Serious Eats: Chicago
The Best Rib Tip and Hot Link Combo in Chicago
#1: Uncle John's Barbecue
337 East 69th Street, Chicago, IL 60637 (map); 773-892-1233
#2: Honey 1 BBQ
2241 North Western Avenue, Chicago, IL 60647 (map); 773-227-5130; honey1bbq.net
#3: Lem's Bar-B-Q
311 East 75th Street, Chicago, IL 60619 (map); 773-994-2428; lemsbarbq.com
In most parts of the country, rib tips are the unwanted bits from a properly trimmed spare rib. Fatty and absolutely riddled with bits of cartilage, they are hard to eat and about as delicate as a sledgehammer. To put it in another way, they are scraps—except in Chicago. Here rib tips are the foundation of one of our city's most delicious culinary creations: the rib tip and hot link combo.
Chicago may not be the spiritual home of some universally adored barbecue dish, like the barbecue capitals Memphis, Kansas City, or Lexington, North Carolina. But it does have the rib tip and hot link combo, and it's a dish worth celebrating. Or, at the very least, it was worth finding the best example in the city.
If it could be reduced down to an equation, the combo would look something like this: Rib Tips + Hot Links + Fries = The Combo. Of course, there is some sauce in there, along with those slices of white bread, which don't seem to have any functional purpose. But that's besides the point.
The best rib tips make you feel slightly guilty. Like the burnt ends of the brisket, rib tips should be decadent little things that are absolutely haunted with smoke. They aren't pretty. They aren't balanced. Instead, it's like eating a tray of brownies where each one is a corner piece (which can be done, by the way). It's kind of miraculous.
So, what's the best thing to pair with such an over-the-top and ridiculous nugget of meat like the rib tip? Well, what about an equally fatty and aggressively seasoned hot link of sausage? Some have seasonings reminiscent of breakfast sausage, while others are milder and more about the textural contrast between the crisp casing and the fatty interior.
I'm not sure who decided to add a handful of fries to this duo, but I doubt it was too well thought out. A shocking number of hot dog stands around town use hand-cut fries, so you'd think barbecue joints, which already set aside hours to properly smoke their meat, would do the same. That's not the case. Frozen fries are almost universal. And yet...
The fries may not taste that great on their own, but when covered by two kinds of meat and drenched in barbecue sauce, they become surprisingly addictive.
Judging something as wild and hard to explain as the combo was bound to be imperfect. But I used the following criteria to help me sort through the places:
- Rib Tips (10 points): Tips should have a crispy bark, with a noticeable pink ring from the smoking process. The insides should be juicy, but without huge hunks of chewy fat.
- Hot Links (10 points): Once again, each bite should be juicy and smoky. The casing should be a little crunchy. Seasonings can change, but a little spice is appreciated.
- Sauce (5 points): Sauce should enhance the smoky flavor of the meat, not cover it up.
- Fries (5 points): Hand cut fries are obviously preferable, but frozen fries are fine as long as they are crisp, seasoned, and still have a reasonably potatoey flavor.
- Overall Satisfaction (10 points): Did all the separate parts combine into one dish? Was the combo given the love and attention it ultimately deserves?
Sauce on the Side?
I also tried to order sauce on the side at each place, even if I forgot to on a couple of occasions. This was done so I could better inspect the meat, and so I could control the amount used. Plus, there are some noted sauce-on-the-side barbecue evangelists, and I wanted to see if they were on to something. Any lapses were unintentional.
View Rib Tips in a larger map
When you search for the best the rib tip and hot link combo in the city, the same places tend to pop up again and again: Uncle John's, Barbara Ann's, Lem's, and Honey 1 BBQ. They could very well be the best, but I really wanted to get out and try places that I hadn't explored before.
Interestingly, not as many places had the combo listed on their menu as I first imagined. That left out most of the new barbecue joints in town, including Smoque, Lillie's Q, Barn & Company, and Chicago Q. (Don't worry, they already get enough love.)
In the end, all of the picks had to have rib tips and hot links on the menu, even if I had to order them separately and combine them after the order. Picks were also limited to those in the city limits, which I realize leaves off some heavy hitters. But as you can tell, the picks took me all over the city, from Foster on the North Side, 115th on the South Side, and Pulaski on the West Side.
Here they are in alphabetical order:
- Barbara Ann's BBQ
- Best Bar B Que
- Fat Willy's Rib Shack
- Honey One BBQ
- Honky Tonk BBQ
- I-57 Rib House
- Lem's Bar-B-Q
- Mary's Restaurant
- Mary Lee's Smokehouse
- Ribs N' Bibs
- Smokey Bear's BBQ House
- Uncle John's Barbecue
I called it before the competition even began. My two favorite barbecue joints for the combo in the city are Uncle John's BBQ and Honey One BBQ, and I expected them to fight it out for the top spot. I just didn't expect it to be so close. But in the end, thanks to its phenomenal hot link, Uncle John's won the day. But only barely...
Uncle John's Barbecue
Rib Tips: (9.5/10) Wonderfully juicy, with great bark, and lots of smoke.
Hot Links: (9.5/10) Just as impressive. Smoky, slightly spicy, with just enough fat to hold the thickly ground meat together.
Sauce: (4/5) The mix of spicy and hot is spicy and tangy.
Fries: (3.5/5) Frozen, but very crunchy. Perfect for sopping up the sauce.
Overall Satisfaction: (10/10) As great as the individual elements are, they find their true calling when eaten together. Absolutely flawless.
Total Score: (36.5/40)
And the Rest of the Results...
Click through the slideshow to see which dishes made the list. And let us know your favorite picks!