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The Broken Barrel Bar: Chef-driven tailgate food is something you didn’t know you wanted until now

The Broken Barrel Bar: Chef-driven tailgate food is something you didn’t know you wanted until now

For years, the vintage bar building sitting at 2548 N Southport sat vacant after the former tenant, Crossings, had folded. Further down from the hustle/bustle of Wrigleyville and outside the main nightlife areas of Lincoln Park, the space fit the ‘neighborhood bar’ role quite well, sitting near the corner of Wrightwood and Southport. For the last 6 months, residents have been treated with seeing the construction going on in the long vacant space. That anticipation was amplified by the staff, who invited neighbors in to tour the space during construction, building the neighborhood bond before opening. Well, the wait is over and Broken Barrel Bar is open for business.

The concept of the new venture is to take the classic sports bar and elevate it by elevating the decor, experience and most of all the food. Game day stalwarts like nachos, chicken wings and burgers, as well as Chicago classics like Italian beef all get the ‘chef-driven’ treatment, using high end ingredients and techniques. Standouts are the chicken wings and nachos, but we’ll get to that shortly. First, I think it’s worth getting a glimpse of the chef’s motivation in creating the menu.

We got the opportunity to sit down with executive chef, Bryant Anderson, who filled us in on the concept of the restaurant, as well as some of his personal motivations in the kitchen. Starting at an early age, chef Bryant remembers cracking open a family cookbook and following a recipe in there. The passion was lit, and a career change was in the cards. Culinary school replaced college, setting up 20 years in professional kitchens. Starting out in a neighborhood bakery, chef Bryant has had a wide range of experience, culminating in the creation of this all new menu.

Part of Wine Not Hospitality, led by owner Luke Johnson, the local bar is a departure from the other concepts in the group. Primarily based in the burbs, the other locations are more conventionally focused, putting out standard smoked meat fare. Chef Bryant had been working with these smoking techniques for years, and became an enthusiast of the process – even spending his downtime smoking meats at home in his front yard – and worked to perfect this style of cooking. The opportunity to create an all-new menu afforded the chef the opportunity to use those smoked meats as components of fully composed dishes, using both the smoke and the tender texture as part of a whole dish.

You can hear the passion about that process in the chef’s voice when he describes his favorite dish at the restaurant to cook, the Roasted Sprouted Nachos. Loaded with homemade elements, everything from the tortilla chips to the pickled jalapenos are crafted in house. All the various processes are what makes the dish one of his favorites. Instead of the limp, canned pickled jalapenos, these are sliced thin and pickled fresh in house for two weeks. Picked fresno chilies and red onions add the necessary heat and acid to the rich dish. Even the nacho cheese sauce is made in house, blended with jalapenos smoked alongside the meats in the kitchen’s large smoker.

The nachos are uncharacteristically light and fresh tasting, due to the pickled vegetables, and complex with the nutty, roasted flavor of the flash fried brussel sprouts. The textures play well together, and it’s as fun to eat as the chef relays it is to make. For the meat-a-tarians among us, you can add any of the smoked meats to the nachos as well. The chef recommends the slow-smoked lamb shoulder.

One of the most iconic game-day foods are chicken wings, is somewhat underrepresented in the Chicago food scene. Sure, they are widely available, but don’t always get a lot of attention from the kitchen. That is not the case here. Chef Bryant has won many awards for his wings, and trying them that is no surprise. Two days of processing, including a day of marination and two hours in the smoker with oak wood, lead to a complex, smoky and rich flavor. Tender, juicy meat is wrapped in a crispy, caramelized skin. The chef has perfected the crispy skin, and you can taste the passion that goes into the wings. Several sauces are available, but the Chili Maple and Sticky Curry are solid choices. All of the wing sauces are made fresh in-house as well.

Broken Barrel Bar’s take on the Chicago favorite, Italian beef, comes with 14-hour smoked brisket, caramelized onions, muenster cheese, oyster mushrooms and pickled fresno peppers. As a fan of heaps of spicy peppers on my Italian beef, I would have preferred some more of the peppers, but the mushrooms add a great earthiness while the slow-smoked brisket is tender and flavorful. The overall effect is more of a mixture of Italian beef and Philly cheesesteak, but that’s a good thing. This is a tasty sandwich. The dip is actually made with smoked pork drippings for an extra bump of flavor. This dish definitely represents the creativity throughout the menu.

Also available are smoked meat tacos, with lamb, brisket or pork. All of them hit the notes of spicy, sweet, smoky, salty and acidity. It’s that balance that chef Bryant says he appreciates most about crafting this menu, and he manages to deliver. There are also some creative cocktails, and an extensive and well curated craft beer menu. Really there’s something for everyone here, right down to the funnel-cake like dessert donuts.

Beyond the food and drink, there are several great spaces to enjoy them from a front bar full of bright TV’s, a rear bar and dining room with less TV’s, an upstairs bar with a DJ booth and a beautiful outdoor beer garden. There’s something for everyone, and during my visit there was a wide range of patrons from college students to families to neighbors. The service was bright and cheerful, and the decor is pleasing, highlighting the cool vintage building.

Overall, for a new establishment, they seem to be delivering already. Some dishes are better than others, but I encourage everyone to go try the wings. They are the best I’ve had in Chicago. The chef pours his heart into the creative takes on tailgate food, and that always comes through on the plate. If sports bars aren’t your thing, there are seating options where the sports are not as in-your-face. Also, the space serves as an official Notre Dame bar, so it’s packed for Saturday game days. NFL Sundays fill the space as well, which is full of local patrons during the week. It’s a fun, well planned and well executed concept that fits well with the location. Definitely worth a visit! We’ll be back to try the burger we didn’t have space for this time.

PROs

– Neighborhood vibe and well decorated indoor/outdoor spaces

– Creative takes on tailgate food, with chef-driven interpretation

– Great service and staff, with an enthusiastic staff

– Motivated and passionate Executive Chef

– Well thought out cocktails and beer selections

CONs

– Sports bars aren’t everyone’s cup of tea

– Some dishes could use a little more spice/heat

– Meals can be heavy, but it is game-day food after all

– Can be loud during games, if you’re just there to eat

– Location makes parking a bit tough in the neighborhood