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Oct 22, 2007 10:33 AM

Real BBQ in Chicagoland

I'm looking for places that could meet the KCBS BBQ standard for making real "Q". Interested in select group of opinions, recommendations and critiques of real BBQ places in the Chicagoland area. Here are the criteria.

So what qualifies?
* They key word here is SMOKER, they MUST have and use one on the premises!
* Places that use traditional BBQ woods to slow cook; hickory, oak, apple wood etc. And not just lump charcoal or briquettes or God help us, gas!
* Meat that is presented with the sauce on the side, or if it’s on, it’s lightly basted at the end of the cooking process. Not BBQ stew!
* Places that offer the "Holy Trinity" of BBQ; They MUST offer ribs (baby-back or spare or both), pulled pork AND beef brisket, all three to qualify. Bonus points if they can actually cook them all well. Quality meats slow cooked for hours in a smoker, 4+ hr for ribs, 15-20 for shoulders/butts or briskets.
* Places that offer smoked turkey, ham, bologna, pork tenderloin, fish etc are a definite bonus
* Chicken is an optional “ok to offer”, so are rib tips.
* Sides; should offer fresh cut or at least good quality French fries, homemade coleslaw, potato salad, baked beans etc.

And what does NOT qualify?
* OK, let’s not argue about them, although they are good for what they are, and to all those who like them, please understand, they just don't fit this particular list’s criteria; Anchor Bar, Portillo's, Carson's, Weber Grill.
* Anyplace that bakes, boils, steams, or braises the meat, no exceptions!
* BBQ painters; those places that paint BBQ sauce on the pre-cooked meat (usually baked/boiled) with BBQ sauce, and then char grill it for a minute(almost always over gas) to get a crust or grill marks and then call it BBQ.
* Grilled food in general - if it's prepared over high heat (cooked at over 250 degrees) or cooked fast like a hamburger, it’s not BBQ.
* “Faux Q” or fake BBQ, pressed, frozen, or processed shredded pork sandwiches don’t fit here, i.e. the McRib sandwich.

Try to think of Famous Dave's or Bandanna's menu as the basic benchmark to start from and now work your way up. They both offer pretty much this basic menu and do a fair job (maybe a 6 out of 10 points) especially for being large chains.

Personally, I'm looking for places that are Memphis or Texas style as opposed to the Deep South, Carolina's or KC, but any of the true regional BBQ styles are indeed welcome.

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  1. Well, I'd strongly disagree with the assertion that "real bbq" requires the inclusion of brisket -- I like it but in my opinion, Chicago's best bbq places don't have it and don't need it. Pork's my thing. I also tend to shy away from baby backs b/c they can't stand up to long hours of smoking like spareribs. And while I guess I can see smoking butt for 15 hours, it does depend on size . . . some can take as little as 8-10 hours and be properly smoked. And sorry, but some of my recs have bad sides . . . but I'm there for pork and smoke, not sides, so oh well. But we can continue these debates another day.

    Have you tried Honey 1, Uncle John's, Barbara Ann's or Lem's? All offer outstanding examples of traditionally smoked spareribs (also offering chicken, pork, tips and links), and all four serve w/ sauce on the side (might need to request though). Honey 1 is the one I most frequent since it's convenient to where I live (north side). My favorite of the four really depends upon the particular day.

    Smoque is one place that I like quite a bit and it cooks brisket. It uses a Southern Pride smoker, unlike the above spots.

    Honky Tonk BBQ which just opened in Pilsen also uses the Southern Pride and also does brisket. I enjoyed Honky Tonk's food this summer at a couple of street festivals, but have not tried their newly opened restaurant.

    Finally, the brisket offered by Whole Foods at a couple of their locations is also prepared using a Southern Pride smoker and is surprisingly good, although a little moist for my liking.

    In any event, I think you and I can agree that Twin Anchors serves "meat jello" and not bbq.

    6 Replies
    1. re: BRB

      Yep I've sure tried a few of places mentioned in your post and many others not listed too! I'm just kind of waiting to see a few posts before I weigh in on all of them.

