Review: Dragon Ranch Moonshine & BBQ, 441 N. Clark St. 312-955-1900.
Rating: 3.5 (out of four) Heating up
What do barbecued ribs, Asian spices, Mason jar moonshine cocktails and Billy Dec have in common?
They're all in the mix at the latest hangout from Rockit Ranch, the group that opened Rockit Bar & Grill eight years ago in River North and followed it up with subterranean club The Underground and Asian restaurant Sunda in the same neighborhood. Can they make it all work? I enlisted a few barbecue-loving friends and dined during its opening week to find out.
This is not The Underground.
Rockit Ranch may be known for keeping the River North party raging, but Dragon Ranch is much more a restaurant than a bar. It's a narrow slip of a space, with a barstool-lined open kitchen and bamboo-hued communal tables that give the feel of sitting around a picnic table while still nodding toward the Asian influence. It closes shop at 11 p.m. earlier in the week (1:30 a.m. Thursday through Saturday) and the owners clearly had the laptop-hauling happy hour crowd in mind when designing benches that double as cubbies. (It's a perk the staff appears to be extremely jazzed about, considering it was mentioned by three separate servers.)
The meat? It's good.
Any competitive barbecuer would consider the two chefs here rookies, but you can't tell by the meat they prepare. Smoky spare ribs ($16 for half slab, $27 for a whole) are tender but have just enough chew to stay on the bone rather than falling into a wet heap on your plate. The meat in the pulled pork sandwich ($12) has flavor on its own, but acts as enough of a blank slate to slather on the house barbecue sauces, which include Carolina-esque mustard sauce, gingery soy-based Asian barbecue, spicy barbecue and classic tomato-based barbecue.
Let's talk about the sides.
Even the best barbecue can fall flat with lackluster side dishes. Here, Asian-inspired sides (priced $4-$12 and meant to share) lean lighter and fresher than typically heavy sidekicks such as baked beans and buttered greens. Executive chef Red Hauge told me he detests mushy carrots, which explains why he's serving them in big crunchy chunks, cooked just past raw and dressed up with bourbon barrel-aged fish sauce and a sprinkling of white and black sesame seeds. Egg-topped roasted sweet potato hash seems more like a breakfast dish than a side, but house-smoked bacon, chilis and edamame made it my table's favorite. Cakey cornbead doesn't crumble under a smear of bourbon-honey butter. Coleslaw made with wisps of shaved brussels sprout and white miso vinaigrette instead of mayo was a favorite of mine, but deemed "weird" by my tablemates. Sandwiches come with Frito-esque spiced wonton chips and we left a lot on the plate; they just didn't have the same munchability as fries or potato chips.
About that moonshine.
Moonshine as a trend isn't brand-new to Chicago; Lillie's Q in Wicker Park opened a few years back, making its own moonshine for cocktail mixing and local distilleries such as Koval, Few and Death's Door bottle their own white whiskey. But by stocking more than a dozen varieties (plus working with a to-be-announced distillery to bottle its own house brand of white whiskey), Dragon Ranch is really committing to the stuff—which is somewhat risky since most people expect it to taste like rubbing alcohol. I'm not sure how many people will be drinking these spirits straight, but the moonshine cocktails ($12-$14) are smooth and potent. The Moonshine Sling takes the Singapore Sling, a classic tiki drink, ditches the original recipe gin and adds ginger liqueur, while the Honey Bunny (white whiskey with Campari, honey, raspberries, apple juice and egg white) is so sippable that even the manliest I-don't-dare-order-girlie-sounding-drinks guy should try it. For those who, despite any amount of encouragement from your enthusiastic server, just won't touch the moonshine, there's plenty of bourbon, Japanese whiskey, sake and beer, plus a couple wines.
From the cutesy menu categories ("niblets," "fix'ns" and "sandos") to the servers dressed in logo-emblazoned plaid shirts, Dragon Ranch has the ultra-curated feel of a Rockit Ranch production; however, even the most calculated concept won't float if the food doesn't measure up. Luckily, the meats deliver with all the familiarity and comfort you crave in classic barbecue, while Asian-inspired side dishes bring fresh flavors to the table.
FYI: Dragon Ranch's followers on Twitter and Facebook can make reservations through social media; otherwise, seating is first come, first served.
Reviews are unannounced and meals are paid for by RedEye. firstname.lastname@example.org | @redeyeeats