Like it Or Not, Twin Anchors' Baked Ribs Are Here to Stay
There's no denying that Twin Anchors is a Chicago institution. 82 years young, the restaurant has, according to its website, hosted Frank Sinatra and countless other celebrities and has been featured in both Return to Me and The Dark Knight. Publicity and praise (including two Michelin Bib Gourmands, to boot) abound for the former speakeasy.
And yet. Until very recently, Chicago has been snubbed from serious conversations about the best BBQ cities in the country, and it wouldn't be out of line to place some of the blame squarely on Twin Anchors' very old shoulders. While increased exposure of Chicago's South Side barbecue and respectable regional revisionist efforts from places like Lillie's Q, Smoque, and Rub's have done a lot to bolster our city's street cred, the barbecue on offer at Twin Anchors is still what most people think of when they say "Chicago barbecue."
The issue is that the ribs here aren't barbecued at all, at least not in the traditional sense: they're "slow cooked," as the person on the other end of the line at Twin Anchors described. There's another, far dirtier word to describe what these ribs are, though: "baked." Boy, does that word piss some people off. Ribs prepared this way are usually boiled tender and then heated through in a moderate oven. When an order comes in, they're tossed on the grill to and basted with sauce until the sugars caramelize/burn. The resultant ribs are polarizing to say the least. Descriptors range from the gushing (fall off the bone tender), to the disparaging ("bone shine" is my favorite), to downright gross (meat jello, to borrow from Gary Wiviott). Most people pick a camp and park: there's little room for across the aisle solidarity when it comes to baked vs. smoked ribs.
Thing is, like many of my other countrymen, I sort of like baked ribs. Or I used to at least. I grew up in the Midwest, and whether I got my ribs at Texas Roadhouse or elsewhere, most often they were baked. I didn't learn til much later about things like "smoke rings" and barbecue that pulls back. These days, that's the sort I'm eating, but I couldn't help but wonder if Twin Anchors really deserves all the flack.
Remember those spare ribs I tried at Uncle John's Barbecue last week? These are the opposite. The Famous Ribs ($22.00 for a full slab) are made from baby backs, the "high on the hog" white meat of the rib family. They're leaner than spareribs, and therein lies the problem. After a long submerged cook time, the ribs reach the plate tender... and chalky. But while this is impossibly hard for Southern barbecue aficionados to wrap their heads around, sometimes we Northerners are just in it for the sauce. This is where Twin Anchors excels. The fan favorite Zesty is a very fine option, but the Prohibition ($.50 upcharge) is excellent, too. Sweet, tangy, and spicy from a touch of ghost pepper, the sauce elevates these bone shiners to finger lickin' good.
You get to specify white or dark meat chicken for the Rib & Chicken Combo ($19.50)—a good sign, to say the least. Go with the dark. While baby back ribs may not be best suited to this sort of cooking, slow roasting is a plenty respectable way to prepare chicken. Basted with plenty of sauce, this dish is a welcome harbinger of a far-off summer full of backyard barbecues. The stars of the plate, though, are the Zesty Baked Beans, which are made from a blend of bean varieties and supplemented with pulled pork.
The Homemade Chili ($4.00 for a cup) is a respectable Midwest version: ground beef, generous beans, and plenty of diced onion and shredded cheese on top. There's a nice kick at the end, but not so much that my daughter had any problem eating half the bowl.
LTHers recommend the Anchor Cheese Burger ($10.50) as a solid option for those times when you find yourself coerced into eating here. It's ok. The patty itself is cooked to a medium rare but lacks a crusty exterior, rendering the whole thing rather chewy. It also craves salt, which no amount of cheese or nicely caramelized onions can remedy. The from frozen onion rings are good, though.
The Grilled Cheese ($7.50) was the table favorite. Griddled in plenty of salted butter, the bread is crispy crunchy and the cheese is melted just right. I'm ashamed to admit that the adults of the table mooched an inordinate number of bites off this one. No I'm not.
So where does this leave Twin Anchors? Truth be told, if I lived nearby, I'd have a hard time staying away for too long. The place is charmingly dingy and as neighborhoodsy as can be—right down to the two young boys sitting at the bar, obliviously playing on their iPads while their dad watched the game. But parking's expensive around here, so I think I'll seek out another round of baked ribs elsewhere. Just to find out once and for all whether I still like them after all. Maybe at a place that serves deep fried onion blossoms and unlimited rolls with cinnamon butter...