Eight Hours of Barbecue on the South Side
In a fun but demanding day 6 or 7 of us ate barbecue from about 2pm to 10pm. As always on this sort of outing the company was great and the friendliness and generosity of the people we met along the way was amazing. Special thanks to Gary for tutoring us in some of the finer points of barbecue ("Now just lick the surface of the rib and tell me what you taste."). He was able with a single bite of a rib to determine with a frightening degree of accuracy exactly how the batch had been prepared and what shortcuts might have been taken. Hopefully hell have time to provide some more insight and details.
We averaged about 1 place per hour, nearly all south of 71st and east of Ashland and generally ordered a slab of ribs, rib tips, and hot links with both hot and mild sauce on the side. White bread and fries invariably came along. There was a high degree of similarity in menus, barbecue pits, fuel, etc but the meats that emerged from each establishment were very different.
Things started out fairly auspiciously at I-57 Rib House. Excellent rib tips with good meaty texture and decent smoke flavor. Very spicy hot links were good too. Ribs were less successful with something of a fall-off-the-bone texture and less flavor than the tips. Some of the sides like okra probably merit attention (we had to try to stay focused). Shirley, the owner couldnt have been nicer, talking with us the entire time we ate in their small waiting area, sharing her stories and insights with us. Worth a visit.
Best BBQ is on the other side of the Interstate from I-57 Rib House and is run by their relatives. Food was fairly similar to I-57 but overall a notch down. Gary arranged a tour of the pit area where we admired the stainless steel and glass pit with a nice hickory fire.
There used to be quite a number of BBQ houses on 111th, 115th and surroundings. Most are now boarded up, vacant lots, or holes in the ground. We made definite progress in paring down and updating the list of south and west side places.
We took a BBQ break at Old Fashioned Donuts and were glad we did. This place is fantastic, a real civic treasure. Superlative blueberry donuts and apple fritters (Gary almost wept), nice caramel glazed cake donuts, and excellent pineapple frosteds. Only the filled donuts were generally disappointing. The highlight of the day. Go!
Then to 87th Street BBQ, a Chicago Magazine recommendation. Very mediocre across the board though I did like their hot sauce quite a bit. As Prof Wiv would say, "If youre talking about the sauce its a bad sign." The only BBQ place we visited that has tables.
The Rib Joint, where Id been only once before, was a pleasant surprise to me. With some of the better ribs of the day (number three?) plus good tips and links, it definitely went up a notch or two in my opinion. Another lesser-known but worthy place.
Barbara Anns is currently closed for remodeling. We peeked in and saw much progress has been made but there is clearly a lot of work still to do.
I used to go to DD&S and liked it. I dont know if we hit them on a bad day or if things have really slipped but this was definitely not the BBQ I remember. There was a suspiciously long wait (reheating leftovers?) and the whole assortment just looked bad and didnt taste much better.
While looking for a long-departed BBQ house (thanks Metromix!) we stopped at Georges. They have a real cute little mini pit but thats about the only good thing I can say. Really bad barbecue. Josh and I were standing on the sidewalk gagging down a couple rib tips (the others had retired to the cars in disgust) when a homeless woman approached us for money for food. We gave her the entire big bag of meat and I almost felt guilty about it.
Time for taste bud recalibration at Lems. Top notch hot links, excellent tips, good ribs. The ribs had that wonderful char and good firm texture but seemed a little lighter on the smoke than usual. Still one of the class acts in Chicago BBQ. We ate outside hunkered over a building ledge and nearly froze out butts off (the wind had really picked up at that point). The people inside were amused watching us and kindly brought out some more utensils, napkins, and moist towelettes for us.
We needed to get inside and we needed a drink (we were nearing the 7 hour point) so we went across the street to the New Apartment Lounge, home of the great saxophonist Von Freeman (he only plays on Tuesday, cruelly the day Lems is closed). Youll never guess what we talked about with the bartender and other customersbarbecue! A place called Exsenators came highly recommended for the second time in the day so we decided to head south, far south.
Exsenators is a little yellow building on 159th Street in Markham. We just managed to beat the 10pm closing time and went through the usual ordering drill. I dont know about the others but I was just going through the motions as the thought of still more smoked meat was not very appealing. Thankfully they let us eat on the bench in the little ordering area. I really wasnt looking forward to standing around in the snow any more. As soon as we opened the styrofoam tub something was obviously different: the fries actually looked good. Amazingly enough they tasted good too, a first for the day. Rib tips had good texture and flavor. Hot links were excellent though not as spicy as at many places. Ribs were very meaty and smoky with excellent texture. Everyone began eating with renewed vigor. A real winner. We spent quite a while afterwards talking with the pitman, Dwight, a young but obviously very talented and dedicated artist. I need to get back here but wish it wasnt so far. By the way, Exsenator is the owners first name.
On the way home we stopped outside the former location of the State Street Lems (those are very sad words to type) and looked inside the newly remodeled building. It seemed to be a doctors office or something and it seems highly unlikely that Lems will ever reopen in that location. I shot a few sad photos of Gary standing forlornly outside the door marked 5914.
Then home to bed and dreams of meat. A friend called early next morning to see if I wanted to go to Mannys for a breakfast of corned beef hash. "No way in hell," I replied, then chugged another liter of Apolinaris and went back to bed.
I-57 Rib House
1524 W 115th St
Best Bar B Que
1648 W 115th St
Tue-Sun 11-2am, Mon 11am-10pm
Old Fashioned Doughnuts
11248 S Michigan Av
87th Street BBQ
100 W 87th St
The Rib Joint
423 E 87th St
Barbara Anns BBQ (temporarily closed)
7617 S Cottage Grove Av
7100 S South Chicago Av
Georges Chicken & Ribs
7113 S State St
Mon-Thu 11-3am, Fri-Sat 11-5am, Sun 11-12am
Lem's BBQ House
311 E 75th St
New Apartment Lounge
504 E 75th St
Von Freeman plays Tue
3349 W 159th St
Tue-Thu 3pm-10pm, Fri-Sat 3pm-1am
Lem's BBQ House (CLOSED)
5914 S State St
did you notice if Leo's (2538 W. 59th St.) is still in business? it was one of three bbq spots mentioned by Jonathan Gold quite some time ago (the other's being alice's and lem's)
interesting the solid opinion of the rib joint on your trip. it's been a while but my opinion some time ago of the rib joint was solid but not noteworthy. it's seems as if they're been an uphill trend to their stuff
Hey Zim, I remember you asking about this a while ago. I thought I had responded but I guess I forgot. I found the following in my "to post" folder, apparently untouched since May 2002. I dont know if the information is still current. Ill be sure to post an update if I find anything new.
Okay, Zim, heres another you can scratch off your list.
I always liked the idea of a 24/7 BBQ place, especially one that was reported to be good. So I stopped by Leos a few Sundays ago. Closed. It was so dark inside and the security screen so thick I couldnt make out much of anything except a lunch counter with stools, most without seats. Went back later on a weekday only to find theres no barbecue on the menu as far as I could tell, only burgers, gyros, hot dogs, etc. I was going to ask what happened but I didnt sense a real friendly vibe.
Leos Grill (was Leos BBQ Pit)
2534 W 59th St
"Is Leon totally gone?"
If you mean Leons Bar-BQs, there are currently three: 1640 E 79th, 8251 S Cottage Grove, and 1158 W 59th.
If you mean Leon himself, Mr Leon Finney Sr, hes still around too. I saw him last month, nattily attired, driving around in his cream colored Rolls Royce with LEON RIB plates.
re: Rene G
I think the picture that ReneG paints of the operational state of the Leon's empire might be indicative of a certain attenuation of managerial control. Which for me, has resulted in a decline in quality control.
