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.
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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.