Memphis barbecue ain't all that. There, I said it.
I expected and wanted Memphis barbecue to be the soul shaking, stomach sating, come-to-Jesus occasion everyone says it is. I planned for weeks, read reviews, scoured internet forums, and I did my due diligence talking to locals about their favorite spots once I arrived in the land of Elvis a couple of months ago.
I hit Central, Germantown Commissary, Rendezvous, Cozy Corner, Corky's, Leonard's. It's the best I could do in three days, and it's possible if I'd just hit one more place—Neely's or A & R or Pig and Whistle or (insert your local favorite)—I would have finally found some real promised land.
Or, maybe not. Everyone touts the Memphis dry rub as the thing, but all of the "dry" ribs I had—including the tourist trap/celebrated inventor of the form, Rendezvous, (Justin Timberlake says they're his favorite; he may be gifted as a songwriter and performer, but he needs to work on his food criticism)—were overseasoned in terms of spiciness, and underseasoned when it came to salt. Generally, the rough bland sandy top coat on most of the examples I tried would have been more useful to prime a wall for painting than as a flavoring agent. At least I found something good on the "wet" front; it would be tough to top the beautiful crispy skin, deep pink smoke ring, and perfect meaty chew of the ribs at Cozy Corner.
Actually, it wasn't that Memphis 'cue wasn't all that, as much as it was that it wasn't everything.. There are actually few cities in America that do ribs, pulled pork, or other smoked goodies generally better than Memphis. The problem is I'm from one of the places that does.
Why Chicago is Tops for Barbecue
In the last few years Chicago has established itself as a spot of smoky supremacy, and Smoque BBQ is reason number one I don't feel compelled to return to Memphis. I've written about the glories of this shack on Serious Eats before, so I won't go in to much detail about it here. But, for those who protest Chicago is a sauce drenched smoked meat wasteland, except for a small layer of caramelized lacquer, the sauce on Smoque's ribs is served on the side. Their brisket is certainly the best this side of Texas, and the quality of Smoque's balanced sides, save the chili drenched tamales from Germantown Commissary, are unparalleled in the informal barbecue world.
There is also the bounty of the other usual Chicago suspects like Leon's, Barbara Ann's, and Honey 1 (though in all fairness, Honey 1's ribs have been dry the last couple of times I tried them) that also satisfy me enough that I know I'm not missing anything in Memphis. However, it was a recent stop at southside stalwart Uncle John's BBQ for a taste of the wet side of barbecue that really reinforced my belief in Chicago's smoke superiority.
Get to Uncle John's BBQ
I hadn't been to the tiny shop run by super skilled pitmaster Mack Sevier in almost a year, so and I'd forgotten how good it was. But last week, plunking down $9.50 for a Styrofoam clamshell box filled with two meals worth of rib tips, french fries (substandard steamy mush—frankly wouldn't mind if they were taken out), hot links, and nice blanket of white bread turned out to be one of the better food moves of the year.
I was so enamored with these spicy sauce tossed ribs with their perfect chewy meat and crispy bark, I didn't even notice the errant speck of runaway barbecue sauce on the right side of my eyeglasses until I started driving home after the meal. You could still make a credible argument that Cozy Corner was just as good, but the edge here is that Mack's hot link—the bastard lovechild of a kielbasa and a pepperoni stick—a perfect sputtering sizzling red pepper-flecked garlicky smoked sausage, is one of the best links you'll ever sink your teeth in to.
Yes, Other Places Have Good Barbecue Too
You could also argue that I'm being a homer, but I grew up and spent most of my life just outside of Detroit, Michigan, so there's no deep seeded nostalgia, and at best a minor rooting interest in having Chicago as 'cue capital, if anything at all.
That being said, when Memphis in May happens, if only for a week, Memphis definitely retains the cue crown for a while. Likewise, there's probably a high concentration of backyard pitmasters engaging in unprecedented smokery in certain parts of this country I don't even know about. There's also no question that the dry rub of Memphis is unique and they make good barbecue, that Kansas City has killer burnt ends, that Carolina has nice vinegary pork, and that Louie Mueller's brisket is something you must eat before you die.
But considering the incredible wet and dry options in Chicago, the killer Smoque brisket and the great sides, and Mack's beautiful sausage, I would wager something important (I was going to say my life's savings—but I'm a freelance writer so that would be meaningless) that Chicago has the best retail barbecue food scene in America right now. The thing is, I still have to go back to Memphis because they—specifically Gus' World Famous—has the best fried chicken I've ever had. But that's a whole 'nother story.
Uncle John's BBQ
337 E 69th Street, Chicago, IL 60637 (map)