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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.

(page 5 of 6)

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.

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