On the way back from an impromptu Italian beef run to Johnnie's in Elmwood Park, I couldn't resist making a pit stop at Ben's BBQ in Austin. Nick already weighed in a few months back, but as he hinted, the general opinion is that this place has a Jekyll & Hyde thing going on. Disappointed day-time visitors are flabbergasted by the high praises of the late shift, and vice versa. Finding myself in the area at dusk, I figured I should do my part to confound the consensus.
Judging by the look of me, the counter lady assumed I wanted mild sauce on my Mini Tip & Links Combo ($10.49). But I'm a tough corn-fed redhead—I skipped right over hot and went straight for the spicy sauce. That's how she orders hers, after all. When an order comes in, the grill man rhythmically cleavers the rib tips and then pops them back back into the aquarium smoker while the rest of the combo is assembled. Crinkle cuts are fried to order, and a large link is crisped on the grill and bias cut. Out come the tips again and everything is meticulously—and precariously—stacked to the sky. Ladle after ladle of sauce is added, and the counter lady helpfully points out when the grill man misses a spot.
Back in the car, the combo is much more manageable than it looked on the counter, though I'm still happy I stripped down to my undershirt. Digging in, the outer tip bites are best, with dark bark, decent pull, and a nice smokiness. Bites closer to the cartilage aren't as successful. Pot roast tender, the meat easily shakes from the bone. The sparsely distributed links aren't making any converts, either. Much more finely ground than the ones at the former best in the city (RIP), they're thinner and lack fat and sage complexity, too. And though I appreciate the effort on the grill, it's no substitute for the deep fry finish back on 69th.
While the sauce is certainly spicy, its sweetness and rustically whole allspice berries tend to get in the way, even for a sauce not on the side guy like me. Speaking of sauce, more than worth a mention are the absorbent crinkle cut fries at the bottom, which hold their shape much better than regular old straight cut. Oddly enough, I'm still thinking of them.
So, where do Ben's tips and links fall in the Chicago barbecue pantheon? That depends. Do you like the finer chopped style of Honey 1 but prefer instead to seek out the next big thing? This might be your place. But if you're looking for an Uncle John's replacement, day or night, you won't find it here. Ben's might deserve its spot in the best barbecue in Chicago conversation—it's just not the combo you should be seeking if you're driving this far west on North Avenue.
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