Smoke-Filled Rooms

These days, Chicago’s best barbecue comes from a legion of savvy new pit masters. Our man on the case digs in and gets his hands dirty.

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Despite the name, FAT WILLY’S RIB SHACK in Logan Square offers the most service of the new crop of restaurants—no need to order at the counter here, and you can get cocktails and even “wine with your swine.” It’s still plenty funky, though. Brown paper and fuzzy mottled cow fabric cover the tables, and you gotta like the giant pig illustration divided into various cuts of pork.

Bo Fowler and her husband, Arden, combine several regional styles for their hickory- and applewood-smoked meats with mouthwatering results. The spice-rubbed and minimally sauce-glazed baby backs are first rate: tender yet firm, and the smoke and the spicy sauce—tinted with honey and fruit juice—enhance the flavor. Even better was the sliced beef brisket (available after 5 p.m.). It’s hard to find a good version outside of Texas, but under the smoke and spice, Fat Willy’s is tender and beefy to the max. Like the baby backs, it comes with soup or salad, good coarsely cut coleslaw, Texas toast, and a side. (Try the savory baked beans made with four varieties.)

With brisket this good, no wonder the big pulled beef brisket sandwich is so outrageously succulent and juicy, served on a grilled baguette with caramelized onions and horseradish sauce. And any Tar Heel would be happy with the moist pulled pork sandwich topped with vinegary slaw: It’s among the best in Chicago. Ask for a free cup of excellent giardiniera with your sandwich—the fieriest nibbles on the menu.

If you’ve done justice to the ‘cue, you should probably avoid the skillet-cooked hot brownie topped with ice cream and a mountain of whipped cream with caramel sauce and pecans. It’s got enough calories for four to share, but it’s tempting.

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