by Mike Sula
Jack Jones wasn't happy. "What a piece of shit," he said in full view and earshot of a handful of customers. "Look at that." He was standing over a hotel pan full of baby back ribs that had emerged from the gleaming Ole Hickory smoker in the open kitchen of his new barbecue joint. I couldn't overhear precisely what went wrong, but Jones, a part owner and onetime chef at Jack's on Halsted, declared that the offending slabs would have to be trashed. At the very least it demonstrated an awareness that's it's easy to make barbecue commercially but difficult to make it well.
That's been proven over and over in recent years with the rash of barbecue spots, high- and low-end, that have opened across town but have so far failed to meet the high standard set by more tested joints such as Uncle John's, Honey 1, and Smoque. In scope, Wrigley BBQ is only a bit more ambitious than the last, offering baby backs, chicken, pulled pork, and brisket, sliced or chopped, and the usual sides. It's counter service, and BYO, and with the exception of a handful of burgers and a couple salads is dominated by the typical barbecue canon—except Jones is working with natural pork and Amish poultry producers.
The barbecue's strength right now—excepting the brisket—is in its texture. The ribs in particular are admirably chewy, with a thick bark, only minimally dry-rubbed. I certainly wouldn't throw them out, but while they show evidence of a faint pink smoke ring, the flavor is more roasted than smoked. Same goes with the unadorned sliced brisket, which, with none of the ribs' textural advantages, came across more like your bubbe's oven-braised variety. The safest way to go is the pulled pork or chicken, both of which are liberally sauced, which unfortunately obscures the finer points of barbecue.
What should you want from barbecue? Is it smoky? Is it juicy? Has it been overcooked? Hard to tell with the pork and chicken, but at least the two house sauces—a thin Carolina vinegar-based one and a sweeter, thicker Memphis style—have some character. Sides, like sauce, should be secondary concerns, but the baked beans were larded with bacon and not oversweetened, while the mac 'n' cheese featured fat al dente elbows, lightly but sharply sauced. Wrigley BBQ certainly smells like there's some smoking going on. The ordering area and adjacent dining room are flooded with the tempting olfactory alchemy of fruited wood smoke and meat. I wish it had been captured on the plate.
Wrigley BBQ, 3555 N. Broadway, 773-472-1227, wrigleybbq.com