There is never enough time for the beer, the family, the friends, that friendly game of bags, or even really to eat. You thought there would be, that on Memorial Day weekend, you’d stoke the charcoal, flip that hunk of pork shoulder a few times throughout the day, hang out on the lawn chair, filch swigs from a case of Goose Island and watch blue smoke evaporate into the ether.
But what you didn’t count on was getting up before the sun, rubbing down the pork with a menagerie of spices you realize you don’t have on hand. You also didn’t think about tending to flare-ups or keeping the temperature up on that grill with constant refills of charcoal. You didn’t think about building a gazebo for your grill when a thunderstorm rolls in.
Like anything in life worth doing well, producing great BBQ is hard work. Sometimes it’s even more irksome when you’re surrounded by an uncle who is sure he can do it better, or your brother-in-law (who thinks he’s a Kennedy, and decided to engage everyone in a round of touch football) accidentally knocks your whole smoking rig over with a hard punt of the pigskin. I don’t mean to be grim. I like DIY projects. I brew my own beer, I can and preserve my own jams and pickles, and I’ve even tried to make my own ketchup (nothing, no matter how local or organic, seems to trump Heinz). However, sometimes, especially if you have a few young kids or a demanding job, you just want to take it easy, and let someone else smell like the Kingsford factory.
And so, for you, I have compiled a list of Chicago’s best BBQ — American and international. Some of these places may not be open on Memorial Day, but they likely are a day or two before (and who says you need a holiday to head out for great barbecue when there’s a whole summer to savor these delicious options?). So plan accordingly, buy ahead of time, or dine out this holiday weekend — and raise an extra brew in my general direction.
When people go on BBQ pilgrimage, they schedule stops in Kansas City, Memphis, and Austin. Few people think of Chicago, but we do have our own distinctive style worth checking out. Other spots cook their meats in metal drums, pits or specially designed smoker boxes. Chicago BBQ legends, guys like Mack Sevier at Uncle John’s (339 E. 69th; 773-892-1233) or Robert Adams Sr. at Honey 1 (2241 N. Western; 773-227-5130) use aquariums, so named because the clear glass or plastic meat holding tank on these rigs looks like they could double as a fish tank. Aquarium smokers are entirely manual. Louvers need to be vented, wood needs to be stoked and meat needs to be prodded. There a thousand ways that things can go wrong, but also a thousand ways for a master (and that’s what guys like Adams and Sevier are, men who devote as much time to crafting the perfect rib as Grant Achatz does to finding the right ratio of Tapioca Maltodextrin to dehydrate a sauce at Alinea) to make one thing so right.
In the case of Sevier, that thing is the hot link, a slightly charred wrinkled sausage stuffed with red pepper flecks, hot spitting fat and velvety rich pork. For Adams, it’s the rib tip, the meaty, marbled, extra-bone and cartilage-riddled (and thus more flavorful) end of a St. Louis rib that sits close to a hog’s stomach. At Honey 1, they’re piled high, glazed with a stern dollop of sauce that doesn’t overshadow the nice funk of pig. Most local versions are drowned in cloying sauce and rubbery, but Adam’s coaxes out just the right amount of meaty chew, and his famous honey-tinged sauce offers a friendly peck of sugar tempered by a fair bit of spice.
Up in Old Irving Park the boys at Smoque (3800 N. Pulaski; 773-545-7427) eschew the aquarium in favor of the more semi-automated Southern Pride smoker. The Smoque guys seek consistency, which might sound like a dirty word. However, consistency is about reproducibility, not about an allegiance to a kind of quality. Like the modern version of Tiger Woods, you can be consistently bad, or like the old one, consistently magnificent. Smoque is the latter, producing a beef brisket shingled with a black skin of molasses and moist, ruby-fleshed interiors. Their pulled pork is almost an equal to the brisket, and Smoque’s side dishes, whether caramelized onion studded baked beans, double fried French fries or a tangy cole slaw that cuts nicely through the rich meat on offer, are some of the best in the business.
One of the only places that cooks sides as well as Smoque is Chicago Q (1160 N. Dearborn; 312-642-1160), the upscale joint in Old Town. Pit mistress Lee Ann Whippen, one of the few chefs to ever kick Bobby Flay’s butt on Food Network’s “Throwdown,” makes a killer fluffy bacon-Cheddar hush puppy, house fried bbq-spiced potato chips, and one of my favorite bread and butter pickles anywhere. She ain’t bad with the brisket either, but there are few places you can get Whippen’s Kobe beef ribs, luxuriant-Flinstonian hunks that would sate a Tyrannosaurus Rex.
Speaking of ladies of the flame, Sweet Charity Smith, smoketender at Brand BBQ Market (2824 W. Armitage; 773-687-8148), makes quite the pork belly confit and a silky pulled duck that you’d never see at a pot-bellied, white-bearded, dude-run smoke shack. It’s also hard to argue with Brand’s burnt-brisket-end topped macaroni and cheese or their bacon-wrapped venison sausage stuffed with gorgonzola cheese and drizzled with brandy cherry sauce, aka the Brandcheezie.
Whippen isn’t the only one offering a touch of luxury. At Lillie’s Q (1856 W. North; 773-772-5500) Charlie McKenna, a vet of gourmet palaces Tru and Avenues, whips up killer tempura-fried pickles and a meringue-topped banana pudding that you wouldn’t die for, but would instead consider killing others to get. He puts away the fancy tricks, though, when he serves up honest, juicy, smoked tri-tip. It’s kind of embarrassing, but I have also been known to filch a swig of his signature sauces straight from the bottle.
A competition-circuit champ like McKenna, Willie Wagner makes one of my favorite smoked chickens down at Honky Tonk BBQ in Pilsen (1800 S. Racine; 312-226-7427), not to mention addictive planks of brown sugar-glazed bacon candy.
If there’s an antithesis to the consistency at Smoque, it’s the BBQ on offer at Fat Willy’s Rib Shack (2416 W. Schubert; 773-782-1800). I’ve had some terrible meals there and the prices are incredibly high, but I’ve also had the best rack of spare ribs, lacquered with a crispy bark of mahogany skin and just the right firm bite of flesh that I’ve ever had locally. No matter how bad things get, they have never messed up the jalapeno fritters, basically spicy sweet cornbread doughnuts. Don’t forget an extra side of the sweet and smoky “Willy” sauce for dipping.
American’s aren’t the only ones who know how to BBQ. The Chinese have a way and the Cheng family over at Sun Wah (5039 N. Broadway; 773-769-1254) turn out the crispiest, skinned, Hong Kong-style BBQ pork and duck. Technically it’s not BBQ as much as grillin,’ but the Japanese yakitori scene is worth checking out. Yusho (2853 N. Kedzie; 773-904-8558) and Slurping Turtle (116 W. Hubbard; 312-464-0466), which both fire their meats over binchotan (a clean nearly smokeless high temperature charcoal), are the best in town. Yusho’s grilled chicken skin coated in thick, whole-grain mustard and garlic chips is one of the best things I’ve eaten all year. The Koreans, especially the ones at Hae Woon Dae ( 6240 N. California ( 773-764-8018) also do it right. Instead of getting walloped with smoke or sweet sauces, Korean short ribs and thinly sliced ribeye get vigorous rubdowns in chili paste and garlic. Best of all, if you still want to grill, but with none of mess, the Korean BBQ spots allow you to sear your own meat tableside.
This article first appeared in the Chicago Sun-Times in a different form.