311 E. 75th Street, Chicago IL 60619 (map); 773-994-2428
The Short Order: Juicy ribs loaded with smoke.
Want Fries with That? You'll get them, but they'll be mushy and bland.
Want Ketchup? Nope, but you'll want a gallon of their barbecue sauce.
Last week Michael Nagrant declared Chicago's barbecue better than that of Memphis, a claim I delicately disagreed with. After a weekend in Memphis of my own, I was ready to drop everything and buy a home right across the street from Cozy Corner. Though I live in Chicago and love the food, I just didn't think we had as many quality barbecue places as Memphis.
I won't even get into Chicago's black hole of boiled and baked ribs, but among the ones that do use wood, I think Barbara Ann's is underwhelming. That left Lem's Bar-B-Q as one of the last of the highly acclaimed spots I hadn't visited. So on a Saturday afternoon I made my way down to the South Side to see what it had to add to the great debate.
I could see the smoke from a block away—that beacon of great barbecue. I knew from that exact moment on that Lem's would be good. How good would be the real question. When I opened the car door, I was greeted by that pork-scented smoke, but before I could even stand up, an employee ran out like a car hop. To what did I owe this great service?
Turns out my wife and I were a little early. Instead of sending us away, he told us he'd rather sell us some ribs. I honestly wavered for a minute, thinking we should just come back another day so I could sample more things like rib tips and hot links. But just as we were about to get back in the car, the employee said he'd bring out a sample to change our minds. A barbecue sample! Sure enough, he disappeared into the shop, hacked off two ribs, and ran back out to us in the car.
The ribs came out hot and perfectly pink from the smoke with a crispy bark from the seasoning. They were lacquered with a tangy sauce that complemented the smoke. The meat itself pulled cleanly from the bone, without just falling off the bone like bad barbecue does. One bite was all we needed. Well, I mean, we ate more than one. I couldn't even wait to take a picture. Could you turn down a rib like that? His sample ploy worked. We ordered a half rack to-go.
Lem's is good enough to go on my definitive list of Chicago barbecue. Sure, I only had the ribs and I might have been swayed by the impressive car-side service, but you can't fake ribs like this. It's impossible to have such a beautiful smoke ring and delicately crispy bark, without doing barbecue the slow way. It's beautiful stuff.
What may put Lem's over the top is their sauce. This ain't KC Masterpiece—it's tangy, slightly spicy, with just the faintest touch of sugar. The only sauce they have to compete with in Chicago is Honey 1. Vinegar-heavy in a good way, the sauce enhances the flavor of the meat instead of mucking it up. There are discussions dedicated to cracking its code. For what it's worth, I taste a healthy dose of Worcestershire sauce.
Like all good barbecue places on the South Side, the fries are awful. (Why are those always so bad?) And there are no seats inside. You'll have to order through bulletproof glass and eat somewhere else. But I'll happily eat in the car if I can get my hands on these impressive ribs. They are good no matter where you live.