I've been to Leon's twice in the last 6 months, (different locations), the most recent visit being about 2 weeks ago. On both occasions, I was completely unimpressed, and didn't think the product (tips and ribs) were worthy of any consideration. They were not included in the Q-athon last week, for that reason, and most notably I did not hear any great dissent from the other participants.
Great BBQ is a long labor of love. On my last visits to these Leon's, I've noticed the distinct absence of anyone behind the glass who seems to care passionately about their product. And I've certainly never seen Leon.
re: Rene G
It's funny, I have so much to say on this subject I just don't know where to start. Rene, RST and Joel have admirably, and in great detail, captured not only the nuts and bolts of where, when, why, but atmosphere as well. Tooling around Chicago's South Side with a bunch of food obsessed friends is one hell of a way to spend the day, puts me in mind of the quote attributed to P. W. Haberman, Jr. "A gourmet is just a glutton with brains" Though for the most part we were not gluttons, demurely tasting, discussing, becoming involved with the complete process.
I was, in general, disappointed, hugely disappointed. Chicago is a great town, a great food town, South Side Chicago BBQ is legendary, romanticized in song, prose and poetry. Subject matter for such wonderfully evocative BBQ books as Smokestack Lightning by Lolis Eric Elie, or as mundane as The BBQ Bible by Steven Raichlen. Dismal, lifeless, mealy textured ribs at South Side BBQ joints, how can this be, foil on the South Side of Chicago? Tell me it ain't so.
The first place we went to, I57, I took a bite of rib tip, light smoke, crisp fat in the fire flavor, nice piggy flavor. I thought to myself, "Now this is what I'm Talking About" God I was happy, first place out of the box, first bite, top notch. I was in for a let down, and fast. Second bite, spare ribs, now mind you the rib tips, in my not so humble opinion, were very good, but the ribs. WTF, is this even the same place?
Amazingly, at least to me, the ribs were devoid of any flavor, smoke, fat in the fire crispness (caramelization/Maillard reaction) and were, amazingly, mealy/mushy verging on rib pudding. Was I at Twin Anchor's on the North side or I57 on the South? An anomaly, this has to be an anomaly, good tips, bad ribs, interesting, but, hopefully, statistically insignificant.
On to Best which also used, as is typical on the South Side, a steel and tempered glass pit manufactured by Avenue Metal Pits or one of it's offshoots, real wood in the back, wood smoke smell, now this has to be the real deal, I was excited. We order, Josh brings in his cool-as-hell portable picnic table, Mr. Dickson spreads out the BBQ, Stephine passes out napkins, Rene and RST observe with their laser eyes and razor sharp minds, Joel stands back a foot or three, ever the objective observer, and the big guy in black snaps a few pictures and salivates like one of Pavlov's puppies.
Not good, disappointment, big sigh, how can this be, what the heck is going on? Let me qualify, when I say not good, I don't mean as bad as, say, George's on 71st and State where the meat, literally, had a hair in it and the hair was probably more edible than the meat, I mean not good as in comparison to Lem's or even Exsenator.
We did have some pretty good ribs, The Rib Joint, Joel's favorite, or second favorite, was good, though I thought the ribs slightly creosoted, with the corresponding slight bitter flavor. This does not disqualify them by any means, especially in light of the competition, I really need to try The Rib Joint again. Also Exsenator seemed quite good, though my, and everyone else's, taste buds were beat up at that point, 9-hours of BBQ will do that to a person.
Lem's, at least in my opinion, was in a class by itself. I thought, at the time, that Lem's had a little less smoke flavor than normal, but this was the second last stop of the day and we, at lest me, were beat and my taste buds were not in fine tune. Eating outside in 15-mile winds and cold did not help either. I should add that I am not, in any fashion, advocating heavy smoke flavor as a plus in BBQ, I like light smoke, but to be BBQ there really has to be some evidence of interaction with wood, which some places simply did not have,
YourPalWill has mentioned he went to Lem's on the 4th of July and they were out of ribs, it was a very busy day, and they said it would be an hour, which is about the time it takes Lem's to cook a batch of ribs. This is why Lem's is great, they do not hold the ribs for weeks, they do not freeze the "product" they run out, you wait or go somewhere else. Period.
I should add that I spent the week of New Years in Texas, both in Houston and Austin, in total the past two weeks I have eaten in 14-BBQ joints with one standing out far from the pack, Cooper's in Llano Texas, where god goes when she is in the mood for brisket. Lem's, in my not so humble opinion, is by far and away the best BBQ in Chicago, aside from my back yard. (smile)
Once again, an incredibly enjoyable day spent with my fellow Chowhounds.
Lem's BBQ East 75th Street
re: G Wiv
I just discovered this thread and have only begun to read it so an apology if some of what I discuss has already been mentioned.
I've been to Lem's on State treet, about six or seven years ago as part of an 8,000 mile driving trip on business. In truth this is 25+ days away from home starting in D. C. meandering to Denver, then Albuquerque, then returning. After twenty + years I hate it. Serious. But to make it interesting over the years I've gone out of my way to seek out the best of this or that and try my best to have them on successive days.
The visit to Lem's was part of a trip that included both Arthur Bryant's and Gates in K. C. along with Interstate (Memphis), McClard's (Hot Springs), Dreamland (original in Tuscaloosa), Johnny Ray's in Birmingham, Luling, Kreuz (original), Salt Lick, Cooper's in Llano, Clark's in Tioga (when it had 3 1/2 stars from the Dallas Morning News), Sonny Bryan's on Inwood, Guy and Mae's win Williamsburg, KS, R and S in Wichita and a couple of others. On this trip McClard's was the best and Dreamland, Clark's and Gates where noteworthy disappointments. On other trips Dreamland has been either the best I've ever had or a real disappointment. All at the original, all when the owner was still there.
Lem's was superb.
Overall I found that there was real inconsistency from even the same bbq joint from one visit to the next. Much of this depended on the particular rib as well as how LONG THEY HAD BEEN OFF OF THE PIT. It wasn't as easy to have freshly q'd ribs as I might have thought. More often than not they were cooked to a point and then kept warm on the side. Part of my problem might have been that I couldn't time the visits to, say, the middle of a lunch or dinner hour. It was just when I found myself there. On that trip I had raved about Dreamland and brought a friend with me who drove 65 miles down from Birmingham. Incredible disappointment. Fatty ribs, good flavor but obviously had sat for a bit. Everywhere I went on this trip I learned to ask if they had any ribs that were fresh from the pit. Often I was looked at as having asked a question typical of a Yankee. Especially in Texas. (I tried to balance this with "marbled" brisket.)
Did you find the same kind of inconsistency on this trip? I've recommedned McClard's, Luling, Dreamland and the Skylight Inn in Ayden, NC on here and in all of them had at least one person report they were disappointed. I respect the opinion because it has happened to me, too, on occasion. At a pit that I know at their best is extraordinary.
In any event a truly worthy research project that someone (several of you are extremely expressive) should attempt to publish. Thanks for a GREAT read.
I should chime in on the Q-athon. All in all it was a fantastic day, at some points exhiliarating with discovery, even if we were all dragging at that final tasting in Markham, IL around 9:30 p.m. A problem I think all of us have privately admitted to, is the dulling of taste buds that takes place after 9 hours of a forced march with nothing to sustain us but smoked meat, bread, and water. After a while it did become difficult to distinguish and isolate the flavors we were looking to identify. Of course this meant to all of us: another fact-finding mission would be necessary!
