Q&A with Mel Thillens about his Mel’s Craft BBQ opening this spring on Main Street, learning from the best in Texas, and a love for showing people a good time
By Trent Modglin
Q: Tell us about the inspiration behind Mel’s Craft BBQ.
A: Nothing makes me happier than showing people a good time. I’ve been watching people smile after that first bite at my annual Memorial Day BBQ. I love sharing a great bourbon, or just enjoying a conversation with friends over a bucket of beers. This place is going to let me share these things with my community every day.
Q: Lots of progress has been made with the buildout this fall and winter. How are you handling the anticipation surrounding the opening?
A: I gotta tell you, this is the most exciting and nerve wracking thing I’ve ever done. Between supply-chain issues and difficulty getting the people I needed to get the place built quickly, it’s been tough. But I see the light at the end of the tunnel. We’re getting real close. Now it’s just fine tuning and details. I can’t wait to get open.
Great BBQ isn’t really about secret recipes or sauces or rubs. It’s about putting in the time and really caring about each piece of meat.
Q: How much fun have you had on your BBQ research trips to Texas and other states?
A: They are killing it with BBQ in Texas. I’ve been down three times in the last year, and I met dozens of great BBQ folks, from Tootzie Tomanetz at Snow’s to the folks at Truth and Leroy and Lewis, to all the pitmasters and bartenders at Pinkerton’s to Wayne at Louie Mueller, and a lot more.
I spent hours and hours chatting with these folks who’ve been perfecting BBQ. They love to share because great BBQ isn’t really about secret recipes or sauces or rubs. It’s about putting in the time and really caring about each piece of meat. They’ll show you all their tricks, and then they’re like, “Now go give it a shot. If you can pull it off, more power to you!”
We need to make sure everyone walks out saying, “That was awesome.” The food, the vibe, the drinks. It’s all about letting people just enjoy life.
Q: What should future customers expect when they walk in the door?
A: Fun. We need to make sure everyone walks out saying, “That was awesome.” The food, the vibe, the drinks. It’s all about letting people just enjoy life.
It’ll also be a bit different than most of the places in town. At pretty much every great BBQ joint in the world, you get your food in line at the counter, and that’s what we’ll do too. BBQ tastes best when you eat it right after it’s sliced. The same people who cooked the food will help you customize your tray. They‘ll answer questions about the way we do things and any specials we have going. Kinda like Manny’s Deli in the city.
There will be a full bar where you can hang out, and we will have runners to help you grab anything you forgot — or to get you a second beverage if you’re ready — without getting back in line. The food will be high quality, and it will bring the real BBQ experience to Park Ridge.
Q: What is one dish, in particular, that has you excited about sharing?
A: The pulled pork. We are getting Berkshire hogs from Kilgus Farms in Fairbury, Illinois. Justin Kilgus really knows how to run a farm with non-GMO feed and space for the animals, and the pork tastes fantastic. You need to get great products and treat them perfectly. I know the prime beef brisket will turn heads, but don’t sleep on the pork.
Q: Finish this sentence: I’m confident that Mel’s Craft BBQ will…
A: Be where I spend every waking hour for the foreseeable future. Hahaha. But honestly, while it’ll be hard work, I can’t wait to give everything I have for this. That should translate to some good times and great food, and that’s what it’s all about.
Mel’s Craft BBQ is slated to open this spring at 24 Main Street in Park Ridge. Visit MelsBBQ.com for updates.