Restaurant Review – Chuck’s Southern Comfort Cafe

Chuck’s Southern Comforts Cafe — located in a former rock music club in Burbank, Illinois, a southwest suburb of Chicago — has somehow become part of our family.

Last Thursday, we spent Thanksgiving at Chuck’s, just as we did the year before. On Easter, we also gathered at Chuck’s. And it’s a regular destination for birthdays and other family milestones.

When wife’s cousin family — who happen to live next door to us — celebrated their son’s graduation from law school, they rented out Chuck’s party room. When the power went out last summer in the middle of an important White Sox game, I headed over to the Voodoo Lounge, Chuck’s New Orleans themed bar, to watch the final innings.

Which got me to thinking about why Chuck’s has become my family’s favorite gathering place. Part of it is certainly the food. Chuck’s features Southern-style barbecue mixed with New Orleans Cajun and Tex-Mex.

The barbecue is amazing

The barbecue is amazing

All of it is amazing, but the barbecue in particular is really exceptional, especially the smoked pork, chicken and ribs. Everything is made from scratch. It’s the kind of place where they make their own barbecue sauce and sell it by the bottle at the cash register.

The staff is friendly and warm, and you feel like home when you are at the restaurant. Chuck himself — a bear-sized man with a booming voice and a permanent smile — constantly makes the rounds and checks in with every table to see how they’re doing.

This past Thursday, he came to our table to insist that we all try some pickled beets that he made from the harvest of his own garden. They were spectacular.

The restaurant is large and comfortable. The decor is like Mardi Gras meets Southwest. There’s lots of colorful masks and beads side-by-side with original paintings that are reminiscent of Georgia O’Keefe.

It’s a relaxing place where you are immediately put at ease the moment you walk through the door. And we always see people we know from the neighborhood dining at the tables in the dining room.

Chuck with my neice, Megan

Chuck with my neice, Megan

The South Side of Chicago tends to be a clannish place and outsiders are not usually made to feel welcome. Yet Chuck’s is the rare exception where everybody can gather for a good time, great food and a comfortable, relaxing dining atmosphere.

Chuck’s has been featured on “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives” as well as “Check, Please!” , the locally-produced restaurant review show. In both cases, the reviewers were glowing with their praise of the restaurant.

While Chuck’s is never going to win any Michelin awards or be written up in exclusive magazines, its combination of comfort food in a laid back setting make it one of my family’s favorite destinations.

If you ever find yourself on the South Side, make sure you check out Chuck’s Southern Comfort Cafe. Just give me a call first so I can join you!

Chuck’s Southern Comforts Cafe is located at 6501 W. 79th St., Burbank, IL. The phone number is 708-229-8700. Reservations are accepted.


Barbeque Baked Beans

Memorial Day weekend is coming up and that means three things: The Indianapolis 500, Irish Fest at Gaelic Park, and cookouts.

I’m a big fan of cookout food, especially baked beans. But I’ve never found a storebought baked bean product I’ve really liked, and most homemade versions I’ve tried have lacked oomph.

I think baked beans should stand up and poke you in the eye with their barbeque flavor. With this barbeque baked beans recipe that I modified from this one I found on the excellent How Sweet It Is blog, your baked beans will be noticed at your weekend holiday cookout.

It’s bold. It’s brassy. It’ probably gassy. But it’s super delicious and your guests won’t soon forget it.

Plus, you can make it in the crock pot. Bonus!

Barbeque Baked Beans

1 lb Navy beans, dry

10 slices bacon

1 White Onion, medium dice

2 Garlic Cloves, crushed

2 cups Water

3/4 cup Barbeque Sauce (Any kind, I use Sweet Baby Ray’s)

1 cup Brown Sugar

1/4 cup Ketchup

2 TBS Molasses

1/2 cup Kentucky Bourbon (I used fake Jake Daniel’s)

1-1/2 TBS Dry Mustard

1/4 cup Apple Cider Vinegar

2 TBS Worcestershire Sauce

1. Place beans in a large pot and cover with water. Soak at least 4 hours up to overnight. Drain, return beans to pot, cover in water again and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer for approximately 1 hour. Remove from heat, drain again, then pour out onto a sheet pan to cool.

2. Cook bacon slices in cast iron skillet. When all the bacon is cooked, chop it into small peices and set aside. Drain all but 1 TBS of the bacon grease from the pan, then return it to the fire and add onions. Cook over a low heat for 10 minutes to carmelize, stirring frequently. Add garlic for the last minute, then remove from heat.

