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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.

Photograph: Tyllie Barbosa

I just went through a year’s worth of wet wipes in a month. That’s what happens when you volunteer to ricochet around town and sample the latest generation of barbecue joints. Six spots, all new by ‘cue standards, were on my agenda—places where unheralded pit masters do smoked ribs and brisket and pulled pork. Even the names conjure up real wood smoke: Fat Willy’s Rib Shack, Honey 1 BBQ, Honky Tonk Barbeque, Smoke Shack, Smoque, Sweet Baby Ray’s. Who says there’s no smoking in Chicago restaurants?

 

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.

 

Over at HONEY 1 BBQ, everything is stripped to the bare essentials: a big glassed-in smoker, a pile of oak, a counter where you order, a menu on the wall, and a few tables. But that’s plenty, because Robert Adams has decades of experience smoking ribs in the style of his native Arkansas, where he learned from his dad. And he’s passing on his skills to his son Robert Jr.

The Adamses are proud of their four-by-eight pit, disdaining the Southern Pride brand gas-fired smokers used by some of the other joints discussed here (to good effect, by the way). And the sauce made by Robert Sr.’s Mississippi-raised wife, Patricia, contains honey—hence the name. The other ingredients are secret, but it’s very good if you like a sweet, tangy sauce. Do yourself a favor and ask for extra sauce on the side, or request a spicier version, then wash it down with your own beer. (It’s BYO.)

No baby backs here. Honey 1 smokes spareribs from the hog’s belly and serves them with fries, slaw, slices of white bread, and more sauce in a white Styrofoam container. I generally prefer spareribs to baby backs; they’re meatier and juicier. The ones I had here were very dark and almost crisp from a long stint in the smoker, but I loved the flavor, and the crispy bits were not at all tough. The pulled pork sandwich, served with coleslaw on a sandwich roll alongside thick fries, is above average, but not the reason to come here. The combo of fatty, juicy rib tips and spicy hot links just might be. And a side of tasty fried okra will convince you that Honey 1 is the real Southern deal.

 

HONKY TONK BARBEQUE is in pilsen and BYO, so it seemed appropriate to hit a nearby liquor store for a six-pack of Negra Modelo before climbing the steep steps to the old building. Inside it looks like a movie set. There’s a barn door and a wagon wheel light fixture, and two rooms of mismatched tables and chairs, a row of which appears to have been salvaged from an old theatre. Sometimes a room is rented out for parties; country bands play live on weekends.

Willie Wagner, the owner, went to Memphis to learn the local style. He started out using a portable smoker at local street fairs; now he cooks on two smokers—a Southern Pride and a Southern Yankee—with apple and hickory woods. The stars of his small menu, augmented with a few chalkboard specials, are the St. Louis ribs (spareribs trimmed of bone, cartilage, and brisket flap) and baby backs, both smoked with a Memphis-style dry rub. I love them so much that adding the house-made sauces on the table (one dark and rich, one more vinegary) is almost beside the point. The ribs are smoky, well textured, and flavor-packed.

Pulled pork and sliced beef brisket sandwiches are also respectable, served on ciabatta loaves so tender they quickly collapse. I ordered a side of baked beans with pork and grainy corn bread and primed myself for good bluegrass by a duo called The Northside Southpaws. This is the life.

 

Lincoln Park’s new corner spot SMOKE SHACK has an odd pedigree for a barbecue joint: It’s owned by an Argentinean native, Julio Nepomiachi. But come to think of it, Argentina is about as Southern as you can get without hitting Antarctica. Bright yellow awnings beckon, and the look is clever faux-painted corrugated tin with roomy wooden booths. And the place is open into the wee hours every night, which sounds nuts, but it attracts hungry after-hours patrons from Kingston Mines and B.L.U.E.S. up the street.

Behind the counter is the heart of the operation, a metal smoker that works like a rotisserie fired with cherry and hickory woods—no gas, no electricity. After eight hours, St. Louis and baby back ribs emerge with a dark crust, but the long-cooked meat is properly pink inside from the wood smoke. The texture of each is perfect, with pork flavor shining through the assertive, slightly sweet sauce. The sauce doesn’t have a strong regional identity; I’m guessing some Argentine flavors worked their way into it. Let’s just call it Very Deep South.

Look into one of the terrific sandwiches. The sliced brisket and chunky pulled pork are both flavorful and juicy, and a well-seasoned bacon Cheddar cheeseburger with caramelized onions and barbecue sauce hits the mark—as does the savory Argentine chorizo with chimichurri on a bun. The sides are twists on typical ‘cue fare: chili powder-dusted fries with chili topping; beer-battered onion rings; rich Parmesan-crusted mac and cheese. All make good add-ons, and so does a soothing root beer float.

Barry Sorkin, who penned the now-famous 2,100-word barbecue manifesto on smoquebbq.com, also does Memphis-style dry-rubbed ribs at Old Irving Park’s beloved SMOQUE BBQ. The concrete floor suggests that he and his four partners just hose the place down after closing. So many folks come for takeout that by 6 p.m. the line may be out the door. Those who stay order at the counter, then pray for a table and wait for their number to be called.

Here a Southern Pride smoker handles both St. Louis and baby backs, this time over oak and applewood. But Smoque finishes its smoky dry-rubbed meats with a thin coating of tangy, slightly sweet sauce that doesn’t obscure the dry-rub effect. The owners tout the St. Louis ribs over the lean, subtle baby backs, claiming they are meatier and smokier. Generally I agree, but here the two were awfully similar in flavor and texture, which is to say: wonderful. Coleslaw and sides come with both, plus two cups of sauce, a slightly sweet Memphis-style and a thinner, vinegar-based Carolina-style.

The pulled pork sandwich, made from shoulders smoked for 14-plus hours, was tender but still bland inside the large bun. On the other hand, I loved the sliced brisket sandwich on a brioche-like bun. Must have something to do with the 15 hours in the smoker with a two-layer spice and rub. Or the vinegar-based sauce. The thick beef slices were moist, tender, and dynamite in flavor. Sides of good thick fries, barbecue beans, and corn bread add to the meal, but the mini peach cobbler made from canned peaches in a bad crust was a real downer.

 

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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