So maybe the most important accomplishment of this first pass was the identification of certain places that need revisiting, as well of ALL of the places which were no longer in business, or which had changed ownership. A huge amount of time was wasted just trying to find places that were in the phone book, listed on the internet, or on ReneG's master list, but which simply didn't exist anymore. That's a lot of time which should be saved on the next tour, at least of the South Side, although not completely. My map had over 30 places pinpointed, and we only visited or wrote off fewer than twenty. So there are still a fair number of south side zones that could be explored, for example up and down Ashland between 70th and 90th, the whole area east of Stony Island, and the area west and north of Hyde Park. And I'm afraid the same issue (of places questionably in business) will present itself if there is ever a West Side tour.
Without getting into an abstract deconstruction of BBQ cooking techniques favored by some, I can best report on my tastebuds' impressions, which I tried to keep open-minded at every new place, in spite of location, or ambience (or presence thereof), or friendliness of owners (or lack thereof), or dining conditions inside or outside, i.e tables, ledges, car hoods, or portable picnic tables.
The pleasant surprises were:
Wonderfully flavored and crisp rib tips at I-57, (an opinion only slightly tempered by their mediocre ribs). Owner Shirley Williams also gets an award for Most Friendly and Helpful South Side BBQ'er, even if she steadfastly refused to tell Gwiv some of her secrets.
1124 W. 115th St.
The Rib Joint- I recognize that I am a minority of one, but this was the second trip I'd made here in about 2 weeks, and my opinion was not only unwavered from the first visit, but strengthened, in that these are some of the best ribs and rib tips on the south side. For me they had everything-- a nice but not too chewy crispiness on the outside, a beautiful smoke ring on the rib meat, tender but still chewy meat down towards the bone, and a wonderful smokiness throughout. Gwiv thought he tasted a hint of creosote on the outside of the ribs, which he attributed to improper fire management, but I didn't taste it. The workers or owners here are not the friendliest and in fact stymied Gwiv in all of his efforts to engage them in knowledgeable conversation and even in taking a souvenir snapshot of the smoker. (And I would certainly hate to think that his overall opinion of the place might have been tainted by their suspicious refusal to answer questions or allow photographs.)
432 E. 87th
Exsenator's - This place was unknown to everyone except to a couple of other denizens of the neighborhood around 75th Street, who enthusiastically mentioned this place when asked for recommendations. There's no question that this BBQ is very good, maybe even very, very good, but I'd like to temper at least my opinion a little by saying that it was very late at night when we got there, and it was the last of about 8 or 9 rib samplings we'd tasted. I was overly full, and my taste buds were suffering from sensory overload at that point. I do have a memory of a wonderful, deep rich flavor all the way down into the meat. The pitman scored very well on the passion scale, as he was willing to brag about his craft at length, albeit always through the bulletproof glass, even up to closing time. Exsenator's deserves a fresh visit, at least by me, with fewer temporal and gustatory distractions.
3349 W. 115th Street
DD&S- Maybe we went to wrong branch (there are 3 of them I think), but everything was pretty awful, in all respects.
7100 S. Chicago Ave.
87th St. BBQ - Glowingly recommended by the Chicago Tribune, this place served some of the worst BBQ I've ever eaten. We concluded the Tribune liked it so much because it may have been the only place they weren't afraid to go to. It's located in a heavily trafficked strip mall, next door to a Subway Sandwich Shop and across the street from a Jewel.
100 W. 87th
Best BBQ- run by an estranged relative of Shirley Williams of I-57 fame, this joint really did everything at a mediocre level. I think we all expected so much better from the Williams clan, especially since it's within spitting distance of I-57 itself.
1648 W. 115th
Barbara Ann's - still closed by the Health Department, and I've still never tasted their hot links.
7617 S. Cottage Grove
George's BBQ (formerly Ferguson's) - As ReneG mentioned, after a couple of bites we gave these ribs away to a hungry passerby. Enough said. I also walked in late enough-- thankfully-- to have missed the hair of questionable body location that others had already pulled off the meat.
7113 S. State
Lastly I'm amused my own reveries of the daylong tour, especially since it's the memory of Old Fashioned Donuts that keeps popping up every now and then to make me smile like a kid. I loved this place, for what they're doing, for how they're doing it, and also for the incredibly fascinating and bustling stretch of S. Michigan Avenue that it helps to anchor. There may not be many food establishments along those blocks, but they could still be a goldmine for Chicago historians. Just by looking at the old storefronts, you can catch glimpses of every kind of community inhabiting this neighborhood at one time or another.
Sadly, my schedule did not allow me to stand outside for 7 hours eating BBQ in the freezing wind. Or to enjoy much good barbecue, as I only made it to the first three, and only I57 (possibly the best tips I have ever had) and Old Fashioned Donuts were close to keepers for me. But, as RST said, it was an excellent education, and just for Rene's list of southside spots and the knowledge of how quickly I can get there, it was worthwhile.
Embarassed, but as requested, I also brought back some tips and lousy ribs which were eaten at my office the day after. The office consensus is that we need to go on our own tasting tour now that we have Joel's map and Rene's list.
There also was the requisite trip down memory lane as the first place (I57) was very near my college girlfriend's home, so I drove by. What a fool I was - I always hauled her to the north side to do stuff, and never really toured the south side. Of course, she would never have gone into these neighborhoods in the 70's anyway, so I guess it wasn't me. And my dearly departed Grandma taught me all I need to know about ribs, "don't trust 'em if they're not chewy, because they cooked away the flavor with the chewy" or something like that. Fall off the bone is wrong, always has been, but I will try to be open-minded about it.
I have some thoughts about south side style, but I will let others weigh in first. I did go out and have barbecue the next day - Chinese barbecue pork at lunch, and Chicago ribs at night, as it turns out, at a little soul food joint in Aurora. Guess I was not satisfied. Will post on the place later, but I was able to follow up on some items from the previous day.
First, I grilled the server, who turned out to be one of the owners and the cook, on how they cooked and served them. Smoked, browned, served without sauce. This sounded good. What arrived had been held somewhere, somehow, far too long (I should have known as the restaurant was not very busy) and while some ribs had decent texture and flavor, most were mushy and bland. She admitted that they do wrap and freeze ribs at times if they need to hold them, "which they hardly ever do...", and then heat them back up to the proper temperature. Hmmm.
The owners were originally from somewhere near Lem's and insisted that west side bbq is different from south side as well, though we got onto other topics and never did go through the exact differences.
Last thing - from my small sample, Chicago barbecue has the sweetest sauce this side of Hawaii. And I swear I57 sneaks some pineapple in their food (actually, I saw a can). Not my preference, but like Al's Beef and his gravy I do not like, it still can come together to make a beautiful thing.
re: dickson d
re: Erik M.
I agree that a number of the sauces tasted like gloppy bad-Chinese sweet-and-sour sauce (maybe they WERE sweet-and-sour!) But the crushed pineapple at I57 is used for the baked beans dish. I didn't taste pineapple and liked the sauce here. I remember it having the same consistency (perhaps slightly thicker) as the sauce of Lem's, i.e. fairly thin: of the sort of consistency that cookbook writers will describe as "coating the back of a spoon". (I just dipped my finger into some Lem's hot sauce and it took about 8-10 secs for the coating to form into a drop). It is far more tomato-oriented though, but has a good balance of sour (vinegar) and has an interesting "graineyness" perhaps from roughly-crushed dried herbs.
This will likely sound terrible, but I have a question about the neighborhoods where these places are located. (Sorry, but one needs to be realistic- plenty of crime victims are victims because they place themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time.) Are they relatively safe for a person to drive down there solo and pick up some chow? Does one need to be particularly careful, or am I just playing into the stereotypes of some of the southside neighborhoods? I had a dicey experience once in New Orleans, which is why I ask.
It's a legitimate question-the answer of which is usually based upon misperception.
