When Uncle John's abruptly shuttered last September, Chicago lost one of its great South Side barbecue treasures. Sure, nearby Barbara Ann's and Lem's (along with distant northern relative Honey 1) remain to keep the city's aquarium smoker traditions warm, but at its peak, Uncle John's was the best of the bunch, and the void left by Mack Sevier's departure would not easily be filled. Some have returned unceremoniously to the aforementioned favorites for their fix, whilst others have found solace chasing the next big barbecue thing at recently discovered Ben's BBQ in Austin. Rather melodramatically, I had resigned myself to the notion that I had eaten my last truly transcendent tips and links combo.
But some, shunning complacency and despondency alike, have hit the road to Richton Park, where Sevier's nephew, Garry Kennebrew, has been quietly serving aquarium smoked meats at Uncle John's Barbecue for the past few years. Also born and raised in Alabama, Kennebrew trained under his famous uncle at Barbara Ann's, taking over pitmaster duties once Sevier set out on his own. A few years later, Kennebrew came back to open the Sevier-sanctioned outpost in the southern suburb, faithfully operating under Mack's tutelage while slowly making the recipes his own.
He probably would have continued to operate in relative obscurity, too, had Uncle John's closure not created the impetus for newfound popularity. Always on the lookout for an underdog story, faithful throngs of LTHers (who discovered the original way back when) swarmed Richton Park, proclaimed the spot the rightful heir to the Uncle John's throne, and hoisted it upon their enthusiastic shoulders by way of a Great Neighborhood Restaurant designation. Actually, I'm exaggerating when I say "throngs"—given the distance, the award was given after a mere three commenters weighed in with pie-in-the-sky promises that "sometimes the sequel can be as good as the original," as the award description reads. I take all my meals with a healthy side of skepticism, so there was nothing left to do but make the drive to Richton Park to see for myself.
Located in a strip mall just off Highway 57, Uncle John's Barbecue isn't much to look at from the outside. But right off the bat, it has two legs up on the original: the open sign flips on at noon (a full hour earlier), and there is actual indoor seating (albeit in the form of outdoor patio furniture). Most of the business still appears to be takeaway, but for all of us who have tried to eat barbecue on the trunks of our cars in the dead of winter, this alone makes the drive worthwhile.
That's not the only thing that makes the 45 minute drive south of the city palatable, though. Kennebrew fast-smokes his ribs, tips, and links in a massive aquarium smoker and finishes the links to order in a deep fryer, just like they did at the original. "Mack wouldn't have it any other way," he laughs after letting me take a peek in the kitchen.
Back in the dining room, the rhythmic thud of the cleaver signals that lunch is near. Though I was dining in, the bundle is still handed over the counter shrouded in Styrofoam, paper, and plastic. Steam softened white bread is waiting under the familiar white hood, along with the requisite made to be discarded coleslaw.
The food here doesn't just look the part, though: the Tip & Link Combo ($14.95) is undoubtedly Uncle John's. Though cut a little smaller than I like, the tips are still plenty meaty, with a good fat to bark ratio. Nothing here is particularly well seasoned, but that's where the spicy and not too sweet sauce comes in. It's applied with a light hand, a boon for all those sauce-on sauce-off fence sitters.
This is ultimately Kennebrew's place, though—a fact evidenced most clearly by the hot links. Though crisp-cased, the links are ground tighter, with less sage and heat than Mack used. Kennebrew deliberately tinkered with the recipe, and they're good—much better than the pallid specimens I sampled recently at Ben's—just different.
But the show-stealer (at least on my visit) are the meaty Spare Ribs ($10.95 for a half slab). Precut for your pleasure, the meat is juicy and maintains plenty of chew. Just look at that Chinese roast pork-esque bark... *swoon*
Kennebrew isn't the only member of the family still serving barbecue these days, though. Quietly announced on the old Uncle John's Facebook page to anyone still trolling it for updates (ahem), Uncle J's is a carryout-only spot on 47th helmed by none other than Mack's daughter, Reaella Love. Frequent customers of the original may recognize her as the face behind the Plexiglas. After some health issues, Mack's doctor advised he "go fishing" permanently, ultimately leading to Uncle John's closure. Reaella, who runs the spot with her husband and daughter, wanted to keep the business going while making sure Mack's involvement wouldn't interfere with his health. "Mack's here as a consultant only," she reassures. "My goal was to pick up the 69th Street location and plop it down here on 47th."
The place certainly looks the part. Orders are still placed, bank-teller style, through bulletproof glass, and the barbecue is still spun your way through a glass walled lazy Susan. You still better have your receipt ready when they call your number, too.
Though the space is a little smaller than the original, you can still see the pitmaster cleaving rib tips fresh from the aquarium smoker. The cutting board isn't quite as worn down in the center, but it's only a matter of time.
Settling into the Combo Hot Links & Rib Tips ($10.75) is like coming home. The links are the same snappy, spicy, sage-y, and roughly ground ones Mack served. And the tips are left in large hunks too, which I prefer to the smaller-cut style at Honey 1 and Ben's. Smoky and aggressively seasoned, they're indicative of South Side Chicago barbecue's blunt style. Best of all, the tips are cooked just right: the deft of tongue and tooth can separate the chewy, smoky meat from the cartilage, but not without a little fight. You're working for your lunch, just like you should.
The only weak point of the Combo is the sauce, which doesn't appear to be kept as warm as it was back on 69th. Rather than evenly trickling down to the fries, mine congealed once it hit the surface of the hot meat. The effect was enough to turn a friend that lives nearby off to the place entirely. I wouldn't go that far, but this sort of thing can be a deal breaker for many patrons: regardless of how the North Side barbecue cognoscenti orders theirs, the prevailing local default preference for "sauce on" is reflected by having to actually specify otherwise. Here's hoping for warmer sauce once Uncle J's really gets rolling.
Unfortunately, the 1/2 Slab Ribs ($10.75) are a little off, too. Cooked past done to where the bark starts to split and string, I quickly ignored them in favor of the tips and links. If you're a spare rib person, though, I'd still give them a shot: Uncle J's hasn't been open long, and they're still getting their timing just right.
Four concentrated hours of barbecue later, I can safely say that the pilgrimage to Uncle John's Barbecue in Richton Park is worth the trek. Kennebrew certainly has the chops, and his barbecue reflects it. And the trip really isn't that long: with traffic, the South Side isn't particularly close for most of us, and think of all the time you're saving by not having to search for a place nearby to eat.
Still, as good as this incarnation of Uncle John's is, calling it the same seems to be an oversimplification: this is a talented pitmaster's own take on tried and true family recipes, after all. That's not a slight; "as good as the original" just isn't the right way to celebrate Kennebrew's prowess—how about "keeping it in the family," if you're searching for pithy accolades? In any event, Uncle J's is your place if you're looking for a taste of the original (minus the sauce issue, it's damn good) and it's within the city limits, to boot. Regardless of which spot you choose, let's count this as a win-win for South Side Chicago style barbecue.