3. In a crock pot, combine water, bourbon, brown sugar, barbeque sauce, ketchup, dry mustard, vinegar, molasses and Worcestershire sauce. Stir in beans, onions and bacon. Cook on low for 8 to 10 hours or on high for 4 to 5 hours. When cooking cycle is over, leave crock pot on the warm setting for at least an hour so the beans can thicken up really nicely.

These beans are miraculous. I served mine with jalapeno cornbread and the pairing was so rich it could have been a meal in itself.

This recipe makes a large batch, so there will be plenty to share. They can be reheated the next day and in fact will taste even better. If you have an electrical connection in your backyard, bring the whole crock pot outside and keep your beans warm until you are ready to serve them.

What Memorial Day/beginning of summer food rituals do you look forward to every year? Share your story in the comments section below. And thank you for supporting my blog!

Country Style Pork Ribs

Barbeque season is here so it is a good time to review some BBQ basics.

When you cook barbeque, you have three major choices to make:

1. What to barbeque

2. Cooking method

3. Type of BBQ

There are almost an unlimited combination of these three choices. For example, you can barbeque any kind of meat or poultry, even fish or vegetables if you want, although that’s a little more exotic. And within each meat category, there’s different cuts to consider: ribs, briskets, shoulders.

Within the rib category, there are still more decisions to be made: baby back ribs, spare  ribs, country style ribs, rib tips. Baby backs are narrower and have curved bones, for example, while spare ribs — sometimes called St. Louis Ribs or Kansas City ribs, depending on how they are butchered — are longer and flatter. All are delicious and perfect for BBQ.

For this dish, I selected country style ribs. They are cut from the blade end of the pork shoulder and are meatier than other types of ribs. They usually contain just one long flat bone at the bottom, making them slightly less messy to eat.

Cooking methods include grilling, smoking, boiling, braising, baking or any combination of any of these methods. Because it was raining, I opted to go with braising.

Finally, there is the type of barbeque to consider. There are two primary types: Dry rub and wet.

Wet entails generously basting what you are cooking with a liquid barbeque sauce during all or part of the cooking process. The result is a sweet, smokey and tacky sauce that perfectly complements sweeter meat such as pork and chicken.

For this dish, I selected dry rub, which is when you rub the meat with a barbeque seasoning made up of a combination of many different herbs and spices before cooking it. You can buy a pre-made rub or you can make one yourself.

Most of the time, I use both methods, starting with a dry rub then brushing barbeque sauce onto the meat during the last portion of the cooking time. Abundanza!

Barbeque has become a rich summertime tradition. Many people ritualize the experience, and there are numerous BBQ competitions and festivals where people share their techniques and serve their secret recipes.

This recipe is no secret, but it is a quick and convenient barbeque dinner you can make to kick off the BBQ season. I served my ribs with a traditional homemade potato salad and some steamed, buttered green beans. If you like, you can serve barbeque sauce on the side, but these ribs were so succulent and flavorful that I didn’t find it necessary.

Country Style Pork Ribs

2 to 3 lb Country style pork ribs

1/2 cup Barbeque rub

1 cup water

1. Preheat oven to 375F. Generously rub the pork ribs on all sides with the barbeque rub. Place in a 9″x13″x2″ baking pan and pour the water into the bottom of the pan, being careful not to wash off the rub from the ribs.

2. Use aluminum foil to seal the pan and cook for 90 minutes.

Super easy, right?! Here’s the potato salad recipe:

Traditional Potato Salad

6 to 8 Medium red potatoes

2 eggs, hard boiled

2 stalks celery, diced

1/2 white onion

1/3 cup Pickle relish

1 cup Reduced-fat mayonnaise

2 TBS Dijon mustard

Sea salt

Fresh cracked black pepper

Paprika for garnish

1. Boil whole potatoes for about 25 minutes or until cooked through. You can test doneness by sticking a fork into the potato. If it easily slips off the fork, it is ready. Remove from water and set aside until cool enough to handle.

2. Cut potatoes into large dice peices and place in a mixing bowl with the celery. Grate the onion and egg into the bowl. In a separate bowl, make the dressing by combining the mayonnaise, mustard and pickle relish, tasting it to make sure you have the proper balance. Then dress the salad and mix with a spatula. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

This salad tastes better if you let it rest in the refrigerator for at least 30 minutes before serving it so the flavors meld together. Garnish with the paprika.

Do you have any barbeque traditions that you would be willing to share? Tell us all about them in the comments section below. And thanks for looking at my blog!



Barbeque Pork Chops

Probably the thing I miss most in the winter is not being able to use my grill or smoker.

