Like a good mullet, the party of Bowlegged BBQ is in the back. The front is functional stucco with a barred screen door. It’s either a shame the front doesn’t speak to the sheer joy inside, or it’s a blessing because the people who know get to keep this secret for themselves.
One step inside and you get it—the pop, the visual confetti, the unrelenting stimuli. An oil painting of a man with a guitar abuts one of a man blowing a trumpet, photos upon photos of famed and lesser-known Black musicians. Two foot-tall figurines play brass instruments atop the cooler full of waters and Shastas and Gatorades. Gigantic basketball shoes hang near the back door. Not sure if they’re Shaquille O’Neal’s or not, but anyone with feet that big definitely has a sports drink named after them. Every inch of this place is an homage to some great player or cultural force. It’s hoarding as a joyful creative impulse.
Music thumps and screams out back on the patio. A single, muscular music machine, blinking various colored lights to the beat, absolutely blares Jackson 5, Heavy D, old soul and R&B and rap and hip-hop. It’s 6 p.m. on a Wednesday, dark and a little cold outside. But crackling embers and woodsmoke from a few fire pits warms the whole place and backyard lights set the mood.
This is what the backyard of a barbecue joint should look like—long picnic tables made of whatever material school cafeteria tables are, two gazebos the sort you can buy at Home Depot and assemble if you’ve got cold beer to offer a few handy friends, art painted by locals (you can tell because some is half-finished on a table), a full camper trailer I’d like to live in for a while.
I don’t want elevated design with my barbecue; I sure don’t want a plant wall. I prefer that “lawn chairs and brisket” aesthetic, like I’m borrowing fresh air outside someone’s home. Bowlegged is nicer than that, like the yard of a friend who owns a hammer or two and tends to entertain everyone on the block. Seven or eight men sit at a table under a gazebo, holding court. No one else is here. Feels like we walked in on a family gathering. Turns out we have.
“How you guys doing?” says a man walking over, huge smile, arms out for the welcome, a little bowlegged. I note this only because I’ve read about him—Ken Stance, proudly bowlegged (it’s listed as his middle name on the website), and the restaurant’s namesake.
“Get you a drink?” he asks. A minute later, he returns with two ice cold drinks. He explains his family’s lived in this part of town, Oak Park, for generations. He owned this corner lot at Market and Toyne Streets and wasn’t sure what to do with it. When his sister, Maria J Reese, retired from the educational system, she convinced him to turn it into a restaurant. She’d cook all the sides, he’d just need to handle the meat.
“I didn’t know a thing about barbecue, but I said, ‘Well, why not? Give me a couple months.’ I ruined so much good meat.” He laughs.
That was 2017, and now he’s figured it out. The pork ribs are especially tender and juicy, and the sauce on both that and the brisket is the sort of thing that would make computer paper taste good. We dig through the sides—dirty rice with what seems to have a great little whiff of oregano, cheesy mac ’n’ cheese, sweet greens, creamy black-eyed peas, savory cornbread. Business has been brisk, Stance says, even better during the shutdown (barbecue by the pound is a great model for takeout, since it’s always been the thing you bring to a picnic or outdoor get-together anyhow). They’re looking at opening a second location.
I tell him how much I love this back patio and how I might just squat here for a while if that’s okay. “You should see it on weekends; it’s packed,” he says, giving the obligatory clarification that it’s done safely spaced. “People out here playing dominos and cards. It’s a good time.”
Halfway through our meal his brother, Carlos Stance, checks in on us, all smiles. We gather our leftover brisket and walk out that door. I look back at that unflashy front of Bowlegged and head home to spill its secret a little more.
4255 Market Street, Oak Park