ARMOUR SQUARE — Joe Woodel, Chicago's Southern-drawled purveyor of mobile smoked meats, dropped a log of cherry wood into a kettle grill placed on the corner of 31st Street and Shields Avenue.
"We got no sign yet. This is our ambiance," said Woodel, 38, preparing for the opening of his first-ever restaurant, a supplement to his roving Husky Hog BBQ food truck.
Joe Woodel tells Casey Cora that going from a food truck to a brick-and-mortar store is a big leap:
The restaurant, 335 W. 31st St., opened quietly on Tuesday, sort of a test run before Woodel and his wife Lauren officially open the doors next week.
Woodel said the brick-and-mortar version of Husky Hog will feature the same menu as the food truck, with a roster that includes pork, chicken, brisket, burnt ends and a roasted portobello mushroom sandwich, plus a handful of sides like mac and cheese, collard greens and baked beans.
The meats can be served as sliders or piled on a platter in half- and one-pound portions, complete with a couple slices of white bread.
Woodel, a Rogers Park resident and Tennessee native who cut his teeth on the competitive barbecue circuit, plans to expand the menu and make the small restaurant his "barbecue playground."
On any given day, guests can expect creations like French drumsticks — smoked chicken drumsticks with skin peeled back like a lollipop — or smoked ribs and shrimp and grits.
"I'm tempted to put a salad on the menu but I don't know," Woodel said.
The storefront is modest. There are just a few stools surrounding a chest-high counter, a window for ordering and a station for the homemade barbecue sauces — hot, honey mustard, classic, vinegar and a new Alabama-style sauce, a mix of mayonnaise and Carolina vinegar that Woodel had just whipped up.
The darling of the restaurant, a showcase Southern Pride smoker capable of smoking upward of 500 pounds of meat per session, has yet to arrive. When it does, the smoker will serve as the cooking hub to supply both the restaurant and food truck.
For Woodel, the restaurant's debut marks the evolution of the food truck business he launched last year with his wife Lauren.
Since then, he's learned the finer points of life as a food truck operator, like deep frying in the back of a cramped truck and battling for cooking space in shared kitchens.
He's also learning how to navigating the city's often-criticized food truck laws. Woodel said he's battling a $2,000 fine for allegedly breaking the city's parking time limit at a popular River North food truck hangout.
But that's all in the past.
For now, the Husky Hog rolls forward.
"Look what opportunities the food truck has brought me," he said outside of the restaurant. "I have a place of my own, I've hired people, I'm trying to be part of the community."
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