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Chicago has its own distinct barbecue heritage, shaped by the great migration from the Mississippi Delta to the north and by the proliferation of slaughterhouses in the mid-20th century. That heritage's days are numbered anywhere north of Cermak and (roughly) east of Austin.
Robert Adams Sr., owner and pitmaster at Honey 1 Barbecue in Bucktown—site of the lone commercial "aquarium" smoker on the north side—is about to open a new location in Bronzeville at 746 E. 43rd Street. And when he does he's "90 percent sure" he's going to shut down his present location. The north side thinks of itself as being in a barbecue renaissance, but to a purist like Adams, who tends a blazing pit all day long, the often acclaimed Texas-style barbecue that's coming out of gas-fired rotisserie cookers with attached smoke boxes isn't really barbecue at all. "You got to do it with wood fire on the south side. There ain't no Southern Pride on the south side," he says, referring to a brand of smoker commonly seen in barbecue restaurants. "Once you cook with a Southern Pride, you lose your whole heritage. You lose your whole lifestyle."
The south-side Chicago style is defined by a few characteristics. The meats are primarily rib tips—initially a throwaway piece of cartilage at the end of a rack of ribs—and hot links, which were nearly as cheap wholesale. And the cooking was done open pit, over a live flame. In the 1950s city health inspectors began to discourage the use of brick pits, common elsewhere in barbecue country, and a metal fabricator devised the easily cleaned steel-and-glass pits that would be nicknamed "aquarium smokers," which served both as cookers and display cases for smoked meats. Thanks to popular barbecue spots such as Lem's, Leon's, and the various ones launched by the Collins brothers, many of whom were immigrants to Chicago from a Delta town called Indianola, Mississippi, it became the favored barbecue style on the south side in the 1950s and 1960s, though it remained less known elsewhere in the city.
Robert Adams is in my James Beard Award-nominated 2011 documentary on Chicago barbecue.
The glass pits are fairly unique to Chicago, made by two plants here (Avenue Metal and Belvin J&F Sheet Metal), but the principles are the same as in any great barbecue region: you cook the meat over wood fire for many hours, slowly breaking down the collagen in cuts like pork ribs, pork shoulder, or beef brisket. And that requires a careful hand with the fire, building it up with more wood and suppressing it with a water hose. For Adams, who was raised in Marianna, Arkansas, by a grandmother who cooked with a wooden stove, that kind of cooking is the only kind worthy of the name. "My grandmother never had a gas stove," he says. "She only cooked with wood. And those are the people who could cook! With 15 kids, you better be a great cook."
Adams and his son Robert Jr. started with a restaurant on the west side—its discovery by foodies on Chowhound is chronicled here by Mike Sula—and as that group launched LTHForum.com, they made Honey 1 something of a pet project, which encouraged the Adamses to give the south-side style a try in the predominantly white north side closer to the lake. "But it never took off like it should have," Robert Sr. says, and you can still read the early befuddlement of some LTHers who didn't understand the style—meat served under white bread on top of French fries, no credit cards taken—or what was special about it. (There are also, to be fair, pages and pages of praise and encouragement.) He also had to fight neighbors who didn't want the pristine, bus-exhaust perfume of Western Avenue ruined by odoriferous wood smoke and grilled meat.
By comparison, Adams says that when he first started looking around the Bronzeville area for a location, the community was thrilled by the prospect of a respected, authentic barbecue master coming to the area, and the alderman helped him zero in on a location with a lot of foot traffic near a new Walmart. The menu will remain relatively short and sweet, with only smoked brisket and pulled pork shoulder beyond the usual tips and links. "I want to keep on doing it the original way, like when I grew up, not a hundred things," he says. "Not a big menu, so you can afford to do it all good."
The process of opening has been delayed somewhat by the legal and code requirements of installing, essentially, a roaring fire with pumping smoke stack in a commercial block, but Adams says that once they get the permit they'll be open within a week, which he hopes means an opening this month. (He already has a new 10-foot glass pit made for him by Belvin Sheet Metal.) So far the city remains willing to sanction this more dangerous kind of barbecue cooking—the only kind he wants to do—at least on the south and west sides where neighbors see it as a benefit, not a threat to property values. "Once they go to only Southern Prides in the whole city, I'm out of business," Adams laughs.