Sam Sanchez and Michael Gonzalez, the principal partners of Chicago-based Moe’s Cantina and John Barleycorn, have partnered up with Bing Zhou, the proprietor of Evanston’s Koi restaurant and Chicago’s Chens Chinese & Sushi, to open Old Crow Smokehouse in Chicago’s Lakeview neighborhood. And the ribs they are a smokin! The owners, who collectively have over 55 years of hospitality industry experience, have recruited Tony Scruggs as the executive chef and pitmaster of Old Crow Smokehouse.
Tony Scruggs developed an interest in cooking at an early age, helping his Sicilian-born grandmother in the kitchen when he was young, and he spent his summers steaming crabs at a crab house and marina in Maryland as a teen. Scruggs’s career as a steel hauler/truck driver furthered his interest in cooking, in particular barbecue, as his territory was in the barbecue-loving states of Tennessee and Arkansas. While driving his truck route, he regularly ate at barbecue shacks, and he began developing and perfecting his own style of barbecue back home in Illinois. He entered his barbecue in county and state (Illinois) competitions, racking up numerous awards such as the Grand Champion of the 2005 Kankakee Valley Park District BBQ Fest and the People’s Choice Award at the Bradley Firefighter’s BBQ Cook-Off in 2006.
He auditioned for the Fox Network’s “MasterChef,” a competitive reality cooking show featuring home cooks (rather than professional chefs working in professional kitchens) competing for the title of MasterChef, and his audition landed him a spot as a contestant on season two in 2011. Prior to accepting the position at Old Crow Smokehouse, Scruggs was operating an off-premise barbecue catering business. Other culinary highlights include stints as a class instructor at the University of Illinois Extension Office in Bourbonnais and Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts in Chicago.
Scruggs describes his barbecue as “Chicago-style,” and cites influences from Tennessee and Arkansas. He has a passion for locally-produced products, and believes “the best thing you can eat is what you can grow, forage or harvest in the wild.” He owns livestock and has a large garden at his rural Grant Park, Illinois home, and he has built relationships with farmers, butchers and other purveyors in the area through the years. Expect local ingredients to make the Old Crow Smokehouse menu and to take center stage at special events such as cooking classes, whiskey dinners and beer dinners.
At Old Crow Smokehouse, Scruggs prepares the smoked meats and seafood in a wood-burning Southern Pride 1000. He believes that the wood used in the smoker is no different than the spices used on the meats; both impart a distinct flavor. He will be using his own secret blend of applewood and other fruit woods at the restaurant. He also uses his signature “Scruggs Rubs” throughout the Old Crow Smokehouse menu from the meat rubs to the seasoning on the hand-cut fries.
The bulk of the menu is devoted to Scruggs’s smoked meats and seafood, his fresh takes on classic sides and his innovative dishes highlighting smoked meats. Signature selections include 12-hour pulled pork, 16-hour beef brisket with a two-layer spice rub, beer can chicken, Memphis tacos (pulled pork, crunchy coleslaw, beer-BBQ sauce, warm flour tortillas) and pulled pork egg rolls (crunchy coleslaw, warm beer-BBQ dipping sauce). There is also a compact section on the menu devoted to Asian barbecue. Bing Zhou handles the Asian barbecue and is Old Crow Smokehouse’s managing partner.
The beverage program features a large whiskey and bourbon list, moonshine, a compact wine list and a broad range of craft, imported and domestic beers (nine beers on draft, 15 bottled beers and 10 canned beers). There is also a lineup of barbecue-friendly handcrafted cocktails created by mixologist Enrique Cobos. Highlights include the Kentucky Breakfast, Maker’s 46 Kentucky Bourbon, orange liqueur, lemon sour, orange marmalade and club soda with an orange twist; the Old Crow Smoked Manhattan, house-smoked Old Crow Reserve Bourbon with sweet vermouth, bitters and a moonshine-soaked cherry; and the Spiced Apple, Midnight Moon Apple Pie Moonshine with gingerbread syrup, fresh lemon, apple cider, black walnut bitters, fresh apple and nutmeg.
The entire venue spans 100 linear feet on Clark Street, with two rooms separated by three panels of 12-foot-high accordion-style glass doors. The south room encompasses 7,000-square-feet and seats approximately 300; the north room spans 3,500-square-feet and seats approximately 200. The front facade is fitted with three-foot-wide by six-foot-high windows and 22-foot-high accordion-style glass doors flank the Clark Street sidewalk in both the north and south rooms.
The interior features reclaimed wood recovered from barns in southern Illinois and Wisconsin and repurposed materials recovered during the demolition of the Chens Chinese & Sushi dining room (3506 North Clark Street) and a former antique gallery located at 155 West Kinzie Street (where Moe’s Cantina River North is now located). A turret from an old barn is perched above the south entry and the rusted steel columns throughout the venue are wrapped with reclaimed barn wood. The custom-made tables and bar tops, which are made from repurposed materials, feature the Old Crow Smokehouse logo branded into the wood. Handcrafted metal bar stools are used for seating at both the bar and the tables. The floors in both rooms are terra-cotta concrete with a gloss finish. Used whiskey barrels have been repurposed as peanut holders; diners can snack on fresh whole peanuts from the barrels while waiting for a table.
The north room is fitted with the Southern Pride 1000 smoker; diners can view Scruggs manning the smoker and pulling freshly-smoked meats from the Southern Pride during service. There is also a small glass-enclosed kitchen where chefs prepare the Asian barbecue on Old Crow Smokehouse’s robata grill. The north room has its own bar spanning the north wall, and there is high-top table and bar seating for approximately 200. The north room has eight 70” LED Smart TVs mounted behind the bar and a 12-panel video wall is mounted on the west wall near the smoker. The 75-foot retractable glass roof, which is fitted with UV coated clear glass, spans the dining area.
The south room has a stage on the west wall, showcasing live country bands every Friday and Saturday. Plans are in the works for karaoke and line dancing lessons to be held in the south room by year’s end. The south room has its own bar spanning the south wall, and there is high-top table and bar seating for approximately 300. The south room has eight 70” LED Smart TVs behind the bar and a 12-panel video wall is mounted on the west wall above the stage.