South Bound

August 2022 View more

By Phil Vettel

Picking the best barbecue spot is akin to choosing the best religion—you’re in for a heated argument no matter what you decide. But if you tried, Chuck’s Southern Comforts Cafe would have more than its share of adherents. The Darien restaurant has several hundred indoor seats, a beautiful outdoor patio, and a large banquet hall. And Chuck Pine’s barbecue mastery draws fans to all of them.

Pine’s route to barbecue was, to say the least, a circuitous one. He and his brother followed their father in the video business, owning and operating the legendary 79th Street Video for two decades. It was very successful financially, but Pine said he felt drawn to the restaurant business. “My original thought was to open a Maxwell Street pork chop kind of place,” Pine says. “But the plan was bad, my architect was an idiot—it was a train wreck—so I decided to go to chef school and really learn what I was doing.”

Next stop: Joliet Junior College, where Pine enrolled in the culinary arts program. “Right out of college,” he says, “I got my first job with Rick Bayless at Topolobampo. It was pretty sweet. I was making appetizers, working on the line, and I worked brunch service at Frontera Grill. When you’re actually making everything, instead of just dishing food out, you learn a ton.”

After deciding that barbecue was his future, Pine started working on recipes—testing some of them out on Rick and wife Deann Bayless—then took to the road visiting other noteworthy barbecue restaurants. “I hit 27 barbecue places, in 13 states, in 10 days,” he said. “It was crazy.”

The first Chuck’s Southern debuted in Burbank in 1998. “I opened as a small space and kept getting bigger,” he says. “Eventually, I moved into a large space in Burbank, going from 87 seats to 300. Eight or nine years ago, I opened in Darien.” (The Burbank location remains open.)

Pine has expanded his menu to embrace all the barbecue classics. Barbecued ribs are a strength, rich with smoke flavor and tender enough to pull gently (but not too gently) from the bone. Pulled pork and pulled chicken are very good and play well with Chuck’s hot, mild, and honey-chipotle sauces, along with the nonstandard North Carolina, hot Buffalo, and Korean sauces.

Among appetizers and sides, the mac and cheese is decent, and the spicy Cajun green beans have a nice kick. Cajun barbecued shrimp are hefty and as spicy as you’d expect (but not overwhelming). Salads are very good, especially the cucumber, watermelon, and feta salad that’s an occasional featured special. The must-have addition is the jalapeño-cheddar cornbread muffins, accompanied by honey butter.

But brisket is where Chuck’s Southern really shines. The thick-sliced meat is juicy, smoky, and just about everything you’d want in a brisket. If you sample only one thing at Chuck’s, make it the briscuit. It’s the star.

There are plenty of other options, too. Pine’s love for New Orleans cooking shows up in menu items such as jambalaya, étouffée (chicken and shrimp versions available), and pasta with Cajun shrimp. The pork tenderloin with red mole sauce is a nod to Pine’s work at Topolobampo.

Lighter eaters can get sandwich versions of brisket, pulled pork, and pulled chicken (good options, especially at lunch), and there are a few burgers on the menu.

Pine is especially proud of his farm-to-table ethos, the farm being Pine’s personal plots of tomatoes, peppers, zucchini, squash, cucumbers, and root vegetables. “I grow about 1,000 plants,” he says, the products of which make their way into Pine’s kitchen.

The dining room and adjacent bar are dimly lit, decorated with New Orleans fleur-de-lis symbols and French art (dining room) and TV screens and hundreds of ceiling-hung tap handles (bar). By contrast, the outdoor patio is drenched in sunlight (thus the umbrella-topped tables). The Chateau Orleans is the facility’s banquet space, though it’s also used for Pine’s occasional “Dinner With Chuck” events, a single seating featuring, in Pine’s words, “a bunch of ’cue with all the sides” served direct from the smoker. “It’s all as fresh as you can get,” he says. “I think my food is so good when it’s no more than 10 minutes old.”

That said, Chuck’s Southern does carryout about as well as any operation. Accelerated during the COVID crisis in 2020 and 2021, Chuck’s system allows patrons to order online, drive up to the designated carryout spaces by the porte-cochère (which is also the banquet entrance), and have the food brought directly to the car. I tried it twice, and the experience was seamless both times. I especially liked the ability to decline disposable cutlery and napkins (like me, you probably have plenty at home) and bread and butter (definitely unnecessary if you’re getting the cornbread, as you should) when ordering.

Breakfast is one of Chuck’s lesser-known treats. Available Saturdays and Sundays, the menu features four kinds of French toast; more than a dozen omelets and skillet dishes; an assortment of pancakes, waffles, and crepes; plus specialties like Cajun eggs Benedict (made with andouille sausage) and Huevos à la Frontera—yet another hat tip to you-know-who. 

Photos courtesy of Tim Keenan