I've been to Lem's numerous times both night and day all by my lonesome. I have never been or felt threatened by anyone there.
On July 4, due to a shortage of ribs, I stood in line outside Lems for about an hour in the late afternoon/early evening where I had a wonderful series of discussions with the other patrons of Lems who were also waiting. Of that group, I was the only caucasian. I certainly was treated no differently by my fellow waiters that day nor did I treat anyone else differently.
While few expressed astonishment that I knew about Lems, our discussion was largely about barbeque, which all of us had a substantial interest in considering that we were wating over an hour in 90 degree heat for ribs that day.
Luckily for us, great food knows no class or racial distinctions. The fact that we all enjoy eating is a common element that binds us all together as people.
Step out of your element. One of the greatest lessons that I learned in my youth in the south is that because someone is not as financially as well to do as you, it certainly does not mean that he or she is prone to criminal acts.
Chicago is a fantastic city with a wealth of regional and ethnic chowing opportunities...if you're only willing to seek them out.
I understand your reluctance. I have been to Lem's twice: once last summer with RST and Rene G only to find it closed. Last weekend with the Post Ed's crowd with Ourpalwill leading the way.
Lem's is a cash only place. The staff is behind thick presumably bullet proof glass. Loitering is discouraged by not allowing any comfortable perch to eat on the grounds. The parking lot was packed. Everyone was there with the single purpose of getting their food and moving on.
I ordered one rack of ribs and two orders of large tips with hot sauce as recommended by Ourpalwill. Their hot sauce is not HOT but it does have a mild kick aftertaste. Will warned I had ordered quite a bit of food, which I can concur. The meaty ribs were shared by my mothers and I. The tips made 2.5 meals for my parents and I. Dad finished the tips for breakfast on Tuesday.
I am firm believer in moving confidently wherever I go. If you behave nervous, not suggesting you do, then you are not safe in Main St, Little Town, USA. I will admit random acts of kindness or violence can occur anytime and anywhere. I had a smash and grab incident at my favorite gas station and I still return for fuel! I dont associate the crime with the location, just the wrong person.
For small entrepreneurial food establishments such as Lems to survive, they need our patronage. Now I know the path and ordering technique, I will happily order again in the future.
I was also very much in awe of the Mighty Wiv's prowess in tasting. There was one point during the marathon when the following conversation occurred. Through very shrewd questioning and slow, logical elimination of alternate possibilities, Wiv basically caught the shack owner (SO) off-guard and "nailed" the steps involved in achieving a "compromise" product:
Wiv: How do you get your ribs to get this tender?
SO: It's a process.
Wiv: Do you steam the rib first?
SO (smiling): No. It's a secret process.
Wiv: You wrap it in foil.
SO (a bit taken aback): Yes.
Wiv: But of course you crisp it first.
Wiv: Then you wrap it in foil.
Wiv: The you keep it in the fridge.
(I am not revealing the SO's identity out of respect for the kindness and the candor shown us at this shack.)
It was an extraordinarily fruitful day for me not only bec I had a chance to taste rigorously with such a daunting group of no-nonsense fellow-tasters but bec I also had a lot of fun. I enjoyed chatting about some of my food projects with Josh at the bar at New Apartment Lounge, enjoyed riding around with Dickson and have fallen hopelessly in love with Old Fashioned Donuts (that blueberry donut! And the time-warp setting!) Riding around the southside is a real joy: there are just so many aspects of the food life of Chicago that remain completely undiscovered and it was one thrill after another to spot signs for "cheesy popcorn" "cheesesteak" "hand-packed ice cream" "bean pies" "homemade biscuits and gravy" "cobblers" while weaving in and out of the many numbered streets (I was specially enthralled by 71st which I had never been on before.) We saw many old-time shops offering hoagies, a sandwich form that is virtually never associated with Chicago and heard ReneG's theory on how it emerged on the southside. I think that we will soon see a post by him on the possible history and the possible linkage with Philly (and remember that in Philly, hoagy is a "white" form) of this fascinating curiosity. Most of the time, we tasted standing up, making use of any bit of ledge or flat surface we could find. There was one point when we set up a portable table Josh had in his car on the streetside (!) of our parked cars since the curbside/sidewalk was completely covered in several inches of unshovelled snow (I took a picture w/ Wiv's camera of this set-up). We used a miniature flashlight to check color and form in the dark. We shared several long hours of dejection as we faced one disappointment after another, only to emerge triumphantly at the end of the night with a superior find. We did honorably. And I am very proud to be part of the group.
All throughout the afternoon and night, I kept trying to frame and articulate a series of "big picture" issues and questions to help give a sort of direction to the days' project and perhaps also to arrive at certain criteria for judging. I picked rib shack owners' brains and picked my fellow-tasters' brains on these issues: some of these are very basic and their answers seem self-evident. But I thought that it was necessary to review all the received knowledge from scratch and start anew.
Some of the conversation in the car developed magnificently. I wish I could recreate them. But let try to outline some of the themes pursued through the day to help frame any discussions that follow on this thread and to frame any subsequent BBQ expeditions in the future. (As is obvious, we were too ambitious, deluding ourselves that we could possibly hit 30 shacks in one single day. We barely scratched the surface. I am very enthusiastic about considering a second expedition in the near future.)
Here are some of those issues and themes:
*What exactly defines BBQ? Should Captain Curt's BBQ meat (rather porky and substantial with good chew) be damned bec the smoke element is faint and should it be described as "grilled, not BBQed?"
Is "fall-off-the-bone" a travesty or a valid style of its own. "Fall-off-the-bone" is so widely recognized (or misrecognized) as a style that even BBQ authorities speak of the "fall-off-the-bone standard". Is an attempt at achieving "fall-off-the-bone" texture (specially by questionable means) pandering to this popular misrecognition? When I arrived home last night, I googled "fall-off-the-bone" and behold! got the wisdom and philosophy of the Mighty Wiv himself. This is a virtual manifesto of why BBQ should NOT fall off the bone:
There is an embedded link to chi.eats which is even more interesting. It's a thread initiated by ReneG years ago and which generated a long string of responses. Post #33 is specially interesting bec the handle of the poster is widely-known to be a certain powerful critic's, used during the years when he still posted widely on internet boards.
(Of course, what he said about the Northern Italian style blah blah is pure bullshit and is the sort of thing that RST "occasionally" pulls out of his brain-just like a magician pulls a rabbit out of his hat-just to show how clever he is. ;0) I said "occasionally".
*We tried to pin down and define "Chicago southside style". A few of the elements that determine a southside style that we came up with include:
-the use of specific woods (hickory and oak mostly, but on the commercial level, most shacks have now taken the easier and more economical expediency of lump charcoal-and even worse-briquettes).
Incidentally, from a different source, I was told that most southside shops-including the Jamaican jerk chicken houses-get their wood at 71st and Dorchester. The woodyard on Chicago/Division is another source. But we were told by one of the shack owners that their wood is delivered to them by someone from St. Anne, IL.
Best's uses fruit wood (cherry, apple etc) during special holidays (Fourth of July etc). The owner claims that fruit-wood-BBQ is a completely diff product.
-the typical tempered-glass-and-metal smokers which sit like smoked-filled aquarium dominating the shacks. Armor Metal and Belven (sp?) are a couple of known makers. But the owner of I-57 mentioned intriguingly that a certain Ben (?) was the person who first crafted them (?) and pioneered their use in this city. Wiv will probably have more to say about the direct (as opposed to offset) heat implied by this set-up. He has also posted before on some of the steps that have been honed and perfected by the finest houses to accommodate this particular pit form (for instance, Lem's stands their ribs like fence posts during a stage of the process). He might also be able to add s.th. about the distances (from fire) that are optimal for great BBQ done in this Chicago regimen.
