Robinsons Ribs, a local cult of personality, got its start in 1982, when Charlie placed first in Mike Roykos legendary Ribfest. That single act of recognition propelled Robinson to regional fame, and from there to a miniempire of restaurants and rib mobiles, starting at the #1 location in Oak Park. Since the mid-80s the place hasnt changed much: the walls are still covered with pictures of Charlie with Chicago mayors and local celebrities, and the menu still lists a range of BBQ items and soul food favorites. Robinsons serves what are probably some of the best ribs in the area--with the not inconsiderable caveat that in this area there are next to no truly great rib joints. So how are they? Well, theyre OK. The meat was maybe not as good as it might have been, and it wasnt very juicy (the guy at the counter told me the ribs sit in the smoker all day, which may dry them out a little). And while the ribs had a reasonable crust, carbonized and toothsome, they lacked the dark pink smoke ring and woody tang youd expect from the advertised hickory smoking. (The chicken, in fact, revealed little evidence of having been in a smoker at all, though the tips carried a smokelike flavor with disturbing notes of petroleum.) The limp coleslaw was creamy, not my favorite accompaniment to rich meat. Hot links at barbecue joints are always a grab bag; at Robinsons they look like Polish and taste like breakfast sausage, with noticeable sage and a little pepper. Overall, though, the predominant flavor of all the food, like that of the place itself, is Charlie Robinson, whos everywhere incarnate in his award-winning BBQ sauce. Along one wall of Robinsons youll see gift boxes of the stuff, each bearing the founders beaming image, and its now found in grocery stores, at various festivals and fairs, and even aboard United Airlines. For packaged sauce, its flavorful, not terribly assertive, peppery, or sweet. Overall, not bad, and neither is Robinsons #1.
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