Thank You for Smoking | Restaurant Review | Chicago Reader

Thank You for Smoking 

Thirteen more spots for barbecue

Ribs at Smoque

Ribs at Smoque

Barbara Ann's BBQ

7617 S. Cottage Grove | 773-651-5300

$

LUNCH, DINNER: TUESDAY-SATURDAY | CLOSED SUNDAY, MONDAY | OPEN LATE: FRIDAY & SATURDAY TILL 3, TUESDAY-THURSDAY TILL MIDNIGHT

Along with Lem's, Barbara Ann's is a south-side barbecue that the rest of the city would do well to study. Ribs and tips are quite good, maybe second only to Lem's or Honey 1, but Barbara Ann's turns out particularly excellent hot links. Fat and complexly spiced with hints of sage and hot pepper, they have a coarse grind that proves an unmistakably direct relationship to pork, something not actually all that common in your garden-variety sausage. The business model of a rib joint and an affiliated neighboring motel (Motel Two) is oddly perfect. —Mike Sula

Brand BBQ Market

2824 W. Armitage | 773-687-8148

$

LUNCH: MONDAY-FRIDAY; DINNER: seven days | BYO

Brand BBQ is the embodiment of the new-style urban barbecue joint, with a chef who's a graduate of culinary school, a spiffy interior with art on the walls, and not an anthropomorphized pig in sight. The formal training of pit mistress Sweet Charity Smith shines on the cheffier portions of the menu. The BrandCheezie is a flabbergastingly delicious smoked venison sausage stuffed with Gorgonzola, wrapped in bacon, drizzled with brandy-cherry barbecue sauce, and served resting on a bed of microgreens and deeply caramelized onions. Smoked pulled duck is moist and rich, the hints of porcini mushroom in the brandy-cherry barbecue sauce highlighting the earthy flavors of the duck. Drop-dead-tender smoked pork belly confit is offered as a stand-alone with bourbon-mustard barbecue sauce or—even more decadent—on a bun with a fried egg and maple mayo. Burnt ends provide a tasty accent to creamy mac 'n' cheese and give bacon a run for its money on the eight-ounce burnt-end burger topped with smoked Gouda. To top it off there are house-made ice creams in flavors like strawberry-basil and bourbon-smoked candied pecans with dark chocolate chunks; the pecans are also available by the bag. —Gary Wiviott

Carson's Restaurant

612 N. Wells | 312-280-9200

$$

LUNCH, DINNER: SEVEN DAYS | OPEN LATE: FRIDAY & SATURDAY TILL 11:30

With the smiley-face yellow of its logo, mansard roof, and funky stucco exterior, Carson's would make a good setting for an episode of That 70s Show. But let's face it, you don't go to Carson's for the decor. You go for the meat, and they got it, baby, along with some surprisingly good seafood (notably, the shrimp de jonghe and tasty crab cakes). We had a prime New York strip with "charcrust," a peppery rub that enhances the butteriness of this slice of steer. The BBQ sampler lets you nibble ribs, chicken, and the legendary pork chop, all in Carson's sauce, which is more vinegary than sweet, with a bite of clove and a lick of molasses that complements the generous servings of meat. These are high-quality ribs, well prepared, with clean natural flavors. But my absolute favorite is the tips, which are on Carson's "secret menu" and must be requested. We got a side that was larger than a full order at most rib joints, a gorgeous smoke ring encircling each segment, rather lean for tips but outstandingly flavorful and juicy—wow. —David Hammond

El's Kitchen

1450 W. Webster | 773-248-5210

$$

LUNCH, DINNER: SUNDAY, TUESDAY-SATURDAY | CLOSED MONDAY

When a casual dining place gets its stuff so right and with such heart that you want to applaud the people who made it happen—Ellen Haran (former real estate gal) and GM Mark Cymerman—somebody, somewhere must get her wings. This corner spot across the street from Webster Place boasts an 18-table sidewalk patio and still smells brand-new inside. But if the decor is ordinary, the food is anything but. Hand-cut onion rings with a barbecue ranch sauce were surprisingly light and wonderfully crunchy; a crisp baby spinach salad with crumbles of feta was sweetened up by candied walnuts and dried cherries. The dilemma of the night—whole or half buttermilk-battered fried chicken?—was solved by our impressive server with Belgian roots and the beer expertise to go with it, who suggested the half with the brisket sandwich. It turned out to the best fried chicken we've had in years golden, succulent, and perfectly salty. The delicious chopped brisket is smoked for 12 hours in-house and saturated with a sweet Kansas City-style barbecue sauce; get it sliced and a Carolina-style sauce comes into play as well. A bread pudding made by the general manager's young son was a warm, supersweet creation with a whiskey sauce that, much like the young man himself, was totally disarming. —Izidora Angel

