St. Louis–style ribs Photos: Jeff Marini

When Smoque opened in 2006 and people heard that the five partners—barbecue neophytes, all—had published a 2,000-word barbecue “manifesto” on their website, the knives came out. If you waltz into the notoriously competitive and persnickety ’cue subculture with a bunch of fancy talk, you’d better bring the heat. Smoque did. For 12 years now, the no-frills, fast-casual joint in an Old Irving Park commercial building continues to thrill 1,000 customers a day.

The care that goes into everything, from the slow-cooked baked beans to the crispy hand-cut fries, rivals the attention to detail you’ll find in any Chicago kitchen. The St. Louis–style spare ribs, cooked for hours over oak and applewood in one of the joint’s three Southern Pride smokers, develop a flavorful bark imbued with a peppery Memphis-style rub that penetrates deep into the meat. The Texas-style brisket (some slices marbled, others lean) and pulled pork (some crunchy, some juicy) pull off similar tricks. You can argue until you’re blue in the face about regions and rubs and sauces, but the fact is, Smoque consistently strikes the kind of sweet-smoky-spicy balance that only the best pit masters are capable of.

Baby back ribs
Brisket with barbecue beans and cornbread