Some people think of Jewish food and imagine matzo ball soup and chopped liver. Jeff Aeder thinks southern barbecue — sort of. Aeder, a real estate investor, is the founder of Milt’s Barbecue for the Perplexed, a kosher barbecue joint that opened at the end of January in Chicago’s Lakeview neighborhood. Named after his uncle Milt, with a tip of the hat to Maimonides’ “Guide for the Perplexed,” Milt’s was conceived to meet the needs of the neighborhood’s growing Jewish population. And he just really likes barbecue.
Chicago is home to a thriving local barbecue scene and, according to Aeder, “There’s no sacrifice you have to make to do kosher barbecue. Except, you know, pork.” The head chef keeps kosher, but the sous chefs have traditional barbecue backgrounds. For his first foray into the restaurant business, Aeder sent the chefs to sample dishes at his favorite restaurants across the city and says the “barbecue community” was extremely helpful as they did their preparatory research. “I didn’t want people to say this is good for a kosher restaurant,” says Aeder. The menu, which draws its influence from a variety of barbecue styles, features meats smoked in house — including spare ribs, chicken wings, and brisket, pulled barbecue chicken and smoked brisket sandwiches. The meals are rounded out with Southern classics like fried okra, cornbread, and a rotating selection of infused bourbons. Milt’s most unusual concoction, is the Milt Burger, a char burger with chopped brisket, chili, beef “bacon,” crispy onions, and barbecue aioli. All guests are served a plate of pickles and three homemade barbecue sauces — the vinegar-based house sauce, a Carolina-style sauce, and a Kansas City sauce.
Peppered with “V”s and “GF”s to indicate vegetarian (the menu features a smoked seitan sandwich among other vegetarian options) and gluten free items, the menu spotlights the restaurants’ other objective: inclusivity — something for meat eaters and vegetarians, for people who keep kosher and who don’t. As Aeder talked about Milt’s, I asked if his love of barbecue also came with a dose of southern hospitality. But he said it’s really a Jewish thing. “There is a Jewish requirement — hachnasat orchim, welcoming guests. I want everyone to feel comfortable. People from different worlds to meet each other and be comfortable with each other.”
At its core, the restaurant is about creating space for community — the website calls it “a community center without the pool.” Like any good community center, Milt’s hopes to attract people with more than a good meal, but unlike most restaurants, they’ve hired a full-time director of community programming and special events to pull it off. Since opening, the restaurant has hosted a screening of three Israeli short films and a late night megillah reading for Purim. In a few weeks, Milt’s will be sponsoring a talk by diplomat and author Dennis Ross. These events are supported by the restaurant’s philanthropic arm, the Jeffrey F. Kahan Memorial Fund. Because Aeder’s approach to Milt’s has been community-centered from the outset, he wanted to provide intellectual nourishment and support local organizations, too. Each month all profits from the restaurant will be donated through the Fund to a different charitable organization in Lakeview — in February it was a public school across the street and in March Milt’s will also host a coat drive for the month’s beneficiary, an organization that helps women who are homeless or at risk of homelessness.
Milt’s hasn’t done any publicity to get the word out, but it’s been packed ever since it opened. It might have something to do with the people walking by and asking themselves, “What is a barbecue for the perplexed?”