Phillip Foss and Akiko Moorman have converted Foss’ Michelin-starred Douglas Park restaurant into a smoked-meats emporium. Foss is loading up the Bradley smoker that he inherited when he took over the space nine years ago with cuts like a hulking and buttery beef rib. The couple’s new venture, Boxcar Barbecue, debuted Thursday.
El Ideas is one of Chicago’s most unique restaurants, where diners have crowded into a cozy dining room in Douglas Park. The restaurant opened in 2011 and was part of a cluster of Chicago restaurants, including Alinea and Moto, that pushed the city toward experimental dining. Michelin’s prestigious guide lists it as a one-star restaurant.
The pandemic is pushing Foss and company into a new direction as the idea for barbecue has been gestating for five years. Moorman, who’s studying to be a nurse at Rush University Medical Center is also El Ideas’ director of operations. She says she’s been weathering down Foss, a “fancy-pants chef,” to open a barbecue restaurant during the pandemic. The classically trained Foss has been resistant, but Moorman says there’s no denying that his “work with meats is unbelievable.” Moorman is a seasoned fan of smoked meats who counts barbecue heroes like Charleston pitmaster Rodney Scott and Billy Durney of New York’s Hometown Bar-B-Que.
There’s no regional barbecue focus for Boxcar. Foss isn’t as immersed in barbecue culture as his wife. He mentions an old Milwaukee restaurant called Pitch’s as his nostalgia fuel. He figured it was closed (according to the Internet, Pitch’s remains operational). At Boxcar, Moorman’s expertise gives the concept its direction while Foss executes the ideas.
One of those ideas is the star of Boxcar’s menu: El Boxcar — a beef short rib. John Manion at El Che Steakhouse has made the specialty a part of his menu, but it’s still a rarity in Chicago. Moorman marvels at the cut’s marbling which reminds her of wagyu. The center cut (ribs six through eight, for meatheads) is black angus from NatureSource. It’s pasture raised and corn finished.
“If you look at it, it’s really the size of a boxcar,” Foss adds.
For Foss, barbecue fits a niche of food that’s comforting and nourishing. He cautions against describing his barbecue as upscale, saying that label “almost hurts him in a way.” Yes, the beef rib is a bit over the top, but the menu also includes staples like chicken, pork spare ribs, and Foss’s version of a Sloppy Joe. The chef hasn’t forgotten about vegetarians with a dish of smoked and shredded jackfruit and seitan. Jackfruit is a popular veggie substitute for pulled meats, and Foss says his version is not a gimmick.
El Ideas isn’t the only Michelin-starred restaurant to unveil a barbecue start-up. Smyth chef John Shields began offering Johnny Good Times Smoked Meats shortly after the state indoor shut down in Fulton Market. Barbecue travels well in the same vein tacos and pizza do. Ever chef Curtis Duffy is also switching gears, as the pedigreed chef is now serving griddled burgers to go. Moody Tongue in South Loop has also switched to barbecue.
Boxcar Barbecue is here to stay even after indoor dining is restored. Foss’s food will be available for delivery for the first time. They’re using Getcho — an app that dispatches couriers within a 20-mile radius — and Uber Package instead of the ride-share company’s food delivery platform.
“A zero-profit sale means we don’t make rent, payroll, the group health insurance premium, or groceries to feed our kids, while committing to covering the payroll for that sale,” Moorman writes. “Doing right by our staff means we can‘t do delivery in order to continue to try to earn the money to continue their employment and healthcare. We need to partner with our customers and courier services is how we do that.”
The addition of couriers comes after a summer of offering new takeout meals after the public health crisis forced restaurants to close. Indoor dining returned to El Ideas in June before the state shut down dining rooms at the end of October.
Perhaps some don’t see that barbecue can have a romantic vibe, but Moorman and Foss do. Moorman says she’s enjoyed watching her husband prepare smoked food while wearing overalls. Foss says he fell for Moorman after seeing her spit roast a pig. The pandemic can’t defeat true love.