Chicago's Honey 1 BBQ

"From the sidewalk I saw the rectangular smoker that looked like, yes, an aquarium."

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Owner and aqua-smoker pitmaster Robert Adams (bottom right). [Photographs: Robyn Lee]

We were just off the plane, we were hungry, and we were on our way to Hot Doug's when it occurred to me that given the line we were about to wait in, perhaps we should quell our hunger pangs with a little something.

I had read and heard a lot about Honey 1 BBQ and it turned out to be sort of on the way. So off we went. The smoke hit us a full block and a half from the joint. That shouldn't have surprised us because Honey 1's slogan is "Real Smoke...And No Joke." From the sidewalk I saw the rectangular smoker that looked like, yes, an aquarium. Aquarium smokers, as recently explained in this Forbes piece with help from Gary Wiviott, author of Low & Slow: Master the Art of Barbecue in 5 Easy Lessons, is a Chicago thing, a seriously delicious Chicago thing.

The meat--hot links (spicy homemade sausages), ribs and rib tips, which are the fattier ends of the rib carriage--must be cooked over straight wood in what's known as an aquarium-style smoker. These custom-made cookers, rectangular metal containers that are 6 to 8 feet long and attached to a draft vent and fronted with tempered-glass sliding doors, can run upwards of $10,000. They replicate the southern barbecue outdoor cooking tradition without the need for open space.

That is so cool. Why don't we ever see aquarium smokers in other cities?

And shouldn't the inventor of the aquarium smoker be awarded a MacArthur genius grant?

We ordered--at a counter right next to a pile of wood and the aquarium smoker--a large half-and-half rib tips and links combo. This includes half a barbecue chicken, a half rack of ribs, and a pulled pork sandwich. Everything came with white bread, fries, and a sweet, piquant but gently spicy barbecue sauce on top.

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The rib tips were seriously delicious--tender, saucy, and meaty, with just enough fat to soften the chew. The hot links were very fine, though I don't think they were as well-seasoned and juicy as Lem's, another great Chicago barbecue joint with an aquarium smoker and my go-to for hot links.

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The ribs were phenomenal. They had a crusty, crunchy exterior and a tender enough interior. They weren't falling-off-the-bone tender, they had a little chew to them, and I for one really love and appreciate a little bit of chew in my 'cue.

Here's how the Honey 1 folks describe the chew on their 'cue:

The result of doing it our real BBQ way is smoky, juicy pork with some real meatiness to it - not something so soft Grandma could gum it without her dentures. It takes longer. It costs us more to keep the fire going. But it tastes a whole lot better than that other stuff, and it's the only way we're willing to cook BBQ.

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Even the chicken, which is for me the most unnecessary thing to order in a barbecue joint, was actually nice and smokey here. Even the breast meat was reasonably moist. It wasn't as good as the barbecue chicken at Big Bob Gibson's, but nothing really is.

The fries were frozen but dunked in barbecue sauce, they were delicious. Even the white bread tasted good dunked in that sauce.

The pulled pork sandwich was the least impressive item we ordered, but Chicago and the rest of the Midwest have never been prime pulled pork eating territory.

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Honey 1 BBQ is a soulful African-American urban barbecue joint at its Chi-town best, informed by a Windy City aquarium smoker but kissed by the South.

Another great Chicago food I can't find in New York. Damn. If I lived in Chicago, I know where I would be getting my Labor Day picnic food. Honey 1 BBQ is real smoke and no joke.

Honey 1 BBQ

2241 N. Western Avenue, Chicago IL 60622 (map)
773-227-5130

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