Smokin' good: Chefs open Humo Smokehouse in Lombard

With all their culinary cred, you might not expect to find Carolina Diaz and Cedric Harden this far from the world of tasting menus and pasta making.

Diaz created works of art on the plate at Terzo Piano, the Mediterranean-inspired restaurant in the Modern Wing of the Art Institute of Chicago. Harden was previously executive chef of River Roast and the steakhouse III Forks.

So when the couple planned to trade a food-obsessed metropolis for Lombard’s former Brauer House — a biker-friendly place that distinguished itself first as a rock and heavy metal music venue and then a restaurant, all under one roof — Diaz said the initial reaction from a lot of people was this: “‘What are you doing?’”

“We do food really well. We do entertaining really well,” Diaz said. “So why not? Why not do it at a larger scale?”

Get to know the chef team, who live in nearby Addison, and it’s not that surprising that they took over the Lombard establishment and turned it into Humo Smokehouse while keeping much of the same character.

“We've done corporate. We've done the big names, fine dining, which is really cool,” Diaz said. “But we decided to cook food that we love, in an atmosphere … with music.”

Balancing flavors

Diaz and Harden brought their skills, their smoker on wheels and their family recipes to Humo. When they were recently making their barbecue sauce in-house, Harden was struck by how much it reminded him of his childhood.

  Chef duo Carolina Diaz and Cedric Harden prepare nachos and brisket in their new restaurant, Humo Smokehouse, near Route 53 and North Avenue in Lombard. Joe Lewnard/

“The majority, probably 90%, of the things that we serve was made in the kitchen,” said Harden, who’s originally from Michigan. “This is kind of how we were brought up and in the culinary business in Chicago and from the people that taught us and we just want that to reflect here.”

Diaz, who grew up in a large Mexican family in Northlake, said the birria is her dad Salvador’s specialty, a recipe he spent years perfecting.

“Sundays are really special to us. We all gather at my parents’ house, and he would always have a pot,” she said.

Tacos are generously filled with caramelized, tender hunks of brisket, pulled pork, al pastor or birria. Humo’s brisket nachos are drizzled with Valentina crema and barbecue sauce. St. Louis-style pork ribs are treated to al pastor marinade in the “perfect marriage,” Diaz said, served with Texas toast and pickled cabbage.

“It’s food that we would feed our friends and family,” Diaz said.

  The Humo Smokehouse menu features al pastor St. Louis-style pork ribs. Appetizers include smoked wings and a sheet of meaty nachos. Joe Lewnard/

In 2018, Diaz became the first woman crowned Barilla’s “Master of Pasta” after competing against chefs from around the world in Milan, Italy. Michelin-starred judges picked her spaghetti al pomodoro as the winning dish. Though pasta isn’t on the Humo menu right now, Diaz hinted there “might be some inspired takes.”

“Our biggest motto or practice in the kitchen is balancing the flavors,” she said. “You're going to get salty and sweet and savory and acidic in one bite.”

‘The perfect spot’

When the Brauer House space became available, the scale of the operation “took our breath away,” Diaz said.

Large chandeliers hang over a bar. The walls of an arcade room display Bela Lugosi horror movie posters. The couple were already familiar with the live music venue — they’ve attended Brauer House concerts — and are now expanding the lineup and fan base. The balcony alone fits about 150 people.

“We want to still do the rock, still do the heavy metal, but we want to incorporate some Afrobeat, some Spanish rock, some Latin bands, some blues, authentic, real blues,” Diaz said.

Chiddy Bang, a rapper from Philadelphia, is slated to perform on March 22. The M-80s will play ‘80s night on March 2. The venue recently hosted a Grateful Dead tribute band. Touring groups like it because it’s close to the tollway near Route 53 and North Avenue.

“We just want to add some different shows here and there where everyone can come,” Harden said. “We want to make sure that everyone feels invited.”

  Wings are smoked, fried and sauced at Humo Smokehouse, a restaurant and live music venue in Lombard. Joe Lewnard/

The couple also plan to improve and open a back patio with a Fourth of July celebration. Diaz envisions patio patrons ordering food from a walk-up window, enjoying performers on a smaller, outdoor stage and then venturing back into the concert space.

“We didn’t think we’d land here, probably thought we’d land in a restaurant and do like a little bit upscale dining,” Diaz said of their career paths. “But the fact that this is casual, and it feels like home, and we’re able to extend that to people, I think that we landed in the perfect spot.”

  Smoked brisket is sliced at Humo Smokehouse in Lombard. Joe Lewnard/
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