      You say you would "strongly disagree" with me huh? Well that's OK. Your entitled to your honest opinion, but that wont change my mind. I stand firm that doing a good Brisket is key, if a place cant do a respectable brisket they probably aren't that great anyway. Brisket is the toughest things to cook in the BBQ world, with ribs being a close second, shoulder is a cake walk; call it BBQ 101, I personally find it no challenge to prepare them myself.

      Baby backs can easily go 4-5 hrs, and your right, unlike spares which can go for maybe 6. I smoke my babybacks 4-5 but its really a moisture thing. Any Brisket pulled before 15 hrs is usually not very good, while butts/shoulders can get away with a 10 hr and still be right, but lets face it longer is usually better

      Sides are really a plus, but not a mandatory points thing, if a place offers them, they should at least try to make them tasty, right? Right!

      lastly, your right we agree, Twin Anchors ribs are meat jello....

      1. re: abf005

        I also have to disagree with you. Chicago-style barbecue (there is such a thing) travelled up the Mississippi River Valley with the great migration of the early 20th century from Louisiana, Mississippi and Arkansas via Memphis, St. Louis, Kentucky and Southern Illinois. It is all about pork and chicken. There were no cattle in that part of the country. Brisket is strictly a Texas thing, which travelled north with the cattle drives. Kansas City had the unique advantage of being at the cross-roads of both migrations thanks to the railroads.

        I also disagree with you that brisket is the toughest to cook. I think spare ribs and tips are much harder to do right. Personally, I consider barbecue to be all about pork (and the occasional chicken). I guess Chicagoans just prefer our briskets brined and cured. Not that I would turn up my nose at a decent smoked brisket sandwich.

        BBQ Bob's on Howard street does all those things, as well as beef ribs, however their quality is very inconsistent. They use a Southern Pride smoker like Smoque, but their turnover isn't fast enough to insure fresh product. If you happen to get something fresh from the smoker, it is pretty good. Otherwise, it can be pretty awful. Their Lemon Pie is delicious though.

        1. re: Roger Spark

          Please re- read my post; I did not ask for "Chicago style BBQ", I ask for “Real BBQ” as defined by KCBS standards (Kansas City Barbeque Society). I also specifically asked for Texas or Memphis styles and not the Deep South (which is like Chicago south side) or the Carolina's (pork), but said all styles would be welcome discussion. I’m not seeking to find out what style is superior, since I already have a predisposition towards Texas, I was looking for who else does great “Q” around here in between my trips down to the “BBQ holy lands”.

          I know Chicago has its own BBQ style, and I am also very aware of how it came to be, and how its origins are with the Black Underground Railroad & subsequent northern migrations that brought it up north. All that aside, I’ve never been impressed with it. IMO; it’s greasy, typically over smoked to the point that the taste is more of sauce and smoke and not of the meats flavor. Another thing I’ve noticed is that Chicago BBQ places commonly over smoke the meat to the point it can be very dark, bitter and dry or even charred on the outside edges. Typically I find these places are using over sauced lower quality meats, (rib tips especially) or have the meat soaking in the sauce just simmering. I also find they offer fried catfish and hot links that are also very greasy and not to my liking. But that’s my opinion based on 15 or so places that I’ve tried here and in the ‘burbs.

          We will have to agree to disagree on Brisket. Having been a serious BBQ cook for many years, I know it is by far the toughest meat to smoke. But you don't have to take my expert opinion on it, go ahead and just ask anyone who competes on the circuit or writes about it, and I think you’ll see they all pretty much concur with me. The two main reasons are first the brisket must hold temp at a fat melting plateau for a very long period of time in order to break down the collagen and tenderize the meat, this is reason you see 15-24 hr cook times on smoked briskets. Second is the moisture, with such a long cook time keeping it moist is the other challenge. Realize, that smoked Brisket is cooked to tenderness and not doneness (as in just hitting 160-170 degrees and the meat is safe to eat according to the FDA).

