Food & Drink » Restaurant Reviews

Restaurants: Barbecue Season, May 22, 2008

Spots for all the standards


Barbecue Season

Spots for all the standards

Barbara Ann's BBQ7617 S. Cottage Grove | 773-651-5300

$Lunch, dinner: Tuesday-Saturday | Closed Sunday, Monday | Open late: Friday & Saturday till 3, Tuesday-Thursday till midnight | Cash only

Along with Lem's and the Rib Joint, Barbara Ann's forms one corner of an inverted triangle of south-side barbecue that the rest of the city would do well to study. Ribs and tips are quite good, but Barbara Ann's turns out particularly excellent hot links. Fat and spiced with hints of sage and hot pepper, they have a coarse grind that proves an unmistakably direct relationship to pork, something not actually all that common in your garden-variety sausage. The business model of a rib joint and an affiliated neighboring motel (Motel Two) is oddly perfect. —Mike Sula

DD&S Bar-B-Que7100 S. South Chicago | 773-643-5411

$Lunch, dinner: Tuesday-Saturday | Closed Sunday, Monday | Open late: Friday & Saturday till 2 | Cash only

Located at a well-traveled intersection with a large parking lot and brightly lit neon, DD&S is a lure for the casual traveler as well as for neighborhood regulars. Sadly, the food's not so hot. Spareribs held not a hint of smoke flavor and were alternately tough and tender depending on the section of the slab. Hot links had a nice kick from red pepper but were too salty and somewhat oily; rib tips, with a slightly crisp exterior, fared better but had pockets of unrendered fat. The crisp, greaseless chicken wings are tasty, though, and DD&S has charms beyond the BBQ—an interesting photo display of noted African-Americans and a friendly, smiling counter lady manning the cash register behind inch-thick bulletproof glass. —Gary Wiviott

Exsenator's Bar-B-Que3349 W. 159th, Markham | 708-333-1211

$Lunch, dinner: Tuesday-Saturday | Closed Sunday, Monday | Open late: Friday & Saturday till 1 | Cash only

This yellow-and-red-trimmed shack brazenly belches sweet, porky hickory fumes from its smokestack, mocking the health food store across the street. While ribs and tips are delicately rendered, they still maintain a satisfying, tooth-tugging chew. Appropriately, the sauce is an afterthought—it's sticky sweet and might be a better summertime treat, frozen on a stick. But the finely ground hot link, a sausage rarely worth going out of the way for, is bravely peppered, intensely clovey, and by rights should make this lonely stretch of the south suburbs better traveled. —Mike Sula

Gale Street Inn4914 N. Milwaukee | 773-725-1517

$$lunch, dinner: seven days | Sunday brunch | Reservations accepted for large groups only

Gale Street Inn, whose near half a century of success owes in large part to its reputation for ribs, wouldn't survive 40 days let alone 40 years in a city that understood barbecue. Yet mobs of north-siders regularly hunch over their plates here, slurping sloppy oversauced mush. There oughta be a law against calling boiled, steamed, or roasted meat barbecue, but that's the vaunted fall-off-the-bone Chicago style—the official rib of the toothless. Evidence of GSI's crimes against pork is in the total absence of smoke or any flavor beneath the sauce and in the piles of bones so cleanly stripped of meat they look like they've been bleached in the desert. It's a shame, because in many respects Gale Street is a wonderful family-style place, starting with a first-rate bar attended by uniformed mixologists who know exactly what they're doing. Jefferson Park's never exactly been hopping, but Gale Street serves as a scene all its own for those happy to eat their chops and stuffed shrimp to live jazz combos playing standards. And on Sundays there's a magician for the youngsters. The seasonal brunch ends May 25 and will resume after Labor Day. —Mike Sula

George's Rib House168 W. 147th, Harvey | 708-331-9347

$$Dinner: seven days | Open late: Friday & Saturday till 4, Tuesday-Thursday till 2 | Cash only

A delicious-smelling haze wafts across George's parking lot. Inside, all signs indicate an artist at work who cannot abide distractions: "Please do not use cellular phones in the rib house" it says on the bulletproof glass barrier. Behind the counter owner George Rogers keeps a plastic elephant—a replica of a brass model he says Ronald Reagan sent him as thanks for some large orders of pork picked up by his staffers. His ribs and tips are in fact luscious, with all the elements of crispiness, fattiness, juiciness, and meatiness in perfect proportion and accented by the salty rub he uses. There's just one thing missing: smoke. George, a gruff but lovable eccentric who's been at it for 42 years now, openly admits that he uses only lump charcoal—no wood—for the following reason: "Logs got worms and insects. I don't want to bring 'em in." —Mike Sula

