Mary Lee's Smokehouse
2 East Cermak Road, Chicago, IL 60616 (map); 312-225-4544; Mary Lee's Smokehouse/Facebook
The Short Order: Solid barbecue in the South Loop
Want Fries with That? Actually, yes you do. Some of the best barbecue joint fries around.
Seats? A few chairs are available for waiting purposes only. All food is to go.
The old adage that the best barbecue in Chicago is on the South Side isn't quite true anymore. Thanks to places like Smoque and Lillies Q, the North Side now has a host of places serving spectacular 'que. But the saying does hold up if you're in search of Chicago distinctive style of barbecue cooked in an aquarium-style smoker—a fact I more or less backed up while searching for the Best Rib Tip and Hot Link Combo. Besides the great and glorious Honey 1 BBQ, crossing Madison Ave. (the official demarkation between North and South Sides) is essentially required to get great rib tips and hot links.
Mary Lee's Smokehouse is definitely on the South Side, but only barely. As you can tell by the photo, this place is relatively close to downtown, or at least much more so than most. In fact, its location in the South Loop near Chinatown and McCormick Place is downright convenient.
If this all sounds too good to be true, it kind of is. Mary Lee's placed right in the middle of the pack in the rib tip and hot link combo roundup, hovering precariously on that line between a respectable neighborhood barbecue joint and one that only makes you crave the real stuff more. To completely decide, I needed to try more of the menu. (Tough job.)
And what better way to get to know a local barbecue joint than by ordering up a whole rack of ribs ($20.95)? I actually called my order in, just so I could be sure that one would be there waiting for me. Sure enough, when I strolled in bare storefront the rack was minutes away from being ready.
Though perhaps it would have been better had I gotten stuck in traffic. I'm no fan of meat that falls off the bone without any provocation, but these ribs required some serious tugging, so much so that I have to think some more time would have helped. But the real issue came down to flavor. While the heavy black pepper rub works, each rib didn't have much sign of a smoke ring, and the sugary mild sauce did nothing to highlight the meat.
The half chicken ($6.69) had the opposite problem. The meat was supremely tender, though a few bites trended towards mushy. Admittedly, barbecue chicken is hard to get right, and there was more good going on here than bad. I particularly liked the mix of hot and mild sauce poured over this one, which had some tang and heat to play off the meat.
Oddly, Mary Lee's biggest surprise comes at the end. These kind of barbecue joints are notorious for serving up some of the most embarrassing frozen French fries you've ever encountered. (Though I admit that when covered in barbecue sauce and drippings from the smoked meat, they have an odd appeal.) But the seasoned fries from Mary Lee's are actually, dare I say, good. Sure, they aren't hand cut, nor am I suggesting they are some of the best in the city, but they are crispy and thin, which is more I can say about every other place.
So, where does that leave us? Basically, I think Mary Lee's is the kind of place one would love to have nearby, even if it can't quite compete with Chicago's more famous destination-worthy barbecue joints. Still, it is relatively new on the scene, so hopefully its best days are still ahead.