Updated July 6, 2013
Ronnie Lottz is a gregarious guy. That’s probably one reason why he’s been a success at a number of (pre)occupations. He doesn’t let that cloud his business judgment, however: he insists on the best in whatever he’s involved in, be it custom auto art detailing, promotion, or tavernkeeping. His most recent preoccupation is running a craft beer and barbecue mecca in Berwyn, right on The Route.
We’re a little embarrassed to admit that we passed by Cigars and Stripes BBQ Lounge several times while traipsing up and down Ogden Avenue – mostly because from all outward appearances, the place looked like just another cigar bar, which would be outside our purview. It took a roundup episode of the best eateries of Ogden Avenue on the local TV show Chicago’s Best for us to learn otherwise. Ooops. But a visit last month provided us with a very tasty corrective.
The first thing you notice when you pull into the parking lot on the east side of the building is the open-sided tent in back. That’s where Ronnie keeps his big-ol’ smoker for barbecuing, along with big piles of choice wood. Ronnie, bless him, barbecues the authentic way: with bare wood (no bark) over lump charcoal. NO lighter fluid, thank you! So proud of him for that.
I got a good look at that setup last month when the three of us – Joe, Keith and I – dropped by to sample brew and ’cue, and I got there almost half an hour before the boys did. A genial host, Ronnie let me interview him about the establishment while the smoker produced the day’s first batch of his famous BBQ wings. He also makes – and sells – several varieties of hot sauce, but we’ll get to those treats in a moment.
The décor is a cross between a neighborhood Chicago tavern, a haven for neon and spooky paraphernalia, and a cigar store. That would be because the front end of the lounge is devoted to several glass counters full of choice stogies (not being a smoker myself, unless you mean BBQ, I’ll leave the review of that merchandise to someone else). The mid-section lounge area has a small stage for comedy acts and local blues and rock bands, which typically play on weekend nights. The bar’s neon-ringed walls incorporate a skull motif and compete for attention with a cool classic jukebox whose playlist veers from 1970s-80s rock to classic jazz singers (Sinatra, Ella, Tony Bennett, etc.), which was just fine with us. The neon ranges from pitches for various craft beers to Route 66-themed art. There’s also an outdoor seating-and-eating area in back, next to the smoker tent.
Usually ensconced in one corner of the lounge area is Ronnie’s mummy, Sweet Pea. Unfortunately, we missed Sweet Pea that day as it was off to a ‘mummy spa’ (taxidermist? embalmer??) having its periodic facelift. We don’t know if little Sweetie is an homage or not, but it’s definitely a reminder of local ghoul and TV show host The Great Svengoolie, best known for hosting late-night horror flicks, who so often has mentioned ‘beautiful downtown Berwyn’ in his spiel. Like Svengoolie, Sweet Pea definitely has its fans among the locals.
As if the food wouldn’t be excuse enough to drop by. Ha! Ronnie’s menu is short but choice. The aforesaid well-smoked BBQ wings are available at lunch and all afternoon, accompanied by garlic bread, some very tasty fresh corn salsa, and the lip-smacking, tongue-burning sauces. The hot sauces come in 1X, 2X, 3X and 4X, ranked according to degree of heat. The lowest-heat version, dubbed Sweet Pea’s own, is sweet-hot and enhanced with honey. You can eat the well-seasoned smoked chicken wings with any of the sauces, but after trying them all (and I’m a hot sauce fiend, normally), I went for Sweet Pea’s sauce. The 2X sauce, made in the smoker out back and simply called Smoker Sauce, tastes of cherries and habañero peppers; that would probably go great with the rib tips and ribs. The 3X, named Wing Sauce, is hotter than your typical Buffalo sauce and tastier, if you ask me, being well laced with cayenne, garlic and butter. I tried Ronnie’s extra-hot 4X Route 666 Sauce, as did Keith (Joe just called it ‘the devil’s own on Route 66’ and gave it a wide berth); we appreciated its balance of flavors and heat – but we found that the other sauces notwithstanding, Sweet Pea’s touch of honey best complements the smoke and seasonings of the BBQ wings. That might not be the case for Ronnie’s pulled pork or ribs; we’ll have to determine that on a future occasion. Ronnie did, however, present me with a token of his esteem in the form of a small individual-portion bottle of the Route 666 Sauce (oh, blush!), which I’ve dutifully put at the front of my own spice shelf. I’m saving it for my own next batch of baby backs, thank you (and no, you can’t bribe me for a good review with that; I’m just ornery that way).
