Chicago: Uncle John's Aquarium-Soaked Ribs

When Pigs Fly

Guides, reviews, histories, and travel tales from the barbecue trail.


[Photographs: James Boo]

There are smokehouse inquisitors who would raise an eyebrow at Uncle John's Barbecue, a hole-in-the-wall, South Side smoke joint that serves its aquarium-smoked ribs and rib tips two ways: drowned in barbecue sauce, and drowned in spicy barbecue sauce.

Sauce is too often draped over mediocre barbecue as a security blanket, but in Chicago, barbecue sauce is more than serious. Here, "sauce on the side" is not a common request. While there's something to be said for smoked meat that stands alone, doubters of ribs in red, along with those who time and again leave the South Side off America's list of barbecue meccas, owe it to themselves to pay a visit to Uncle John's.

Here, in what feels like an abandoned neighborhood corner store, customers are handed styrofoam boxes through a rotating cash window. During off hours, a pop machine is the customer's only company, and with houses lining the streets in every direction, cars become intimate, four-door dining rooms.


Rib tips bathed first in smoke, then in a rich, spicy-sweet barbecue sauce: Chicago's claim to BBQ fame, and a star player at Uncle John's.

Piled under that takeout lid is Chicago's own barbecue tradition, especially succulent in the form of Chicago-style rib tips. Gritty, inconsistent, and inflected with small tubes of cartilage, these chunks of meaty, fatty, spare rib hacked from the belly-facing ends of the rack can be a minefield of pork leather in the wrong hands. At Uncle's John's, which has been serving superb Chicago 'cue for five years, they strike the perfect balance between tender, fatty and chewy.

Each tip, just small enough to fill a clenched fist, is saturated with a smoky taste bold enough to cut right through the joint's sauce, which is a rich, dizzying, and grease-slicked blend of sweet, tart, and spicy flavors so potent that the accompanying mayo-based slaw is a palate cleanser by default. Hints of a sweet, meaty funk, perhaps from tips that have been left in the smoker a bit too long, only add to the complexity, making these rib tips unlike any other—even in Chicago.


Uncle John's pork spare ribs are even better, if no less picaresque. Hearty, juicy, and blessed with a smoky, chewy bark, they rank among the best ribs I've ever tasted. They're also some of the sauciest I've encountered on the barbecue trail, leaving behind stained shreds of paper napkins, hopelessly outmatched and begging for a moist nap.


Jumbo-sized hot links here are another Chicago classic. In contrast to the butcher-style sausages sold in Central Texas, they're built rugged and raw, with thick, snappy casings, a densely packed texture, and the taste of American breakfast sausage. One link is enough to put you to sleep. Three links will set you back $7.25.


Peering in at Uncle John's aquarium smoker from the entrance, I couldn't help but notice a small poster for "barbecued chicken" hanging in the window. I discovered the hungry way that an order of six chicken wings (plus two on the house) results not in a smoked bird, but in a bundle of Southern-style fried chicken, unabashedly dressed in the very same sauce. Speaking to a dying breed of South Side rib joints with serious night shifts, these wings seem built for late night eats and hangover helpers.


At the bottom of every order is a bed of potato-based sponges. Formerly French fries, they've been forsaken to the Chicago style: a native barbecue that has to be one of the messiest ways of saying, "We don't mess around."