When you find The Wolfhound, nestled next door to Bucket O ‘Blood and overlooking Michelle’s Ballroom, the banquet hall in the old bank building across the street, you’ll likely join a few regulars pulled up at the bar.
They may chat through pints of Guinness, or Jameson cocktails, over music. One might read, perhaps a book from the Bucket, looking up only for a bowl of potato leek soup. Big screens play different games simultaneously.
A wall-mounted fireplace keeps the nook near the glass garage door front cozy. The design choices hint at owner Brendan Byrne’s other life as a full-time firefighter.
“I’ve had a long time to experience the kitchen in the firehouse,” Byrne said. He’s been with the Chicago Fire Department for nearly 14 years. His firehouse in Bucktown is known colloquially as Truck 28. “Every meal is home cooking for a large group of people.”
He opened his Irish-inspired pub a few months ago in the Avondale neighborhood. He had planned to open by St. Patrick’s Day – two years ago. The pandemic delayed those plans.
What you won’t find is corned beef, with or without cabbage, or stacked sky high in sandwiches.
“We’re spoiled for choices in the city,” Byrne said. “And it’s become a staple Irish American dish. But if you go to Ireland, corned beef is not on the menu; it’s like an unheard-of thing. “
He does understand the importance of Irish American culture too.
“Because that’s its own identity as well,” Byrne said. “If the gateway has to be a corned beef sandwich, I can understand the value. It may be something we bring out in the future too. I wouldn’t be against it, but I think there are other culinary elements of Irish cuisine. “
The son of Irish immigrants offers instead a playful and personal menu, which may surprise a city with unique Irish Chicagoan traditions, like dyeing the river green.
The pizza ($ 18 for a 14-inch cheese) is not Chicago-style tavern or deep-dish. It’s an impressive Neapolitan-influenced pie with a crackly, puffy-edged crust, but golden underneath. Toppings range from an aggressively fennel-spiced sausage ($ 1.50) to beautifully charred chunks of black-and-white pudding ($ 2.50 each).
“I know sometimes it’s a bit of a shock,” Byrne said. “People say, ‘White pudding and black pudding on pizza?’ But they’re just a variety of sausage. They’re breakfast meat. You’re working with a blood sausage, or in the case of the white pudding, more the grain in it. “
He worked on The Wolfhound’s pizza style with general manager Heron Rivera from the earliest days of the pandemic. They tested about 50 different dough recipes. They also drove to Detroit to pick up a pizza oven, due to a shortage of restaurant equipment.
“There was no ideal pizza that we were trying to emulate,” Byrne said. “It was more, this is what we want as a great pizza. I wanted an inch-and-a-half crust on the outside that bubbles up, with a nice airy bite into it – a bit of that Neapolitan feel to it, but not as thin. “
He did not want a cracker crust.
“We wanted a hearty-style crust, and not too sweet of a sauce,” Byrne said. “You’ve got the little crackle on the crust, and the bottom has the right amount of hold and lift to keep the toppings we wanted on.”
The Full Irish ($ 18) – breakfast for dinner with bangers (sausages), rashers (bacon), black pudding, white pudding and more – evokes pure joy. House-made crunchy hash browns and silky baked beans complete the platter with fried eggs and sauteed mushrooms, but the winter tomatoes could have spent more time on the grill. They bake the delicately sweet brown bread in house, from a recipe by Byrne’s mother, Dolores Byrne.
“My mom is a lifelong baker and cook,” said her son.
She owns Galway Bakers, a wholesale bakery in Chicago, which makes Irish goods for Irish fests and restaurants. They’ve offered more of her baked goods during breakfast and brunch test runs, around international rugby games. Let’s hope they consider making a full Irish breakfast pizza.
A braised pork shoulder dish ($ 19) stars 8 ounces of Berkshire, with smashed fingerling potatoes, sauteed broccoli and apple cider gravy.
Byrne credits chef Tim Reynolds, who ran his own catering business for many years, for his skill executing the menu and this dish in particular. It deftly defies expectations of an Irish stew with fork tender meat.
Sandwiches include sides of fantastic fresh-cut fries or a bountiful mixed greens salad, with seasonal Werp Farms lettuce and watermelon radish.
The griddle burger ($ 15), a double cheeseburger with La Pryor beef patties, aged white cheddar and terrific orange-caramelized onions, was curiously cooked well-done by default. I’m not a rare meat snob, and the thick patties remained juicy, but do remember to request your desired doneness.
A fried chicken sandwich ($ 15), with Cooks Venture pasture-raised, buttermilk-brined breast, features an unusual provolone frico. The smoky cheese, delicious on its own, overwhelmed the flavor of the fried bird.
Vegan potato leek soup ($ 7) was in fact flavorful, but a bit thin, nearly indistinguishable from the gravy. Vegetarian butternut squash ravioli ($ 16) with nice handmade pasta unfortunately may have been the biggest disappointment, with scant squash puree.
The cocktail menu listed a Strawberry Blossom ($ 13) on a previous menu, a lovely subtle surprise mixed with sake. The Counselor ($ 13), delightfully, deeply smoky with Jameson Black Barrel Irish whiskey, crème de banane liqueur and cherry bark vanilla bitters, just begs for a good dessert.
In time, I expect The Wolfhound will add a dessert, Irish or not, worthy of the rest of the promising menu.
“I’m very much trying to avoid the Plastic Paddy, which is just very stereotypical Irish,” said Byrne. “You’d have green beer, corned beef sandwiches, where you’re just checking an Irish box and not actually doing Irish food, or doing things that are representative of Irish culture.”
You might be wondering how he’s handling the added self-imposed pressure, on top of working as a first responder and opening a restaurant during the pandemic.
“How’s the mental health?” Byrne asked. “I love my job as a firefighter. Helping people is genuinely something I enjoy. Whether it’s EMS calls, or car accidents, pin-ins, fires, the whole suite, we respond to everything.
“That really helps keep me grounded and adds perspective to my life,” he added. “Because you can see the spectrum of other people’s lives.
“And having a support system here, having my parents and sisters around to help me out, even just bouncing ideas, is huge.”
He also plays fiddle with an Irish band, the Chancey Brothers, which has performed near that fireplace in front.
“It’s hard not to stereotype,” Byrne said, laughing. “I’m an Irish firefighter, playing the fiddle, owning a bar in Chicago. Sometimes the more I hear it out loud, the more I realize that jeez, I am a walking stereotype. “
The Wolfhound Bar and Kitchen
3188 N. Elston Ave.
Open: Tuesday to Saturday, 4 pm to midnight
Prices: $ 7 (potato leek soup) to $ 20 (pan-seared French chicken breast)
Accessibility: Wheelchair accessible with restrooms on single level
Tribune rating: Two stars, very good
Ratings key: Four stars, outstanding; three stars, excellent; two stars, very good; one star, good; no stars, unsatisfactory. Meals are paid for by the Tribune.