When it comes to great barbecue, Chicago does things a little differently. While North Carolina might be famous for vinegary chopped pork, Memphis for dry rubs, and Texas for brisket, scrappy Chicago has become known for transforming the less-desirable into glorious, porky heights: rib tips (the normally-discarded ends full of gristle) for one and the justifiably famous hot links. (When tossed together, they become the hot link and rib tip combo.)
Chicago hot links are not the same thing as Texas hot links, a barbecue staple in that state (Sausage City already covered the excellent links at Smoque, which are done in that style and actually imported from Texas). Chicago hot links are a bit messier, less refined kind of sausage eating experience.
Perhaps nobody in the city does it better than Uncle John's, where the links are flecked with red pepper flakes and taste deeply of sage and pork fat.
As Gary Wiviot once put it, they taste like "an adult dinner version of a breakfast sausage," and I can't think of a better way to describe them. At Uncle John's, they're made according to the restaurant's recipe. After a time in the smoker, where they absorb all that hickory scent, they're dunked in the deep fryer, which crisps up the casing all the way around (this is actually quite a common restaurant technique, since you get an even crisp compared to pan-frying or grilling).
The sausages themselves are very coarsely ground, so eating them involves a pleasurable chewiness; the pork is so juicy that it tends to sputter and drip when you slice into one. The links live up to their name in the hot department, packing a pretty serious heat, but it's a complex heat that leads you to other spices in the sausage.
The act of visiting Uncle John's could inspire a post all in itself; eating there is a very entertaining experience involving a nondescript storefront, ordering through a muffled plastic window, slipping your bills through a tray, and having your food spun to you through a bulletproof Lazy Susan. And once you have that food—which is housed in a bulging styrofoam tray full of fries, sauce, meat, and two slices of white bread—your only option is to take it out.
Warmer weather permits grabbing a piece of curb or walking to a nearby park, but in colder weather, you're left eating it awkwardly in the car (or off its hood). Thankfully, the sausage is good enough that nobody really cares.
Uncle John's Barbecue
337 East 69th Street, Chicago, IL 60637 (map)