Simply put: we needed this.
For years, folks in the twin cities of Champaign-Urbana have been munching on the offerings of a variety of different barbecue joints: Lil' Porgy's, Hickory River, Ye Olde Hickory Pit (now Noe's Hickory Pit, as of last Friday), Famous Dave's (a chain), Po' Boys (closed for a few years), Jackson's Ribs n' Tips (also deceased), and Blues (another chain). All of these restaurants are just fine in their own right, and some of them are actually phenomenal at times (the brisket at Hickory River comes to mind immediately).
But one thing seems to have been missing: smoked ribs and pulled pork, served with a vinegar-based sauce. In other words, North Carolina-style BBQ.
Now, don't mistake me here: Black Dog is versatile. They serve a multitude of different styles of BBQ, and are proud of it.
"I plan to beg, steal, and borrow from all barbecue traditions," co-owner Michael Cochran told me in an e-mail interview. "I'm a big fan of the dry rub. The meat should stand on its own. To me sauce should be used sparingly. That being said, we will use different sauces. One is thin and vinegary. Another is hot and sweet. I also like one that is au jus with just a little spice."
Cochran has been smoking meat low and slow since he bought a small water smoker in 1996. He worked at Esquire since 1993, bartending and pulling some shifts in the kitchen as well. One year, he smoked ribs there on Tuesdays. They were a hit.
Cochran and his business partner, Pedro Heller (also a co-owner of Esquire), decided to open Black Dog (named after his two mutts, obviously black, Oscar and Lola) when the old Tod and John's building had sat idle long enough. Downtown Urbana has seen a resurgence as of late in regards to its dining options. And for the pair, it just made sense.
"There were a combination of factors that brought us to downtown Urbana," said Cochran. "We looked around quite a bit for a place. The obvious deciding factor was finding an existing establishment that suited our idea."
He expressed his love for local BBQ, too. When asked about his favorite joints to eat he responded that his favorite was, "Po Boys. Oh wait they closed, I still am in denial about that. Porgy's sauce. I've been eating at Hickory River since I've been spending more time in Urbana."
I was invited to taste Black Dog's offerings last night in advance of their first full day of business on Wednesday, Feb. 18. The menu was exactly as you'd want it to be: simple and bold. Smoked half chicken, 1/3 slab back ribs, brisket, and pulled pork sandwich. The sides, too, were classic: slaw, potato salad, and baked beans.
We were lucky to bump into friends by providence on the way in — a familiar face to Smile Politely readers, Alisa DeMarco and her husband, Jeff Dimpsey. Alisa, as you may have read, works for Prairie Fruit Farms and spends part of her day making local cheeses for the community. We were enthralled to hear that Black Dog had bought in. Smoked goat cheese and smoked bleu cheese will be on the menu on a regular basis.
We sat down in our booth and immediately noticed that Cochran and Heller had done a great job with the decor and colors in the restaurant. For those of you who drank at Tod and John's, prepare to forget the grimy, basic elements of the dive that it was. The interior is now painted a "Tuscan orange," according to Demarco, and the bar is lined with wooden booths made for four. There are also some table tops near the front near the entrance, but the raised booths provide a comfort zone that fits in nicely with the cuisine. There is a 42" flat screen TV high above the bar that doesn't interfere with the sight line of the well-stocked bar, and beyond that is where the magic happens.
And I don't say that lightly. This food has magic. It's genuine.
We decided to just get one of everything so that we could taste a bit of each. The food is served on a piece of wax paper on metal trays. It's a rudimentary presentation — but it works. Smoked meats, laid out on nothing but a sheet of paper, somehow encourages the appetite. The only complaint I had about the whole experience will be mentioned now: the sides came in styrofoam ramekins. And while I am no Al Gore, I also take exception to the squeaky, never-say-die, fast food material that will live on past the apocalypse. Stainless steel ramekins would do just fine in their place. But again, this place isn't even open yet, so it's quite possible that this was a temporary solution to a future amendment. Anyhow, on with the praise.
The food was dynamite. The smoked chicken (pictured below) was flavorful and tender. Chicken is a tough food to prepare well, especially when it's smoked. The reality is that we've become used to factory farm meat, over-cooked and often fried. This is the opposite. Moist, juicy and well seasoned, this bird provided us with more than enough for one, and was good for pickins well after we'd scarfed the rest of the food. The smoked cheese was notably fantastic. While we debated about whether the goat cheese (pictured left) could have gone in longer, the bleu was perfectly done and added a whole new flavor to a palate with great depth.
The brisket (pictured below) was superb, too. Heller admitted to us that he felt it was a bit tough tonight, but I thought he was just being modest. I suppose it could have been a bit juicier, but the flavor of the meat and the sauce brought enough to the table that it didn't matter. The KC-style tomato-based sauce went well here, with just a little cup served on the side for dipping.
This flavor is the result of cooking in a real smoker, located in the back of the restaurant.
"We smoke these at 225 degrees for about four-and-a-half hours. We do all of it back here. Low and slow. The ribs, brisket, pulled pork, all of it. We'll be doing smoked fish, too. And Polish. Those will be on the menu, too. We have a wood burning grill and rotisserie. Our smoker is wood burning with a convection oven to ensure even heat distribution. Both pieces are made by J&R Manufacturing in Mesquite, TX."
For me, the ribs (pictured below) were the stand-out item. They were smoked perfectly, with a fat centimeter smoke ring encompassing the meat. Generally speaking, the thought that anyone would consider tainting such ribs with any sort of sauce makes me weep. But then I was introduced to their signature vinegar-based sauce. I reconsidered.
The pulled pork was just as tender. And despite the fact that I didn't have a whole sandwich to myself, made the way that I want it (North Carolina-style with slaw and sauce poured right on top), what I did have was enough to make me know: I will be coming here for lunch. Often.
Prices have yet to be determined, but Cochran assured me that, "nothing will be above $20. And lunches will average about $7 for a pulled pork sandwich (pictured below) and side. We want to keep it there."
But this isn't all the Black Dog offers. They will open in the mornings at 6 a.m. to serve up American breakfast for the folks in the downtown Urbana area. Cochran says there will be basics like eggs and omelets, biscuits and gravy, pancakes and french toast, and oatmeal to boot.
All in all, the Black Dog Smoke & Ale House is easy to endorse. The place isn't even open yet, and I'm ready for seconds. With food like this, it's hard not to be.
Black Dog Smoke & Ale House is located at 201 N Broadway Ave. in downtown Urbana. They are open from 6 a.m. until late, Monday through Sunday. Come hungry.
Photos by Justine Fein-Bursoni