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Three words: I love barbecue.
Chicago is in the middle of winter with no hint of summer in sight. One way to bask in the summer sun during the coming frigid months is to eat warm weather food – smoky, slow cooked, spice-infused, melt-in-your-mouth, piles of meat.
Barbecue often gets confused for another warm weather style of cooking, grilling. True barbecue traditionally uses cheap cuts of tough meat, cooked over low indirect heat for long periods of time (8 – 12 hours), accompanied by layers of wood smoke and tons of flavor. And even then, there are different kinds of barbecue across the states.
On the East coast, pork tends to be the main meat of choice, served plainly, with little sauce. If there is sauce, it’s vinegar based, and thin. Coleslaw is the usual side, followed by southern favorites such as hushpuppies and sweet tea.
Midwestern style barbecue tends to be a mix of pork and beef, prepared with a spice rub, and accompanied by a tomato-based sauce, ranging from thin to molasses-thick, and sweet to fiery. Sides are typically creamy coleslaw, baked beans, and cornbread. There are no real rules as to the actual side dishes, but they tend to be the same few types of picnic-type sides.
Texas barbecue is very similar to the Midwest, but with a heavy emphasis on beef, especially brisket.
Before you all get up and shoot me for being vague about the many styles of barbecue, know that this is probably the most hotly contested style of cooking in the entire United States. Some people love their barbecue more than they love their children. I’m sure a few fistfights have broken out over secret spices, sauces, and rubs, so be wary before you go around asking for family recipes.
Personally, out of all the types of barbecue meats, I’m a total sucker for baby back ribs. The bones in the meat lend to the natural slightly sweet flavor, and there’s really nothing better than a pile of ribs on your plate, ready to be eaten clean.
If you want all the same flavor for about half the price (or less!), try ordering rib tips instead – they’re exactly what the name describes; these are the tips of the ribs. While they tend to be somewhat fattier than a rib portion, they still have all the best slow cooked flavor of barbecue with a much smaller hit on your wallet.
Pork shoulder is one of the more prized cuts of barbecue meat. It doesn’t cost much, and eight hours of slow smoking will render the tough connective tissue into gelatin, turning the meat into the most delectable, flavorful, and savory sandwich meat you’ll ever have. Top it with coleslaw and you’ll be smiling for days with the memory of a perfect meal.
Brisket is an interesting cut of beef, because like pork shoulder, it can be quite tough if prepared improperly. This cut is capped by a thick sheet of fat which insulates and bastes the meat as it slowly basks in a smoker. By the time it’s served, you can either pull it like pork shoulder, or slice it in long thin strips of incredible beef.
Now that I’ve given you the basic rundown on barbeque, it’s time to explore Chicago and its many hidden barbecue gems. After having lived in the city for a while, I’ve found myself visiting three particular barbecue joints over and over again. If you know where to look, you’ll be pleasantly surprised at how good the slow cooked flavor of summer can be.
Here are three of my favorite places:
Smoke Daddy (1804 W. Division St.) is known for its delicious selection of ribs and pulled meats. The menu isn’t huge, which means they have plenty of time to focus on each and every cut of meat they offer. If your budget is on the lower end, try any of their pulled meat sandwiches. They come in pork, chicken, and beef, but I highly recommend the pulled pork.
If you’re looking to go all out, try the rib sampler, which gets you a generous portion of each type of rib: spareribs, baby backs, along with the biggest rib tips you’ll ever see.
Typically, you don’t find a lot of great side dishes in a typical Chicago joint, but at Smoke Daddy, all of them are fantastic, and they all seem to be infused with a good dose of smoke.
Try the sweet potato fries, but keep in mind that the regular French fries are also delicious, hot, crispy, and generously flecked with kosher salt. There’s good coleslaw with a kick, and even smoked corn on the cob. Baked beans are prepared in the smoker, with burned rib ends added to give them even more substance. To top everything off, Smoke Daddy serves two different house barbecue sauces, one tangy and bright, the other thick and sweet.
Leon’s Famous Ribs on Ashland (2418 N. Ashland Ave) is an extension of Leon’s on the south side of the city. Their ribs tend to be a little bit cheaper than in most Chicago barbecue restaurants, but that just makes me want to visit them even more. These ribs just fall right off the bone, which makes them all the better to pig out with.
Their mild barbecue sauce is tasty and vinegary. If you’ve got an iron stomach and a sandpaper tongue, try the hot sauce instead. It’s got a thicker body and a much richer taste. Be warned, the hot sauce has got some badass kick.
If you’re looking for diversity, you can try one of their combination meals. My suggestion is the rib tip, fried chicken, and hot link combination. Leon’s doesn’t have pulled meat, but they do carry fried chicken, catfish, and other seafood. All their food is accompanied with thick fries, white bread, and some relatively plain coleslaw.
The gem of Chicago barbecue is probably its newest addition, Honey 1 BBQ (2241 N. Western Ave.). This restaurant is a transplant from the Austin neighborhood, so it’s technically not new, but it’s a lot easier to get to. One of the first things you notice is the smoker in the front window, chock full of different meats sucking up sweet smoke all day long. The gentlemen at Honey 1 smoke their meat over cherry wood right where you can see it, and as soon as you step into their utilitarian eating quarters, you’ll be ready to eat.
My favorites here are the ribs and the rib tips, doused in loads of their tangy and slightly spicy barbecue sauce. Rather than using baby back ribs, Honey 1 goes for the thicker, chewier sparerib. These ribs provide a bit of bite rather than simply falling apart, but they are no less delicious than baby backs. Honey 1 is also one of the few places that offers smoked poultry like turkey legs and whole chicken. And like Leon’s, you’ll typically receive white bread, fries, and a tiny container of coleslaw to accompany the meal.
Picture yourself gnawing on a giant smoked turkey leg drenched in barbecue sauce, daydreaming about summer in the dead of winter. There’s nothing better – so go out, find some, and start warming up.