          Ribs are only tough in that the time window for making proper juicy ribs is short, and the time distance between under cooked and overdone is about 30 min to an hour in a smoker and almost none on a grill. That's why on a regular grill you never even stand a chance! But rib tips? Cooking the scraps isn’t a challenge! Especially since most places tend to stew theirs in BBQ sauce usually after they pull the spares out first anyway!

          1. re: abf005

            In the Western suburbs, there is a place called Gematos on Ogden Ave in Naperville. It is circled by car dealers, and kind of "different" looking, but there are piles of wood outside the place, and they smoke everything onsite. They have the best brisket and ribs I've had before. If you especially want brisket, try this place. Ribs are easy to cook - - I have a smoker and do them all the time. Brisket is quite the challenge.

            1. re: abf005

              abf005 -
              I think we'd all agree that texas has some great q. I have an uncle in the dfw area that I visit every chance I get so's I can get me somma that q - trust me, I know 1st hand that Texas has great q.

              I also think that for as many ppl who think ribs are the slathered in sauce meat jello stuff that Chicago is somehow known for, there is a growing number of meat jello detractors (such as myself,) which is why the real q joints are starting to pop up around town here. There are a few spots to get what you're looking for that have been mentioned. In ten years or so, there may be a few more. If "Texas" q has not been done right to your standards, then throw your hat in the ring. From my upbringing in Chicago, however, I do like spares and tips done the Chicago wood way - I.e. Barbara Ann's BBQ and Motel :-), and Uncle John's (sauce on the side, please.) It's fine and dandy that you want what you deem "real q," but don't be surprised if it's not up to your standards, since we are in Chicago, and not in KC, or Texas. You can call Chicago meat jello q wrong, and bad all you want to, but it doesn't change the fact that people are still buying it. You can call our woodsmoked spares and tips wrong and bad all you want to, but I for one happen to like Uncle John's tips (sauce on the side, please.)

              You might just not find Texas Q up to your standards here, but I won't find thin crust pizza up to my standards in Texas. OR Vietnamese food. OR an Italian beef sammich. OR Thai food. OR Indian food. OR African food. OR Korean. OR Swedish. OR Japanese. I MIGHT even have the gall to say OR higher end Mexican. And there are more....

              Yes, Texas wins hands down for Q, but we're newbies in the grand scheme of things dealing with Texas q restaurants. Maybe if decide to show us what's up, and open up a joint, you will help get us some more respect for all things brisket. I love a good brisket, and I eat it all day long when I visit my unc, but man, I do love me some smoked tips, and hot links Chicago style (smoked, mind you - no meat jello for me!)

          2. re: abf005

            Brisket is Texas barbecue. that is NOT Chicago's style. Chicago style Que is more in the manner of Memphis, which means PORK. and that is ribs and rib tips. Rib Tips are a Chicago specialty, as are Hot Links.

            Coleman's on the West Side, Lems, The Original Painted Doll, Ribs and Bibs... those are the places we go for REAL Que......

        2. I have to disagree with the starting concept that "Real BBQ" is that which is defined by KCBS guidelines.

          That said I'm not aware of anyplace in Chicago that meets your requirements - hardwood smoking AND serving ribs, pulled pork, and brisket.

          THAT said . . . I don't care. I go to these places to get what I want, not to apply some silly litmus test that allegedly determines whether or not they are serving "real bbq".

          I happen to really like a good tips and links combo and two of my faves - Uncle John's and Honey 1 - serve up exactly what I crave. Neither, however, serve brisket and Uncle John's (gasp!) doesn't even serve pulled pork. Doesn't make their ribs/tips/links taste any less delicious, though.

          As far as the premise that brisket is the toughest to cook - meh. It's just a matter of patience in my experience.

