July 4, 2013
Barbecue still holds a romantic allure. At its heart, you take meat and apply heat via smoke of a wood-burning fire. There's something primordial and attractive about the process. Unlike grilling a steak or frying a pork chop, smoking meats requires patience and instinct. Which is why it's easy to spot a barbecue restaurant, but hard to find one that does it consistently well.
Here are 10 barbecue joints that have opened in the past few years. Not one was perfect, but each had reasons worthy of your patronage. Inside this issue, we explore the history of Chicago barbecue, taste-test sauces from five classic restaurants, then offer beer pairing suggestions with your next rack of baby back ribs. Grab a handful of moist towelettes before proceeding.
Barn & Company
Best bet: Smoked brisket
The lowdown: What keeps this corner spot from being just another DePaul-area watering hole (not that there's anything wrong with that) is the careful, nuanced work of pitmaster Gary Wiviott (author of "Low & Slow: Master the Art of Barbecue in 5 Easy Lessons"). In an atmosphere with a sports-bar look and a country-western soundtrack, Wiviott turns out delicious, chewy, smoke-red pork ribs, good chicken (and excellent fries), but oh, that brisket! Shimmering slices of unctuous, silk beef, maybe the best you'll find anywhere. At the table are squeeze bottles of house bourbon, citrus pepper and Carolina mustard sauces, all terrific (the seven-pepper citrus sauce is amazing, if your tonsils are tough enough). Monthly pitmaster dinners introduce oddities such as smoked prime rib, goose-breast pastrami and even a New England-style lobster boil.
Where, when: 950 W. Wrightwood Ave., 773-832-4000. Dinner Tuesday-Sunday, lunch Saturday-Sunday.
Sweet Baby Ray's Wrigleyville
Best bet: Alabama smoked chicken
The lowdown: The best thing I tasted on my marathon barbecue session was the Alabama-style smoked chicken at Sweet Baby Ray's. My first experience with this hard-to-find-in-Chicago chicken was at Big Bob Gibson's in Decatur, Ala. I remember watching the pitmaster dunk whole golden smoked chickens into an ice cooler, emerging shellacked with a creamy, cool pepper-flecked white sauce. Upon tasting, my life forever divided into before and after. Sweet Baby Ray chef Dylan Lipe only lightly mops his smoked chicken with the Alabama sauce, but it achieves the desired effect. The buttermilk-brined chicken was incomparably moist, and that brush of beige sauce (containing apple cider vinegar, horseradish and mayonnaise) atop brought a tanginess of coleslaw dressing. While their ribs and brisket burnt ends were solid offerings, it's the chicken that may become Sweet Baby Ray's calling card.
Where, when: 3478 N. Clark St., 773-975-7427. Dinner Monday-Thursday, Lunch and dinner Friday-Sunday.
Best bet: Smoked short rib
The lowdown: Who knew that Doug Psaltis, better known as executive chef at the always-packed RPM Italian, had barbecue chops? But at country-themed Bub City (another project by Melman siblings R.J., Jerrod and Molly), Psaltis proves to be quite the smoke-slinger, turning out ribs (baby back and St. Louis) and barbecued chicken boasting moist meat and rich smoke flavor. But the revelation is the slow-smoked, bone-in short rib, its meat as tender and moist as any crock-pot could make it, but with far richer flavor than you're accustomed to getting. The modestly titled "corn off the cob" side dish is essentially Mexican esquites, with all the lime, cheese and toasty notes you'd expect.
Where, when: 435 N. Clark St., 312-610-4200. Lunch and dinner Monday-Sunday.
Elgin BBQ Pit
Best bet: Smoked brisket
The lowdown: "I want to try the ribs," says a repeat customer, "but I can't keep away from that brisket." Smart man. No knock on this 8-month-old's baby back ribs, the meat red from a mix of hickory and cherry smoke, served hot from the massive aquarium-style smoker that occupies the center of Carlos Porros' tiny Elgin storefront. But meltingly soft brisket is a star, and marries well to the "Alabama white" sauce (a creamy, mild horseradish sauce).
Where, when: 970 Dundee Ave., Elgin, 847-931-5198. Lunch, dinner Tuesday-Sunday.
Uncle John's Barbecue
Best bet: Hot links
The lowdown: My favorite South Side-style of Chicago barbecue can be found at Uncle John's (337 E. 69th St.), where pitmaster Mack Sevier's custom-recipe hot links draw them in, and his crusty-tender rib tips go for the kill. Well, Sevier is looking to retire soon, so he's begun farming out his recipes to a new generation. One man charged with carrying the Uncle John's flag is Darryl Townson, owner of the venerable Dat Donut. He turned the former Leon's BBQ, next door to the doughnut shop, into an Uncle John satellite location. Sevier remains at the original location, but his breakfast sausage-like hot links are available here, smoked with oak, then flash-fried to achieve a crackled casing. These are outstanding. I'm also a fan of the Uncle John's Special: four pieces of skin-on boneless chicken thighs, deep fried into chicharron-like gnarls and served with jalapenos and fries. One menu item exclusive to this new location is the jerk rib tips, which are marinated for two days before a round in the pellet smoker and aquarium pit. That assertive, allspice-heavy char really plays well with the fattier pork.