-The St Louis cut spareribs as the primary product. At several places (for ex at the Rib Joint), one will also find this sparerib subdivided into the center cut and small end. Baby backs are offered here and there but in talking to other customers, I gather that this is not considered as tasty a piece of meat (despite the fact that it is easier to smoke).
Above all else: Chicago southside BBQ is marked the general prevalence of the rib tip: this is the one great southside Chicago BBQ urban expression. These tips were once considered "waste" product but were BBQ and offered cheaply enough that they soon took on a whole life of their own as a delicacy. Most houses chop the tips off their slabs themselves and supplement these by buying additional bags. Lem's is generally thought to have pioneered smoking rib tips but Shirley of I-57 claims that they did. In general, the spareribs are in the measurement called "3 1/2 down" in the trade. I find the meat on these to be a bit too meagre for enjoyment. I took a good look at Lem's rib last night and am certain that it is possibly up to a "5". This difference makes for the incomparable sense of luxuriousness and abundance in biting into a Lem's rib. I think that it is crucial. One aspect of the shacks that I did not record systematically was the differences in price. Southside ribs might be pretty standardized and homogenized in form but the prices sure fluctuate quite a bit. Lem's is far more expensive, I think not only bec of its fame but bec of the difference in the size of the ribs to start.
Another issue related to the meat is the question of whether or not "grade/quality of meat" really matters in discussing this urban form. This is a burning issue that has involved many other board members (VI etc) in past arguments. One argument made here is that pork in this country is so thoroughly standardized a product, fed on the same regimen, raised the same way by large industrial methods, butchered exactly the same way everywhere. The conclusion is that, no, in this scene, no one is doing anything differently and that there is no difference in the basic raw material at all from house to house (Pigs that are pampered in organic farms and raised apart from industrial methods yield a better BBQ of course: but the argument is that such product is outside our realm in the investigation of this type of urban form.) The assumption is that the scene is large-distributor-controlled (as is the case with so many aspects of the food life of this city: produce-markets, wine selections etc) Every house gets their own pre-packaged boxes from the same small range of distributors (Swift, IBP etc). Shirley of I-57 insists that she has choice: that she hand-picks each individual lot of slabs as they are brought to the back door (by different distributor) and that she has enough clout to reject whatever is not up to par (if she is telling it as it is: could her suppliers be smaller-scaled butchers?). She mentions that she looks for meatiness, the amount of fat, freshness. However, we did see a large box (preselected?) of Swift make its way towards the pit at Lem's.
-the typical link (sausage) which I will comment on separately as this post is getting too long. There is a "typical" range of other foodstuffs offered (coleslaw, baked beans only at I57, fried catfish at some places, fried chicken, etc)
-I will also not comment much on sauce here and will leave it for the individual discussions. There is little homogenization: we saw examples ranging from what are clearly industrial products (no doubt from wholesale plastic bottles); to products that seem to have been the same industrial products "doctored" in-house with something like Tapatio sauce; to gloppy-ketchupey examples; to a wonderful tomato-based sauce at I57 to Lem's splendidly aromatic version, redolent with exotic spices and unforgettable for its vivid, magnificent vinegar tang. In general, sauce tops all orders in the Chicago southside. Hot and mild versions are offered. We asked for all our ribs with sauce on the side, since Wiv scoffs at sauce. As Wiv says: "if they talk about the sauce, that's bec the meat's no good."
-Finally, there is the question of whether or not there is such a thing as a distinct westside style. A man we ran into at DDS claims theat the best ribs can be found in the westside. But as DDS turned out to be one of the disappointments on this trip, we are sure if we should be believing him or not.
To be continued
(is there such a thing as a southside BBQ culture//why are there so few great Chicago BBQ houses//can a gazillionaire-Danny Meyer or Rich Melman or whoever-ecreate great BBQ by buying talent? What are the factors that determine success of a BBQ operation/business//What are the economics involved in a large-scale/small-scale BBQ house//What makes great BBQ: is it just love and devotion to the craft?)
Wow! Thank you Rene G and RST. These go into the pantheon of all-time-best Chicago chowhound posts. The subject of black barbeque in Chicago (as opposed, to e.g. Texas or pizza parlor generic or lots of other possibilities) still has lots of room for exploration but you made a terrific start. I have fond memories of the long-gone Kirk's BBQ in Detroit and have not yet found its equal here--though clearly I have to try Lem's. I generally settle for Robinson's, but I know I'm missing a lot by doing so. I'd also be interested in further discussion of any westside/southside issues. When I worked, again many years ago, at Madison and Cicero we used to make our runs for tips up to a place under the Lake Street El near Central.
This is a wonderful Chicago topic. Keep it up!
re: Ann Fisher
That's an interesting list, Ann. Of that group, I really only consider Carson's passable.
I do find it interesting that a rack of ribs served on a table cloth at Carson's by a waiter costs just about the same thing as a rack slid through the bullet proof glass and eaten on the hood of your car at Lems does.
I can't wait to try Exsenators.
re: Ann Fisher
Im also very interested in a discussion of south versus west side styles of Chicago barbecue but am nowhere near being able to do it. From too-limited experience Id have to say there are more similarities than differences. While waiting (and waiting) at DD&S, I talked with another guy who maintained that all the good places are on the west side. I wasnt able to extract too many specifics from him and--as RST pointed out--just the fact he was going to DD&S calls into question his judgement (DD&S used to be much better; for what its worth theres another DD&S at 8114 S Stony Island that I havent been to for years).
The place you refer to on Lake near Central, would that have been Rib Palace at 5607 W Lake St (just off the SW corner)? I think it was still in business a year or two ago but am not certain if it still is. In any case there are still a good many west side places to explore.
That Citysearch list really is profoundly depressing isnt it?
re: Rene G
I believe any day I have learned something new is a day well spent. Thank you for introducing Bid Whist, which I googled to learn is a card game popular in the Black community.
For anyone else who is in the dark on Bid Whist, I have linked a site below.
That's a surprise - I spent much of my college years at IIT hanging with south and west siders, almost all white (sorry, Chicago is a profoundly segregated city, still, and certainly was even more so in the 70's, not apologizing or justifying in any way), and playing whist. Never imagined it was a black, regional thing.
Anyway, I think it may be more regional than racial, C2, and is probably more common in the UK than anywhere. But I certainly could be wrong about the bigger picture.
re: dickson d
My comments were based on the information in the link and the specific name --- I had no idea what Annieb was referring to.
Thinking about this more, I recall Whist played in Colonial times. So that it may be played in the UK wouldn't be surprising. Googled Whist again and there is a page outlining Whist and related variants.
Maybe "Minnesota Whist" is popular with Norweigian Bachelor Farmers --- I have no idea just making it up! Though I did click through to "Minnesota Whist" the first sentence indicates it is popular in Northern Minnesota and simply called "Whist." Circular thinking here!
I will also post this to Not about Food, since it's not about food.
Trick-taking games are generally very popular as they are great socializers. I am excluding bridge and contract bridge, which have tournaments, etc.
However, bid whist in Chicago has something equivalent, which I have heard about from friends who are players, and was, I believe, written about in the Reader in a feature article a few years ago. I believe that article also referenced the south-west side competition. Although perhaps tension is perhaps a better word for the world beyond bid whist.
Trick-taking games also tend to be very regional, as the fun comes in playing your opponents for a fool. This would explain the use of jokers in many of these games.
When I lived in Southern Brasil, I was taught canasta (a three-handed version) by my downstairs neighbors. Through them I learned a lot about Brasil, about food, a whole lot of portuguese, much of it (and all that relates to canasta) forgotten.
