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Barbecue Stories

A slow cooking, comfort food trend is sweeping across Chicago

By AMELIA LEVIN
A slow cooking, comfort food trend is sweeping across Chicago.

There's something slow cooking in Chicago. No, it's not the stew in your kitchen Crock-Pot. It's the barbecue trend that's sweeping the city. Maybe it's the sauce or perhaps that beloved, smoky flavor, but barbecue is hot right now, no pun intended. Old barbecue mainstays are becoming more popular, new barbecue eateries are popping up, and chefs at non-barbecue, high-ticket restaurants are incorporating slow cooking dishes into their menus.

"People who cook barbecue, love to cook barbecue," says Robert Adams, owner and barbecue master at Honey 1 BBQ (2241 W. Western, 773-227-5130) in Bucktown. While the same could be said about any chef and his or her preferred cooking style, there's something about those who love barbecuing. Call it passion, pride or better yet, soul. It's all about tradition. Since last year's revival of the '50s-style "comfort food" trend, Chicagoans still seem to prefer homestyle cooking--cooking that goes hand-in-hand with nostalgia, family and history.

"I cook barbecue how my father cooked it and how my grandfather cooked it," says Adams, an Arkansas native who moved to Chicago in the late '60s. Adams relies on the Southern style of barbecuing, which he describes as slow roasting for several hours over a wood-burning oven. "No gas, no butane--strictly old-fashioned wood," he says.

The other mysterious thing about barbecue versus traditional cooking, says Barry Sorkin, owner of the relatively new Old Irving Park barbecue eatery Smoque BBQ (3800 N. Pulaski, 773-545-7427), is that every barbecue master has his or her own style. "They'll fight tooth and nail about their style," he says.

It's possible that the passion people have for barbecue stems from the stories behind the cooking methods. Adams and Sorkin, while they both serve Southern style 'cue at their spots, have wildly different stories of how they got to where they are now. Adams opened up his own place after having had so much success cooking for others at parties and picnics that his son, Robert Adams Jr., encouraged him to make a living out of it. After several years in the Austin neighborhood, Adams moved shop to a bigger space in Bucktown that has attracted new customers.

Sorkin opened up Smoque after eight long years of office work as an IT consultant. One day, he just got fed up and left. "I desperately wanted to get out of there and thought to myself, 'You know what? I'd rather make ribs,'" he says.

These different backgrounds seem to have led to differences in their styles, evident in the little nuances in seasoning used, the amount of sauce that's slathered on the meat and the number of hours the food cooks.

Southern style to Adams and Sorkin means less sugar and more vinegar and spice. One bite of Honey 1's rib tips, smothered in a homemade sauce created by Adams' wife, Patricia, and that's clearly the case. Semi-thick and mild, with just enough spice that builds with each bite, Honey 1's sauce is tangy with hints of pepper and, as the name suggests, honey.     While Honey 1's food smells and tastes just like the authentic, Southern barbecue rampant on Chicago's South Side. The inside of this eatery is a big step up from those traditional joints, which typically have little to no seating and mainly operate as take-out spots. Not too many frills, but very clean, Honey 1's decor is, dare we say, a little meager, but slightly charming for a BBQ spot--mini flower-filled vases top the wooden tables, flanked by orange vinyl chairs, red walls, a large, glass window overlooking Western Avenue and a flat-screen TV showing Cubs games and other sports. Still, similar to most barbecue joints, customers place their order at a window near the front door and wait for their food. The window overlooks the 8-foot wide smoker, where all the action happens.

Honey 1's Adams says he lets the pork slow roast for 12 hours. He's not a fan of rubs--insisting too much dry spice can overpower the quality of the meat--and he cooks over hickory, oak and cherry woods. "The key to cooking barbecue is not rushing it," Adams says. "You need to cook it slow, and take your time. That's how they do it in the South."

