Life’s too short for bad bacon, especially if you’re already shortening it by eating bacon. And we’re eating a lot of it these days. Chicago restaurants and specialty shops have gone pork crazy—and they’re turning to gourmet producers or smoking their own, which in turn get name-dropped like designer labels. But which is the best? We set up a blind tasting of options from gourmet grocery stores and meat markets to find out. Behold your guide to porcine bliss.
1. SMOKED BACON, PAULINA MARKET
Oohs and aahs greeted the emergence of this house-smoked brand from its butcher paper in perfect, striated arcs, looking like the platonic ideal of bacon. After cooking, unfortunately, the color turned a jaundiced beige and the strips crumbled when touched. But it still asted rich and porky. Delicious, but odd.
FIND IT AT Paulina Market (3501 N. Lincoln Ave.; 773-248-6272); $7.25 per pound; sliced to order.
2. APPLEWOOD-SMOKED BACON, NUESKE’S
Nueske’s justified its foodie cachet—it’s mentioned by name on the menus of Uncommon Ground and Gibsons—by wowing the entire panel. Its meaty-salty-smoky balance earned top marks from tasters, with some declaring it their favorite not just by a snout but by a whole loin. “What you expect bacon to taste like,” one said.
FIND IT AT Treasure Island and Fox & Obel; $7.25 and $8 for 12 oz., respectively.
3. APPLEWOOD-SMOKED BACON, NIMAN RANCH
This bacon’s maple overtone drove a wedge into the panel. Some tasters gushed over how the pleasant fattiness (it released way more grease than the others) complemented the meaty texture, with that gentle soupçon of maple in the aroma. Others found the maple more like a sledgehammer and, not coincidentally, icky. Different strokes.
FIND IT AT Trader Joe’s; $4.79 for 16 oz.
4. HICKORY-SMOKED BACON, GEPPERTH’S MARKET
The Martin Van Buren of this competition, Gepperth’s pork presented a competent but unremarkable package: consistent texture throughout the strips, meaty but not too meaty; hickory-salty taste, but not overwhelming. Distinction is all it lacked.
FIND IT AT Gepperth’s Market (1964 N. Halsted St.; 773-549-3883); $7 per pound; sliced to order.
5. APPLEWOOD-SMOKED BACON, DREYMILLER & KRAY
Tasters swooned for Dreymiller & Kray’s beautiful color and dreamy genuine-smoke aftertaste, but a few dissenters lamented its chewy texture. Even though it garnered the most first-place votes, D & K also roused more scorn, and was edged out by Nueske’s, with its superior balance, flavor complexity, and inimitable aroma.
FIND IT AT Treasure Island; $7.48 per pound.
Photography: Anna Knott