After all, who could recall after 30+ years, the equivalent in another language of the "left bower" and the "right bower" which are IIRC the jacks in euchre. Someone from Indiana chime in and correct me if I am not referencing properly a "Michigan Gainer."
These games are very rich in the Midwest, or maybe it's just I've lived here for a long time. We played Hearts constantly when visiting my grandparents in Pontiac, Michigan. We also played Tripoli, a game manufactured in Chicago (is the building on the near south side with "Play Tripoli" still there?) that involved both tricks, cards, and a board and chips, if I recall. Also caroms. I should mention that both of my grandparents were originally from Illinois.
When we visited childhood friends who had recently visited their aunt, uncle, and cousins in Jackson, MI, we spent a frenzied summer playing penuchle.
Once, in 7th grade, while I was sent to spend Easter vacation with my aunt and uncle up north in Michigan while my parents took a second honeymoon, I was taught to gamble (and that you didn't get your money back at the end of the game:-) on trick taking games. One was called Ginch and the other was called Oh Hell, I think because if you didn't take exactly as many tricks as you bid for, you had to match the pot. My uncle told me he had been taught those games by his grandfather, who worked in the lumber camps of northern Michigan when he was young.
Grandpa Mac was alive into his nineties, and I remember him dancing a clog every year on his birthday. I guess that was their other entertainment.
The fascination with "new decks" may have come from the many opportunities of men in lumber camps to memorize the particular nicks etc. of a deck and create undue advantage. But I'm only speculating.
I also learned many variants of solitaire in Brasil, which I still occasionally enjoy.
re: Rene G
Rib Palace, yes. That's the name. I don't remember that we went there because it was in some best-ever list, but because it was the best within a five or 10 minute run for lunch. And I recall that we always did tips, which the great tour has shown us can be done well much more easily than ribs. But I'd be delighted to refresh my recollection ;-).
re: Ann Fisher
David started a thread on the General Board (linked below) inviting the larger CH community to weigh in with comparisons and contrasts to Chicago BBQ. I think that it is quite clear from the responses so far that the popularity of rib tips is one of the most striking features of our BBQ culture. Quite hilariously, one of the correspondents "Sandy" wrote that rib tips (looked down upon and discarded elsewhere) are not called such in her part of the country, but are called "cheating". Indeed, there is something of the spirit of the trickster, of the guile of the Confidence Man of Melville involved in the enjoyment of rib tips. Built into the social exchange is the act of "conning" the customer, of making him shell out money for what in fact end-parts of bones that one might feed to dogs. But the cunning operates in the other direction as well and expresses itself in the very act of eke-ing out every bit possible for the littlest amount necessary, and thus trumping Fate. There is, in the end, a sheer sense of joy and triumph in having cheated Necessity and having made it through another meal.
It is a magnificent, thoroughly urban expression.
Inseparable pair, Spareribs and Rib Tips offer two opposing possibilities of pleasure, two distinct forms of transaction and exchange. Together, they make up what is almost certainly the only true big-city expression of American BBQ culture.
The Sandy you refer to is a "He."
What I meant was that to substitute the "tip" (and I still don't have a definition) for the rack would be considered cheating, sort of like some of the chains trimming the rack so as to remove much of the good meat. Down here (central SC), ribs are the entire rack, untrimmed. If the tips are that portion with the little round cartilage, that is left on the rack, and people would raise a ruckus if it were removed.
That makes sense. I didn't think an aficianado like you would be dissin' the tips. I grew up in the South and was surprised a little by how much the Chicago places "clean up" the ribs. On the other hand, I have grown to love just the tips, and I'm happy you can buy them seperately here. I don't agree, generally that they have hardly any meat as discussed above. If you're willing to work a little and deal with some connective tissue, which I don't mind, tips can be downright filling. The thing I thought was interesting about tips when I arrived here, was the fact that they are the "waste" of the "waste," the throw-away part of a cut that was itself once the throw-away part of the pig.
I'm still not clear as to just what they are. From some descriptions, they seem to be the brisket bone portion of the ribs, which, I think, is trimmed off to make what are referred to as St. Louis ribs. This is the style of cut that is usually served in the chain restaurants.
Ribs are not a big item in the many of the Mom & Pop bbq joints down here, especially those that make their pulled pork from butts or from the whole hog, but those ones that do have ribs have them untrimmed. We have one local place that at a certain time in the evening brings out what's left of the carcasses, and you're free to go up and tear off what you want, skin, bone, or flesh.
I don't advocate eating at Famous Dave's, a MN BBQ chain with a Chicago theme (see also Buca di Beppo re Minneapolis' use of Chicago as theme restaurant inspiration), but they do have a good explanation, linked below, of what tips are and are not.
I am familiar w/ Carolina BBQ, and know that ribs are not really the thing down there -- much bigger in AL, TN, S. IL, AR, etc. As you've gathered by now, there is little or no whole hog (or butts and shoulders for that matter) BBQ in Chicago. The paradigm is ribs, tips, and hot links.
Believe it or not, there's still some hog butchering done in Chicago. Visit a place like Peoria Packing, breaking down maybe 1000 hags at any given time accd. to management, and you can hand-pick any component of a pig you like from an enourmous, cold retail store. You can also find a dizzying array of hot links (like hot Polish with some breakfasty overtones from sage) made within a few blocks from what's left over.
Thanks for chiming in from S Carolina, on the General Board and on this thread. (And sorry about the confusion of s/he.)
I am rushing out of the house this minute and so cannot go into detail, but linked below is an excellent primer to ribs and cuts of ribs. The link is to page one but make sure to take a look at page 2 as well. Have a look at the link at the bottom of page 2 to "Ribman's" webpage as well. The sections of particular interest are those on the "St Louis cut". Rib tips are, quickly, the cartilage end of spareribs (not back ribs) at the other end of each rib from the sternum. At their longest once chopped off (i.e. from the part that is broadest on the slab), they are about 2 1/2 inch maximum. The crucial thing is remember too is that these are trimmed off BEFORE the slab is BBQd, unlike in your case, where (I assume) the entire slab is BBQd and then cut into smaller rib sections, if desired. Someone else will have to offer an explanation or a speculation on the reason for the "St Louis cut". This perfectly aligned "cut" might have emerged as the preferred cut in certain part of the country (inclg here) possibly to fit a certain BBQing regimen (a form of BBQing vehicle perhaps where an entire "uneven" slab might not cook properly?) or perhaps to satisfy a certain BBQing aesthetic.
The other thought or nuance of a thought that I didn't have the time to develop on the post above is this idea that the appreciation of rib tips emerged/could only emerge in the context of a big brutal heartless city like Chicago. (Maybe some other day, if we pursue this project of surveying the BBQscape of Chicago, I might work on the picee more and develop it into an essay on Chicago BBQ.) And it is this context of the cold cutthroat city that distinguishes the rise of rib tips as a prevailing Chicago streetfood form, from-say-the niche-ing of burned ends at AB at KC as Aaron suggested. Bec with rib tips, there is a sense of Necessity, of being forced to resort to this. The First Chicago School of Architecture is also thought to have blossomed out of Necessity. Louis Sullivan, John Wellborn Root and other geniuses are said to have invented a completely new aesthetic to satisfy the exigencies of a brutal real estate market and of calculating, penny-pinching developers. But I have to run.
(sorry for any errors above; can't proof)
Sorry, there is a very glaring error in the above. The 2 1/2 inches max of the rib tips mentioned above are the serving sections. The part that is chopped off (and I have to check up again on this) is, depending on the part of the rib, anywhere up to (and I am sort of doing a "mental-eyeballing" of this) one inch or slightly more. This is the max that would be trimmed off a rib. You basically get only the cartilage and at most a half-inch of actual rib-bone. The tips come in "rectangles" of 2 1/2 inch max by i inch max serving sections (i.e. the cartilage "strip" is chopped into max 2 1/2 inch sections). Sorry, I absolutely MUST run. More to speculate on later on how correct trimming yields more or less meat on rib tips. Dickson and VI are waiting//we're meeting for lunch.
