Smoke ’em if you got ’em

Restaurant newcomers challenge old-line BBQ

At long last, Chicago’s barbecue scene is changing.

The word barbecue means more than grilling a steak — it means such different things to different people that you can nearly provoke a fistfight when the subject comes up. Leathery Texas barbecued beef brisket, gamey Western Kentucky barbecued mutton and vinegary eastern North Carolina barbecued whole hogs all have their rabid adherents. But in Chicago, barbecue means pork ribs.

On the North Side, you most often see a cut from the center loin called baby back ribs. Spare ribs — larger bones with fattier meat from the sides and upper belly of the pig — are more common on the South and West sides, as well as rib tips — small cartilaginous pieces of the breastbone — a Chicago delicacy Lem's Bar-BQ House claims to have introduced in the 1950s.

Chicago arrived on the national barbecue scene not so much because of its real ribs, but because of fictional ones: In 1974, the TV sitcom "M*A*S*H," set during the Korean War, depicted the heroic efforts — in the days before the Internet and FedEx — of the madcap doctors at the 4077th Mobile Army Surgical Hospital to get a shipment of spare ribs from Chicago: "Ambrosia! The gods on Olympus, when they got tired of pizza, they sent out for these ribs." These heavenly items came from Adam's Ribs, supposedly located near the Dearborn Station at Dearborn and Polk streets.

But Adam's Ribs never existed, and while a lot of people have speculated about places it might have been modeled on, nobody knows.

Real Chicago rib joints have tended to fall into two categories. On the North Side, you find ribs mainly at sit-down restaurants that serve a tender, falling-off-the-bone style, which might or might not be smoked. These include such veteran restaurants as 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).

On the West and South sides, barbecue joints tend to be strictly take-out places, and the style is typically smokier and chewier, cooked in aquarium smokers. (Developed in the 1950s and unique to Chicago, these rectangular cookers with transparent doors get their name from their resemblance to fish tanks.)

Stalwarts include Lem's in Greater Grand Crossing (established in 1952), the Original Leon's Bar-B-Q (with multiple locations; the first opened in the 1950s) and newcomer Uncle John's in South Shore. North Siders looking for this style can find it at the acclaimed Honey 1 BBQ on the edge of Logan Square.

What both styles have in common is that usually they come heavily dowsed in barbecue sauce.

But when Smoque burst on the scene in 2007, they eschewed local styles. You'll find neither slick, slide-off-the-bone ribs nor gristly rib tips. Nor is the meat drowned in sauce. Smoque proffers ribs, pulled pork shoulder, chopped and sliced beef brisket and chicken, all slow smoked with apple and oak wood, and available in sandwiches, a la carte and in platters. Though the five owners — Barry Sorkin, Chris Hendrickson, Mike McDermott, Oscar Romero and Al Sherman — all come from the Midwest, the Smoque style hearkens to Missouri, Texas and the South without quite matching any specific region.

The ribs, both baby-back ribs and St. Louis-style spare ribs, get a thorough coating with savory Memphis-style dry rub before going in the smoker, and a light, finishing baste of sauce that caramelizes into a crust. The baby backs smoke for three hours, which gives them a nicely smoky flavor and a toothsome texture, moist but still chewy. The closely trimmed St. Louis ribs (slightly meatier spare ribs with the tips removed) smoke for one more hour, resulting in a more tender consistency. A half-and-half platter lets you try both.

The no-frills place offers seating but has been so busy since it opened that you'll likely have to wait for a table and they frequently run out of barbecue before closing time.

Another spot that departs deliciously from the Chicago norm, Barbecue Bob's in Rogers Park, offers fragrant, smoky, succulent and finely textured baby backs you can get your teeth into, slow smoked with hickory. Bob Dunlap and his family brought their meaty magic from Merrillville, Ind., a few years ago. The toothsome whole or half slabs get a light anointing with Bob's zesty, allspice-infused sauce and a brief caramelizing on the grill before serving.

Besides baby backs, Saint Louis-style spare ribs, rib tips beef ribs are also usually available. Bob also offers a brisket sandwich, filled with thick, tender slices of smoky beef crunchy charred ends; and a little of that zippy sauce, if you like; a finely chopped pulled-pork sandwich; meaty, barbecued whole or half chickens; smoked turkey legs and wings and a powerhouse of a hot link, with spicy, coarsely ground pork packed into a snappy natural casing.

Beyond barbecue, Bob's also makes delectable pies: There are two house-made options, tart and creamy lemon cheese pie with a graham-cracker crust, and luscious sweet-potato pie, smooth and not cloying, flavored with brown sugar and a little lemon, in flaky pastry.

Bob’s is mainly carryout, but there are a couple of folding tables for those who can’t wait to dig in.

Latest on the barbecue bandwagon is Sheffield's in Wrigleyville. The bar, a longtime mainstay for pre- and post-game craft brews in its lively beer garden, recently began serving house-made barbecue. Sheffield's Southern Pride smokers are turning out baby backs, pulled pork, basted brisket, chicken and more at its Back Room BBQ. The meats are wood-smoked for hours, slathered with one of three house-made sauces incorporating Goose Island Beer and then given a finishing char-grill.


Old-style Chicago smokers