See that pink smoke ring in the picture above? That’s the tell-tale sign that your ribs have been slow-smoked for a good two hours, the smoke penetrating the dry rub and imparting that one-of-a-kind flavor you can only get from a professional. Notice how I asked for sauce ON THE SIDE so you can easily see the evidence. Sadly, Chicago’s history of ribs stresses and promotes the steamed, boiled and baked variety, always covered in a sweet, hickory-ish sauce (yeah, I’m talkin’ to you, Carson’s and Twin Anchors). This weekend is the official kick-off to the outdoor grilling season, so I thought it would be appropriate to talk about some of the best BBQ in town. I realize this exercise is going to be like standing on a soapbox and declaring to all who makes the best pizza (Great Lake, naturally) or hot dog (Superdawg, gotta love the pickled green tomatoes) but let the opinions fly. Bring it. Just don’t tell me that “falling off the bone” is your chief barbeque quality indicator; in the words of Smoque co-owner Barry Sorkin, “if you want something that falls off of the bone, you probably shouldn’t be ordering something that comes on a bone.”
Which leads me to my first joint: Smoque BBQ on North Pulaski. I realize we just talked about them yesterday - beginning June 1 they’ll have a small kiosk at U.S. Cellular Field during Sox games - but I could go on and on about their smoky baked beans, tender pulled pork and earthy, unctuous smoked brisket. If this picture doesn’t make your mouth water, go back to Kansas:Slow-smoked ribs from the BBQ Zone (photo by Joseph Storch)
I’ve also been a fan of Big Ed’s BBQ in North Chicago, near the Great Lakes Naval Training Center, ever since a viewer told me about them last year. ‚ The care with which they prepare and smoke their pork shoulder and ribs is truly exemplary, and their sides - mac and cheese, collards come to mind - are all knockouts. The desserts are the real stealth gems here though - a chocolate “bumpy” cake is nearly as addictive as the simple yet satisfying pound cake.
Barbara Ann’s has always served up meaty ribs and tips - as well as hot links - to a loyal South Side clientele, but several years ago, the former Pitmaster, Mac Sevier, decamped to open his own place on 69th Street, Uncle John’s BBQ. Sevier has a way with hot links that probably eclipse the ones I’ve had at Honey 1 - which frankly, has been too inconsistent the last two times I visited (sorry, G Wiv). Mac’s sauce leans to the sweeter side, but his ribs and tips are as meaty and smoky as anywhere you’ll find in the city.
I was also surprised with a relative newcomer in the East Side neighborhood, down on 106th Street, near the canal. In what could only be described as a beat-down industrial corridor, the BBQ Zone appears like a shining oasis, all new appliances and scrubbed dining room. Jesus Ferrer is in charge of things here; he spent more than 20 years working for Leon Finney, at the legendary Leon’s BBQ on the South Side. Ferrer still runs two Leon’s in the city, but has now been focussing all of his efforts on the ribs and tips here. He uses only oak and hickory wood in his aquarium-style smoker, and gets delicious results, although the sauce is a tad too vinegary for my taste. The disappointing element happens to be the chicken. Despite a menu that lists chicken right next to the ribs, if you order it, it comes out fried; Ferrer says you have to request the chicken be smoked ahead of time, which kind of defeats the purpose of going in on an impulse purchase. Why not just have a few chickens smoked and ready to go?Jesus Ferrer working the pit at the BBQ Zone (photo by Joseph Storch)
If you want to see more of my favorite BBQ joints, you can watch here tonight after 10:30 p.m. ‚ Happy Memorial Day!Rib tips with sauce from the BBQ Zone (photo by Joseph Storch) Old school fuel at the BBQ Zone (photo by Joseph Storch)