Chicago has a tip for the United States of Barbecue. It's mostly pork.
Like the scraps of beef brisket also known as burnt ends, the irregular, cartilage-bound hunks of barbecue known as rib tips were once considered refuse at worst, afterthought at best. In some places, they still are—I've had my fair share of tough, uninspired rib tips sold at a discount rate.
I don't mean to say that my rib tip experiences prior to Uncle John's were wholly unenjoyable. Then again, I don't mean to hide the fact that I enjoy the occasional Slim Jim precisely because it's the only food that becomes more difficult to chew the longer one attempts to consume it. In any case, no lack of thought is suffered in the aquarium smokers of Chicago, where rib tips can be truly first-rate.
Lem's Bar-B-Q, along with South-Side stalwart Barbara Ann's, has a lot to do with keeping Chicago's rib tips at the top of their game. Popularly credited with making the rib tip a star nearly half a century ago, this antique of a smokehouse is a senior citizen of Chi-City 'cue.
"None of our cooking process has changed," asserts Lynn Walker, a manager at Lem's. "That's why we're still in business. We still cook the way we did on day one."
On day one, rib tips weren't on the menu, nor were they brought into the house as part of their own cut. The Lemon brothers, who originally cleaved the gristly, fatty tips off fully cooked spare rib racks and into the garbage, didn't begin offering their tips to diners—let alone preparing tips as a delicacy in their own right—until several years after opening.
Today, rib tips are one of Lem's top sellers, and it's not difficult to understand their appeal. Each tip points to deeply layered flavors, merging a strong charcoal-and-hickory smoke with the simple sweetness of pork. Lem's tangy, spicy, and gritty barbecue sauce, conservatively applied by Chicago standards, adds a molasses-colored kick before the tips find their way into a freshly popped paper bag.
There isn't much space to eat at Lem's, especially if the line is taking up standing room inside. But rib tips do make a good driving snack, if you're the type of driver who likes to spit gristle onto the avenue and has a thing against new car smell.
Perhaps the true miracle of well-made rib tips is their texture. Sturdy yet tender, the tips from Lem's are unfairly moist, even after being shuttled across town for over an hour. More impressive is the fact that in Chicago, spares and tips are cooked much more quickly than the "low and slow" mantra of Southern barbecue would demand. Lem's tips typically spend less than 45 minutes in the aquarium before being hacked up for service.
The rib tips at Honey 1, the product of owner Robert Adams' Arkansas roots and Chicago residence, spend about two hours in the smoker. The same goes for Honey 1's spare ribs, a staple cut typically left to smoke in low heat for five or six hours.
Honey 1's rib tips prove that this is no mistake. Cooked over carefully tended oak logs that leap from smoldering to flaming in an instant, they end up with remarkably crunchy edges, a lightly porky taste and just a hint of wood smoke.
Their flavor calls to mind the Southern source of the barbecue trail, where hardwood coals are king. Their texture—along with Patricia Adams' sweet-heat sauce and the ever-present fries beneath every order—bridges the gap to Chicago's own style. And the tips are especially good when paired with Honey 1's hot link, a juicy, cayenne-fronted alternative to the city's more typical breakfast sausage.
The Adams family's barbecue (not to be confused with "The Addams Family Barbecue," currently in post-production for a straight-to-iTunes release) has earned unending praise on the LTH Forum. Their success is a testament to barbecue's adaptive, migratory history: Put a southerner into northern climes, and his ribs evolve. Give a good pit master the scraps from even another pit master's chopping block, and you're bound to end up with something tasty.
If you're lucky enough to make it to the Windy City, you'll also end up with something you can order by the bucket. Don't forget to tip.
About the author: James Boo has been a Serious Eats contributor since 2010. Working as a freelance journalist, he is also the founder of Real Cheap Eats and a documentarian. Check out his food-and-travel blog, The Eaten Path, for more journeys to the real meal.