I've been extraordinarily cranky about barbecue lately. And I'm not just talking about restaurants. I was a judge at last Sunday's otherwise excellent Windy City BBQ Classic, evaluating a dozen chicken and rib entries, and it only served to underscore how difficult it is to achieve that magical alchemy of smoke, fat, meat, and bone that is true low-and-slow barbecue. Most of the competitors pandered to the judges by slathering their entries with overly sweet sauce that disguised mushy, mealy, or undercooked, rubbery meat. I'll say it again: the fact that it isn't easy to make barbecue doesn't stop way too many people from doing it.
But then every once in a while a real artist emerges who reminds you that it is an achievable goal; it is possible to transform those tough, cheap cuts of pig into something wonderful. And you don't need any superfluous side dishes, cocktail programs, or phony bumpkin-posturing to convince people that you're doing something special.
Last week a poster at LTHForum introduced the board to Ben's Bar-Be-Cue, a small, takeout-only place near the Oak Park border in Austin. I have to concur with the prevailing sentiment that Ben's belongs—along with Honey 1, Uncle John's, Lem's, and Smoque—on the very short list of excellent barbecue joints in the city.
And while Chicago has been saturated over the last few years with a glut of high-profile nonsense barbecue, Ben's has been hiding in plain sight on North Avenue.* Linda Leslie, a New Orleans native, opened it three years ago with her husband, Tyrone Wideman, naming it for a deceased relative. New Orleans, for all its charms, isn't exactly known for barbecue, but Leslie developed the recipes and method herself. She rubs ribs and rib tips with Creole seasoning and lets them sit overnight in the cooler before smoking them in a classic Chicago aquarium pit over oak, hickory, and cherrywood. She makes her mild sauce from apricots and peaches, and the hot sauce is appropriately vinegary, but as with all proper barbecue you don't need them. She has a light touch with the rub, which produces a commensurately light but pleasing bark on the ribs and tips, which are eminently gnawable, saturated with smoky flavor, and retain just enough fat to keep them moist well into leftover time.
She also offers beef ribs, which are first smoked, then braised in a slow cooker with brandy. These aren't nearly as smoky as the pork, but they are incredibly tender and delicious. Leslie emphatically states that she does not hold barbecue overnight (as someone on LTH suggested), but because she has customers waiting each day when she opens, she does start some ribs the night before, then gives them a quick finish before the doors open. I recommend going late.
Ben's also offers barbecued turkey tips, fried chicken and fish, burgers and fries, and an assortment of outsourced cakes—none of which I can comment on—but Leslie also makes her own deeply creamy and rich banana pudding and a buttery peach cobbler, neither of which should be missed.
In the summer Ben's is open 4 to 11 PM weekdays; 11 AM to 4 AM on Fridays and Saturdays; noon to 11 PM on Sunday. But Leslie says they stay open all day in the fall and winter. Make the time to get there. It will restore your faith in barbecue.
Ben's Bar-Be-Cue, 5931 W. North, 773-637-0003
*Across the street from the home of jerk pasta.