Serious Eats: Chicago
You gotta have bulletproof glass, utilitarian decor, and a grizzled soul man stoking an aquarium-style smoker or a black pit drum with hickory and fruitwoods to have great barbecue, right? In Chicago, until about two years ago, this seemed the rule.
In these parts, good 'cue was predominantly an African American communitydriven affair. Finger-lickin' piles of ribs sandwiched in clamshell styrofoam that are so good you wolf them down while leaning against your car came from unremarkable storefronts on the city's south side (save Honey 1).
So when Smoque BBQ opened last December on the north side with a ton of accolades, lines out the door, and media coverage second only to that of Britney Spears's affairs, I was skeptical. Were people (me included) covering the 'cue so heavily because it was coming out of a clean well-lit space in an upper middle class Chicago neighborhood from white people, or because it was genuinely good?
Or more pointedly, was Smoque the Vanilla Ice or the Eminem of Chicago barbecue joints? By which I mean, while Vanilla Ice and Eminem are both white dudes who sold millions of records in a discipline dominated and originated by African Americans, Vanilla Ice copped his best stuff from Queen and David Bowie and wouldn't rank in anyone's list of top MCs, while Eminem is arguably one of the best and most imaginative MCs of his time. He earned his way to the top, not as a record-company construction, but by battling all comers in underground rap battles. Whether or not he's sold more albums or gotten more coverage because of the color of his skin, he's also justified his position with talent.
Having eaten at south side legends like Barbara Ann's, Uncle John's, Lem's, and Leon's, I knew my local 'cue. And when I ate at Smoque last year near the opening I was impressed. Ribs had great lacquered spicy bark with a solid, deep-pink smoke ring. Pulled pork was moist, tender, and delightfully piquant. More than anything, the sides—sweet baked beans with caramelized onion and tender bits of smoked pork, a creamy mac and cheese that took co-owner Barry Sorkin six months to perfect—were amazing.
That said, I thought the meat itself was superior for the north side, held its own with the south side, but didn't necessarily compel me to come back every week or wait in the ridiculous lines after the first tasting. There were also some missteps. The brisket was a little dry, the hand cut fries were a bit soggy, and the peach cobbler was boring. At that point, according to my personal preferences on the white rapper spectrum, I saw Smoque as the Beastie Boys of Chicago barbecue.
A few weeks ago, my in-laws were in town for the holidays so I took the whole crew to Smoque for a one-year anniversary taste. On a Thursday night, lines were still out the door, and things were hoppin' as ever. This time my hand-cut skin-on fries were crisp and salty, the crust on the peach cobbler was super crunchy and perfumed with amaretto, and the ribs and pulled pork were as good as before. That said, I had a moment with my chopped brisket. While wolfing down meltingly tender chunks of beef mixed with deep caramelized molasses-rich burnt ends, all kissed with a tinge of tomato and sweet aromatic spice, I was transformed. It was one of those times where you know you're having the hands-down best example of a dish and you will never need to search again. It turned out that Sorkin—a skinny, white culinary school dabbler who quit an IT sector job—and a few of his buddies working an automated Southern Pride smoker can also put out great smoked meat. Somehow, with no reason to do so, the Smoque crew improved to Eminem level, and regardless of ethnicity, culture, or any factor, right now, they might be the best barbecue in the city.