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David Lissner
for restaurants

Bring on the Chicago barbecue bonanza!

Lillie's Q smoked beef tri-tip (Photo ©2010 by Leah A. Zeldes).

Lillie’s Q smoked beef tri-tip (Photo by Leah A. Zeldes).

The way some people talk, you’d think Chicago’s burgeoning barbecue scene was something to deplore.

I can see that, when even Mr. Zee’s, a Greek snack shop in Morton Grove, has rebranded itself as Mr. Gee’s B.B.Q. on Demand, the barbecue trend might be getting a little ridiculous. But I think it’s fantastic — bring it on! All styles, all flavors, the more the merrier. Let’s have Kansas City-style, St. Louis-style, Texas-style, South Carolina-style, you-name-it-style … heck, we can even encompass Western Kentucky barbecued mutton.

Until recently, Chicago barbecue was pretty much divided into two camps: South and West Side joints, nearly always carry-out only, that sold slowly smoked chewy ribs, rib tips and hot links. And sit-down North Side restaurants and taverns that served fork-tender, falling-off-the-bone baby back ribs that might never have seen any smoke. Both styles involved pork and were typically served in a lake of tomato-based barbecue sauce, and that was about all they had in common.

Traditional South and West Side barbecue is mainly cooked in custom-made, glass-fronted “pits” resembling fish tanks, cookers developed in the 1950s, unique to Chicago, and much later dubbed “aquarium smokers” by local aficionados. They offer spare ribs, and chicken, perhaps, but the biggest sellers are hot links, spicy coarsely ground smoked pork or beef sausages and rib tips, cartilaginous end pieces cut off the spare ribs that used to be thrown away until Miles Lemons and his brothers, owners of Lem’s Bar-BQ House in Greater Grand Crossing decided to try cooking and selling them in 1950s. The style is commonplace across African-American neighborhoods like Greater Grand Crossing, which is also home to such highly acclaimed practitioners as Uncle John’s and Barbara Ann’s, but it’s difficult to master and not everyone does it well.

On the North Side, ribs have tended to be short cuts from the loin called baby back ribs and typically grilled or broiled or even steam-roasted. You see this style at taverns like Twin Anchors in Lincoln Park (dating to 1932), the Gale Street Inn in Jefferson Park (established in 1963) and the Fireplace Inn in Old Town (opened in 1969).

Things started to change on the North Side about five ago when Honey 1 BBQ brought West Side aquarium-smoker barbecue to Bucktown. But when Smoque landed in Irving Park in 2007, they eschewed local styles for a flavor all their own. And they’re still packing them in.

And now we have the latest, Lillie’s Q in Wicker Park, under the auspices of Chef Charlie McKenna, who is not only a Memphis in May competition barbecue champ, but also a veteran of such high-end kitchens as Avenues in River North and Tru in Streeterville, who is bringing, among other things, California-style barbecue to Wicker Park, with his smoked beef tri-tip, a thing of beauty. Then, tomorrow, Rub BBQ Company opens in West Rogers Park.

That’s just for starters. Here’s a list of more local barbecue places that have opened in the past year or so or are about to:

After the long barbecue famine, let’s feast!