There’s something good wafting through the air near Machesney Park Mall. Discover a new place that started with a sauce and a food truck that become a popular attraction.
That smoke wafting into the air near Machesney Park Mall signals some serious Southern cooking going on at Big Papa’s Barbecue, 8660 N. Second St.
The menu features ribs, brisket, sandwiches that defy words … and locally invented JK Marley’s sauces: Original, Sweet Heaven, Fire Inside and the new Holy Chipotle.
The restaurant opened in June 2012, and in November went to full-service for dinner, including beer, wine and spirits. Counter service is always available for lunch and takeout.
Big Papa’s Barbecue isn’t new to fans of Southern fare. Jamie Farley and Kimberly Anderson-Farley created JK Marley’s sauces and have been distributing them nationally for almost a decade. When the sauce took off, they opened a food-truck business.
“We were doing fairs and festivals and people were always freaking out, saying, ‘I can’t believe you don’t have a restaurant,” says Anderson-Farley. “This food is amazing.’”
In 2009, they stuck a toe in the water by setting up a food truck at North Second Street and Harlem Road, just to see what would happen. Customers flocked to it, but kept asking about an indoor location. Investors from Chicago even asked about creating a franchise.
Meanwhile, Machesney Park had begun upgrading North Second Street between Harlem Road and Illinois 173. That includes plans for small retailers in front of Machesney Park Mall, with an eye toward attracting bigger ones. When the former Tom & Jerry’s restaurant building in front of the mall became available, Anderson-Farley, along with a silent partner, jumped at the opportunity.
“I graduated from Harlem High School,” she says. “I was at the grand opening for that mall when I was 9. My first jobs out of high school were in that mall. So for us to be at the forefront of the resurrection of this corridor – It’s really kind of cool.”
The new restaurant’s feel could be described as rustic casual: picnic tables, some with checkerboards on them. A front room, also used for banquets, features antiques from Kentucky that include church pews pulled up to a 10-foot farmhouse table. It’s designed to feel like family dinner on the farm, where people can enjoy the meal and linger around the tables.
Thursday is Family Music Night. Jim Sieg, “The Last of the One-Man Bands,” plays from 5 to 9 p.m., and even brings kids up and lets them play some of the instruments.
But the food is the main event, of course.
Anderson-Farley is hard-pressed to name her favorite menu item, though she does mention the loaded pork belly and the fried pickles. “There’s nothing on the menu that I don’t like, but obviously the ribs are the star of the show.”
One specialty sandwich on the menu usually raises eyebrows. It’s the Parkansas Special – a chicken breast topped with pulled pork, cole slaw and sauce – a wink to a not-always complimentary term describing Machesney Park.
Anderson-Farley laughs and explains: “I told people what I was going to call it and they said, ‘You can’t call it that.’ But my roots are from Arkansas. It’s authentic.”
Bonnie Dahlberg of Loves Park says she’s been introducing friends to Big Papa’s on a regular basis. On this day she’s finishing a late lunch with Lynn Rodé of Rockford and Mary Lynn O’Leary of Poplar Grove.
“I love the Red Neck ’Hattan,” Dahlberg says. That’s turkey, pork or brisket on Texas toast, topped with garlic mashed potatoes and sauce. “It’s comfort food.”
Anderson-Farley overhears, and asks if they’ve tried the Brunswick stew. It’s a concoction that includes – but isn’t limited to – pulled pork, lima beans and Tabasco sauce. No one has, so she brings out a tray of samples.
That’s not an unusual scene here, and it’s one Anderson-Farley envisioned when dreaming of owning a restaurant. She knows many of her customers on a first-name basis.
“No matter how busy we get, we make it a point to go over to say hello to people,” she says. “That’s really what gets us excited. Some Saturday nights, that’s all I do, go from table to table hanging out with my customers.”