For many, a love of barbecue begins and ends at eating it. But Johnny Walker took his love a step farther by creating his own signature brand of sauces. They add an extra kick to pulled pork, rib tips, and turkey, all of which Johnny slow-smokes at J & J's BBQ & Fish alongside fellow pitmaster Joe Draper. They let diners pair their southern-style barbecue with sides such as slaw, potato salad, and hush puppies, so named for the quiet passion with which dogs eat them. The Louisiana natives also draw from the flavors of their home state to create seafood specialties that include po’ boys made with shrimp, oysters, or tilapia, as well as platters centered on fresh catches of red snapper and catfish.
At the medieval-themed Radcliffe’s Royal Ribs, colorful hanging banners adorned with family crests and a suit of metal armor set the scene for a hearty menu of finger-licking barbecue fare mixed with Old English favorites. A queen-sized plate of grilled Cajun shrimp ($12) fills bellies flanked by one of seven sides, including smoky baked beans and grilled asparagus, and the king-sized brisket ($15) roasts overnight in a dragon’s orthodontic retainer. Diners clasp gauntlets around the barbecue-chicken sandwich on a sesame bun ($9) or lick their chops in anticipation of the brisket on a french roll ($9). A large outdoor seating area fills about 50 patrons with mirth as friends sip bottled and draft beers and joust with leftover rib bones.
It didn’t take long for Brian Kozak to discover his passion for food: at the age of three, after he first tried shrimp cocktail and crème brulee, he would spend hours leafing through cookbooks and family recipes in his parents’ kitchen. His fascination with food led him to build an impressive culinary resume: after graduating from Le Cordon Bleu, Brian spent four years cooking for Bon Appetit, opened his own catering company, and learned how to fold a puff pastry according to army-bed making standards. Today, he demonstrates his culinary prowess as the resident Chef at Sage Restaurant and Lounge. Kozak’s influences span the globe: try the Spanish saffron paella with chorizo and shrimp, or any of six 10-inch pizzas. The dining room also has global flair, from its Tuscan yellow walls to its terra cotta tile floors.
Growing up, summer in Chicago meant one thing to Joe: barbecue. Members of his extended family spent the season gathered around the grill, slow-smoking meats as they vied for pitmaster status. Joe draws on their perfected recipes at Ribs To Spare, which specializes in combination platters of smoked meats such as pork ribs, beef ribs, chicken, and tri-tip steak. Sides such as potato salad and collard greens complement each saucy plate, and desserts such as sweet-potato pie and peach cobbler bring meals to a rich close.
In addition to takeout, Ribs To Spare caters celebrations with personalized feasts ranging from barbecue buffets to prix fixe dinners. With his mobile smoker trailer in tow, Joe has previously organized meals for Warner Bros., Disney, and The Ellen DeGeneres Show.