Supermarket barbecue that's better than it should be

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Brisket, Todds BBQ, Marianos
  • Mike Sula
  • Brisket from Todds BBQ inside Mariano's

There's no kind of restaurant in which self-regard outmatches ability as consistently as the barbecue restaurant. I'm at my wit's burnt end with the plague of lousy smoked meat that's swept the city in the last year and a half, but part of what makes it so galling is the tedious Kountry Kitsch these places drape themselves in and the attendant boastfulness about their associated pitmasters. So I was preparing to go nuclear on Todds BBQ, a barbecue stand inside the new Ravenswood mega-Mariano's, a chain within a chain (there are four other stands in suburban stores). I've already warned that the supermarket raw bar could become the new supermarket sushi bar, but supermarket barbecue doesn't just seem like a bad idea—it seems villainous. Couple that with the cornpone boilerplate on Mariano's website about "Todd" (no last names please) from the "backwoods of Illinois" (where's that? Schaumburg?), who grew up smoking his family's own cows and pigs before embarking on a cross-country barbecue odyssey that concluded with his employment by Big Grocery. I guess. I haven't yet heard back from Mariano's about whether Todd really came from the backwoods of the marketing department or not.

And yet my skepticism waned the first time I stepped onto the store's rooftop parking lot and caught a powerful gust of the unmistakable alchemy of smoke working its slow magic on flesh and fat. Down on the second floor, next to the sushi bar and across from the deli case, a line had formed in front of the counter, behind which a worker was slicing whole briskets, pork shoulders, and racks of Saint Louis spare ribs before a Southern Pride offset smoker set into the wall. Each are sold by the pound—$13 for the beef, $9 for the pork, except the bones, which are $1 apiece. You can get sandwiches too, but if you want to evaluate strictly on its own merits you might be surprised—I was astonished—that Mariano's has the confidence to automatically serve sauce on the side. That's a good thing because the three varieties—in Carolina, Texas, and Kansas City styles—are tooth-crackingly sugary. But the meats themselves are even more surprising, particularly the smoke-kissed brisket, which is fall-apart tender, its luscious fat countered by a crunchy, salty bark. I'm not saying it can stand up to Smoque or Green Street Smoked Meats, but Todd seems to know what he's doing. The ribs and pork are a little more dried out. The former require a respectable tug to separate meat from bone and have their own likeable lacquered armor over the telltale pink smoke ring. That's duplicated in the pork shoulder, which isn't pulled so much as it's cut into large irregular chunks.

Apart from four sides and the occasional smoked chicken special, that's it. This supermarket chain, intent on dominating grocery retail across the region, seems to understand that barbecue works best when it's focused and simple. Show your face Todd. There's nothing to be ashamed of.

Todds BBQ, Marianos

Todds BBQ, Mariano's, 1800 W. Lawrence, 773-334-3549, http://www.marianos.com/toddsbbq

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