Editor's note: The 21 Club series features Chicago restaurants that have been around for over 21 years. They must be doing something right, so we'll visit them and see why.
According to the giant sign, Carson's was founded in 1977 and has been around for over 30 years now. Now, if you grew up around the Windy City, you might remember commercials like these:
612 N. Wells St, Chicago, Cook, IL 60654; (map); 312-280-9200; ribs.com
Open Since: 1977
Cuisine: Ribs and Steak
Cost: Garbage Salad $11.95; Cornbread $2.95; 24 Hour BBQ Minis $8.75; BBQ Sampler $26.95; Au Gratin Potatoes $3.95; Twice-Baked Potato $3.95
Wow! A flavor-sealing box? A former Bear's player? A weirdly sexy voice describing the ribs? These ribs HAVE to be good. Real good. The old commercial mentions that they had five locations, but, sadly, there's only two restaurants left standing. One in downtown Chicago, and one in Deerfield, IL—not too far from where I grew up.
When SE Chicago Editor Nick Kindelsperger, my girlfriend Julie (I like to call her Sparrow), and I headed to the restaurant together, the first thing we noticed was that the interior of the place appeared to be recently renovated. I looked over the menu and discovered that everything looked...oddly fancy. I was puzzled, so I asked the bartender what had happened. He told me the place had recently gotten a facelift and a new menu.
I always remembered Carson's to be, well, kind of crappy. The ribs were the kind that were steamed or boiled, then broiled in the oven, so that they fell off the bone in a gelatinous mess when you tried to eat them. Great for toddlers and old people.
We ordered a sampling of items that represented what Carson's was proud to offer, including the Garbage salad ($11.95), which seems to be following me around since the Gene and Georgetti review. [Editor's Note: Dennis is contractually required to eat every garbage salad he encounters.]
The salad came out on three plates, one for each of us, looking beautiful. It was comprised of Romaine lettuce, cucumber, tomato, green onion, sliced egg, hearts of palm, and bacon, and it came tossed in the creamy, Caesar-like house dressing. It was a promising start to the meal. It looked great, all the vegetables were fresh and crisp, and it was dressed well—not too much, not too little. The overall components were balanced and they tasted great together.
The cornbread ($2.95) was delivered with the salad, and it was shaped like a very big corn muffin. Holy crap, was this sweet. I know that we Yankees like our cornbread more like a sweet and soft cake rather than the dense and crumbly style favored by Southerners, but with ice cream and powdered sugar this would have passed as dessert. It was moist (read: oily and rich), but it just seemed out of place as a side dish.
Next came the 24Hour BBQ Beef (left) and the 24Hour Pulled Pork (right) minis ($10.95). I really wanted to like these. They were cute, but overwhelmed with the sweet sauce, a trend we'd notice throughout the night. The meat was tender, but nothing stood out. They may have been cooked for 24 hours, but they weren't smoked for 24 hours. But hey, they came with pickles! I LOVE pickles!
During the meal, the barbecue sauce came on the side in a miniature warmed glass carafe, but it was so sugary we pretty much left it off our plates.
Finally, the sampler platter ($26.95). I like simple presentations. This was just charred, glazed, meat and a hot white plate. No more, no less.
These ribs were particularly troubling. It's hard to tell in this photograph, but there was a distinct smoke ring inside the meat, just like any great barbecue. However, when we bit into it, there wasn't a hint of rub or smoke, and the meat ended up being slightly dry and chewy. I wanted to like them. I ended up being disappointed as hell.
The pork chop ended up being our favorite item of the meal. It was grilled well, not overcooked, juicy on the inside, and not overly glazed with the sugary barbecue sauce, which is why we liked it.
The quarter chicken reminded me of a backyard grilled chicken. Basted with a lot of sauce during grilling, not a ton of seasoning, and with the burnt flavor of caramelized sugar on the outside. The thigh meat was moist, but aside from the sauce, no discernible rub or outer seasoning.
These au gratin potatoes looked great in theory, bubbly and toasted on the outside, but ended up being another disappointment. The fat from the cheese had separated from the solids, making the cheese grainy and the potatoes oily. We hardly touched these.
Ever had twice-baked potatoes at a wedding? Then you've pretty much had these, even though they were extra cheesy. I didn't even know these relics still existed!
Looking around us, the clientele was about ninety-percent men over fifty years old who were all from out of town. My kind of party animals. To be fair, Carson's is located in a particularly tourist-laden part of downtown Chicago, so that's to be expected.
The whole problem with Carson's is that while everything is supposed to be renovated, ramped up, and refreshed, the food is stuck in a time warp—sort of like my childish sense of humor.
About the author: After a failed attempt at starting a chain of theme restaurants called "Smellen Keller," Dennis Lee traveled the world to discover his true passion. Sadly, midwifery didn't pan out. Now he works in a cubicle, and screws around as much as possible. Follow his shenanigans on Twitter.