Big Things in Store at Smalls

A new "smoke shack" named Smalls is heating up Irving Park. From the folks behind the Brown Bag Lunch Truck, Smalls is an American barbecue joint with a few Asian tricks. When chef/owner Joaquin Soler started his food truck two years ago, he had always planned to either open a brick-and-mortar restaurant or a food truck commissary. At the time, he says, there was not enough excitement around food trucks in Chicago, so he began working towards a restaurant. Partnered with Dan Scesnewicz, a hospitality industry veteran, they set out to elaborate on their food truck offerings, honing in on barbecue and outfitting it with breakfast, fried chicken, rice bowls, and cultishly adored sides such as coconut mashed potatoes. Their space in Irving Park may be small, but their cup runneth over with flavor.

The Brown Bag Lunch Truck-turned-Smalls is best known for barbecue, particularly their cherrywood pulled pork and hickory-smoked brisket. The barbecue inspiration came about when Soler traveled to Austin to check out the food truck scene. He had previously worked in kitchens such as Rambutan, a modern Filipino spot in Wicker Park, Obha, the precursor to Japonais, and as an instructor at The Chopping Block. He also worked in food service for Chicago Public Schools, but left to get back into cooking. Cue Austin. Upon visiting the nationally revered Franklin Barbecue, he was bit by the barbecue bug, and figured it would fit really well with the food truck concept. By marrying barbecue with the burgeoning food truck trend in Chicago and his culinary background (it's a polyamorous marriage), Soler was poised to bring something special to Chicago.


Soler met Scesnewicz when they were both working at Rambutan. They both initially talked about opening something together when the restaurant shuttered in 2002, but it wasn't meant to be quite yet. Scesnewicz spent time in Florida, part of it as a partner at Flemings Prime Steakhouse, but when he visited Chicago, the two friends would co-host dinner parties together at Soler's house. With Smalls, they both finally found the opportune time to officially join forces, with Soler in the kitchen and Scesnewicz doing everything else. As Scesnewicz describes their endeavor, they "wanted to make a cool neighborhood place with accessible, artisanal food."

Smalls is small. The bright blue building tucked off Irving Park Rd. sports stools for five to seven, while the tiny kitchen takes up most of the space. A menu dangles in front of the ordering window, boasting barbecue, buttermilk brined fried chicken, brisket bibimbap, house cut fries, charred elotes, coconut mashed potatoes, and more. Reclaimed wood from ancestral homes in Soler's homeland of the Philippines comprise decorative frames. Having done about a dozen doughnut pop-ups in the space, Soler and Scesnewicz knew people would come for good food, and the place had potential. "It affords us the opportunity to be creative again," says Soler of having a brick-and-mortar, wherein food trucks in Chicago wouldn't allow cooking. Some of that creativity is in their breakfast and their planned weekend brunches. Having never done breakfast before, Smalls enables them to get crafty with the likes of biscuits and waffles. For brunch, since the space at Smalls is not conducive to the traditional brunch experience, they're collaborating with adjacent Lizard Lounge to serve brunch there.

Look for Smalls to open any day now, operating Tuesday through Friday from 8:00 a.m. until 8:00 p.m. Brunch will launch down the road on weekends from 8:00 a.m. until 2:00 p.m.