Earl Campbell was a bruising running back for the NFL’s Houston Oilers in the 1970s and ‘80s.
Because he knocked down what was in his path, one of Campbell’s nicknames was “the human wrecking ball.”
Along Wilmette Avenue Monday morning, April 5, a wall was already knocked down in anticipation of “Big Earl” coming on through.
In this case, Big Earl is a three-ton meat smoker delivered via forklift to new Wilmette restaurant Pit & Tap, which is set to open in early June.
“I have named the smoker ‘Big Earl’ because NFL hall of famer Earl Campbell was the biggest, baddest Houston Oiler of all time,” said Wilmette resident Michael Clarke, Pit & Tap owner.
Clake made the connection to Campbell because the smoker is the Oyler 1300 Model Barbecue Pit, from J & R Manufacturing out of Mesquite, Texas.
The pit was driven 1,000 miles to Wilmette on a flat-bed truck. A team of skilled workers then carefully maneuvered the smoker via forklift around downtown Wilmette construction and through the wide-open facade of 1168 Wilmette Ave., the former home of Nick’s Neighborhood Bar & Grill.
And even before all the activity Monday, Clarke’s crews had to reinforce the building’s floor and build a platform to hold the smoker, which is about 7 feet tall, 5.5 feet wide and 10 feet long.
Just two weeks prior to Big Earl’s arrival, Pit & Tap needed space to install a large steel beam for the project.
“We’ve spent weeks making sure this isn’t going to go through the floor when we put this in there,” Clarke said.
Big Earl can cook 1,800 pounds of meat simultaneously — that’s 368 slabs of baby-back ribs.
A longtime restaurant consultant, Clarke purchased Nick’s in October 2020 and has been building out his Texas-style barbecue concept since.
Similar to Nick’s, Pit & Tap is a community effort, as Clarke said more than 20 Wilmette families invested in the new restaurant.
“Additionally, everything from logo creation, merchandise, web/social designer to our insurance agent, attorney and accountant all live in Wilmette,” Clarke said. “ It has been my goal to get as many people from our community involved.”
Big Earl, though, is the piece de resistance.
Over the years, Clarke said he’s eaten at barbecue joints all over the country, and to him, the Oyler smoker, which is also used by beloved West Loop barbecue spot Green Street Smoked Meats, is a cut above.
“Some (smokers) are especially great for ribs, some are especially great for longer cooks, but for an all-wood-burning smoker, this puts out the best quality for all barbecue,” he said. “ … It fit everything I was looking for:the size, the show of it and most importantly the quality of the product.”
With Big Earl firmly in place, Clarke and his team can build around it with a full-service restaurant focusing on “the big four”: brisket, ribs, pulled pork and pulled chicken. Specials like burnt ends will also make the rotation.
With plenty left to do, such as install the retractable floor-to-ceiling front windows, Clarke is still hoping for an early-June opening.