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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SWEET BABY RAY’S BARBECUE has been around long enough to have smoked 20,000 slabs and counting, but I’ve never given it proper attention. The namesake sauce came first and has been a fixture in local supermarkets for years. At the Wood Dale restaurant, you order at the counter, snag one of six tables (set with rolls of paper towels), and someone brings your food on a metal tray. There’s usually a place to sit.

Paul Papadopoulos, executive chef for SBR’s, has a more ambitious menu than most such places, with respectable crab cakes and three shrimp options, but the ribs are the big draw. Both the baby backs and the St. Louis spareribs are honest bones, nicely smoked with a good spice rub and served with just the right amount of sauce. They are tender, juicy, and firm—everything you want in ribs. They come with two sides, plus a big rectangle of decent but annoyingly cold sweet corn bread. The side of green chili mac and cheese is very spicy and an unappetizing greenish hue; it grows on you, but boy, it’s one ugly-looking dish.

Bummer about that sliced beef brisket sandwich. The smoke flavor was good, but the beef was dry and tough. Try the pulled pork sandwich instead: not the best ever, but better. Both come with a bag of Vitner’s Bar-B-Q Corn Chips. And here’s a smart dessert for a barbecue joint—a 99-cent mini chocolate mud pie made with chocolate pudding and both brownie and Oreo crumbs topped with whipped cream. A couple bites will top off your appetite nicely. 

 

THE SKINNY

FAT WILLY’S RIB SHACK 2416 W. Schubert Ave.; 773-782-1800 A model meal Brisket dinner, baked beans, hot brownie Tip $2 validated parking at multiplex lot across the street Hours Lunch, dinner daily Tab (without wine, tax, or tip) $12 to $24

HONEY 1 BBQ 2241 N. Western Ave.; 773-227-5130 A model meal Rib tips and hot links combo, fried okra Tip Pick up beer at nearby Danny’s Liquors. Hours Lunch, dinner Tuesday-Sunday Tab (without tax or tip) $10 to $18

HONKY TONK BARBEQUE 1213 W. 18th St.; 312-226-7427 A model meal St. Louis ribs, corn bread, baked beans, sweet potato pie Tip Cash only. And if you see the hefty beef ribs special on the chalkboard, grab ’em. Hours Lunch Sunday; dinner Tuesday-Sunday Tab (without tax or tip) $10 to $18

SMOKE SHACK 800 W. Altgeld St.; 773-248-8886 A model meal Ribs, onion rings, root beer float Tip Order a combo rib platter of a half slab of each and pick your favorite. Hours Lunch, dinner daily Tab (without tax or tip) $11 to $21

SMOQUE BBQ 3800 N. Pulaski Rd.; 312-545-7427 A model meal Sliced brisket sandwich, barbecue beans Tip For $3 you can add a small portion of brisket to your rib order. Hours Lunch, dinner Tuesday-Sunday Tab (without tax or tip) $10 to $20

SWEET BABY RAY’S BARBECUE 249 E. Irving Park Rd., Wood Dale; 630-238-8261 A model meal Baby back ribs, green chili mac and cheese, mini chocolate mud pie Tip “Kicked-up creamed corn” trumps corn bread. Hours Lunch, dinner daily Tab (without tax or tip) $9 to $17

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