Have I been transported to Alabama? Or perhaps Kansas City? No, I’m still in the Windy City, but it sure doesn’t feel like it. That’s because I’m at the newly opened Pedway location of Blackwood BBQ, which features slow cooked barbecue from around the U.S. in one convenient stop. Blackwood BBQ is located in the Illinois Center (233 N. Michigan Ave) and replaces a shuttered Great Steak & Potato eatery. It is the Chicago mini-chain’s fourth location and joins other outposts in the Loop, West Loop, and Lakeview.
The 14-seat restaurant in the Illinois Center is open Monday-Friday from 7 a.m. to 4 p.m. for breakfast and lunch and serves the BBQ joint’s signature smoked meats, according to Stephanie Simpson, a Blackwood partner. The Illinois Center location’s meat is smoked at a separate facility Downtown and trucked in multiple times per day, Simpson explained.
In terms of ambiance, Blackwood BBQ blends industrial and rural influences, with a mix of painted black and white woods adorning the walls; metal and exposed air ducts; as well as lighting wires above, overlaid with a sleek, big city shine.
The ordering system falls into the “fast-casual” assembly line style of food, popularized by Chipotle, with a focus on fresh ingredients that gives diners the ability to choose what they want as their food moves down the line. Speaking of lines …the ones at Blackwood can seem daunting during the lunch rush with guests often out the door. This was the case on my recent Friday visit; however, I was pleasantly surprised that it took only a few minutes to get through the ordering line and from there only about a minute to the cashier.
A key factor that ensures the line moves like a well-oiled machine is that Blackwood BBQ keeps it simple. Diners can choose from three meats: pulled pork, pulled chicken, or beef brisket. The brisket can be sliced lean, with fat, or in-between. The meat can be ordered as a platter (which includes one side), on a sandwich, or as a salad. The next step is to choose a sauce. These are regionally-influenced and include a signature Chicago style (a blend simmered with Old Style lager); a tomato-based Memphis style; North and South Carolina styles (vinegar- and mustard-based, respectively), and a spicy Kansas City style sauce, which I overheard one worker tell a customer is the spiciest of the sauces. Lastly, diners can add on pickles, some housemade sides, a drink (lemonade, sweet tea, or unsweetened tea), or a bottle of craft soda.
During my visit, I sampled the pulled pork sandwich ($7.49) with the Chicago style sauce. The pork has been hand rubbed and mustard brined, raised without antibiotics or hormones. The meat is very tender and has an authentic, smoky flavor that transported me from the heart of Chicago to a barbecue shack in the south. Unlike a lot of pulled pork sandwiches, this one wasn’t too messy. There was a good amount of sauce, although those who prefer their barbecue saucy might want to ask for extra when ordering.
The side dishes are served in cups, rather than slopped on the side, which makes to-go orders tidy. Corn bread fans will enjoy the freshly-baked honey cheddar corn bread ($1.29) studded with kernels of sweet corn. The three-cheese mac ($1.79) features a mix of aged gruyere and two cheddars, topped with a crunchy breadcrumb crust. The signature apple coleslaw added a refreshing touch to my plate. Other sides include smokehouse beans and an Elote corn salad.
Breakfast is another option at Blackwood BBQ. Served from 7:30 a.m. to 10:30 a.m., breakfast items include a brisket, egg and cheese wrap; buttermilk biscuit sandwich; and briskets and gravy-a riff on the traditional biscuits and gravy. Catering is also available, with a minimum 30 minute call ahead required.
All in all, I was impressed with Blackwood BBQ’s focus on fresh ingredients, slow cooking, and straightforward approach to tasty, affordable barbecue. The aroma of smoking meat wafting in its storefront space can soothe even the longest lunchtime wait, and the convenience makes it a must for barbecue loving New Eastsiders.
Hours: 7:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m., Mon-Fri; 233 N. Michigan Avenue;