          We DO agree that all the meat jello places are crap, though. :)

          1. Ok installment number one of my reviews:
            Lake County Reviews:

            Hillary’s BBQ - 1617 14th Street North Chicago (also in Waukegan & Kenosha)
            Typical “Chicago Style” or Deep South BBQ kind of joint. Their specialty is the rib tips, but they also have spare ribs, pulled pork, and brisket as well. There is also fried catfish and hot links on the menu. All food is smoked in a Southern Pride smoker using hickory logs. The sauce is a spicy/sweet, thick, but a bit heavy on the vinegar. Typical of most Chicago style places the food is heavily sauced and almost hard to tell what the flavor of the meat really is. Not bad for what it is.

            Brothers Ribs - 1565 S Lake St (US Highway 45) Mundelein, IL
            Probably the best BBQ I’ve had in Lake County! They have all the key ingredients; Ribs, tips, Brisket, Pulled Pork, and few others and all are done very well. Sauce is tangy/sweet and smokey thick(sort of KC Masterpiece in style) Smoker on site and always nice people at the counter. The prices seem more than reasonable and the sides are good enough to call a bonus.

            Full Slab - 34500 N US Highway 45 - Third Lake, IL
            This relatively new place opened about a year ago, and as the closest BBQ place to my house if it had been awesome they would have had a lock on a serious repeat customer. Unfortunately the food was just OK and not exciting. Full Slab has a full BBQ menu, and if I had to pick one good item here it was the smoked sausage links. The portions were meager and overpriced; for example my coleslaw and potato salads were served in a tiny Dixie cups typically used for hot sauce or ketchup. There is a smoker on premises, but when asked about it, one of the owners struggled to explain what it was and what woods they used to smoke with, maybe they didn’t want to give away the secret, I dunno.

            Famous Dave's - 99 E Townline Rd. Vernon Hills, IL
            I know, it’s an evil chain right? Well this is one chain I actually like, most of the time these guys get it close to right, the food is in generous if not over abundant quantities, and it’s usually fresh and if you want something that’s consistent, they’ve pretty much have nailed it. While IMO the Brisket is usually mushy (overcooked), the ribs are decent, and the pulled pork is good. The sides are really good and the hot links are the closest thing I have found in Chicago to a Texas smoked sausage. Sauces, there are about 6 representing the main BBQ regions/styles and they all are pretty decent representations.

            Richards Chicken & Ribs - 900 W Rollins Rd, Round Lake Beach
            Hickory smoked Ribs and Fried chicken! Good fried chicken, not bad ribs, mine were just a bit too heavy on the sticky thick sauce. I didn’t see any other BBQ items on the menu, but since Lake County seems to have under 10 smokers in use at restaurants, I thought I’d list them.

            Vaughan's Broasted Chicken - 2240 E Grand Ave, Lindenhurst, IL 60046
            I haven’t been here yet, in fact I found out recently they added BBQ to their regular menu, if someone has tried it please post, I'm curious to know more about them.

            Herm's Barbecue 311 W Depot St Antioch, IL 60002 (used to be in Waukegan on Sunset
            )I hate to do this, but this was about the worst Brisket I’ve ever had, and that includes the bad ones form when I was learning how to smoke briskets as well! The ribs were OK and the tips are what they do best. Overall not one of my favorites and not one I’d go back to either.

            I’ll start on my Cook county places next…

            Hillary's Barbecue
            1617 14th St, North Chicago, IL 60064

            Lewis St, Waukegan, IL

            Brothers Ribs
            1565 S Lake St, Mundelein, IL

            The Full Slab
            34500 N US Highway 45, Third Lake, IL

            Famous Dave's
            99 E Townline Rd, Vernon Hills, IL 60061

            Richards Chicken & Ribs
            900 W Rollins Rd, Round Lake, IL 60073

            Vaughan's Broasted Chicken
            2240 E Grand Ave, Lindenhurst, IL 60046

            Herm's Barbecue
            311 W Depot St, Antioch, IL 60002

            2 Replies
            1. re: abf005

              "Typical of most Chicago style places the food is heavily sauced and almost hard to tell what the flavor of the meat really is."

              I still don't understand why you think this is true. A simple request for sauce on the side is not a problem for a real bbq place. Usually, the real q places don't sauce the meat during the cooking. There are quite a few of them around town. Not sure why if you don't like sauce slathered over everything, (neither do I, by the way) you would refuse to get it on the side.

