Some of the offerings at Mel’s Craft BBQ include prime beef brisket, “Ho-Ka” turkey, Kilgus Farms Berkshire pulled pork, baby back ribs with sides of pit beans, Mac’n Queso, sweet potato salad, mustard slaw, pickles and a medley of sauces, as seen on Aug. 4, 2022. (John J. Kim / Chicago Tribune)
My daughter, my own flesh and blood, looked me in the eye the other week and declared that the ribs at Mel’s Craft BBQ in Park Ridge tasted better than mine. She even said it with a smile.
Though my daughter once flirted with vegetarianism, pork ribs are unquestionably her favorite food. She knows to request them days in advance because great ribs take time. They must smoke slowly until the tough connective tissue coursing through the meat dissolves into gelatin, transforming the tough and bony cut into a luscious delicacy in the same pantheon as the steak.
I would have been more upset about my daughter’s lack of allegiance had I not been so transfixed by the brisket.
When brisket is bad it looks uncomfortable and stiff on the plate. But these plump and glistening slices of beef looked like they’d spent the whole day relaxing at a spa. The outside sported a dark black pepper crust, while a bright pink smoke ring hid just underneath. No knife is needed to cut, since you can pull the piece apart easily with fingers.
Slabs of brisket rotate on shelves in a smoker at Mel’s Craft BBQ on Aug. 4, 2022, in Park Ridge. (John J. Kim / Chicago Tribune)
In other words, the Chicago area has a new best barbecue contender, which leads to this important question: Who is Mel?
While this is Mel Thillens’ first restaurant, his passion for barbecue started decades ago. “I like to throw big parties,” Thillens said. “The first time I tried to make barbecue 20 years ago, I threw a couple of pork butts in a friend’s smoker so I could feed 100 people. I can’t say it was the best pulled pork, but it inspired me to keep going.” Over the years, he kept honing his craft, continued to host huge parties and eventually picked up some catering business.
He also spent a lot of time traveling around eating barbecue, particularly in central Texas. He made pilgrimages to some of the state’s most respected spots, including Snow’s BBQ, Franklin Barbecue and Truth Barbeque. “The barbecue people are really cool,” Thillens said. “They will tell you everything because it’s not about secrets. It’s about paying attention and caring about each piece of meat.”
Owner Mel Thillens prepares a platter of meats at Mel’s Craft BBQ Aug. 4, 2022, in Park Ridge. (John J. Kim / Chicago Tribune)
When not smoking meat, Thillens worked for his family’s armored truck business, Thillens Inc. But like many people, the pandemic made him reassess what he wanted to do.
The result is Mel’s Craft BBQ, located in Park Ridge, just beyond Chicago’s northwest border. The enormous operation features two seating areas and a huge bar, not to mention a sizable front patio.
You order in the back, where someone will slice all the barbecue right in front of you. Once you pay, you’ll take your tray and find a seat, though if you can’t carry the tray, the staff is more than willing to help. (After a minor calf injury, I had to use crutches for a couple of weeks, and someone brought my tray to my table without even asking.)
Thillens uses a rotisserie-style smoker from M&M BBQ Company, which runs exclusively on post oak. “There’s no gas or electric used to cook the meat,” Thillens said. (Electricity is used to spin the rotisserie, but the only heat comes from the wood.) “The real trick is with the wood. You can screw things up by smoldering a fire that’s not clean. I don’t want a dirty smoke flavor.”
Using only wood also means constant monitoring. “I’m always watching the thermometer in the smoker,” Thillens said. “We actually have timers set to keep reminding us.”
I admire the focus at Mel’s. The barbecue menu is purposefully short, with the regular menu listing only brisket, turkey, pulled pork and baby back ribs, each available by the half-pound. “I didn’t want too broad of a menu at first,” Thillens said. “I do have a lot of fun with the specials, and eventually I’d like to have a rotating special of the day. But I want to nail these first.”
Baby back ribs are one of the meats offered at Mel’s Craft BBQ. (John J. Kim / Chicago Tribune)
The brisket starts out at 220 degrees, where it stays for hours until Thillens is happy with the exterior crust, or bark. Then it’s wrapped in butcher paper, and the heat is increased to 275 degrees.
“I realized that the flat (of the brisket) gets dried out with too much time,” Thillens said. “Of course, I might change. I’m always trying to get better.” It’s hard to think that brisket could get much better than this. Along with the version served at Soul & Smoke, this is one of the finest briskets in the state.
Review: Soul & Smoke deserves to join the ranks of the Chicago area’s best barbecue ]
The pulled pork is also top-notch. Thillens starts with Berkshire pork from Kilgus Farmstead in Fairbury, Illinois. “Commodity pork is cheaper, but I like working with the local guy,” Thillens said. Instead of mushy and bland, the tender strands of meat taste deeply porky. Of course, it helps that it’s topped with crispy chicharrones, lending another layer of fatty porkiness to each bite.
Instead of offering chicken, Thillens serves turkey breast, a notoriously lean cut that takes real skill to get right. He starts by brining the meat in-house, before carefully smoking it. “You have to pull those exactly when they are done,” Thillens said. “Leave them for an extra 15 minutes, and they are dry.” The slices I tried were right on target, tender and still juicy, with a lovely background of smoke.
“Ho-Ka” turkey is one of the meats offered at Mel’s Craft BBQ. (John J. Kim / Chicago Tribune)
As you’d expect from an owner obsessed with Texas barbecue, the three sauces at Mel’s don’t hog the spotlight. “I do love barbecue sauce,” Thillens said, “but the first bite should be without any sauce. I like to pour a little bit on the side and dip the meat in.” Instead of overly sweet, all the sauces (Texas Twang, Sweet Mel’s and Mustard Gold) here are punchy, vinegary and not shy. Definitely sample, but use sparingly.
The shortlist of sides includes potato chips, which Mel’s fries in the kitchen and dusts with barbecue seasoning. The most interesting option is probably the sweet potato salad, spiked with chipotle. Right now, you can also find sliced watermelon, which tastes particularly excellent paired with all that fatty meat.
More essential are the pickles, which Mel offers for free. “You need pickles to help cut through the richness of the barbecue,” Thillens said. I couldn’t agree more. He offers three varieties — onion pickles, pickled jalapenos and bread-and-butter pickles — each made from scratch.
Mel’s looks mostly to Texas barbecue for inspiration, though a few nods to Chicago’s own scene exist. The sweet Mel’s sauce has a noticeable hit of clove, which Thillens said was inspired by eating often at Russell’s Barbecue in Elmwood Park.
He also decided to use baby back ribs instead of the larger spare ribs, because the former is more popular here. Hopefully, as the restaurant continues, Thillens continues to make Mel’s more local and less beholden to our southern neighbors.
Regardless, along with Evanston-based Soul & Smoke, Mel’s makes a good case that some of the best barbecue in Chicagoland is being made in the ’burbs.
nkindelsperger@chicagotribune.com
24 Main St., Park Ridge
224-985-3461
melsbbq.com
Tribune rating: Between very good and excellent, 2½ stars
Open: Wednesday, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.; Thursday to Saturday, 11 a.m. to 1 a.m.; Sunday, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Closed Monday and Tuesday.
Prices: Sides, $5 to $9; mains, $10 to $14
Noise: Conversation friendly
Accessibility: Wheelchair accessible and bathrooms on first floor
Ratings key: Four stars, outstanding; three stars, excellent; two stars, very good; one star, good; no stars, unsatisfactory. Meals are paid for by the Tribune.
Copyright © 2022, Chicago Tribune
Copyright © 2022, Chicago Tribune

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