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BBQ, Chicago-Style

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BBQ, Chicago-Style

So, forget Chicago style of politics for now, let's get down to the real business. Is there a distinctive Windy City technique for cooking meat low and slow, with warm wood smoke? In other words, what is Chicago-style Barbeque? That's just what Eight Forty-Eight Food Critic David Hammond set out to discover.

In a sense, Chicago barbecue history begins in '82 with the Royko Ribfest, the largest urban ‘cue contest ever held. Columnist Mike Royko was at that time the voice of Chicago – no one told the story of our city as well as he did – and he challenged Chicagoans to beat his rib recipe. Throngs of Second Citizens responded, “Bring it on” – among them, Dave Raymond.  

DAVE RAYMOND: I immediately called my brother in Wisconsin who is a chef by training, told him I wanted to get into a rib contest and I needed a barbecue sauce, then specifically with his own ideas formulated his sauce with the name Sweet Baby Ray's, a nickname I had growing up on the West Side of Chicago.

The other man who made his name at Royko's seminal festival was, of course, Dave's friend Charley Robinson, who beat the rib bib off Royko and later founded Robinson's Ribs, an empire built on sweet and tangy tomato-based sauce.

CHARLEY ROBINSON: The Midwest here has its own particular style of barbecue. Chicago to me is one of the barbecue capitals of the world. And sauce is a key item, there's no question about it. We use a tomato-based sauce in the Midwest, but down South they kinda use a vinegar-based sauce and that just don't fly here in the Midwest.

Still, in a city known for dripping wet meats, there's a new generation of young pitmasters who go commando with either no sauce or something way different than either Raymond or Robinson have traditionally offered. In Pilsen, Willie Wagner's sauce-less ‘cue is done up Tennessee-style.

WILLIE WAGNER: At Honky Tonk, we're preparing a traditional Memphis dry rub barbecue, which means we're seasoning the ribs before we cook them with a dry spice rub mix and the meat is cooked without any sauce on them and it's served without any sauce on them.

Grace Delcano of Galewood Cookshack serves up her regional ‘cue from a retrofitted motorhome. She brings her “pig rig” to local festivals and venues like the Kat Club on North Avenue, where I catch up with her early one Sunday.

GRACE DELCANO: I would say we're closest to a North Carolina style because I do a vinegar-based barbecue sauce on the pulled pork. I start with a dry spice rub and then mop a few times and then, of course, served with sauce on the side, and like I said this is a vinegar-based sauce which I have modified because this is the Midwest, and it is a little thicker and I sweeten it with both brown sugar and honey. 

At Smoque on Pulaski, Barry Sorkin gets culinary inspiration from the relatively sauce-free Lone Star State.

BARRY SORKIN: Our brisket is very much a Texas style. By default we serve it with a little bit of sauce, which is a little bit different from some of the places in Texas. A lot of the places won't even give you sauce.

Gary Wiviott agrees that dialing back the sugary sauce is the right way to go. Wiviott has authored the upcoming Low and Slow: Master the Art of Barbecue in Five Easy Dinners. Called the "Doctor of Ribs" and "Professor of Brisket" by John Kass of the Chicago Tribune, Wiviott contends that sauce can camouflage less-capable cooking.

Most people and most commercial establishments do not cook very good barbecue. They rush it or they don't use smoke or they use too much smoke and it tastes like creosote or their fire isn't clean and it becomes smoldering and it adds a tar-y like patina to the meat, so what sauce does, especially the sweet, sticky, thick viscous type sauces that people use – it almost tastes like a candy bar, people are using that as Spackle, quite frankly, they're painting over the barbecue, they're masking the flavors.

And yet, in Chicago, South Side, North Side, all around the town, despite imported regional variations, the saucy smoked stuff is preferred by recognized masters of their craft, accomplished pitmen who pride themselves on selecting and smoking high-quality meat. I get some tips from Mack Sevier of the highly regarded Uncle John's Barbecue on 69th street.

HAMMOND: I notice you're selling your own sauce. Do you prefer people to have sauce on the links, or the tips and ribs, or do you prefer they have it on the side?

MACK SEVIER: Well, I prefer to have it on it, you know, the barbecue sauce on the meat. And in that way, they get the true taste of the sauce and the true taste of the meat. But then sometimes people want it on the side, for some unknown reason, they just want it on the side…

HAMMOND: Further north, I chew the fat with Robert Adams at Bucktown's beloved Honey 1.

HAMMOND: When you have barbecue, yourself, do you put sauce on it?

ROBERT ADAMS: Yes, I do! Most definitely, I do. I like sauce on my barbeque. I don't like mine drowned in sauce, though, but I do like mine in sauce. And if I didn't use my wife's barbecue sauce, I probably wouldn't be able to get in the house! Yeah, I like the sauce on the ribs.

Holy Cow! Have we found something that both south-siders and north-siders agree about? Then maybe we have discovered a Chicago-style of barbecue.

David Hammond is a contributor to Chicago Reader and Time Out Chicago, and he moderates LTHForum.com, the Chicago-based culinary chat site.

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