The above two attempts at a description of rib tips were written in a hurry and not proofed. There are many confusing wordings in these. I have tried again a second time in a new post which is linked below (date of post Feb 3, post #38618). The first parts are for those not familiar at all with pig anatomy and for novices to BBQ. In the latter parts of this post, I go into Chicago specifics on size and cut, trimming, portioning and so on. Hope that helps a bit.
(re: my calling Chicago BBQ perhaps the only true big-city BBQ in the country. I will go into it elsewhere and try to emphasize that except for Chicago, Kansas and perhaps St Louis, i.e. BBQ cities with a horizon of packing houses, most BBQ cities in fact have a whiff of hay and manure. Even Memphis BBQ I think should be seen against a horizon, not of packing houses, but of farms. It is not for nothing that we were once called Hog Butcher of the World. But this is for another thread. Let's not extend this long and old thread and move the discussion forward on new ones.)
20 years ago, when I ate many more rib tips than I do today (e.g. once a week vs. maybe twice a year), rib tips were also the cheap way to eat your BBQ. If I recall, they cost half as much, or maybe even less, than the half slab that was your smallest choice in the ribs themselves. It looks to me now (just checking Carson's and Robinson's websites) that the price differential is narrowing (a dollar cheaper at Robinson's and $3 cheaper at Carsons). I suppose this is what you expect as a throw-away item becomes re-labeled as a delicacy in its own right. Did anyone take notes on this at the rib-a-thon?
re: Ann Fisher
Ann, I think you are so right. The tips were just offered as a cheaper option than the slabs, and when I am ordering at a Chicago rib place, the percantage of tips to ribs is AT LEAST 5:1. It is the same thing with chicken wings. They are primarily popular because they are cheap, but there is also some fatty advantages to wings from a taste persepective.
I doubt the sentiment expressed above about Chicago having the only urban bbq culture really holds true. Dallas, St. Louis, KC, I am sure more (Detroit?), have as good if not better BBQ as Chicago.
Thanks much for the link. Photo 1 on page 1 shows the rack the way it is normally cooked around here - whole and untrimmed. There is one bbq joint here that hacks the whole rack up into 2-3 inch portions, but normally, as you say, the ribs are cooked and then separated into 1-3 whole rib portions.
As a poster below points out, ribs aren't a big thing in most bbq joints down here (as opposed to chains, such as Sticky Fingers), since pulled pork rules, and most places cook either shoulders or whole hogs. The attendant "pulling" process on a whole hog makes the ribs just bone. Also, the whole hog cooking process doesn't lend itself to bringing out the best in ribs, since the entire hog is treated the same, and ribs really require a somewhat different and individual treatment.
Somebody argued me into trying Applebee's ribs the other day - awful, simply awful.
In a similar vein to rib tips, it seems, are burnt ends, that you see in every BBQ place in Kansas City (maybe Texas too?). You don't see brisket here the same way, but are burnt ends offered here? My father-in-law tells me that in his youth, the ends were always thrown in for free, until someone (Arthur Bryant?) realized they were popular enough to sell. In any case, the burnt end sandwich at LC's on Blue Parkway in KC could be the best BBQ'd sandwich I've ever eaten.
re: Rene G
I am looking at my CTA map and it seems from memory that most of these westside BBQ places are clustered today:
1.) Along Pulaski itself, starting from roughly Division and going southwards to a bit past Roosevelt. The largest concentration is Lake/Madison/Harrison. Pulaski is the dividing line: east of Pulaski is Mexican/Puerto-Rican and now "gentrified" territory.
2.) On all the main n/s streets west of Pulaski (Cicero/Laramie/Central/Austin), again from about North/Division on the n to about Roosevelt. South of Roosevelt is the city of Cicero which is old Bohemian/new Mexican.
3.) On North, start around Cicero, going west.
4.) On Division, start around Pulaski. There are a couple of intriguing BBQ places towards the end of the Division bus line (near Austin).
5.) On Chicago, it starts closer to the Loop, at perhaps Kimball/Homan, and again going westwards.
6.) The Garfield Park neighborhood stretches from about Chicago to south to about Harrison. This of course is the neighborhood of Edna's, Wally's Catfish etc. I don't remember ever seeing any BBQ shacks in this neighborhood.
East of Western along these latitudes would be the old Hull House settlements. Today, there are the remnants of the old Italian community (Taylor Street etc), the
old Greek community (Greektown), UIC, the Medical centers, United Center etc.
Around Western, on Harrison and Jackson are a couple of soul food places with hand-painted signs. On Madison/Jackson etc, start looking going west from about Damen.
7.) Lake/Madison/Jackson/Harrison are very rich in small streetfood businesses going west from Pulaski.
8.) Most of the areas south of Roosevelt are now Mexican. This is even more true of the areas south of Ogden. I think that anything south of the diagonal of old Canal (Stevenson Expressway) should be considered with "southside BBQ".
From roaming around these areas through the past summer, my feeling is that there can't be more than 20-25 BBQ places left on the westside. A lot of these are clustered close enough for walking. If we plotted these out on a map like Joel did and separated them into groups of 3, 4 or even 5, we might be able to make each group the object of different impromptu visit, of the kind we do on the listserve when we suddenly want to meet up to eat. By systematically trying each "group", we might be able to cover them all sooner or later.
Anyone up for the project?
I want to continue and wrap up this piece as quickly as possible in anticipation of Joel's and Gary's upcoming posts, which I am awaiting with bated breath.
By the way, I am looking at the map (color photocopy) that Joel meticulously and lovingly prepared for each one of the participants on this tour. I want to thank Joel again for leading this expedition and for his careful organization. I am looking forward to reading his pieces on the Slow Foods Guide to Chicago.
First, a few notes/corrections to the above post. I am sure that more errors (both factual and conceptual) will be found in it later.
1.) Hoagy is spelled that way in the southside, with the -y and not with an -ie. Examples of this spelling can be found on 115th and 71st.
2.) The woodyard on the westside is at Division and Halsted and not "Chicago and Division". Everyone knows of course, that Chicago and Division don't meet.
3.) "Belven" might be spelled Belvin. Shirley of I57 says that "Ben" is now 88 years old. But who and where is "Ben"?
4.) The "powerful" food critic mentioned above (national-level, not local) also happens to be venerated throughout the internet, and beyond. I meant no disrespect. Perhaps I should change the adjective from "powerful" to "venerated". Post #25 of that same chi.eats thread is also his. In it, he says that Lem's and Leon's have absolutely nothing to be ashamed of and can stand up to the very best BBQ in the whole country.
5.) Shirley of I57 says that they work with 5-6 meat purveyors. This is a surprising claim as it suggests that there are still channels for smaller-scale butchers/purveyors and that the "scene" might not be completely dominated by major distributors/packing houses. Could this be accurate? She says that they do not work with contracts and are free to accept or reject lots (lots/bins, not individual slabs) based on quality of meat and competitiveness of price.
I have more notes on pitmen, sources of sausages and so on but those notes are best integrated (later) into individual discussions.
Continuation of "themes/issues":
*The question of family relations.