At Smoque, which gets its name from the "que" in "barbeque," meats also cook for hours over the restaurant's oak-applewood smoker. Sauce is very important here, but used only as a compliment to perfectly smoked, flavorful meats, definitely not to "cover up cooking mistakes." Each meat gets its own special sauce. The brisket and rib sauces taste generally tart, with a punch of Memphis-style heat. Sorkin bastes the meat with the sauce at the end of the cooking cycle and then caramelizes it at the last second for that little bit of sweet crispiness. Pork sandwiches on buttery buns with crispy coleslaw get a light douse of a North Carolina-style, tomato-based sauce with a "heavy dose of vinegar" just before serving.

Sides are simple here. The cheesy mac and cheese packs a toothsome forkful, with a crispy crumble top, and the smoky and sweet beans with bacon bits also pair well with the meats. Inside, the decor is simple, yet modern, with red vinyl chairs and faux-wood tables, brightly colored walls and good lighting. There are no traditional plates and food comes on waxed sheet pans for easy clean up.

The barbecue trend hasn't just made places like Honey 1 and Smoque popular. It's also found its way on menus at more mainstream restaurants. Take, for instance,  Viand (155 E. Ontario, 312-255-8505), where Steve Chiappetti, formerly of Rhapsody, signed on as chef late last year. On the menu are braised lamb ribs with a Mandarin-style sauce of soy, brown sugar and mustard for a sweet and salty flavor. Quite different from traditional barbecue sauces, Chiappetti describes his more as a fruit or plum sauce, one that was born straight out of his family via his chef-trained mother.

Pork ribs find their way onto the Viand lunch  menue with a "cowboy-style" barbecue sauce that's brewed over fire for several hours with carrot, celery, onion, brown sugar, hickory salt, Worcestershire and brewed coffee. Chiappetti sometimes serves swordfish ribs, which he dry rubs, grills and sauces up like any other meat. He'll also do the same with shrimp, using cumin, coriander, mustard, dried molasses, hickory, chili powder and paprika.

To Chiappetti, barbecue means comfort, even if it doesn't come in the super old-fashioned, Memphis-style. "Even though a lot of chefs do high-tech food, a growing trend I've seen is  comfort food and variations on classic comfort food dishes in the form of modernized barbecue dishes," Chiapetti says, "dishes they loved as a kid."

And this surely seems to be the case as the list of restaurant chefs introducing barbecue-style dishes on their menus continues to grow. Here are some spots serving barbecue in this style where Chicagoans flock to find the magic that is slow cooking.

Restaurants with barbecue-style dishes:

Keefer's

20 W. Kinzie, 312-467-9525

Chef John Hogan's pork chops are smoked for hours, then grilled and slathered with a cherry-barbecue sauce and served with corn pudding.

West Town Tavern

1329 W. Chicago, 312-666-6175

Head to this neighborhood, comfort food eatery for the allspice and pepper-rubbed, smoked lamb shoulder with a barbecue sauce from Owensboro, Kentucky, made with Worcestershire, cider and brown sugar.

Sheffield's

3528 N. Sheffield, 773-281-4989

This popular outdoor beer garden in the heart of Lakeview has unveiled a new "smokehouse" menu, thanks to its new Southern-style smokers. On the menu: hickory and oak-barbecued ribs, brisket and pulled pork, as well as oak-apple barbecued chicken.  The menu suggests three different sauces to pair with the meat--a Carolina-style, mustard-vinegar, a Memphis-style sauce for the ribs and a spicy Texas rub for the brisket.

Barbecue Joints:

Smoke Daddy Rhythm and Bar-B-Que

1804 W. Division, 773-772-6656

The Dunlay empire took over this old-time, Wicker Park spot a few years ago, combining live jazz with solid, homecookin' barbecue. Even the smoker that churns out the tasty meat gets its own name: the "l'il red smoker."

Lem's Bar-B-Que House

311 E. 75th St.

One of the most authentic and raved about South Side BBQ spots since 1953, Lem's serves up Mississippi-style spareribs straight from a massive barbecue pit. Carryout only. o

Popular Vegetarian

Barbecue Dishes

Soul Vegetarian East

203 E. 75th Street, 773-224-0104.

This restaurant offers vegetarian Southern Cajun and Creole dishes. The strict vegetarian food offered here is unbelieveably delicious. They use neither salt nor caffiene in their friendly restaurant, but you would never guess that after eating their BBQ Protein Tidbits with a tangy BBQ sauce. This unusual place is well worth the drive.

