Sometime in 2019, we were driving along North Avenue and spotted a new barbecue place, Lexington Betty Smokehouse. Interesting name. We U-turned, stopped in and were impressed not only with the barbecue but with the energy and intensity of pitmistress Dominique Leach, who told us that she was opening a second location in Pullman. This is a woman with big plans; along with her wife, Tanisha Griffin Leach, she was moving fast to make them a reality.
Then… The location on North Avenue closed.
“I never would have considered closing our North Avenue location; that was our flagship,” Dominique told us recently. “But we came in one day to a broken pipe and a broken water heater. It was a disaster. Our landlord said she had no more money to fix the problem.” So Dominique and Tanisha focused on their location in Pullman, where they joined other entrepreneurs setting up businesses in One Eleven Food Hall.
Then… The other restaurant-residents of One Eleven Food Hall packed up and left. This may have been a good thing, as it gave Lexington Betty Smokehouse room to expand. Both Dominique and Tanisha have a lot of drive; they’re always moving on to something new and overcoming challenges, some inevitable, others unexpected—like when someone tossed a Molotov cocktail into their food truck, destroying it. They have a shiny new food truck now.
Catering is the Backbone
Seizing the opportunity, the Leaches moved into the entire space at One Eleven Food Hall, which gave them the room they needed to make it their home base, not only for their restaurant but for their growing and formidable catering operation.
“Catering is the backbone of my business,” Dominique tells us. “We started off as a catering company, and then we got the food truck. With Lexington Betty, I was able to use my catering experience to serve corporate customers who needed mass production. Now, for instance, we cater to two hospitals every other Monday and Tuesday, and that’s a way to keep our revenue in a safe place; we don’t have to shed a tear on those frigid, freezing Chicago days when customers may not be coming in. Catering gets us through those times.”
At the now-shuttered Spiaggia, working with Tony Mantuano and pre-Monteverde Sarah Grueneberg, Dominique handled catering, where she learned a lot more than mass-producing food. “The part of Spiaggia that I still carry with me every day is the type of drive that I had while I was there. There was a hunger to be one of the best. To be there, you had to perform at a higher level. I feel so fortunate to have spent time at Spiaggia; it was a turning point for my career.”
For Chicago Barbecue, It’s the Rib Tips
I was curious to learn if Dominique was inspired to become a pitmaster because of local barbecue stars like the men at Honey 1 BBQ, Uncle John’s and Lem’s, and she recollected that she first became interested in barbecue at a relative’s place. “Well, the restaurant isn’t open anymore, but my grandmother’s niece Rose used to own Rose’s Barbecue. I remember the food being different from anything I recognized eating: Rose’s was on the South Side, and I grew up in the Humboldt Park neighborhood.
“Rose’s Barbecue was my introduction to what is now looked upon as Chicago-style barbecue. I don’t think that conversation was happening as much before now, because nobody thought of Chicago as a barbecue place. I’ve given Lexington Betty Smokehouse the responsibility of defining Chicago. It’s our responsibility to say ‘Hey, this is what Chicago style barbecue stands for.’ It’s the Chicago culture, Southern culture. It’s the rib tips. Mainly, you know, that’s where it kind of starts for me when I think of the influence Rose’s Barbecue had on me: it’s the rib tips.”
We recently stopped by Lexington Betty for lunch, and we had some very meaty rib tips, lush with fat (but not too much), glistening little morsels of deliciousness. We ate more than we should have, which is, believe it or not, unusual for us, but the rib tips were that good. (Note on ordering: at Lexington Betty, tips are served sauced; if you’re one of those purists—as I used to be—who prefer barbecue without sauce, make sure to ask them to serve the sauce on the side).
Breaking into the Barbecue Boys’ Club
In the world of barbecue pitmasters, it’s mostly men manning the smokers. “A lot of the pitmaster guys here in Chicago,” says Dominique, “do seem to have a lot of respect for me, but I have to be honest, recently someone got a few big names together in the city for a barbecue class, and it was only men in it, you know? A lot of people are still not willing to let you into the culture because they’re intimidated by a woman maybe being better than them.
“Last summer, the big Windy City Smokeout was held at United Center. Eater Chicago reached out to me and said, ‘How could they hold a barbecue fest in Chicago and not include Lexington Betty?’ I took that personal because, you know, that’s an invite kind of fest, and maybe I wasn’t in the network of whoever was doing the planning. I just do my best to continue to shine and say, ‘They missed me this year; maybe they’ll see me next year.’ But also, you know, there are other opportunities.”
