Having spent my formative years of frolic in the Windy City, Chicago will always be a special place that sparks a glint in my eye. Reveries of deep-dish pizzas; Cubs games at Wrigley Field; my mom visiting the fishmongers at Fulton Market; and souvenirs of umbrella cocktail picks from Chinatown dance nostalgically in my head. Although I’ve not yet had the opportunity to return there since childhood, I’ve kept abreast of the city’s culinary breadth involving the likes of the Grant Achatz’ Alinea/Next/Aviary family; Anthony Martin’s Tru; and Homaro Cantu’s Moto. Now, Lillie’s Q in the Wicker Park neighborhood by Charlie McKenna has entered the playing field.
While the eatery ranks on the lower rung of the price point ladder, it’s definitely not devoid of concept and boasts of CIA pedigree with chef-owner/champion pit master Charlie McKenna at the tongs. McKenna, having caught the Southern cooking bug from his grandmother Lillie, has been winning barbecue competitions with his father Quito left, right and center across the nation. Before entering the smoky circuit, he honed his fine dining chops under the likes of such luminaries as Norman Van Aken, Daniel Boulud and Rick Tramonto. The gilded feather in his own toque: receiving the auspicious accolade of “Best New BBQ Restaurant in the Country” by Food & Wine magazine in 2011.
Since it wasn’t feasible to bring the entire country to Chicago, McKenna figured he might as well bring Lillie’s Q to the rest of the country.
Through the serendipity of mutual friends, McKenna teamed up with Joe Manzella, owner and founder of the highly successful TAPS to establish an expanded version of Lillie’s Q in Southern California. What started out in a humble shack in east coast Destin, Florida has now evolved into a contemporary, full-service restaurant just a few doors down from Manzella’s fish house and brewery in the bustling quarters of west coast Downtown Brea.
Suggestions on what to order at Lillie’s Q:
Appetizers: There are tempura-like pickle spears that are lightly beer-battered, which never lose their great crunch and puckeriness. Pork cracklings rendered to a non-greasy, crispy puff and liberally coated with cheddar cheese crack dust, making them your addictive armchair companion to any sporting event. Oysters on the half shell showcased over black-eyed peas in a cast iron skillet, are livened up with a piquant, spicy E.N.C. sauce.
Barbecue (duh): A huddle of the meatiest chicken wings, dripping with savory, mildly spiced flavor and lacquered to a mouth-watering glisten. Smokey Santa Maria-style tri-tip, paying homage to McKenna’s birthplace, renowned for its savory texture and flavors, with origins from los vaqueros (America’s first cowboys). Ribs that are predictably fork tender, but surprisingly retaining enough heft to sink your teeth into; summoning the latent barbarians in all of us.
Non-Q: The Shrimp & Grits, a legendary repast from the Carolina Low Country, is heavenly, guileless and deeply comforting. The shrimp is sautéed in gumbo-like sauce and served atop creamy, stone-ground grits. Another tasty gem from the sea, their Crawfish Roll — a riff on the iconic Lobster Roll — is every bit as lavish as its pricier kin. Tossed with a light mayo dressing and hint of lemon, it’s mounded on a buttery, toasted top-split bun that makes me drool just thinking about it.
Testament to his passion, McKenna lives, breathes and bleeds all things barbecue. Meats are smoked low and slow over lump charcoal and peach wood. There are six regional, custom sauces and two dry rubs to perfectly compliment their award-winning, savory vittles. From the Memphis-style Smoky with hints of brown sugar and mild smoke; to the tomato and vinegar-based Carolina with apple and lime juices; to the Alabama original Ivory with Grandma Lillie’s Cajun spice, one or more is sure to please even the most discriminating palate. All are bottled snazzily and are available for purchase at the restaurants; online at LilliesQ.com; and at fine retailers like Crate and Barrel and West Elm.
What would a proper culinary destination be without a stellar bar program? Prominent on the Lillie’s Q drink roster are moonshine-based libations; giving it a rather distinctive Southern twang. With more and more people hot on the microbrewery trend, the craft of micro-distilling is but a natural progression. What used to be nothing short of turpentine — folks swore it would render one blind — is now being made with epicurean-worthy technique and ingredients. Purists like it because it has more flavor and they can really taste the base grain. With that said, much attention is being put forth with manipulating the ‘shine into more quaffable and creative ways. At Lillie’s Q, you can enjoy an Old Fashioned in the most old-fashioned sense of the word.
With restaurant anchors like TAPS Fish House & Brewery, Brunos Trattoria, and Cha Chas Latin Kitchen holding fort, there’s been a more mature landscape being cultivated in Brea; transitioning nicely from the MMMbop crowd into adult contemporary. It was but yesterday that the streets were crawling with ‘tweens foraging for pizza by the slice or frozen yogurt after movie night at the Edwards Theaters. While the addition of Lillie’s Q certainly helps to fill the void of an upscale dining experience and the wanting cocktail scene, ultimately, what will have you coming back for more is damn good barbecue and the impeccable Southern-style service served up with a smile.
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