First things first. If you’re ordering your barbecued ribs through anything but a thick sheet of bulletproof glass, you’re not getting real Chicago-style ribs. This isn’t my opinion. It’s a commandment: Rule No. 4, to be precise. BBQ pit master Hecky Powell told me so a couple of weeks ago while we scoured the city for authentic bones, cruising around, Hecky-style, in a black Lincoln Town Car with one of his personal drivers—a man who can get from Evanston to Humboldt Park in 20 minutes using nothing but side streets.
“There aren’t that many places left that do it right anymore,” says Powell as we speed off from Evanston. “Everybody wants to make a quick buck. In order to make good ribs—a real quality product—you need to have a passion for it. You need to follow traditions.”
We started in Evanston because that’s the home of Hecky’s Barbecue (1902 Green Bay Rd., 847-492-1182), the only genuine Chicago rib joint north of Madison Avenue. You know how Kansas City has Kansas City barbecue and Texas has Texas barbecue? Well, you won’t find Chicago barbecue unless you know the ten commandments, those rules that have been passed down from pit master to pit master—all African American, most South Siders—since the days when Anton Cermak ran this town.
Rule No. 1: Thou shalt not worship false barbecue pits. You smoke your bones in a Chicago pit, an oversize two-tiered steel grill, invariably made on Ogden Avenue by Avenue Metal. You fire it up with coal or wood. The first tier captures the smoke. The second tenderizes. To see a classic Chicago pit, you can go down to Lem’s Bar-B-Q House (311 E. 75th St., 773-994-2428) or to Leon’s Bar-B-Q #4 (4550 S. Archer Ave., 773-247-4171), an offshoot of the original founded by Leon Finney Sr., one of Hecky’s mentors, who died in 2008.
Which brings us to Rule No. 2: Ribs are takeout food. If you’re eating inside the establishment from which you ordered the ribs, you’re obviously on the North Side. And you probably just paid $36 for them. So we drive over to I-57 Rib House (6514 S. Western Ave., 773-436-9000). It’s got the glass. It’s got the pit. But it doesn’t have the touch. Our ribs—only pork, only fatty St. Louis–style spareribs, per Rule No. 3—are a bit dry. I suspect they’ve been reheated. And the sauce? It tastes like it’s been spiked with a bag of brown sugar. Time to move on.
So we call ahead to our next stop, Coleman’s Hickory House (555 N. Cicero Ave., 773-626-9299), a West Side institution. The guy who answers says they won’t be open for another hour, which is strange because it’s 3:35. When Hecky calls back, the guy says he’s having trouble with the health department. He figures he needs at least an hour to talk his way out of it.
“Drive on, brother,” says Hecky. “Drive on.”
And then we smell it. Rule No. 5: If you can’t smell it 12 miles away, it ain’t Chicago barbecue. Hecky says South Siders appreciate barbecue smoke. They wear it like perfume. In Evanston, though, before he put special filters on his pit, his neighbors called the EPA on him; one lady told him every time she let her cat out, he came back smelling like a box of ribs. Poor Hecky. He thought it was a compliment.
We follow the smoke to Bro-N-Laws (3334 W. Chicago Ave., 773-265-8344). It quickly passes all of Hecky’s tests. The packaging includes an insulating layer of white bread and fries (Rule No. 6). The joint hires employees from the area and sells slices of cake made exclusively by little old ladies, and the rib tips have pink smoke rings (Rule Nos. 7, 8, and 9).
The ribs themselves are rubbed in-house, thrown on the pit, and served dry with a choice of mild, hot, or mixed (half mild, half hot) sauce, which deftly fulfills Rule No. 10. They’re tender and delicious, perhaps the most honest Chicago ribs in town.
Photograph: Anna Knott