Nostalgia will always be on the menu at Russell’s BBQ. They say you eat with your eyes and there is something more to that beyond the mouth-watering food at Russell’s. Walking into the time-honored location at Thatcher and North Avenue in Elmwood Park diners get not only a whiff of the meal to come, but also a warm, family, good-times-past feeling.
Celebrating its 96th year, Russell’s keeps the faith with six items from the original menu. BBQ roast beef leads the pack as the best seller. Slow roasted pork, thinly sliced, then served nestled on a hamburger bun is the number two all-time hit. Ribs, ham and chicken two ways round out the original offerings.
It’s the sauce that makes Russell’s stand out from all the other places you could get your BBQ fix. It’s a Polish recipe handed down from the original owners.
General Manager Ben Tapia says, “It’s a little bit different. It’s not Texas. It’s not a Memphis style. It’s more like a Carolina mixture. The stronger spice in our sauce is cinnamon. It’s unique.”
Russell’s BBQ sauce is shipped nationwide to customers who’ve moved too far away to come by the iconic location in person. Plenty do make a special trip though whenever they are in town. It’s not unusual for folks to come in and reminisce about the table their grandfather used to sit at or the time they had a first date there. High school reunions from a wide area schedule meetups in the dining room for a great meal while filling up on memories.
New memories are being made as well. The 300-seat restaurant is a popular spot to host birthday parties, family get-togethers, and memorials. The extensive menu, which includes appetizers, burgers, hot dogs, salads, and even some vegetarian options can satisfy most eaters.
For parties at home, Russell’s will pack up trays of their very best for customers to pick up and serve to friends and family.
Russell’s has innovated too. Smoked BBQ joined the menu 15 years ago. The smoker runs for 14 hours, low and slow, to produce tender, fall-off-the-bone meats.
Tapia says, “Ever since we started selling smoked meats, there’s been a lot of demand. I don’t want to change anything on the old recipe, but these are in addition to the ones that we already have.”
Ribs and chicken are the centerpiece of an anniversary platter special. Monday through Friday evenings there is a discount on half a slab of ribs and half a chicken served with beans, fries, coleslaw and a roll. At lunch, if you aren’t looking for a heavy meal, there is a soup special running from 10:30 a.m. to 3 p.m.
Desserts are special here too. Eli’s cheesecake, brownies, cookies, pies, and cakes of many flavors tempt those who haven’t already loosened their belts too many notches. Ice cream and Italian ice are available too.
In the future, Russell’s plans to add new items to the menu. Renovations to the interior could expand the dining area, but there is no intention to alter the essence of the place. They are also pondering how to improve their drive-thru, which made its debut during Covid.
Other modifications are here to stay as well. Self-serve soft drinks have proved popular. Meals are now delivered to tables after being ordered at the counter. These tweaks have proven acceptable to the die-hard fans, but there is a line that Tapia knows can’t be crossed.
“Our customers don’t want us to change too much, because if you change it then it’s not going to be Russell’s. They say, we remember it the way it was because we’ve been coming here forever,” says Tapia. “The meal goes better when you remember your parents and you as a kid. Nothing can replace those memories.”
Recently overheard at Russell’s as two older diners were exiting, satisfied with another meal, “Don’t ever change, Russell’s. Don’t EVER change!”
1621 N. Thatcher Ave., Elmwood Park
Sunday through Thursday 10:30 a.m. to 10 p.m.
Friday and Saturday 10:30 a.m. to 11 p.m.