Fat Willy's Rib Shack

2416 W. Schubert | 773-782-1800

$$

Lunch, Dinner: seven days | Open Late: Friday & Saturday till 11

With its outdoor dining area and friendly waitstaff, Fat Willy's, on Western across from the City North 14, is a nice place for a pre- or postmovie nosh. But the ribs have a slightly ashy taste, though thankfully they're not quite fall-off-the-bone mushy. The barbecue sauce, while not overly sweet, is on the bland side. Much care and attention are paid to the sides, which are made from scratch. There's chili topped with cheese, sour cream, and smoked jalapeño salsa and a mac 'n' cheese made with Gruyere, fontina, Parmesan, and cheddar; desserts might include a fresh fruit or chocolate pecan-pie. Fries are tasty, and the house-dipped corn dogs are a popular item. —Gary Wiviott

Honey 1 Barbeque

2241 N. Western | 773-227-5130

$

LUNCH, DINNER: SUNDAY, TUESDAY-SATURDAY | CLOSED MONDAY | OPEN LATE: FRIDAY & SATURDAY TILL 11 | BYO | RESERVATIONS NOT ACCEPTED

In a just world Robert Adams wouldn't have needed to move Honey 1, his celebrated west-side barbecue joint. Pilgrims would have traveled from distant lands, pitching tents on his sidewalk and chanting its name in the same breath as Black's, Arthur Bryant's, Moonlite, and McClard's. Businesses would have multiplied all around him, catering to the masses his restaurant attracted and employing hardworking people from the Austin community, and Robert Adams would have been a millionaire and a hero. Instead, after a few years of feast or famine, in 2005 Adams moved his operation to the north side. The current place has a seating area, which ought to preserve countless engine hoods from sauce stains, and smoked chicken on the menu, but otherwise he and his son Robert Jr. proffer the same ribs, tips, and links they did in Austin. Adams, who learned his craft from his grandfather growing up in Arkansas, smokes superslow in a gleaming eight-foot glass-and-steel aquarium-style pit, using a mixture of red oak, cherrywood, and only a bit of hickory, which in excess "poisons" the meat. Unlike most barbecue cooks, who think fat is necessary to keep the meat from drying out, Adams favors it lean: "A lot of people can't cook lean meat and make it real juicy," he says. "And I can. I guess that's my gift." —Mike Sula

Honky Tonk Barbeque

1213 W. 18th | 312-226-7427

$$

Dinner: Tuesday-Saturday | Closed Sunday, Monday

For more than 20 years pit master Willie Wagner has been serving ribs, pulled pork, and other 'cue at neighborhood fairs and music fests; now he's taken his show indoors at Honky Tonk Barbeque, a Pilsen space decked out in a Wild West motif. Texas-style beef brisket is killer, moist and rippled with savory fat. Memphis-style baby backs and Saint Louis-style spare ribs are sprinkled with a mildly piquant dry rub, then cooked low and slow to render fat while leaving loads of flavor on the bone. The "roto-chix" is very good, its flesh moist and skin deliciously crisp from hours of smoking over Wagner's signature apple-oak blend. The short menu is designed for carnivores, though tangy, slightly sour coleslaw is an excellent counterpoint to the meat; there's also a lightly dressed salad of greens, jicama, goat cheese, and seasonal berries billed as "What Your Girlfriend Wants." Wagner, serious about his craft, doesn't serve anything slathered in goo, though two sauces—one sweet, one tangy—are available on the table, if you must. The restaurant's currently closed for vacation but is reopening Friday, when music will be featured. —David Hammond

Lem's

311 E. 75th | 773-994-2428

$

DINNER: SUNDAY-MONDAY, WEDNESDAY-SATURDAY | CLOSED TUESDAY | OPEN LATE: FRIDAY & SATURDAY TILL 4; SUNDAY-MONDAY, WEDNESDAY-THURSDAY TILL 2

A civic treasure among the city's honest smoke shacks, Lem's has long upheld the standard against which all Chicago barbecue should be measured. The rib tips, with a higher ratio of meat to gristle than you'll find at most joints, and the center-cut and small-end slabs are finished relatively fast over a relatively hot fire, bucking slow-smoke convention. They're deliciously tender and caramelized, limned with the telltale pink smoke ring. The excellence extends to the incomparable, complex sauce and coarsely textured hot links, which are too frequently served as mealy sacks of sawdust elsewhere. While disciples were saddened by the mysterious shuttering of the Lem's on State Street in 2003, the mother ship, with its unmistakable neon beacon, endures. —Mike Sula

The Piggery

1625 W. Irving Park | 773-281-7447

$$

BREAKFAST: saturday-Sunday; LUNCH, DINNER: SEVEN DAYS | OPEN LATE: SATURDAY TILL 3, OTHER NIGHTS TILL 2

The second unremarkable effort in this spot since the late Biasetti's went under, and the second laying claim to that institution's lauded but frankly overrated rib recipe. There is—excepting one brief period in Biasetti's history—no smoke involved in the mushy sauce-slathered slabs. Otherwise the menu in this sports bar—adorned just by TVs all tuned to the Cubs on the right day and some vividly colored margarita machines—rather desperately hews to all things pork: ham and split pea soup, bacon-wrapped jalapeños, pork-stuffed mushrooms, pulled pork salad, pork nachos, meatballs, and sliders. Some sandwiches, pizzas, and few fish plates add variety, but between ribs, underseasoned onion rings, and undercooked fresh-cut fries, this is bar food for the blandest of tastes. —Mike Sula

