By: Dana Ragazinskas
Willie Wagner: We’ve had the “rough draft” of Honky Tonk for 3 ½ years. Before we opened the restaurant, we did 2 years of just catering. We would cater to different festivals, fairs, and even block parties.
DR: Honky Tonk is very unique, unlike any BBQ place we’ve seen in Chicago. How did this whole idea get started for you?
WW: Well mostly from noticing that there weren’t enough rib joints in this town. There are plenty of places to get pizza in Chicago, but not enough places to get ribs. I mean, I like pizza and ribs too, so I figured people would like the kinds of food I like too. So I tested my luck, and opened up my own BBQ place.
DR: Out of all the places and neighborhoods in Chicago, why did you choose this location for Honky Tonk BBQ?
WW: I’m married to the building’s owner, Beth, and we live right above the restaurant. I met her through some friends, and we’ve been married for 16 years now. The kitchen was actually built as a catering kitchen by Beth in the 80’s. The kitchen was idol and empty at the time, so we decided to try our luck and start selling some good meat.
DR: How do you keep your personal life and your work life separate since it’s all in one place?
WW: That’s a good question. My two kids, who are 10 and 14, are homeschooled, so that makes it easy to plan their school work during my work time. This way we get to spend a lot of time together and even have lunch together. We’re closed on Mondays, so we’ll come down here and watch TV or my wife and I will try the different wines.
DR: So do you do all the cooking here at Honky Tonk BBQ?
WW: Yeah, I do majority of the cooking. I do the preparation of the meat, as well as coordinate all of the recipes for the side dishes. I have a lot of help in the back for making the desserts and sides, as well as with the heavy lifting of the meats and so forth.
DR: How would you describe the atmosphere here?
WW: It’s all about the community. Everyone is welcome and we’re open late, so the neighbors can easily stop by. There are all kinds of people here, from all types of places. Many people like come here because it’s not like a “see and be seen” place. We have a lot of different bands, that play a wide variety of music, including: folk, jazz, blues, country, blue grass, all different types of music. There’s something here for everyone.
DR: It seems like music is something that helps characterize this place. Was live music something you wanted to incorporate originally or did it just happen?
WW: No, the music was definitely part of the original plan. In fact, I didn’t want to do it without the music. Music is what makes it fun! Like tonight, we have a band coming in from 6 to 8:30, and then another band from 8:30 to 11. And they’re two totally different bands, with each one having a different following. Everyone who’s her, that doesn’t have anything to do with the band, will hopefully think it’s something cool and fun…hopefully. When I get out of the kitchen, my friends are usually out here, and so I will come out and enjoy it as well. It breaks the monotony of cooking food all day, which I enjoy.
DR: What goes into picking the variety of bands that play here?
WW: They usually come to me, and we listen to them. We only pick’em if we like’em (laughs a little). We try to get bands in here that have original music, more than just dancing or cover bands. I don’t want to have any bad wedding bands in here or anything. I like to see real talent and real song writers. On the weekends, this really should be a place where people can come and enjoy something special, in the music and in the food.
DR: One of the first things you notice when walking in is all of the artwork on the walls. There’s a ton! Where did it all come from?
WW: All the artwork is owned by a friend of mine. My friend just collects all this stuff; he has a bad antique problem. There’s only one picture that’s mine, which is the Frida painting, right by the front door. I put it there to make the local Hispanic population feel welcome. Plus, it was painted by a local named Marcos Raya, a Pilsen-based artist and a pretty well-known guy.
DR: So let’s get to the food. How is your BBQ different from other places?
WW: BBQ here is cooked with 100% wood fuel; we don’t cook anything with gas. Just about all BBQ spots in town are cooking with gas, which adds a smell and a flavor to the food that I don’t particularly like, similar to when you’re at home and you notice the difference between cooking on a gas grill compared to cooking on a charcoal grill. We use apple wood smoking chips, so our food has a more clean taste to it.
DR: What are some of the popular items on the menu, the things you notice most people are coming back for?
WW: I would say that we probably have one of the best pulled pork sandwiches in Chicago. The pork is slow-cooked for 16 hours, so all the fat is mostly rendered out of the meat. Our whole menu is healthy BBQ actually, and we’ve got 8 vegetarian items on the menu too.
DR: What kind of skill does it take to cook BBQ?
WW: One thing I find interesting is that I cook pork, beef, chicken, and ribs, and it’s really hard to get them all perfect. It’s a challenge. You ask yourself, how good is it going to be today? We’ve been open for 3 ½ years, open 300 days a year, and I’ve done it a 1,000 times. It’s a tricky thing to get right, and that’s what separates the good restaurants from the bad restaurants. You know when you’ve made a meal that no one cared about, and you know when people DO care. The way the food is prepared and presented is important. Maybe in another 1,000 times I’ll be even better.
DR: So I couldn’t help but notice THAT (As I point to a giant trophy that’s sitting solely on a shelf near the bar). What’s that all about?
WW: I’m actually going back to Memphis in 3 weeks to try and win another one. It’s a competition for the World Champion of BBQ called Memphis in May. I won that one in 2008, so now we’re working on our recipe for this year’s competition. They don’t really like seeing a trophy go North, but it’s been a couple of years since we’ve won, so that would be nice.
DR: Now that you are an actual restaurant, would you say that most of your customers are those that followed you back when you solely did catering?
WW: Yes, a lot of them are, but a lot of them aren’t. The whole process of opening up a restaurant takes a lot of networking and a lot of luck. Chicago is really good to new restaurants. You open up a new restaurant and they’ll put you in the Tribune, they’ll put you in the Red Eye, the Reader, in Time Out, in Metromix, and then, they’ll tell you what they REALLY think (laughs a little). Fortunately 3 ½ years ago there were very few BBQ places opening up, but this year there were a lot, probably 6 in the last 6 months.
DR: Do you feel the heat of the competition coming in?
WW: Yeah, but you know. It will take them about a year or so to get it all together and working well. I still have room for improvement myself. People in Chicago know what they like and what’s good, so you can’t serve them bad BBQ and get away with it. People that love BBQ are very passionate about it. They like to try different kinds, different preparations, and different sauces. BBQ is never the same anywhere and will be different from place to place.
DR: So we heard that you were on the Food Network with Guy Fieri. What was that like?
WW: Guy is my buddy; it was great. He got his start in competition BBQ actually, so he really knows his stuff and what it’s like to be judged, good or bad, like the rest of us. It was definitely a great opportunity, and to get the huge crowd that comes with him is great. The new bar area that we’re sitting in was actually built by Guy. Without Guy and his crew, we’d still be in the other small room, doing B.Y.O.B., without a bar. I’m very thankful.
DR: If you can describe yourself in a few words, what would you say?
WW: I’m a hard working guy with a restaurant (laughing). That’s really what it is, but it requires a network of employees and a network of customers to really keep what I’m doing alive.
Willie is a very hands-on owner, putting his heart in his work. Willie is always present, whether he’s cooking in the back or mingling at the bar with customers, Honky Tonk is where you’ll find him. Besides the excellent food and great atmosphere, it’s Willie that keeps the customers coming back for more. So if you want to see what Honky Tonk BBQ is all about for yourself, make your way over to 1213 West 18th Street! The food and the music are only getting better with time, so don’t miss out.