              1. re: gordeaux

                I always ask; how is it served? with sauce on or on the side, if they answer on, then obviously I request it to be on the side, no big deal. But I also want to have a chef/cook present the food the way they intended it should be, so I will order a small portion or extra item "their way". It's all very scientific...

                My reason for my views on the sauce are twofold; one I'm diabetic, that stuff in any large quantity is a killer for me. Two: as I've mentioned before, I prefer Texas Style BBQ which is *almost* always served sauce on the side. I once had a Texas Pit-man tell me that that if you bury a turd in enough sauce it'll turn out good, but that serving the meat naked is a show of a mans confidence on the pit.

            2. Smoke Daddy

              smoke daddy
              chicago, il, chicago, il

              1. Count me among those who think the original query was designed, intentionally or not, so that Chicago will fail. If any food has regional styles it's barbecue, and insisting on one regional style as the template for all others is simply missing the diversity and interest of the cuisine. Looking for Texas brisket in Chicago is pointless because there wasn't migration from Texas to Chicago. Barbecue came here from the deep South and so it's going to overwhelmingly reflect that; the fact that you take the MAIN item that sums up Chicago barbecue, rib tips, and relegate it to the "ok to offer" category (after smoked bologna!) shows how far off this approach is. That's like ignoring crab cakes in Maryland because you want Alaskan salmon.

                In short, you mention Famous Dave's, and I expect you can find a number of chain-type places like that which could be in any city in America, and meet your generic criteria for hitting all the expected choices from all different regional styles. If you want to see what barbecue is like as a regional cuisine, however, you're going to have to get past expectations set in one city and appreciate the differences and specialties over the similarities.

                11 Replies
                  1. re: Roger Spark

                    Amen; it's like condemning an Italian restaurant that specializes in Sicilian cuisine for not serving polenta.

                  2. re: Morton Arthur Eaton

                    It only means that Chicago will fail only to the extent that he doesn't want what Chicagoans have traditionally called barbecue. It is clear that the most popular barbecue places in Chicago have arguably been places like Twin Anchors, Robinsons, and Carsons. Those places turn out barbecue anomalies whether they are popular or not.

                    As we know, there ARE great BBQ places in town that have been around forever and are never mentioned in the same breath as other Chicago establishments (I'm thinking of Lems). There are also a lot of newer barbecue restaurants that have done away with meat boiling and have come a lot closer to what most people think of as barbecue (I'm thinking of Smoke Daddy, Honey 1, Smoque).

                    Never in the OP did he ask for "Chicago-style barbecue." He asked for styles that were specifically outside of what Chicago calls barbecue. Frankly, I don't blame him.

                    AND, it's clear that it's not quite an impossible question: there have been plenty of places mentioned which would satisfy his requirements.

                    My only concern with his request is that he requires ribs, pork, AND brisket. Although you'd find that in most, if not all, the Chicago restaurants (whether they're good or not) I would imagine that at least some traditional barbecue barbecue places wouldn't have all three. I'm thinking of places in the South that might not have brisket (or maybe even ribs) or parts of Texas with no pork. Even in Kansas City it was a long time before Gates carried pulled pork (it's more available now).

                    1. re: rubinow

                      "Although you'd find that in most, if not all, the Chicago restaurants (whether they're good or not)"

                      Not true. Honey 1, Lem's, Barbara Ann's, Uncle John's, all the south and west side barbecue places of stature are pork places, no brisket, and many don't even have pulled pork-- it's all ribs, rib tips and links. That IS an authentic Chicago style of true smoked barbecue, which has nothing to do with the boil-b-q offered at the Twin Anchors and Carson's of the world. Yet his rules don't just stop at ruling out the latter-- they completely eliminate the south side barbecue tradition for lacking brisket, baked beans, automatic sauce on the side and other accoutrements of, simply, a different style of barbecue.

