Sausage City: Smoque's Barbecue Hot Links
Wherever you come down on the controversial comparison of Memphis barbeue and Chicago barbecue, the fact that anyone is even asking that question is pretty remarkable. That speaks wonders to how far the Chicago barbecue scene has come in recent years.
Much of this barbecue revival has been led by places like Smoque BBQ, which are less focused on any Chicago style of barbecue and are more concerned with perfecting traditions that come from elsewhere. For example, Smoque's pulled pork is North Carolina style, while their famous brisket is drawn from the Texas tradition.
Smoque's hot links are a completely different affair than the traditional Chicago hot link. Despite sharing the name, Smoque's are closer in ancestry to the Texas hot link, which has more of an Eastern European profile, almost like a smoked kielbasa.
To be honest, sausages and barbecue are not necessarily two things people associate. Yet Chicago barbecue is known for hot links (and the rib tips they're often served with). The hot link is a spicy, aggressively seasoned sausage, something you'll encounter at barbecue standbys like Uncle John's or Honey 1. It owes a great deal of its provenance to breakfast sausage, with sage being a common seasoning, plus plenty of red pepper flakes to amp up the heat. It's a messy affair, with a huge percentage of fat to lean, heavly smoked and often slicked with sauce. It's an undeniable experience of the Chicago barbecue tradition.
Yet besides sharing a name and a trip to the smoker, Chicago and Texas hot links are fairly different barbecue experiences. The Texas style is a milder and leaner sausage, but still juicy and haunted by plenty of smokiness. Texas links are usually served dry with no sauce.
The flavor and juicines, of course, more than makes up for it. At Smoque, the pork sausage has a gentle, complex spice from both cayenne and black pepper. You can see some of the coarseness of the grind, which is very tender. That's probably the result of the two smoking sessions the sausage is put through, which significantly tenderizes the meat. After being smoked once in the production facility (they source them from Texas), it's back in the smoker at Smoque, which brings the sausages up to temperature for eating while also crisping up the casing.
It's not nearly as spicy as the Chicago hot links I've had. And in the end, nothing can replace that total indulgence of a rib tip and hot link combo with a tray of fries. (By the way, this should be considered a basic rite of passage to living in the city.) But that's just what people argue makes Chicago deserve some barbecue prominence: no matter what kind of style you're after, we probably do it pretty well.