Smokey Bears BBQ House

3312-14 W. Foster | 773-583-2327

$$

LUNCH, DINNER: MONDAY-SATURDAY | CLOSED SUNDAY  | RESERVATIONS NOT ACCEPTED

With every neighborhood in Chicago seemingly getting its own rib place these days, Smokey Bears is a more-than-respectable entry in North Park. The ribs are moist and substantial if slightly dry on the outer edges, cooked in a manner that rejects the meat-Jell-O school. The brisket tends toward the fatty, though that keeps it from drying out a little like the pulled pork. Yet all are flavorful, and the sides set Smokey Bears apart from the standard storefront rib joint. The Yukon Smashed Potatoes are left chunky, rich with cream cheese and butter; the slaw is of the sharp, vinegar variety, with fennel and fresh cilantro thrown in for a nice change of pace; and Mama's Baked Beans features a blend of baked beans, kidneys, and limas in a brothy, not-too-sweet sauce. Sweet-potato fries are almost candied with seasonings, but go down fine dipped in any of the sauces. Smokey Bears isn't BYO, perhaps because it's just across the street from North Park University. Yet many in the area will find that the shorter drive—and shorter lines—make it an alternative to the justfiably renowned Smoque. —Ted Cox

Smokey's BBQ

5481 N. Northwest Hwy. | 773-763-2328

$$

LUNCH, DINNER: SUNDAY, TUESDAY-SATURDAY | CLOSED MONDAY | BYO | RESERVATIONS NOT ACCEPTED

Bright, spacious, and spotless, with nary a hint of wood smoke from the well-ventilated Southern Pride smoker, Smokey's BBQ has established itself as a northwest-side neighborhood go-to place in record time. Meaty baby back ribs, lightly smoked with a hint of dry-rub heat, skate dangerously close to being fall-off-the-bone without quite crossing the line. Brisket, pulled pork, and turkey are offered only as sandwiches, either stand-alone or in combinations of mini sandwiches. Of the three meats, smoky, tender brisket is the clear winner. Moist smoked salmon, Uncle Kenny's Mediterranean ribs—tasty and surprisingly well-balanced baked ribs seasoned with the classic Greek combination of lemon and oregano—and a pair of salads round out the main courses. Service is friendly and efficient. —Gary Wiviott

Smoque

3800 N. Pulaski | 773-545-7427

$

LUNCH, DINNER: SUNDAY, TUESDAY-SATURDAY  | CLOSED MONDAY | BYO | RESERVATIONS NOT ACCEPTED

The five fellas behind Smoque are savvy businessmen. They chose a name—clever or annoying, you decide—that got people yapping months before they opened. And they talk a good game too. Their lofty "BBQ Manifesto" (available at smoquebbq.com) displays a respect for tradition and authenticity, and it ought to be required reading for anyone who thinks barbecue is easy to make or that "fall-off-the-bone" Chicago-style ribs are acceptable. In spite of it, I was suspicious, but with a few caveats I'm happy to say the place is a welcome addition to the woefully barbecue-bereft north side. The house-made sides are good: the mac 'n' cheese has a nice tang, and the noodles in it stand up to the teeth. The slaw is thickly cut, crunchy, and lightly dressed; the beans are mingled with chunks of onion that a real human had to have cut; and the two different barbecue sauces play their proper role as accessory, not focus. I won't order the ribs again—overrubbed and briny, they have nothing on Honey 1's. But for a juicy, smoky chicken or decent pulled pork, amalgamated with crispy and fatty bits, you could do a lot worse. And what I'll definitely be back for is the brisket—as far as I can tell no commercial establishment in the region comes closer. Order it fatty and watch what happens. —Mike Sula

Uncle John's Barbecue

337 E. 69th | 773-892-1233

$

LUNCH, DINNER: MONDAY-SATURDAY | CLOSED SUNDAY  | OPEN LATE: FRIDAY & SATURDAY TILL MIDNIGHT

When Mack Sevier, former pit man at Barbara Ann's BBQ, opened his own place, Uncle John's Barbecue, a few years back, lovers of his unique style of Chicago hot links let out a collective whoop. There's only one place to get these heavenly sausages—lightly charred smoky pork links, aggressively spiced with sage and topped with a drizzle of hot sauce—and that's from Sevier's wood-fired smoker. Rib tips are the perfect complement to the hot links. There's no seating at Uncle John's, but I suggest dining auto alfresco, as the tantalizing aroma will otherwise have you reaching for a rib before you've driven a few blocks. —Gary Wiviott

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