It’s not that I can’t use them exactly. They are operable. They can be turned on.

The problem is the sun. It goes down too early, long before the time I normally make dinner. And I can attest from experience that grilling in the dark is not really a good option.

That’s why I love to find a barbeque recipe that can be made indoors. This one is an inexpensive, reduced fat version of breaded pork chops, with a BBQ bent.

Fried pork chops, chicken or chicken fried steak are some of my favorite things to eat, but unfortunately they are too high in fat to have very often, if at all. Usually once or twice a year at a family party is my limit.

But in this version, the pork chops are fried in only a very small amount of oil and most of the cooking is done in the oven. This is hardly a no-fat recipe, however, because potato chips and pancake mix is used in the breading, both of which are loaded with fat, plus the BBQ sauce is mostly high fructose corn syrup. So I won’t pretend this is health food.

Still, it’s a trade-off I’m willing to make in order to enjoy barbeque in the middle of winter. I served this with Rosemary Roasted Red Potatoes and steamed broccoli, and it was a delicious, wonderful mid-winter treat.

Barbeque Pork Chops

1 cup barbeque flavored potato chips (about 1 oz)

1/2 cup pancake mix

1 egg, beaten

2 TBS BBQ sauce

6 boneless pork loin chops 1/2 thick (about 1-1/2 lbs)

1 TBS vegetable oil or shortening

3/4 cup BBQ sauce

1. Place BBQ chips in 1 gallon plastic freezer bag and crush with rolling pin. Add pancake mix, seal bag and shake well.

2. In a small bowl, whisk together egg and 2 TBS BBQ sauce. Dip pork chops into egg mixture, then place in bag and shake to coat with breading. I realize this is just like Shake & Bake, from the 1970s. You could just dredge the chops in the breading if you preferred. Me, I liked the irony.

3. Preheat oven to 375F. Put cast iron skillet on the fire. When hot, add oil. When smoking, add pork chops a couple at a time and fry on both sides until just golden brown. Set aside on sheet pan. When all pork is marked, place sheet pan in oven and bake 25 minutes. To plate, nap the chops with BBQ sauce, leaving most of the breading exposed.

Pork is still relatively inexpensive — the chops were about $2/lb — compared to beef, which has been insanely high lately, so this worked out to be a pretty inexpensive meal as well.

What do you do in the kitchen during winter to keep sane? Share your ideas in the comments section below. And thanks for looking at my blog!

Crock Pot BBQ Pulled Pork Sandwiches

When the weather is nice outside, I love to use my backyard smoker to smoke pork, chicken and beef for barbeque.

Now that Chicago’s warm weather is going into hibernation until next Spring, I need to find another way to satisfy my barbeque craving. The solution? Crock pot BBQ pulled pork.

This recipe is great because it makes its own barbeque sauce in the crock pot as the pork slowly cooks. All day long, the juices from the pork combine with the ingredients of the sauce. The result is a pot of sweet and tangy heaven.

There is a debate about whether these sandwiches should be served with or without dill pickle slices on them. I don’t know where this tradition started, but I usually include the pickles because the vinegar in the pickles is effective at cutting the fat from the pork. But I happily will serve them on the side or leave them off altogether if anyone requests  it.

In the same vein, this kind of tangy barbeque really needs to be served with some sort of slaw — cabbage, fennel or another kind. Not only does the vinegar help enhance the flavor of the pork, but the contrast between the cold slaw and the piping hot pulled pork is delicious.

So until Chicago weather allows me to fire up my smoker again — and it’s not looking like that will be anytime soon — I’m happy to hunker down with this easy-to-make crock pot classic.

Crock Pot BBQ Pulled Pork Sandwiches 

2 TBS chili powder

1 tsp sea salt

3/4 tsp fresh cracked black pepper

1/2 tsp garlic powder

1-1/2 to 2 lb bone-in pork loin or pork shoulder

3 tsp EVOO

2 large white onions, sliced

1 cup ketchup

1/2 cup chili sauce

1/4 cup molasses

1/4 cup strong brewed coffee

1/2 tsp hot sauce

1. Put cast iron pan on fire. Combine chili powder, salt, pepper and garlic powder in a bowl and mix well. Roll pork in spice mixture so that all sides are covered. When pan is hot, add 1 TBS EVOO. When smoking, add pork, turning frequently so all sides are browned evenly. Place pork in crock pot to wait.

