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.
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950 West Wrightwood Avenue, Chicago, IL 60614, USA
3478 North Clark Street, Chicago, IL 60657, USA
435 North Clark Street, Chicago, IL 60654, USA
8249 South Cottage Grove Avenue, Chicago, IL 60619, USA
970 Dundee Avenue, Elgin, IL 60120, USA
6954 North Western Avenue, Chicago, IL 60659, USA
3411 North Broadway, Chicago, IL 60640, USA
3832 North Lincoln Avenue, Chicago, IL 60613, USA
941 West Randolph Street, Chicago, IL 60607, USA
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.