Tag Archives: pilsen

Willie Wagner: Honky Tonk BBQ

Willie Wagner

By: Dana Ragazinskas

Why travel to Tennessee to get award-winning, southern-style BBQ, when you can get it right here in Chicago? Just head on over to the Pilsen neighborhood, and make your way into Honky Tonk BBQ. It’s here that you’ll find great food and the master of BBQ himself, Willie Wagner.  If he isn’t cooking some amazing BBQ, you might just find Willie hanging out at the bar and listening to music with friends. It’s a Local Thing was lucky enough to have Willie sit down and share his life with us. From cooking, television appearances, and world competitions, to booking live music, juggling a family, and running a successful business, Willie seems to have it all down to a T. So let’s look at what the BBQ expert himself had to say in this exclusive interview with It’s a Local Thing.
Dana Ragazinskas: Honky Tonk BBQ seems to be pretty new on the scene. How long has it been open?

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.

Photo Credits: Dana Ragazinskas & the Honk Tonk BBQ website for the picture of Willie.


Simone’s: Where “Unconventional” & “Going Green” Meet Over Drinks

By: Dana Ragazinskas

It doesn’t get any more unconventional than this! Simone’s is bursting at the seams with unique characteristics. Simone’s is definitely unlike any bar I’ve been to before, so it has become my all time favorite spot to eat and drink. This is not a place you can only visit once! After reading this, I’m sure you’ll fall in love with Simone’s just as I did! You can find Simone’s in the Pilsen neighborhood, right on the corner of 18th and Morgan, open every day from 11:30am to 2:00am, with daily food and drink specials.  This area is quiet yet full of personality.  It’s closeness to University Village and art galleries are just two factors that create this personable feel. No place in the Pilsen area is quite like Simone’s, and I think that’s what makes it so attractive to the locals in the area.

The Front Bar of Simone’s

Simone’s is a unique bar and grill, owned by Russ Grant, his wife Desiree, and their partner Michael Noone. They opened Simone’s on February 13th of 2009, making it fairly new to the Chicago scene. How do we know the exact date they opened? Marc, one of the managers, happened to be at Simone’s when It’s a Local Thing stopped by to grab a bite to eat, and chatted with us for a moment. “We are getting ready to celebrate our two year anniversary, which is kind of exciting”, Marc said as he filled our glasses with water. He took a moment to fill us in on the history of Simone’s, and gave us a few in depth descriptions of the design and artwork.

He started by telling us that one of the owners, Desiree, wanted to name this place Simone’s not only because it was her favorite name, but because it sounded mysterious and international. We would have to agree with Desiree on this one, Simone is a very intriguing name, and it seems to fit the personality of the bar quite well. “There were two main designers/architects that were behind the concept and design of Simone’s, and they are also responsible for the hand painted wallpaper in the bathrooms“, Marc continued, as we listened and looked around at all the extreme details that went into this place. “Our bars’ counter tops are made out of old bowling alley lanes, with handrails that are made out of old conveyor belts from a candy factory that closed down.” He also showed us the vintage pinball machines that were hanging from the ceiling as artwork. Marc pointed out to us that the glass doors used to separate their front bar from their back bar are the executive office doors from VBBM-TV, with the company name still preserved on the glass.

The Coolest Chandelier & “The Lab” (Simone’s Back Bar)

It’s a Local Thing sat in the back half of the bar, which Marc called “The Lab”. “The back bar, which we call ‘The Lab’, is made almost entirely out of material from an old high school that closed down called Westing House High School. As you can see, the tables are the student’s old desks, in which we kept their writing and graffiti on them for character”, he explained as he pointed out all the old chemistry equipment behind the bar. Beakers, test tubes, and burners decorate the bar area, surrounding an old chalk board that stands as a centerpiece. Last but not least, he informed us about the weird, yet beautiful chandelier hanging over our heads. The chandelier was created by the artist Davide, and is made entirely out of washing machine parts and other old junk yard material. This is definitely unlike your typical chandelier. We were happy Marc was able to share all this with us before he had to run off and get back to work.

Womens Bathroom at Simone’s
After our visit at Simone’s, we came across an interesting fact on their website that Marc had left out! Simone’s is a certified green restaurant! You might be asking yourself, what the heck does that mean? Well, all that stuff Marc said about getting used and old material to create Simone’s actually has a bigger purpose then just looking really cool. When a restaurant, like Simone’s is a certified green restaurant, it means that it meets the criteria for being an environmentally responsible operation. So not only does Simone’s look really awesome, it’s also helping the environment, one piece of furniture at a time! This place is incredible! You really have to see it all for yourself. Be sure to check out the graffiti on the walls, the fireplace lounge section, and the fenced in pinball DJ booth that looks over the front bar. You’ll also find different paintings and photographs from local artists on all the walls. If you see something you like, all paintings and artwork are available for purchasing.


Street View of Simone’s & a Cool Pinball Machine on the Wall


The afternoons at Simone’s tend to be rather quiet, only having a small crowd. At night you can enjoy a live DJ and grab a few beers with friends. The casual atmosphere attracts both people in their twenties and thirties. The local crowd grows during the night hours, so if you’re looking to just casually check it out, come during the afternoon and grab a bite to eat. When It’s a Local Thing stopped by Simone’s, it was around 1:00pm and it was surprisingly crowded! We found out later that there was a trivia tournament going on, which was kind of exciting and fun to watch! Although a trivia tournament doesn’t happen often, Simone’s does have regular bar trivia that is free to join. So if that sounds like something you would be interested in, check their website regularly to find out what days their having trivia night. We enjoyed our time at Simone’s eating lunch, talking to Marc and with our waitress as well! We asked our waitress what she liked best about working at Simone’s, and she eagerly answered with, “The staff! Everyone here is awesome, and we all get along really well. I think us getting along well and working together effortlessly, gives Simone’s a pleasant atmosphere! Not to mention this place just looks really cool!” We agree with our waitress, Jen, completely! So get on over to Simone’s and enjoy some great food and great people! For more information in regard to food or drink specials, feel free to check out Simone’s Website.


When Old Desks Become Tables in “The Lab”

Location: 960 W 18th
Chicago, IL 60608
(312) 666-8601
Photos taken by: Dana Ragazinskas