Q-BBQ, Open and Smokin'

Much pent-up demand for barbecue in downtown Oak Park

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By David Hammond

Last Friday afternoon, I was sitting with Michael LaPidus right next to the front door of Q-BBQ (124 N. Marion), which he opened on Wednesday. There was a line out the door, and three diners who'd just finished lunch were leaving. They stopped at our table to say hi to LaPidus, who asked them, as he asked many who walk by, "How was it?"

"Terrible," one of them says, immediately laughing to signal she was kidding. "No, it was great. This is the third time we've been here," she giggled. In other words, she'd been to eat at Q-BBQ every day since it opened. She's not the only repeat customer at Q-BBQ; several people who paused to greet LaPidus mentioned that they were on a return trip to his restaurant. This says a lot about pent-up demand for barbecue in downtown Oak Park.

Outside, LaPidus and I spot another young woman who walks up to the door, sees the long queue, and walks away.  "I hate to see that," says LaPidus.  "I don't like to see customers leaving." Not that his place was hurting for customers during that lunch hour. One reason for the long lines is that Q-BBQ was offering free sandwiches, 11am-12pm on Friday, which seems like a smart way to get out the buzz growing for a new restaurant. "We use geo-targeting through Facebook," explained LaPidus, which allows him to post Facebook notices that are displayed to only the people living in a specific area, like Oak Parkers. This is a powerful marketing tool. "We could, if we wanted, target just the people in that apartment building," LaPidus said, gesturing to the new multi-story structure going up at the corner of Lake Street and Forest. "Targeted marketing, that's where Facebook is going to make all their money in the future."

No doubt, the renters at that and other new rental properties in Oak Park will find Q-BBQ a very attractive take-out option, and the popularity of take-out has surprised even LaPidus: "So far, about 20% of our sales are take-out," said LaPidus. "I'm thinking about offering bicycle delivery."

Lest this sound too pie-in-the-sky, LaPidus is already offering bicycle delivery from his Lakeview location: kids on bikes with heated backpacks deliver his barbecue throughout that Chicago area, and they could soon be doing so in Oak Park. In addition to the Lake View and Oak Park locations, LaPidus has his original location in La Grange, and others in Naperville and Schererville, Indiana. LaPidus has built his five-location business in about as many years, and he's leveraging technology and forward-thinking to gain a foothold in the Oak Park community.

While I was chatting with LaPidus, I saw lots of families, many groups of what looked like office mates, a few cops: overall a somewhat predictable lunch crowd. However, LaPidus pointed out, "This is also a great first date place."

I haven't been on a first date in over 40 years, but if I were to be on one, I'd order the Papa Q Platter, which includes portions of all ten of Q-BBQ's meats, two sides and two hush puppies. This large platter of chow, meant to be shared (good for a first date, right?) could help you assess the personality of your partner-to-be ("She ate all the wings herself! Sheesh, this relationship is over before it began!").

About the wings: excellent. You can get the wings (which include both wings and drum portions) spicy or Memphis style, both meaty and moist. My favorite meat, however, was the burnt ends, glistening little clumps of brisket, with generous marbling, crisp and delicious, not actually what you'd think of as "burned," more caramelized and luscious.

All BBQ items are smoked with a blend of hickory and cherry wood, and some of the less aggressively flavored meats (like chicken and turkey) benefit from a dash of Q-BBQ's branded sauces, which come sweet (the big seller), spicy and vinegar. "The sweet is our big seller," said LaPidus, "followed by spicy."

The spicy sausage (what at other BBQ places might be called "hot links") was also very good, with light chili heat and none of the greasiness you might have experienced with BBQ sausages. That's because, LaPidus told me, they use less fat in their sausage recipes (you need some fat, of course, for flavor, but with lower quality sausage, fat is added more to fill out the sausage than to make it taste better).

Ironically, one of my favorite Q-BBQ dishes was not meat but rather the spicy Brussels sprouts. Cooked, then flash-fried right before serving, the leaves of each sprout arched upward beautifully, golden and delicate, the light cooking taking away the sprouts' slightly sulfuric flavor and the hot oil bringing out the sugars, just fantastic.

For vegetarians, there are other veggie options (Mexican corn, mashed potatoes, and of course salads). When I asked LaPidus if he thought of experimenting with tofu or seitan, he said without hesitation, "No. I'm not going that way. There's a vegetarian place down the street."

About the restaurant community in Oak Park, LaPidus said he could not have felt more welcome; he even had high praise for the Village of Oak Park, which in the past has, rightly or not, earned a reputation for being "unfriendly to business." That was not LaPidus' experience, and he feels that although the Village had some strict requirements, the people at Village Hall worked with him diligently to make his restaurant a reality.

Q-BBQ is just one of several new restaurants going up in the area; Citrine started dinner service a few weeks ago; Hamburger Mary's is opening, with drag shows starting up April 29, and Nando's Peri Peri looks to soon be serving the food of South Africa. The Oak Park restaurant community is getting stronger, and that's a good thing.

In 2015, LaPidus' smoked Memphis baby back ribs won the People's Choice 1st Place at Chicago's Ribfest. As some of you may recall, the very first Ribfest, started by Mike Royko in 1982, was won by Oak Parker Charlie Robinson, whose Robinson's #1 has been a well-known and largely beloved fixture on Madison for many years.

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