2. Return pan to fire. When hot, add 1 TBS EVOO. When smoking, add onions and cook until carmelized, about 7 minutes, stirring frequently. Meanwhile, in a mixing bowl stir together the ketchup, chili sauce, molasses, coffee, hot sauce and remaining spice mixture. When onions are nice and brown, pour sauce over onions, reduce heat and cook for a minute or two, stirring frequently so the sugars don’t burn.

3. Pour onion and sauce mixture over pork. Set the crock pot timer for 8 hours and the temperature on low. Cover and forget about it until its ready. After about six hours, you can easily pull the pork apart with two forks, or you can just wait untli the end. Remove any bones before serving.

To serve, use a tongs to pile shredded pork on whole wheat burger bun. Top with dill pickle slices and serve with any sort of slaw.

Do you have any summer favorites that you crave during the winter? Tell how you satisfy your craving in the comments section below. And thanks for looking at my blog!


Crock Pot BBQ Pulled Chicken

In my house, winter time means crock pot time.

We probably use the crock pot at least once per week from mid-October until the beginning of March. Crock pot cooking is super cost effective because you can use cheaper, tougher cuts of meat. The long, slow cooking time does the work of breaking down all the connective tissues.

Crock pot cooking also is time efficient because once you load the crock pot with whatever you are making, you don’t have to worry about it again until it’s ready. I like to prepare my crock pot meal the night before and refrigerate it. That way, in the morning, I just pop the crock into the pot, turn it on and forget about it.

Basically, a crock pot is just a big, thick ceramic pot that fits into a heating element. The way it works is that a low heat is distributed evenly throughout the sides and bottom of the pot, slowly cooking whatever is inside. It is almost impossible to burn something in a crock pot.

If you don’t already have one, buying a crock pot should not be a big investment. I’ve seen them available in the $20-$30 range. Ours has a lot of bells and whistles, and it only set us back about $45. For the use it gives us, that’s a bargain!

This crock pot BBQ pulled chicken recipe is a variation on a pork recipe I also make in the crock pot. The chicken version uses a store-bought BBQ sauce and beer. For the pulled pork loin recipe you kind of make your own BBQ sauce right there in the pan. I’ll post that one soon, I promise.

This is great served on whole wheat buns and tastes even better the next day, once the flavors have time to get to know each other. I always serve BBQ with lots of pickles on the side because the vinegar helps cut the fatty, sugary taste of the BBQ sauce.

Crock Pot BBQ Pulled Chicken

2-3 lb boneless skinless chicken breasts (frozen is fine)


1 white onion, sliced

1 tsp onion powder

1 tsp granulated garlic

1 tsp paprika

1/2 tsp sea salt

1/4 tsp fresh cracked black pepper

12 oz beer (any kind)

18 oz jar smoky barbeque sauce (thinner is better than thicker)

1. Put cast iron pan on the fire. Meanwhile, season chicken on both sides with onion powder, granulated garlic, paprika and S&P. When pan is hot, add EVOO. When smoking, add chicken breasts one a time, being careful not to splash yourself with the hot oil. Sear both sides, about 2 minutes each side, and place into crock pot.

2. Let pan get hot again, then add the other TBS of EVOO. When smoking, add onions and sautee until slightly carmelized, stirring frequently, about 5 minutees. Pour onions over chicken, then add BBQ sauce and beer and stir together.

3. Cover and cook on low for 8 hours, stirring if you happen to walk by. After about 6 hours, you should be able to pull chicken apart into strings using two forks. Serve on whole wheat burger buns. Don’t forget the pickles.

What are some of your favorite crock pot recipes? Let everyone in on the action by sharing them in the comments section below. And thanks for looking at my blog!

Smoker of Love

Last Father’s Day, my family gave me a backyard smoker. This compact, R2D2-shaped slow cooker has changed my life. For example, I now take Guy Fieri seriously. Folks do some serious food smoking on that show!

My Smoker of Love

My Smoker of Love

A smoker is similar to a charcoal grill in that charcoal is burned, but that’s where the similarities end. Smokers cook at a much, much lower temperature than a charcoal or gas grill and use a moist cooking method and indirect heat. This is ideal for breaking down the connective tissues in tougher, less expensive cuts of meat, such as ribs, pork shoulders, and beef briskets.

When you add soaked wood chips to the charcoal, the result is a smoky, succulent, fall-off-the-bone goodness  like you’ve never experienced. In other words, barbeque heaven.

The way it works is this: Charcoal and soaked wood chips are burned in the bottom pan of this cyclindrical-shaped cooker. Directly above is a pan containing liquid, such as beer, vinegar, water or a combination. A grill sits on top of this pan, with another grill about  eight inches above that one.

