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Pork Shoppe’s pork belly pastrami and beef brisket Around the bend from Hot Doug’s and down the street from Kuma’s Corner, Pork Shoppe forms the third point of what has become the Avondale Meat Triangle. The tidy little counter-service spot does not represent a labor of love by barbecue lifers but rather a smart venture from veteran restaurateurs (Tizi Melloul’s Steven Ford, Michael Schimmel, and Jason Heiman) who were among the first to see which way the wind was blowing. The trio embraces the boutique-barbecue tag; instead of using BBQ buzzwords like “passion,” they talk about research. “Pork is the new sushi,” Ford said when the restaurant opened last April, a statement that may be an insult to both pork and sushi.
If it’s a calculated operation, the gentlemen calculated well. Pork Shoppe’s only real décor, other than some antique mirrors, consists of ominous farming implements, such as a pitchfork, a sickle, and a hacksaw, hung on the walls. The room looks like Leatherface’s toolshed. And Pork Shoppe, like its obvious progenitors over at Smoque, proves that you don’t need to have been born in a smokehouse to produce good barbecue. Our first hint of that was the free basket of gloriously silky Slagel Farms pork belly pastrami, which Schimmel told us had been aged for ten days and smoked for 12 hours with hickory, oak, and applewood in a Toastmaster. Wonderful. If only the supple, pink-toned pulled pork shoulder had been half as smoky.
Schimmel, a gregarious bear of a man, tells my crew that bigger, fattier St. Louis ribs are for men and leaner baby backs are for women. (He also mentions that his mother used the sickle to cut weeds on her family’s farm outside Forreston.) We do prefer the St. Louis slab, a moist cut that needs nothing beyond its cinnamon-tinged dry rub and gentle mopping of sugary sauce. The baby backs look fantastic but are dried out and lack that desired smolder—a problem because you find yourself reaching for one of Pork Shoppe’s three sauces, and they’re the weakest link of the venture. The only keeper is Wicked Spicy, a tongue spank that tastes like it had a layover in Ciudad Juárez on the way to Memphis. The real star is Pork Shoppe’s staggering beef brisket. Rubbed for 24 hours, then smoked and chopped into chewy, delectable chunks, it sports the same kind of moist interior and crispy-edged bark as the legendary stuff at Smoque. A small, simple list of beers and bourbons shores up the experience, as do straight-up sides, particularly crisp skin-on french fries and jalapeño corn bread with creamy honey butter.
Now that Chicago is finally enjoying its moment in the smoke, one might be tempted to say that all this represents some sort of revolution in the notoriously rigid world of barbecue. But if we’ve learned anything from the ’cue onslaught of 2010, it’s that you don’t have to be a grizzled old coot to make long-smoked meats, nor do you need to do it in a ramshackle plywood roadhouse to be taken seriously. Why can’t barbecue be upscale? Because you eat it with your fingers? So pick up the fork.
1856 W. North Ave.; 773-772-5500
FYI Charlie McKenna’s pulled pork won the Memphis in May barbecue competition in 2007. TAB $20 to $25 HOURS Lunch, dinner daily. Tab does not include alcohol, tax, or tip.
1160 N. Dearborn St.; 312-642-1160
FYI You can buy a whole pork shoulder with Kobe beans, corn bread, and coleslaw for $305.TAB $30 to $40 HOURS Lunch, dinner daily. Tab does not include alcohol, tax, or tip.
2755 W. Belmont Ave.; 773-961-7654
FYI That wooden seat near the east wall is an old church pew. TAB $10 to $15 HOURS Lunch, dinner Tuesday through Sunday. Tab does not include alcohol, tax, or tip.
Photograph: Anna Knott