Alice & Friends Vegetarian Cafe

5812 N. Broadway St., 773-275-8797

This restaurant is an inspirational trip to the East. The decor is a collage of colors and styles and the food is divine. Try the Himalayan Spirit beef-substitute skewers. The Korean barbecue sauce is zesty and sure to please.

Chicago Diner

3411 N. Halsted, 773-935-6696.

Since 1983, the popular Chicago Diner has served delicious vegetarian dishes in a casual diner atmosphere. Try the barbecue "bacon" cheeseburger--a veggie griller with tangy BBQ sauce, lettuce, melted cheese, tomato and onion on a multi-grain kaiser roll.

Restaurant

Guide

Chicago Chop House

60 W. Ontario, 312-787-7100

Historic Chicago photographs brighten the walls in this charming Victorian mansion. But the real draw in this famous steak house is the wide selection of aged steaks, excellent prime rib and succulent lobster. Save room for homemade desserts. Open for lunch Mon.-Fri. Dinner nightly.

Oceanique,

505 Main St., Evanston, 847-864-3435

Chef Mark Grosz has combined creative French and American influences to offer exquisite meat and seafood in a simple, charming atmosphere. The changing menu of this splendid restaurant offers organically-grown vegetables and fruits in season. Try the slow-baked halibut with pickled red onions. The bouillabaisse with salmon, tai, turbot, scallops, shrimp and squid is excellent, as is the yellowfin tuna. Meat lovers will devour the filet mignon with escargot, Roquefort cheese, green beans, pearl onions and fingerling potatoes. Select from over 450 wines. Save room for delicate pastries including an unbelievably sinful chocolate cake with layers of chocolate mousse. Oceanique offers a 3-course $39 dinner Mon.-Fri. Dinner nightly. Closed Sun.

The Parthenon

314 S. Halsted, 312-726-2407

The Sotiris family serves up excellent Greek dishes and wines in the heart of Greek Town. Start with the calamari and shrimp salad or the dolmades. The classic eggplant dish, moussaka, is delicious, as is the lamb with artichokes and egg-lemon sauce. The jumbo shrimp flamed in brandy with light rice pilafi is unique. Try the pork or chicken  breast shishkabobs with roast potatoes. For dessert there are succulent Greek offerings  including the flaky baklava--phyllo pastry baked with almonds, walnuts and honey, or galaktobouriko--phyllo filled with vanilla custard, baked in syrup. Open daily from 11 a.m. to midnight. Free valet parking.

!Salpicon!

1252 N. Wells, 312-988-7811

From the beautiful paintings on the walls to the tiger shrimp in garlic sauce to the delightful desserts, you'll know why such a charming spot is so highly regarded. The decor is attractive, the gourmet Mexican dishes are divine and the wine bar is one of the best in Chicago. Start with ceviche or the spinach salad with goat cheese and, of course, fresh guacamole. Chef Priscila Satkoff offers nightly specials, with favorites such as poached chicken with Oaxaca mole sauce. Try the nightly fresh fish entree--salmon and halibut specials with lime rice are excellent. Leave room for oranges poached in cinnamon sauce, cake with berry sauce, a luscious hot rich chocolate cake with a warm chocolate center or the stunning pineapple dessert. Reservations recommended, especially on weekends. Sun. brunch 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m. p.m..Dinner daily.

Weber Grill

539 N. State Street, 312-467-9696; 2331 Fountain Square Dr., Lombard, 630-953-8880; 1010 N. Meacham Rd., Schaumburg, 847-413-0800

True to its name, the Weber Grill serves grilled delights, from BBQ shrimp to teriyaki salmon to Competition-Style Baby Back Ribs.  Salads include the fresh Caprese Salad. Popular side dishes include grilled asparagus and wood-roasted mushrooms.

Published: May 28, 2007
Issue: Summer 2007 Urban Living