The charcoal and wood heat the liquid, which converts to a steam, enveloping the meat in a smoky mist that holds at 212F, or the boiling point of water.

The downside is that a smoker is a lot needier than a charcoal or gas grill. The charcoal and the wood have to be replenished every hour or so and you need to make sure the liquid pan always has liquid in it, otherwise the temperature in the smoker will skyrocket and
the meat will cook too fast. Slow, sweaty and steady, that’s my motto.

While I can fire up my grill anytime I want, using the smoker takes some planning because I need to make sure I’m going to be around the house most of the day. But the results are well worth it. Commercial smokers I’ve used in restaurants require a far less maintenance (usually you fire up the smoker the night before, then take your finished product out in the morning), but let’s just focus on the backyard variety for our purposes.

Because of the time commitment, I usually smoke larger amounts of meat than I would if I were just grilling. I’ll do a few chickens at once, for example, or perhaps a 3-5 pound pork shoulder. In other words, more than we would eat for just one meal. Once the meats are fully cooked, whatever we don’t eat right away I will cool, then pull apart or off the bone, removing any sinew and most fat. Then I’ll put the meat into portion-sized baggies and freeze for later use.

Smoking a Flank Steak

Smoking a Flank Steak

The economic benefit of all this is that you can get more cooked, smoky-flavored meat for a lot less money. Smoked meats can be stored like any other meat and hold their smoky flavor well in the freezer for at least a month, if properly stored.

Heat up some smoked pulled pork or chicken in a sauce pan with a little barbeque sauce and water, pile it on a toasted Kaiser roll and you’ve got a down-home BBQ experience like no other. Serve it with some coleslaw and some beer and there’s nothing better on earth. Or smoke a couple of slabs of baby back ribs all day, then give them a quick finish on  the gas grill smothered in BBQ sauce and you’ll have a flavor explosion your family and friends will be talking about for years.

A word about dry rubs.

Because this is an indirect heat/moist cooking method, you wouldn’t want to dab traditional barbeque sauce on your meats when they go into the smoker because the steam will cause the sauce to roll right off. Instead, prior to cooking coat your meat in a dry rub,
which is a combination of dried herbs and spices that will adhere and add flavor throughout the cooking process. Or try marinating your meat in the dry rub up to a day before cooking so the flavors really get a chance to sink in, as you would a traditional liquid marinade.

Here’s a recipe for a boilerplate sweet and spicy dry rub to use on just about any
smoked meat. I mix a big batch and store it in an airtight container with my spices until I’m ready to use it.

Dry Rub

¼ cup firmly packed brown sugar

¼  cup sweet paprika

3 TBS black pepper

3 TBS sea salt (or table salt)

2 tsp garlic powder

2 tsp onion powder

2 tsp celery seeds

1 tsp cayenne pepper

Combine all the ingredients together and mix well. You’ll probably need to use your hands to break up the lumps of brown sugar. This mix keeps for at least six months in an airtight container away from direct light or heat.

You can add yet another taste dimension to your smoked meat by basting it with a “mop sauce” during the last hour or so of cooking. Mop sauces are vinegar-based, usually spicy mixtures typically associated with North Carolina-style BBQ cooking. Here’s a basic mop sauce recipe:

Basic BBQ Mop Sauce

2 cups distilled white vinegar

1 TBS sea salt (or table salt)

1 tsp black pepper

1 tsp dried red pepper flake

1 small onion, sliced thin

1 jalapeno pepper (ribs and seeds included), sliced thin

Whisk salt and pepper into vinegar until salt dissolves. Add onion, jalapeno and red pepper flake and stir well. Use a pastry brush or traditional barbeque mop to outside surface of smoked meats during last hour of cooking.

I frequently use smoked pork or chicken as pizza toppings or for mixing into salads. Here’s an easy and delicious smoked chicken salad recipe that will add a new dimension to any lunchtime sandwich.

Smoked Chicken Salad

8 oz Pulled Smoked Chicken

1 TBS mayo

1 tsp Dijon mustard

½ tsp sugar

Dash Worchestershire Sauce

Dash Tabasco Sauce

½ cup red or green grapes, sliced in half

1 TBS walnuts, chopped

Salt and pepper to taste

Whisk together mayo, mustard, sugar, Worchestershire and Tabasco. Toss chicken in mixture, then fold in grapes and nuts. Season with S&P to taste. Serve in a Bibb lettuce leaf or on a roll. Garnish with a few dill sprigs, a sprinkle of parprika, or both.