                      1. re: rubinow

                        I think so far, rubinow appears to be the only person who has actually grasped the point of my starting this thread. There is more anger and controversy and question of intentions than restaurant recommendations and critiques so far! Seems like a few too many people are stuck on the Brisket request and the fact that great brisket does not exist in Chicago outside of a few Jewish deli’s.

                        But, I never asked for or questioned Chicago style BBQ, its origins, or limited menu choices. I simply asked for "other style" places in much the same way that other posters have requested where to find “real” NY pizza or great Philly cheesesteaks in Chicagoland,so don’t act like its sacrilegious!

                        Lastly, yes, I indeed asked for Texas & Memphis style places (as an EXAMPLE), this is true. BUT, I also said in my OP "but any of the true regional BBQ styles are indeed welcome" as well.

                        Ironically Chicago has produced some of the best BBQ cooks in the country; i.e. Dr. BBQ, & the Cancer Sucks BBQ team of Naperville (who won the Jack Daniels last year and is competing in it again this weekend to keep the title of National BBQ Grand Champions).

                        So my point is this; where are those KCBS competitors’ restaurants? Where do they practice? Who else is out there like them? After all, obviously that style is available here in Chicago! So point me and those who love BBQ to those hidden gems, and let’s stop the debate about making Chicago look bad or how many lbs of jello ribs are getting served to the masses every day!

                        While at the KCBS event last week in Libertyville (Lamb Farm) I ran into a Chicago team that was serving up some kick-ass Q; they’re from Westmont, IL and also run a restaurant called Uncle Bub’s: , now that’s what I’m after!

                        Uncle Bub's BBQ
                        132 S Cass Ave, Westmont, IL 60559

                        1. re: abf005

                          "But, I never asked for or questioned Chicago style BBQ, its origins, or limited menu choices"

                          "I'm looking for places that could meet the KCBS BBQ standard for making real "Q".

                          Yeah, I can't see why anybody'd take THAT as a slam on Chicago's Q.

                          Anyway, the thread's full of restaurant recommendations, from Honey 1 to Lem's to Exsenator. They just don't meet criteria imposed from some other region.

                          1. re: abf005

                            Ab -

                            Are you actually stating that you did not post this:
                            "I stand firm that doing a good Brisket is key, if a place cant do a respectable brisket they probably aren't that great anyway."

                            We can most definitely infer that you are stating that the places that do not offer brisket "probably aren't that great." This is what I was "stuck" on - so to speak. We can only read what you've written, not what you meant.

                            1. re: gordeaux

                              G: No I haven't waffled, and I still stand by the original statement that: "doing a good Brisket is key, if a place cant do a respectable brisket they probably aren't that great anyway." It's a whole package thing, I desire to go somewhere where ALL the menu items are offered and are all of them are outstanding.

                              Now that's not to say I wouldn't go to back to or try a "one trick pony" type of place that only did ribs for example, and be hugely impressed with them, its just means I would not have found my BBQ nirvana.

                              1. re: abf005

                                < It's a whole package thing, I desire to go somewhere where ALL the menu items are offered and are all of them are outstanding.> then you better skip Chicago. Brisket doesn't go with Chicago 'que. I have never heard of a place that does it the way you are talking about. Fwiw, I don't consider the Carson's style Barbecue.

                                I'd be taking you to Lem's or Coleman's, but you won't find brisket at those places. Just pork or chicken

                            2. re: abf005

                              On a recent trip to Uncle Bub's, the platter was served up almost ice cold. The Chicken was chilly to the touch. They do have some tasty Q, but getting cold food is creepy and gross. We stopped going there 'cos everything started to taste like bad hotdogs--gave it another go, and we got cold food. (with the exception of my burnt ends, which were fabbo) Um--Bub's is off the twig for now.

                              1. re: qzq

                                Uncle Bubs service can be spotty at times. I have had orders lost, and other service issues.

                                But as far as bbq in the western suburbs it is the best thing we have(kind of like being the talles midget). I typically only go for lunch nowdays for a pulled pork sandwich.