2241 N. Western
In a just world Robert Adams wouldn't have needed to close Honey 1, his celebrated west-side barbecue joint. Pilgrims would have traveled from distant lands, pitching tents on his sidewalk and chanting its name in the same breath as Black's, Arthur Bryant's, Moonlite, and McClard's. Businesses would have spawned and multiplied all around him, catering to the masses his restaurant attracted and employing hardworking people from the Austin community. Robert Adams would have been a millionaire and a hero.
In fact Adams's most faithful customers did come from outside the neighborhood. His fussy, inflexible approach to slow-smoked, meaty ribs first inspired chatter on online food forums about a year and a half ago, and before long print and broadcast food journalists joined the chorus. You could always count on his having a supply of excellent, inexpensive, and filling rib tips, but you had to call two hours in advance for full racks: the neighbors weren't buying them, and he refused to have big slabs of pork sitting around all day.
"I would get a big push on the TV from James Ward or something," Adams says. For a time there'd be a rush, and then it'd die off. "I didn't have a lot of neighborhood customers," he says. "You can't blame them in a way because that was a lower-income neighborhood. When I didn't have the outside customers it was dead."
Adams grew up on his grandfather's soybean and cotton farm in Marianna, Arkansas, about 50 miles southwest of Memphis. Sam Hermon raised pigs to help feed his 15 children and many more grandchildren. He was a whole-hog kind of guy who put every part of the pig to use--sausage from back fat and shoulders, souse from the head, cracklings from rendered fat. He even brewed a tea out of the hooves. "It was strong," says Adams. "Get you out the bed if you're sick, for sure." He learned all he knows about cooking from his grandfather.
When Adams arrived in Chicago in the late 60s he went to work in a candy factory, then started driving a dump truck. When he wasn't working he cooked barbecue on a smoker made from a 55-gallon metal drum, and he did it year-round. "I'd push the snow out the way," he says with a huge laugh. "In order to be a real barbecue cook you have to cook all the time. It never gets too cold for you. It never gets too hot."
He took requests to cook for friends and, as his reputation spread, from strangers. About eight years ago he started thinking of opening his own pit but hesitated. Cooking barbecue was no problem; running a restaurant was a little intimidating. His son Robert Junior kept after him.
"I always wanted something of my own," says Robert Junior. "Something that was family." Two years ago they began hunting for spots. They chose a little place on the 5100 block of West Division because it already had a four-foot aquarium smoker made by Belvin-J & F Sheet Metal. For almost 40 years these Milwaukee Avenue fabricators have been making the tempered glass-and-steel aquarium-style pits you see all over the south and west sides. Though a four-footer is relatively small, it's much larger than a barrel smoker. "I almost killed myself on that thing," Adams says.
All the praise they received kept them going through the slow periods. "As long as people said the food is good, I could never get discouraged," Adams says. He's particular about nearly every aspect of his process, smoking with a mixture of red oak, cherrywood, and only a bit of hickory, which if used in excess "poisons" the meat, giving it a bitter taste. His grandfather fed his hogs exclusively on corn, which he says "takes the fat off." Today he looks for similarly lean ribs--unlike most barbecue cooks, who think fat is necessary to keep the meat from drying out. "A lot of people can't cook lean meat and make it real juicy," Adams says. "And I can. I guess that's my gift."
Adams's wife, Patricia, developed the tomato-based sauce, which relies on a little honey. "Honey" was her father's nickname, and the restaurant is named after him.
On July 5, fed up with the boom-and-bust cycle at their west-side shack, they closed down and began looking for a new space. While fans fretted about an uncertain opening date, the Adamses focused their search on the north side, which has suffered from substandard barbecue since N.N. Smokehouse closed in 2000. They settled on a Bucktown storefront just north of the comparatively swank Ixcapuzalco and on the same block as Think. Adams wanted to have slabs on hand all the time, and ordered a gleaming new eight-foot Belvin pit that could comfortably bunk a half dozen adults. "When I saw that pit coming in, I'm like, 'Wow! That's me.'"
They've made other changes too. The new place has a seating area, which ought to preserve countless engine hoods from sauce stains. And they hope to start delivering once they get settled in. The price of slabs is rising a couple bucks (to $17.50) to cover the higher rent. Smoked chicken and turkey legs are on the menu now, but otherwise they promise the same ribs, tips, and links they made their name on.
Two weeks before the September 22 opening Adams was champing at the bit, not at all nervous about smoking in volume on a big new pit. "Nawww," he said. "I can't wait to get on that thing."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jim Newberry.