Speaking of the chicken wings: they are indeed well seasoned and well smoked, tender and juicy. You get about half a dozen in an order, along with a wedge of lime to squeeze over the wings, the bread and corn salsa, plus your choice of bleu cheese dressing or ranch. Frankly, I didn’t need either dressing – the hot sauce was quite enough by itself. And for those who are designated drivers or just aren’t drinking the brew that night, I can personally testify that Ronnie’s mango nectar on the rocks with a lime wedge goes very well with the smoked wings. Ronnie also carries Sprecher’s Hard Root Beer, which is delightful when you want root beer with a little oomph, as well as a very nice Dry Raspberry Cider and Angry Orchard’s Elderflower Cider, which is both crisp and flowery.
The boys also sampled some of Ronnie’s choice craft beers, the full menu for which is on his website (make sure you scroll all the way down the page to find it), as is the entertainment schedule (Wednesdays are comedy nights at Cigars and Strips). I abstained form the brewskis, being a wino at heart. Joe, the beer connoisseur among us (hey, what do you expect – he’s half Czech), was particularly pleased with the Horny Goat Stacked Milk Stout, which comes bottled. Ronnie’s extensive beer menu describes Stacked as “a traditional-ingredient milk stout incorporating the use of milk sugar. Unlike Irish stouts that are bitter and dry, this stout will be creamy and smooth with a hint of sweetness and soft chocolatey roastyness, but not overwhelming” on the palate. Joe’s verdict: mellow, smooth, and creamy. If you like Guinness, give Horny Goat’s Stacked a try.
BTW, Ronnie sez he used to stock Lagunitas, too, and would happily stock it again … if it weren’t for the fact that his local distributor guy vanished on him. Hey, dudes at Lagunitas, listen up and visit Ronnie, because Lagunitas is coming to Chicago, right by Route 66 in Lawndale!! No excuses anymore, right?
The BBQ specials come out to play in the evening, when the crowd is bigger and the live entertainment is there, which sometimes includes local bands. Specials – strictly the chef’s choice of the day – might include rib tips, some beautiful ribs on the bone, or equally well-smoked pulled pork served in sandwiches. We won’t torture you with detailed descriptions of the specials; suffice it to say that you want to taste them, the rotating menu is also posted on Ronnie’s website, and it’s strictly fantasie du chef. Read it and weep, unless you expect to show up and eat (in which case, enjoy!).
Cigars and Stripes has been in Berwyn for more than a decade. Among Ronnie’s past careers was a stint as a wrestling manager and promoter for the tag team The Moondogs (this will no doubt mean more to pro wrestling and Lucha Libre fans than it did to me). Before that (or was it after?), he turned his talented hand to creating artistic vehicle detailing for custom and sports cars as well as hot rods and motorbikes, at one point working with another Route 66 original, the venerable Ogden Top and Trim further up the road. If you get the chance, say hi to Ronnie and have a chat – he’s a colorful, interesting and genial host and all-around good guy. I particularly approve of his motto: Drink Responsibly, Eat Recklessly. And like many other Ogden Avenue denizens, he’s a Route 66 fan, too.
We encourage you to discover Cigars and Stripes for yourselves. The wings alone are worth it. And it is ’cue season in Chicago. Enough said.
See you on the route,