Hecky's Barbecue1902 Green Bay Rd., Evanston | 847-492-1182

$$Lunch: Monday-Saturday; Dinner: seven days | Open late: Friday & Saturday till 11

As the saying goes, Hecky Powell's forgotten more about barbecue than most people know. Unfortunately that seems to include knowing how to use the wood-fired Chicago-style aquarium smoker that dominates the cooking area visible to the customer. These days equipment in a side room churns out uninspired BBQ for legions of loyal customers who embrace Hecky's motto: "It's the sauce." The motto's catchy, but barbecue is about meat, smoke, and fire. And Hecky's ribs, while among the best on the north side, ultimately don't hold up. Baby backs, colored a deep mahogany, appear promising at first blush but turn out to be dry and stringy, with no detectable smoke flavor. While they carry a whiff of smoke, rib tips are likewise dry, chewy, and fatty. Hot links fare better, with an agreeable taste enhanced by assertive spicing, and the spareribs are edible. About that sauce: it's mild and veers in the direction of flavor before being undone by a sweet and syrupy overlay. Best in show is Hecky's greaseless and spicy fried chicken. —Gary Wiviott

Honky Tonk Barbeque1213 W. 18th | 312-226-7427

$$Dinner: tuesday-Saturday | Closed sunday, Monday | Cash only | BYO

For more than 20 years pit master Willie Wagner has been serving ribs, pulled pork, and other 'cue at neighborhood fairs and music fests; now he's taken his show indoors at Honky Tonk Barbeque, a Pilsen space decked out in a Wild West motif. Texas-style beef brisket is killer, moist and rippled with savory fat. Memphis-style baby backs and Saint Louis-style spareribs are sprinkled with a mildly piquant dry rub, then cooked low and slow to render fat while leaving loads of flavor on the bone. The "roto-chix" is very good, its flesh moist and skin deliciously crisp from hours of smoking over Wagner's signature apple-oak blend. The short menu is designed for carnivores, though tangy, slightly sour coleslaw is an excellent counterpoint to the meat; there's also a lightly dressed salad of greens, jicama, goat cheese, and seasonal berries billed as "What Your Girlfriend Wants." —David Hammond

I-57 Rib House1524 W. 115th | 773-429-1111

$Lunch, dinner: seven days | Open late: Friday & Saturday till 1:30, Monday-Thursday till 11:30| Cash only

This worthy barbecue shack has an enviable location, overlooking the Dan Ryan on Ashland, smack in between two exits. A leering, tarted-up, anthropomorphic pig and chicken beckon from each side of the door into a small ordering/waiting area. Conventional wisdom that real barbecue should be able to stand without sauce is not tested here. Like it or not, chewy, crispy tips and links will be coated with a thick, sweet glaze—unnecessary, but not bad in moderation. It makes no sense that higher-profile operations to the north, trafficking in gelatinous boil-b-que, are consistently recommended to tourists and neophytes seeking the local stuff of legend when this place stands prominently at the city gates. —Mike Sula

Leon's BBQ8249 S. Cottage Grove | 773-488-4556

$$Lunch, dinner: seven days | Open late: Friday & saturday Till 4, other nights till 2 | Cash only

It's a mystery how Leon's thrives, given the leathery ribs it serves. At 4:30 on a typical Sunday the smoker was cold and empty, but a line had formed to collect desiccated slabs with meat overpinked, dried, and flaked like plastic ham. Leon's process practically fossilizes the relatively fragile small-end slabs that are nevertheless foisted upon the unsuspecting. Whatever happens here, it's a little kinder to tips, perhaps because the meat is fattier, but this doesn't explain the links, which also are dry and flavorless despite their generally coarse and fatty texture. It's been theorized that Leon's omnipresence on the south side has lowered expectations in a volatile business where anyone can claim to be a pit master and shacks open and close regularly. —Mike Sula

Leon's Famous Ribs2418 N. Ashland | 773-975-7427

$Lunch, dinner: seven days | BYO

The Leon's barbecue empire now has a foothold on the north side, and management has made a curious effort to spiff things up. For one thing, there's no bulletproof glass separating patrons from the pit. Classy tiled flooring, live green plants, and flashing electric order and pickup signs make this joint look like a fern bar compared with the dingy south-side holes that push Leon's consistently bad barbecue. Unfortunately the differences are only superficial. The pork at the new Leon's, as at the original south-side location, tilts heavily toward the extreme pink end of the spectrum, implying a proper smoke but failing to deliver significant flavor. There's some nice caramelization on the ribs and tips, but it disguises meat that's a little too soft—perhaps a nod to the north side's supposed preference for fall-off-the-bone "meat Jell-O." Probably the best things going here are the fries, which are thick and crispy as opposed to the undercooked potato noodles that bed barbecue all over the city. Preserve their crunch by ordering the thick, dark, and very sweet sauce on the side. —Mike Sula