A Casing-Free Wagyu Hot Dog… With Snap
Retail is the next business frontier, the next opportunity for Dominique and Tanisha, and they’re moving beyond the barbecue pit with Wagyu hot dogs. The meat used for these hot dogs is F1 crossbred Wagyu, meaning it’s half Wagyu and half Black Angus, Holstein and Friesian. “The unique sweetness from the dairy cows with the fat content that comes from Wagyu,” says Dominique, “it’s just this match made in heaven. Because let me tell you, there’s not a whole lot of ingredients in the hot dog itself, and there’s no casing on the hot dog.”
Whoa, what? No casing? Hot dog aficionados traditionally value the snap provided by the casing on a hot dog. How can you achieve the snap without the casing?
“The sweetness from the dairy cows gives us some caramelization on the surface of the hot dogs, and that’s what provides the snap that we’re looking for. This is a wonderful product.”
How wonderful? Well, Mariano’s is putting Lexington Betty’s Wagyu hot dogs in forty-four locations, and they’re in discussions to get her sauce and brisket on the shelves as well. During the Super Bowl, Dominique’s Wagyu sausage will be featured in a Mariano’s ad, and advertising like that is not easy to come by, particularly for a growing business.
What’s It Like Working with Your Spouse?
“Ha, that’s the million-dollar question,” Dominique exclaims.
“Man, you know, Tanisha and I’ve been married for seven years. We’ve been together for twelve years. And so, I just don’t know what marriage looks like without owning a business together. That might be the difference because so many people are like, how can you work with your spouse? And don’t get me wrong, there are hard times. But the best part of this is like, she understands me, and I’m so determined and focused on my work. Sometimes I think I fall into this space where I’m kind of coming across as awkward to the rest of the world, or to people who don’t have that sort of drive that I have. Some of the conversations that I used to be just fine with having, you know, I’m not in the mood to have some of those conversations anymore. My focus is different than it used to be. And I do feel like it kind of has me in an awkward space amongst people that have been familiar with me.
“For example, we were out on New Year’s Day. We went to brunch, and then I was ready to go home, but we had plans to go to another gathering. And I was telling my wife, like, ‘Go ahead without me. I’m really tired. I’m just gonna go home.’ One of our mutual friends was like, ‘Why is she like that?’ And my wife, she stood up for me. She helps me to realize that it’s okay to be this food geek and to be so passionate about something that you eat, sleep and breathe. What else are we living for if we’re not living for what’s going to fulfill us in this life. She’s my reminder that, you know, it’s okay to look weird to other people.”
I asked Tanisha the same question and she says, “I’m an accountant and I keep the books. She’s got the business mind. We’re very complementary.”
The Importance of Grandmothers
Years ago, I wrote in Food Detective, my Sun-Times column, about how grandmothers have had a huge influence on many chefs. In the sixties, seventies and beyond, moms many times had a job (or two), so they relied on grandma to take care of the kids after school, maybe cook them dinner. For that and many other reasons, kids grow up close to their parents’ parents.
The Betty in Lexington Betty’s Smokehouse is Dominique’s grandmother, who, she tells us, “Was a complete blessing. She’s eighty-five now, and she’s still the life of the party, just spectacular. And I felt in my heart that it was really important to give my grandmother the respect and legacy she deserved. Because I feel like she’s raised all of her grandkids. Grandmothers, they love their grandkids.”
Her grandmother Betty King, Dominique says, “only stopped cooking about a year ago, when the doctor told us that she needed to be taken care of full-time. She did make some pies for Thanksgiving, and she wants to talk about pies every time I speak with her. When we talk today, we’re going to talk about those pies.
“She took care of her parents when they got sick, and all of her siblings: she’s a born nurturer. And I just wanted to show her how much she is appreciated and how much we appreciate the southern culture that she brought with her to make sure we had a bit of our culture.”
Dining and Drinking Editor for Newcity, David also writes a weekly food column for Wednesday Journal in Oak Park and is a frequent contributor of food/drink and travel pieces to the Chicago Tribune, Plate Magazine and other publications. David has also contributed chapters to several books, including Street Food Around the World, Street Food, and The Chicago Food Encyclopedia. Contact: email@example.com