We all vaguely know that the southside-style BBQ almost certainly came to us (along with food forms like fried catfish) from the Mississippi Delta during the Great Migration of the middle decades of the century. The same movement also led to the great flowering of blues (and many other forms of music and art!) in Chicago. But how exactly is southside BBQ related to Delta BBQ? There is pulled pork and brisket in places like Clarksdale (the Lemons of Lem's came from a town nearby) but these types of meat apparently never made it northwards to us to emerge on the public/business level (or are we missing something). Chicago-Southside style is sometimes lumped together with St Louis style, but East St Louis actually has things that we don't have (snoot, above all). It is sometimes included in the some vague problematic overarching taxonomic subcategory along with Kansas (!) and Memphis-style (!). The stark contrasts with these other styles make it all the clearer that the sparerib and the rib tips are key features. But who pioneered spareribs and rib tips here? Was there ever things like pulled pork in our history before the ribs prevailed.
Spareribs and rib tips. The Don Quixote and Sancho Panza of Chicago streetfood forms. One, a cinch to BBQ, a poor-man's cheap meal, easy to sell, easy to enjoy: a popular Chicago snack. There's really hardly any substance to tips, but what delight in picking and nibbling at the tiny stub of cartilage for any meager bit of meat. The other, clearly the bigger headache to produce, clearly the bigger headache to perfect. It is virtually impossible to make bad BBQ tips (although we DID have a couple of lousy examples along with several very good ones). But a great slab of perfectly BBQed spareribs: it is clearly the greatest prize!
*Is there such a thing as a Chicago southside BBQ culture? We all agreed that there is. One only has to go roam through the southside in the summer to see all the drum grills, pits, smokers going, behind churches, at empty lots, in front lawns, by parking areas of housing projects. As ReneG mentioned above, many of the people we met along the way shared their preferred BBQ methods and their (often rather opinionated) piece of mind about BBQ ("I do NOT like Lem's at all"). It is also worth noting that the BBQ business goes down in the summer (this is according to Dwight Woods, the talented pitman at Exsenator). (On the other hand, Shirley of I57 says that the prices of ribs go down in the winter.) But has this culture become diluted over time? Is there still a strong memory of "how it should be"?
*Related to the above is the question of why there aren't more truly great Chicago BBQs. Have people become too used to compromises? Do southsiders not value this splendid urban form, this splendid urban expression enough? Does it cost too much to produce great BBQ (what are the economic equations)? Is the city too indifferent/uninformed and the public discourse on BBQ too poor? (Based on Ann Fisher's link to Citysearch's horrific list of best BBQs in the city: the answer to this last question is probably yes).
(Quickly, on the ff points, so that we can move on.)
*We imagined a theoretical "great BBQ house" in Chicago that could be built with a million+ dollars. What would the economic equations be? Almost all southside places are take-outs (that's another crucial southside feature) although Captain Curt's is supposedly expanding on both sides of the present location to accommodate a restaurant of 100 seats. Would expanding affect the quality? Could talent (and the love and devotion of a great pitman) be bought?
Finally: we discussed misc topics like why Danny Meyer is not really making it (setting aside his problems with building codes etc). Is it bec he had to dumb down for New Yorkers/the general public? Or what?
Incidentally: both Mabel of Best's and Shirley of I57 say that the pitmen are not important. That they are easy to train. All they need is a culinary/cooking school background and a good feel.
Could this possibly be true? What is that famous French statement (I think Brillat-Savarin's) that goes "on devient cuisinier mais on (nait?) rotisseur"? (i.e. one becomes i.e can learn/study to become a cook; but a great roaster has the art/gift from birth.) Could one not say the same thing about a great pitman? Mabel Tinsley of Best says that she has 5 pitmen. Shirley says she employs 2-3 (plus 2 "girls" to prepare the other things).
Dwight Woods is the sole pitman at Exsenator.
Linked below is Gary's extraordinary set of pictures taken at the now-gone Lem's on 59th. He has posted it on the board before, with notes on things like the technique of standing the ribs on the grill like fence-posts. It is a record (perhaps the only exhaustive record?) of a great rib shack that has disappeared into the mists of Chicago history (or shall we say, the "smokey BBQ haze" of history-that same telltale haze in the pictures). The picture of the exterior on the upper left (first row) says "Chicago" to me. It captures everything that I dearly love about this city. It captures everything quintessential: the dappled sunlight coming through the wooden slats and the steel trestle and the cross-bracing of the rusting el; the little patch of springtime green-so full of hope-on that abandoned lot; that superb wall of meticulously hand-laid common bricks on the side of the building; the boarded-up windows and the many makeshift renovations that have altered that noble limestone building over the years but have not diminished its beauty and its spirit. Even the windows on the Lem's building are quintessentially, quirkily "Chicago". For those triple arched windows on the second level not only echo Louis Sullivan's Romanesque arches (which are often in triples) but are also in fact a kind of unusual prototype/variation of the so-called "Chicago window" (a central large glass pane flanked by 2 smaller side windows//the same rhythm of triples is still used in the design/fenestration of contemporary Chicago skyscrapers.) How many of these "ordinary" buildings, these bits of our everyday life have disappeared in recent years into the haze of history?
the typical tempered-glass-and-metal smokers which sit like smoked-filled aquarium dominating the shacks. Armor Metal and Belven (sp?) are a couple of known makers. But the owner of I-57 mentioned intriguingly that a certain Ben (?) was the person who first crafted them (?) and pioneered their use in this city.
Richard, Playing catch up here. Rereading the Lem's section of Smokestack Lightning, Elie says, in 1951 a sheet metal business owned by Leo Davis designed the "metal bottomed pits with the plexiglass hoods that have come to be synonymous w/ Chicago barbecue"
Perhaps a connection?
I believe, though I can't find the cite at the moment, Leo Davis's company was named Avenue Metal, which is what, and I am not speaking for RST, RST may have meant.
In my opinion all the Southside Chicago Aquarium style pit owe their basic design to Davis. Belvin (belden), if my notes are correct and I understood the BBQ proprietor correctly, is a company currently producing Aquarium style pits in the Chicago area.
Much of this information needs to be gone over, we were speaking to pit men/owners/customers etc while, for the most part, they were in the course of their everyday business and we were scribbling furiously. I also intend, for my own edification, to track down the current source of Chicago Aquarium style BBQ pits, I will be happy to share what I learn.
re: G Wiv
re: Rene G
Someone just alerted me to this development to the thread.
Mike, there is another drum grill maker on Pulaski at about Lake (?) Not as far south as your Roosevelt address. It's on the east side of Pulaski and is called (I think) Davis Metals (?).
Also note that Jamaican jerk chicken places in the southside (and there are some 50 or so of them there) also commission drum grills. The one at B&B (79th, just w of Cottage Grove) is a real beauty and was crafted by a friend of the owner.
The "pit" at Honey 1 BBQ is Belvin: the name is on a little plaque welded to the top of the aquarium. Honey 1 opened 7 months ago, and I am pretty sure that the pit is new as well. When we visited last Sat, Gary had the impression that the height of the "grill" within was a little higher than normal. Mr. Adams of Honey 1 BBQs over wood only (no charcoal or briquettes) at very low temperature for a period of two hours (for both ribs and tips). The additional few inches of distance from the fire (if this not something we imagined) seem to reinforce the slow "thin-blue-smoke" BBQing style used in this house.
ReneG just posted on the Westside Foray last Fri. I will post my notes for Fri and for the separate trip I made with Gary on Sat tomorrow. Notes on Honey 1 will be found over there.
re: G Wiv
Not the same thing obviously, but this summer I took a business card from a guy named Al, selling grills he made from recycled drums (sm, med, large)out of his van at the corner of Pulaski and . . .Madison (I think?) I'm sure there are little cottage industries like his all over the city--you see them in yards everywhere--all over the country, really. Never having used one, I imagine their smokability comparable to say a Weber kettle. Anyway, I wonder if this particular innnovation developed here, or anywhere in the industrial north, rather than arriving with the migration.