food, and save for a number of flat screen TVs that appear to be displaying very little of value, the decor on that level is pretty sterile, as well. Surprisingly, "futuristic" innovations pioneered at other McDonald's shops - animated, changing video screen menus and the like - are nowhere to be found here, and the major distinction is just the restaurant's size; the ground floor has 50% more seating capacity than an average McDonald's, brought up to 300% of standard capacity when the second floor is taken into account.
On that floor's Bistro, almost everything changes. First, there's a coffee and tea menu that looks to have inspired or been inspired by the McCafe initiative, complete with mochas, cappuccinos, lattes, espresso, and a crossed-out spot for hot tea. Then, there's a collection of mass-manufactured-looking cookies, muffins, pastries and cakes including tiramisu, and amazingly, a sign advertises McDonald's gelato. The prices and the look of the serving area are all clearly inspired by Starbucks, while the rest of the floor is legitimately cooler: fancy, plush leather chairs and modern area dividers let patrons relax in style, while skyscraper and Apple Store-like metal and glass window walls provide a panoramic view of the neighborhood. Someone with class actually designed this place, or at least, this part of the place.
We've said before that we're not fans of McDonald's, but we're entirely willing to give it fair credit where credit is due - as we did with McCafe coffee - and we're occasionally willing to try an unfamiliar item to see if it's worthwhile. This time, on a hot Chicago afternoon, it was the Mixed Berry gelato, served in a plain white cup for $2.56. It looked great, with big chunks of fruit embedded in its scoops, but tasted awful, as if a machine at the factory had dumped a truck full of sugar into a tank of ice cream and cherry shavings. A cup of the nationally available Mickey D's Sweet Tea was similarly pretty bad, though more aptly named. Our snap verdict: the Bistro area might be a nice place to sit, but between the automat-esque pastries and the overly sugary items, we don't think we'll be going back any time soon. The McCafe concept works because the prices are low, not because people really want to hang out in a pricier McDonald's version of Starbucks.
That's it for Chicago Chow for now - we'll continue our look at Western New York restaurants and foods in our next update, coming very soon.