Here's a super little restaurant, if you can call it that. How about a square blue box, slid Tetris-style behind an apartment, tucked in a leafy residential row where foot traffic consists of residents between the 4000 and 4100 block of North Albany Avenue?
Maybe that's why Joaquin Soler and Dan Scesnewicz, the brains behind the Albany Park restaurant, named it Smalls Smoke Shack & More. It's small, and you want more. An outgrowth of the Brown Bag Lunch Truck, Smalls is essentially a takeout counter and kitchen with an iPad cash register, squeezed into 480 square feet. They use "shack" not with the endearingly derelict connotation that some restaurants employ, but rather in a very literal sense.
I came here for lunch with two friends who were probably expecting more than a squat box with an exterior painted Frida Kahlo blue. There was no room for tables inside. The only seats were benches belonging to a bar 20 yards away. The friends asked: "So what kind of food is it?" Even having inspected the menu beforehand, a short answer wasn't easy.
But here's why Smalls, in its sixth week of business, tops my list of favorite restaurant openings so far in 2013: The ambition coming out the kitchen doesn't just belie the name; it's downright brazen. If this restaurant were represented by a Venn diagram, it would be that microscopic sliver where Filipino, Southern barbecue and Korean overlap, which says to me rather than pithy categorization, the menu was probably dreamed up like this, over beers: "Doesn't ____ sound good? Sweet, let's do it." The owners agreed with my sentiment.
Why is fried chicken, with such an unfavorable yield-to-cumbersome ratio, coming out of this shoe box kitchen? Because it's damn delicious. Soler waxes nostalgic about his Hyde Park upbringing, in particular, living close to what he swore was the finest Harold's Chicken Shack store of all, the one on 53rd and Kenwood that has since closed (yes, the loose adherence to recipe standards among franchises means every Harold's is different). He loved that chicken, Soler said, and he loved his Filipino mother's interpretation.
No one will confuse Harold's beef fat-fried chicken with Soler's homage to mom ($11, half chicken), marinated for two days in a ginger-paprika buttermilk, then dredged with flour and the Asian-preferred fry breading of cornstarch. It emerges from the hot oil with a lightly ridged coating not unlike a fine corn flake crust, crispy but not extra crispy. The interior meat glowed a bright white. I saved a breast piece for the next day, and consumed chilled, that buttermilk brine turns the meat — in a weirdly wonderful way — tangy and creamy, like bonus blue cheese.
That Southern-style fried chicken is about the only culturally purebred item on the butcher paper menu; every other dish is a mutt. Smalls' barbecued bibimbap takes the Korean rice bowl of beef, fried egg and vegetables, and injects Texas 'cue by using smoked brisket ($9.50). Those Asian flavors of soy and sesame oil carry over in the beef, only now it's thicker, tine tender, with a mellow twang of applewood smoke (the brisket is also brined in Mexican Coca-Cola). It's the type of visually kaleidoscopic plate that, despite being served in a stiff takeout box, would make for an alluring food magazine cover shot.
If one were to classify the food on the menu, the largest pie chart wedge would belong to barbecue, but that only applies to the method of cooking. A Southern Pride pit smokes some of the meatiest St. Louis-cut pork ribs ($14, half slab) I've encountered, the thickness and dimensions of a Gideon bible. Soler preens his heritage here, a glaze of soy sauce, banana ketchup and 7-Up, though in a blind test, nothing about these sauceless ribs screams "Filipino barbecue." But it serves to illustrate the country's palate: sweet, savory and unabashedly garlicky.
The world tour continues via stops in Mexico by way of Japan (charred whole-cob elotes with "spicy tuna roll"-style mayo, $3), South Carolina (pulled pork sandwich with bacon mustard, $8), Southern China (sugar snap peas with fermented black beans) and Vietnam ("tiger cry sauce" takes nuoc cham fish sauce and dials up the sweetness with maple syrup.) Gene pool-mixing restaurants like this don't come around often. Most notably around town are Fat Rice's Chinese + Portuguese, Taco Chino's Mexican + Korean and Rajun Cajun's Indian + mall food court-Louisianian. Smalls nails the crossbreeding, albeit with a small sample size of five entrees. But Chicagoans should be intrigued.
Don't confuse takeout with quick service; your order might take as long as a Harold's 4-piece wing special. And with more people discovering the place, the wait will only grow longer.
So scratch everything I said. Move along now, nothing to see here. It's just a hard-to-find tiny shack with no seating, where food runs out all the time. Who'd ever want to eat there?
Smalls Smoke Shack & More
4009 N. Albany Ave.; 312-857-4221; smallschicago.com
Open: lunch and dinner Tuesday-Saturday
Recommended: Fried chicken, barbecue brisket bibimbap, Filipino barbecue glazed St. Louis ribs, toasted garlic rice.
Check average for two: $35