Where, when: 8249 S. Cottage Grove St., 773-952-6236. Lunch and dinner Monday-Sunday.
Rub's Backcountry Smokehouse
Best bet: Smoked potato chips
The lowdown: I remember Jared Leonard as a pup in the barbecue business. It was 2010, and his first restaurant was housed in a no-fuss space in Rogers Park. The food was rough around the edges, but the man never lacked eagerness. The good news is he's survived through the turbulence of a new restaurant owner to have grown, both as a pitmaster and a businessman. He's now moved around the corner into an attractive space, where state flags from barbecue meccas hang and Leonard offers a regional-agnostic style of 'cue from across the country. His newest toy is a 12-foot wide, 8,000-pound Bewley smoker that resembles a storage container, and burns only oak and hickory — no gas or electric-assist. In my two visits, I found all the meats uniformly moist, even with knacky smoked chicken. The crimson smoke ring on the brisket runs deep and achieves such tenderness that the beef fibers look like honeycomb. Leonard also serves the Texan favorite Mikeska-brand sausage, and the excellent jalapeno pork links is a style I rarely see in Chicago. But the revelation here is the smoked potato chips. This is a dangerous product. Sure, they're Kettle-brand chips, but they are smoked with cherry wood — be sure to inhale first, then dip into Rub's Carolina Gold mustard sauce.
Where, when: 6954 N. Western Ave., 773-675-1410. Lunch and dinner Tuesday-Sunday.
Milt's BBQ for the Perplexed
Best bet: Half chicken
The lowdown: Milt's is not your typical restaurant; for one thing, Milt's donates all its profits to community groups (picking a different charity each month), from battered-women support groups to food pantries. Nor is Milt's your typical barbecue specialist; Milt's is certified kosher, which means no pork ribs or pulled pork, but Milt's compensates with massive, meaty beef ribs, a smoky brisket sandwich and a smoky, moist, tender chicken that's the star of the 'cue lineup, though the restaurant sells a lot of Milt Burgers too. The meat is so aggressively smoked that dryness is an occasional problem, but that's where the sauces help out. The cozy dining room, which features a full-service bar, pulls in a multigenerational family crowd.
Where, when: 3411 N. Broadway, 773-661-6384. Lunch and dinner Sunday-Friday.
Best bet: Pork ribs
The lowdown: Piggyback chef Jason Kurosaki knows he has a slightly uphill battle with his style of barbecue. "We dry-rub everything," he says. "Pork shoulder, ribs, chicken. It's the style I grew up eating, and I think if I make it delicious, people will like it." The Arkansas-born chef compromises ever-so-slightly with a light barbecue-sauce glaze on top of the pork ribs ("nothing too sticky," he says), and there's no shortage of sauces (the Zesty sauce, tomato-based and tangy from apple-cider vinegar, is the one you want). The dining room has wood planking throughout, a chalkboard listing the various craft beers available and plenty of TVs.
Where, when: 410 Circle Ave., Forest Park, 708-669-9744. Lunch and dinner Monday-Sunday.
Best bet: Brisket sandwich
The lowdown: Perhaps it was barbecue fatigue. But by the time I reached Big Bricks, the North Center barbecue spot from the Bricks pizzeria folks, I found difficulty differentiating the pulled pork, ribs and hot links here from the other 10 places. But then came the beef brisket sandwich, smoked for 18 hours in their Oyler pit (a Ferris wheel-style rotisserie). I was reinvigorated. The fat-streaked brisket (applewood- and oak-smoked) bore that desirable smoke ring and resembled thick slabs of bacon. The eggy brioche was cushion soft and toasted 30 seconds beyond golden — my ideal. The clincher, though, was the accompanying cup of French dip-style jus, amplifying the existing beefy flavors twofold. Jus with brisket? Heresy if you're a barbecue snob, but for 99 percent of us, it's a winning idea.
Where, when: 3832 N. Lincoln Ave., 773-525-5022. Dinner Monday-Thursday, lunch and dinner Friday-Sunday.
Best bet: Smoked chicken
The lowdown: PorkChop, along Randolph Street's restaurant row, opts for a different aesthetic vibe from similar joints across town. It's barbecue through the prism of woodland chic: Taxidermied animal heads, a forest mural, a curtain made of lumberjack saws and a chandelier — why, of course — made from Mason jars. This place doesn't advertise itself as strictly barbecue (there are fried chicken, seared catfish and other Southern approximations), though smoked meats receive prominent real estate on the menu. For me, it was hard to discern any evidence of smoking, mostly because the Kansas City-style sauce was so heavily spiced — it's the first time I've eaten ribs with my nose running. There was a lot of give to the ribs, so fans of Twin Anchors' "fall off the bone" ribs will find this agreeable. The barbecued chicken was the most successful offering, coated in a sweet tomatoey sauce as dark as Oaxacan mole and requiring only the tines of your fork to cut through.
Where, when: 941 W. Randolph St., 312-733-9333. Lunch and dinner Monday-Sunday.
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