Right on ‘Que

Michael Nagrant / 05.28.11

Lee Ann Whippen is a bleach bottle blonde, a mother with an “aww-shucks” southern accent. People sometimes disregard her as a delicate flower, a pretty little non-threatening curiosity of sorts.

Those people are dead wrong.  Whippen, as her last name suggests, kicks some serious butt, Boston Butt that is.  Over 14 years, the owner of Old Town’s new spot, Chicago Q, has established herself as one of the finest competition-BBQ pitmasters in America. In one YouTube video promoting Chicago Q she wields what looks like a cross between brass knuckles and the X-Men hero Wolverine’s sharp claws to shred a pork shoulder in seconds flat. If she’s a flower, she’s a thorny rose pushing up through a tiny crack in sticky oozing July blacktop

Though she’s a tough chick, I’m not convinced she can conquer Chicago’s BBQ scene.  Bolstered by the unlikely success of the north-side spot Smoque BBQ run by the Eminem of smoke, the skinny white former-IT guy Barry Sorkin, a slew of would-be ‘cue princes with similar competition credentials to Whippen’s have popped up to challenge his reign.  So far, they’ve all come up short.

But, this isn’t Whippen’s first go-round. She also owns Woodchicks BBQ in Chesapeake, Virginia. Woodchick’s is what BBQ shacks are supposed to be, a roadside attraction covered in aluminum siding with an interior outfitted with corrugated metal, pine woods, and a profusion of crusty squeeze bottles.  Chicago Q on the other hand is in moneyed Old Town. Opening a BBQ shack like Wood Chicks here is like putting a Chicago-style broken down old man dive bar in the lobby of the Ritz in Paris.

But, Chicago Q is not a typical shack. It’s a tiny diorama of a manor house with flickering gas light fixtures straight out of Sherlock Holmes.  Inside, with its white slat wood finish, gold beaded leather banquettes, and shiny finished wood floors it could double as a country club.  Millionaires throwing down large trifecta wagers on the next race at Churchill downs you can imagine, those same folks sucking down sauce slathered bones, not so much.

But then the free house pickles, the sweet and sour crisp tangy antidote to commercial and ubiquitous Vlasic, and the light spicy freshly fried dry-rub dusted potato chips are delivered, and the brain shuts down. The fingers take over, and, like a dream, both bowls are gone. The cloud-light cheddar bacon hush puppies move just as quickly.

Due to the varying degrees of leanness, brisket is one of the toughest cuts to master, and is often dried out the minute a knife breaches its crusty skin. But, Whippen’s served with a crisp black bark renders it juices across your tongue like an August peach.  It’s as good as Smoque’s.

Pork and chicken are kissed with the right whisper of smoke and equally moist.  ribs, St. Louis cut are lacquered with a touch of clove-perfumed sauce and break from the bone quite easily.

Cole slaw is mushy and forgettable, and the polenta undergirding plump briny well-cooked lemon shrimp is overcooked and jiggly like Santa’s belly. The beans have nice hunks of brisket burnt ends, but they’re a little treacly. Correct these things and well, Sorkin better watch out.

All that meat makes a mouth parched, and thankfully our server never lets our water glasses go below a quarter empty.  Our server also offers my wife a black napkin so her dark pants are not besmirched by errant white napkin threads.  You might not put a dive bar in the Ritz, but Lee Ann Whippen might just do alright with a BBQ counter.

Chicago Q

1160 N. Dearborn; 312.642.1160;

This article first appeared in CS in a different form.