by Mike Sula
So goes the boilerplate for the Oyler Pit, a legendary wood-burning rotisserie barbecue smoker not often seen outside of Texas. There's one in Chicago, though, in use at Big Bricks, the North Center pizza/barbecue joint from Bricks owner Bill Brandt, which opened in February with surprisingly little fanfare relative to the glut of new meat smokers that have come upon us in recent times.
It certainly smells like barbecue inside the front bar and rear dining room, but not so much on the big back patio, where tables share real estate with a sizable, though fenced-off, log pile. Maybe that's because the Oyler is known for requiring very little fuel, and subsequently producing little smoke. I was keen to get a taste of some Oyler smoked 'que, especially after reading this:
For over forty years barbecue experts from all over the world have been trying to figure out the Oyler’s secrets. Many theories abound, from the natural purity of the fuel, to the “ferris wheel” rotisserie action, to the constant basting, to the unique air, smoke, and humidity control features. Some hold that it is the very journey of the meat, validating Mr. Oyler’s “blanket of heat" theory that is based on the meat being “massaged” as it passes through alternate temperature zones while it revolves. This debate will rage for many more decades.
I don't know whether Brandt hired an experienced pit man or not, but the barbecue coming from his Oyler is unexceptional. It's not a crime in the least, but the thickly rubbed ribs—which produce a nice spicy bark—are nonetheless very hammy, almost cured-tasting, and somewhat mealy, as if they've been overcooked, though they don't seem to take on a terrific amount of smoke flavor. The pulled pork picks up none whatsoever, though it certainly is juicy, almost as if it's been braised. Chicken, however, seemed to take to its massage pretty well, its relatively delicate flesh absorbing a nice amount of smoke, while still maintaining its juiciness.
Another nice thing, the beans are positively loaded with that pulled pork. I'd be happy with a big old bowl of those.
Apart from a 20-beer tap list, the rest of Big Bricks menu mirrors that of its subterranean Old Town forebear: garlic shrimp, "slutty ravioli" stuffed dates, a taco of the day, some salads, and of course the specialty pies, such as the notorious, raw chile-topped "painful," the meat lovers' "Ditka," and the artichoke-dominant "brickhouse." It's been a long time since I've been to the mothership but my recollection is that the pizza was decent, not at all like the doughy thin crusts I encountered at the new place, which fail to synchronize with their toppings. There's no harmony. It's just stuff on a cracker—which, in fairness, is a criticism one could level on pretty much any Chicago cracker-style pizza.
Big Bricks, 3832 N. Lincoln, 773-525-5022, brickschicago.com