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Bloodshot Briefing: Honky Tonk BBQ

Willie Wagner spends so much time thinking about work and actually working these days, he barely carved out enough time to talk last week. Forgive him for being busy and not concerning himself with all else besides food, family and friends.

The Freeport, Ill., native's busy making some of the best BBQ this side of . . . well, the world. Wagner took third place a couple of years back for his pulled pork sandwich at a Memphis competition.

After working in the corporate world and cooking as a hobby, Wagner, the oldest of 11 children, ditched the suit and tie for full-time smoky smells and opened up Honky Tonk BBQ in
Pilsen. The restaurant's been featured on Check, Please! and Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives.

But Wagner's also has a taste for good music. Honky Tonk catered last summer's Bloodshot Records' party at the Hideout and routinely features acts such as Fulton County Line. So, Beachwood Music figured why not peek behind these curtains and reveal little more.

Beachwood Music: The obvious question is, how did you find your way to food?

Wagner: I have hosted barbecue parties for 25 years for at least once a week. I like to get friends together and cook barbecue and have a good time. I've done it on a condo rooftop and on a boat. For 12 years, every Thursday night we would barbecue on the shore of Lake Michigan.

Beachwood Music: Did that lead you to opening up a restaurant?

Wagner: I was always interested in people, music and food. The only way to open up a live music venue, in Pilsen, is to have a restaurant. Otherwise, you can't.

Beachwood Music: Why Pilsen?

Wagner: I married a girl who's been here 23 years. Pilsen's the most livable neighborhood in Chicago. I can park my car within a block of where I live. I can get a gallon of milk, a stick of butter or a six-pack of beer within 40 yards of where I live. You also have access to the Stevenson, the Ryan, the Kennedy and the Ike in like three or four minutes. Try doing that in Lincoln Park. Pilsen's the center of the universe. It's easier to live here than any other neighborhood.

Beachwood Music: You should work for Pilsen's Chamber of Commerce.

Wagner: It's a great neighborhood, if you like families and your neighbors. You know everybody on your block. It's not like living in a high-rise and not knowing your next-door neighbor. All the kids are playing with all the other kids.

Beachwood Music: Tell me about your connection to Bloodshot Records.

Wagner: I've been in Chicago since 1985. I've been a barfly at the Kingston Mines, Park West, Wise Fools Pub, Lounge Ax, Metro, Riviera, Green Mill, Wild Hare. I haven't missed a good live show yet.

I've seen the Smashing Pumpkins five times, and Veruca Salt. I've been going out in Chicago for 25 years, and you're bound to see a Bloodshot band.

Beachwood Music: You told me you're heading down to South by Southwest this year. You cooking or just enjoying the surroundings?

Wagner: This will be about the eighth time I've attended. I've gone since 1992. We eat barbecue, swim in the creek and run around town. We see 45 bands in the middle of winter. Live music is the centerpiece.

I am more running around the town than cooking. But I will be eating my way through Lockhart. Touring and tasting.



Matt Harness brings you his Bloodshot Briefing every Friday, except when it appears on Monday like today. He welcomes your comments.


Posted on February 15, 2010

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