The Rib Joint432 E. 87th | 773-651-4108

$Lunch: Monday-Saturday; Dinner: seven days | Open late: Friday & Saturday till 2:45, Sunday-Thursday till 11:45

Lem's reigns only 12 blocks to the north, so this Chatham smoke shack is often unjustly overlooked. Center-cut and small-end ribs are lean and meaty marvels of anatomical design. Conversely, the tips are fatty (not a criticism) and don't frequently maintain their structural integrity. The meat in general evidences a deep pink smoke ring and has a slightly bacony flavor that wouldn't be bad with some eggs and toast. Don't be discouraged by the orangey and somewhat glutinous sauce—it's not oversweet, and if ordered hot it really packs heat. For those who require a healthy balance with their barbecue, the Rib Joint is conveniently situated a short distance from Dat Donut, shackled as it is to the inferior and mystifyingly lauded Leon's BBQ. —Mike Sula

Robinson's #1 Ribs655 W. Armitage | 312-337-1399

$$$Lunch: Tuesday-Friday; Dinner: Sunday, Tuesday-Saturday | Closed Monday | BYO

At one time Robinson's cooked with wood—and at one time, I'd venture to say, their barbecue was pretty damn good. Alas, those days are gone. Product as they are of a rotisserie cooker that drafts bare wisps of smoke, it would take a keen sense of smell to detect it in these ribs—that is, until you add "natural smoke flavor" provided by the barbecue sauce. The baby backs have a slightly crisp exterior that lends some flavor, but the interior meat verges on dry. Hot links had noticeable red pepper and herbs, but the sausage suffered from being reheated, resulting in a wrinkled, shriveled effect that was particularly disconcerting. Still, by Chicago standards Robinson's is a pretty good barbecue joint, with crisp, greaseless onion rings in its favor, fresh corn on the cob, and owners who haven't succumbed to the school of barbecue meat Jell-O. —Gary Wiviott

Russell's Barbecue1621 N. Thatcher, Elmwood Park | 708-453-7065

$Lunch, dinner: seven days | open late: friday & saturday till 11 | Reservations accepted for large groups only

A legend and a local favorite, Russell's has been doing business since 1930 along a curvy stretch of tree-lined Thatcher Road in the dingy shadow of Maywood Park Racetrack. A big part of its allure is no doubt the building itself, which sports a tall white chimney with the restaurant's name running down the sides in red neon, and an eating area out back with Depression-era brown-red picnic tables. Inside, every night of the week, you'll find large tables full of families comfortably lounging, alternately sucking their fingers and rib bones. The ribs here are done all-American style, with a fall-off-the-bone tenderness favored by many though scorned by barbecue aficionados. Prices are reasonable, though: a full slab of ribs, with nicely browned fries and vinegary coleslaw, sets you back $13.99, which ain't bad. I prefer them cooked without their signature sauce (available in bottles to go). —David Hammond

Smoque3800 N. Pulaski | 773-545-7427

F 8.2 | S 7.3 | A 6.0 | $ (15 reports) Lunch, dinner: Sunday, Tuesday-Saturday | Closed Monday | Reservations not accepted | BYO

rrr The five fellas behind Smoque are savvy businessmen. They chose a name—clever or annoying, you decide—that got people yapping months before they opened. And they talk a good game too—check out their lofty "BBQ Manifesto" at In spite of it I was suspicious, but with a few caveats I'm happy to say the place is a welcome addition to the woefully barbecue-bereft north side. The house-made sides are good: the mac 'n' cheese has a nice tang; the slaw is thickly cut, crunchy, and lightly dressed; the beans are mingled with chunks of onion that a real human had to have cut; and the two different barbecue sauces play their proper role as accessory, not focus. I found the ribs overrubbed and briny, with nothing on Honey 1's. But for juicy, smoky chicken or some decent pulled pork you could do a lot worse. And what I'll definitely be back for is the brisket. It isn't the transcendent smoked-beef experience that's so easy to come by in Texas hill country, but as far as I can tell no commercial establishment in the region comes closer—order it fatty and watch what happens. —Mike Sula

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