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It's impossible to talk about barbecue right now and not mention the closing of Uncle John's. The South Side stand was to barbecue in Chicago what Great Lake was to pizza. That is, it was the best. But now both are gone, and much like the pizza scene this summer after Great Lakes closed, I've been feeling uneasy about the barbecue scene. To be clear, you can't replace Uncle John's. You just can't. But you have to move on, right?
That explains why I decided to check out four new additions to the smoked meat scene. Okay, so technically only three of the four opened this year, but I'm making an exception for the other one (which I'll explain below). I was searching for something to get excited about.
Besides serving smoked meat, these four places have little else in common. To be sure, they couldn't be further away from each other: this feature took me to the North Side, South Side, West Side, and the Loop. But what's a car ride when you're on the hunt for exceptional barbecue?
I'll admit right from the start that none of these fills the massive hole left by Uncle John's, but Smalls is the most exciting, because it cares the least about authenticity. Located on a side street in Irving Park, the literally small shop adds some twists to the usual barbecue menu, but does so in a way that avoids gimmick. Many of the dishes have a slight Asian bent, including the very good "Filipino" Street BBQ Style Glazed St. Louis Ribs, which are meaty and substantial and come served on toasted garlic rice.
Even when Smalls goes more traditional, like with the Cherry Wood Pulled Pork, the result is impressive. Instead of dry and greasy, the pulled pork is wonderfully smoky and fatty, which I know sounds bad, but it's juicy and flavorful.
My favorite of the bunch is the Hickory Smoked Brisket. While Chicago has one legitimately great brisket spot (Smoque), most brisket in the city tastes like the meat you'd fish out of an overcooked pot roast. But Smalls' version is greedy and exciting—absolutely packed with smoke and dripping with juices, with a crunchy and well seasoned bark. This is the dish that'll keep drawing me back. (Oh, and Joe also swears by the fried chicken.)
Blackwood BBQ is the best barbecue in the Loop. Period. It's actual barbecue to be begin with, not just boiled meat slathered with sauce and broiled. All the meat is cooked in a Southern Pride smoker, which is basically the same one used at Smoque (and that place certainly knows what it is doing). Setup like Chipotle, you order at the counter and get your food quickly. Of course, the real question is if it's any good, and I'll lend a qualified, if still enthusiastic, yes: this is good barbecue for any neighborhood, just not destination worthy stuff. All that said, if you work in the Loop, then it's something like a godsend.
The brisket is getting the most attention, and when Dennis reviewed the place for Lunch in the Loop, it certainly looked fantastic. Unfortunately, the meat I got was a bit dried out, making it far too close to the dreaded pot roast meat I mentioned above. Oddly, my brisket was cut with the grain instead of against it, making the beef taste tougher than it should have. Other people have noticed the unfortunate practice, including Mike Sula for the Chicago Reader, and apparently the problem is getting fixed.
I was much more impressed with the pulled pork sandwich, which had a great balance of fat and smoke. Add in the fluffy white bun and crunchy coleslaw, and you have one of the best sandwiches in the Loop. Not bad, right?
County Barbecue tries hard. This isn't some bare bones operation with wobbly tables and swill beer. Much like Bub City, it's kind of a faux honky-tonk, with loads of American flags strewn about. Fortunately, it's also smaller and therefore more intimate. Since it's run by Michael Kornick and David Morton—the same team behind DMK, Fish Bar, and Ada Street—I had genuine hopes that the food would be good, too. And if we're only talking about side dishes, then that's definitely the case. I devoured the bowl of creamy cheddar grits, along with most of the tender collard greens. Oh, and the pickles are great.
So it's too bad that none of the meats I tried on the barbecue sampler quite measured up. I liked the rub on most of the meats, but the execution just seemed to be off. All of them lacked much flavor from the smoker, and too many were dry.
That's especially true of the brisket, which, as you can easily tell by the picture, actually looks like dry pot roast.
But even the good looking ribs, which displayed a red-hued smoke ring, came across as flat and unsatisfying.
The best of the group was probably the chicken, but that's because it was tender and well seasoned, not because it tasted much like barbecue.
Obviously, there are some great cooks in the kitchen, so maybe County Barbeque just needs a bit more time to figure out how to control the smoker.
Ben's Bar-Be-Cue Restaurant
Ben's isn't exactly new—apparently, it's been open for three years—so what am I doing including it here? I'm throwing it in with this lot because (a) it's new to me and (b) it wasn't much known to anyone outside of the West Side neighborhood of Austin until a random post went up on LTHForum in August. Within days of appearing on the forum, Ben's went from relative obscurity to some declaring it to be one of the best barbecue joints in the city. I'm not quite ready to do that, but Ben's is an intriguing place, and I can't wait to try it again.
Much of the initial enthusiasm has to do with the fact that the joint uses an aquarium smoker, the same rectangular glass-sided box found at Honey 1 BBQ, Lem's, Barbara Ann's, and, yes, the late Uncle John's. Much like those barbecue joints, Ben's also serves up a rib tip and hot link combo, along with full racks of ribs, turkey tips, and even beef ribs. But Ben's also has a few unique traits, which set it apart. Instead of a heavy rub, the meat is only lightly dusted, letting you better appreciate the taste of the meat. I could have used for a bit more salt, but that might just be me. I've also never had a sauce quite like this; it has a great fruity base and a lot of vinegar tang.
The ribs were dry on my visit, falling off the bone slightly too easily. But it could have been my timing. I visited around opening, which according to a few folks on LTHForum was the absolute worst time I could have possibly chosen. Usually I'm leery of such advice, but considering how temperamental barbecue is, I'm willing to believe them.
The meaty and smoky rib tips fared much better. Sure, they could have been juicier, with less pockets of pure fat, but they proved that someone in the building knows what's he is doing. In fact, after my first visit, I'd probably toss these at number five or six in my list of the best rip tip and hot link combos in the city.