#1: Lillie's Q
1856 West North Avenue, Chicago, IL 60622 (map); 773-772-5500; lilliesq.com
#2: Smoque BBQ 3800 North Pulaski Road, Chicago, IL 60641 (map); 773-545-7427; smoquebbq.com
#3: Honey 1 BBQ 2241 North Western Avenue, Chicago, IL 60647 (map); 773-227-5130; honey1bbq.com
Pulled pork is the most ubiquitous barbecue, which is one of those good/bad scenarios. The good: you can find pulled pork almost anywhere you look in Chicago, from sports bars to high end restaurants. The bad: look closely at most of these plates, and you'll realize that there are some wildly different interpretations of the dish, and that most never see a whiff of smoke. You know the kind—instead of hanging out in a smoker, the meat likely spent an eternity languishing in a crockpot, where, drenched in a sickeningly sweet sauce, it cooked down to a pulpy mush.
I should point out here that this the kind of pulled pork I grew up eating, and depending on how good the sauce was, this mess could be moderately tasty. But as I realized later in life, it's just not barbecue.
At the very least, it's nothing like the pulled pork I encountered during a whirlwind tour of North Carolina barbecue, when my brother-in-law and I scarfed down as many plates of the stuff as we could fit into a day. While all of it was exceptional, I had something of an awakening at Allen & Son, where I encountered pulled pork with seemingly contradictory attributes: Tender but not mushy. Fatty and flavorful, not greasy. Smoky, but only in the background, where it lingered for seconds after each bite. I've been trying to find stuff like this ever since.
I don't think this is too high a standard for Chicago. As I've explored a few times, Chicago have a fantastic barbecue scene, but so far, I've mostly focused on rib tips and hot links, which we do extremely well. Great pulled pork took some effort to track down.
While the best pulled pork I had in North Carolina was served sans bun, pulled pork sandwiches are far more common here. Plus, I'm an absolute sucker for barbecue towered onto a soft bun and topped with crunchy, cool coleslaw.
The Meat (10 points): Does the meat have a noticeable smoke ring? Is it well seasoned and flavorful? Is it tender and juicy without being mushy?
The Toppings (5 points): This usually meant coleslaw, though pickles popped up a few times. Regardless, did they add texture and crunch? Were they acidic to balance the fattiness of the meat?
The Sauce (5 points): Bad sauce covered up the meat. The best actually made the pork taste better. Most of the time that meant a vinegary sauce, which wasn't too sweet.
The Bun (5 points): Does the bun hold up to the meat without breaking apart? Does it do this without getting in the way?
Pulled pork is everywhere in Chicago, but I only included places where I knew they had a genuine smoker. That left out a number of options, which I probably wouldn't have liked anyways.
That left me with ten I was genuinely excited to try:
- Barn & Company
- Bub City
- Chicago Q
- Fat Willy's Rib Shack
- Honey 1 BBQ
- Honky Tonk BBQ
- Lillie's Q
- The Pork Shoppe
- Smoke Daddy
- Smoque BBQ
What about the South Side?
And before anyone calls me out on it, I didn't include many places from the South Side because most of the classic places don't serve pulled pork. That includes Lem's and Uncle John's. Trust me, I would have loved nothing more than to revisit Uncle John's, especially since it won our rib tip and hot link combo contest.
And the Winner is... Lillie's Q!
I had a hunch Lillie's Q would come out on top. That explains why I waited to start this feature until the Bucktown restaurant reopened after a serious fire back in March. I just never knew exactly why I loved it so much, beyond the feeling that it was really, really great. But this time I made sure to taste it next to a few others, and doing this comparison finally allowed me to see the difference. While other places have nailed the texture and smokiness, Lillie's Q's pulled pork has a deeper, fattier flavor. Somehow, it's not greasy, either, which is kind of confusing to explain, but will make complete sense once you try it.
Meat: (10/10) At first, it's hard to pin down why the pulled pork here is so startlingly great. Sure, it's tender and smoky, but so are other versions. Finally, I realized that each bite had an intense meatiness. Some might call that fat, but instead of greasy, the meat just seems more flavorful. Without equal in Chicago.
Toppings: (4/5) The crunchy and vinegary coleslaw is good on its own, but seems specially designed to top this sandwich.
Sauce: (5/5) Make your pick, each and every one of these are awesome.
Bun: (4.5/5) The brioche bun is flavorful and soft, though it does start to break apart towards the end.
Total Score: (23.5/25)
And the Rest of the Results...
Click through the slideshow to see the rest of the results, and let me know if I missed out on your favorite place.