Why Chicago Should Embrace Its Barbecue Melting Pot

By Matt Kirouac  |  August 1, 2016
Credit: Green Street Smoked Meats

Barbecue in Chicago is good. Heck, it can even be great. But that shouldn’t suggest the city ranks among the upper echelons of great 'cue destinations across the country. While some places like Smoque and Honey 1 are indeed revelatory — and things like rib tips and aquarium smokers are pretty distinct to Chicago — there’s still a general lack of identity that pales in comparison to more distinguished regional cooking found in Texas, the Carolinas, Missouri and Tennessee. 

In spite of all that, Chicago is still proudly home to spots in all corners of the city that have cemented themselves as institutions, helping provide the Midwest with a sense of its own smoky, meaty identity. The key commonality that ties everything together? Like the city’s culture and population itself, Chicago’s barbecue scene represents a true melting pot of styles and flavors. Rather than grapple to prove itself on par with Memphis, Austin or Kansas City, Chicago should embrace and celebrate that melting pot culture and be proud of it. Why try to reinvent a wheel that’s already proven delicious? By honing in on different styles of barbecue that people already love, Chicago restaurateurs have laid a multifaceted framework for regional barbecue that matches seamlessly with our neighborhood-driven urban landscape. It’s OK that “Chicago-style BBQ” isn’t a legitimate phrase. We’ve got hot dogs and pizza aplenty for that. Rather, we should be showcasing the pioneering restaurants that focus on regional American styles and do it very very well. 

Courtesy of Green Street Smoked Meats

While some may scoff at hip, perpetually crowded places like Green Street Smoked Meats, a single bite of any of the Texas-inspired meats will soothe your wounds and impatience. Hogsalt Hospitality’s crazy popular barbecue does Texas-style proud with its succulent, smoky and tender brisket, sliced to order and heaped on cafeteria-style trays by the half-pound. Everything about the restaurant, from the cavernous warehouse-style space reminiscent of something out of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre to the Frito pie with brisket chili, is a wholly transportive foray into the Texas-style barbecue tradition. 

Courtesy of Lillie's Q

At Lillie’s Q, adept chef Charlie McKenna takes an interesting approach to his award-winning barbecue. More like a broader, refined Southern restaurant, Lillie’s Q serves as an homage to Lowcountry Carolina cooking, with ambitious and rarely-seen dishes like Brunswick stew, boiled peanuts and Kool-Aid pickles lending an air of regional Southern lore to more familiar items — hot links, tri-tip and pulled pork sandwiches. Reared in Greenville, South Carolina, where he learned cooking from his grandmother, McKenna is well-versed in the art of Lowcountry cuisine and the beautiful food is proof. 

Courtesy of Honky Tonk BBQ

In Pilsen, Honky Tonk BBQ is a riotous and savorous departure from Chicago to the Wild West. The space is rustic, lively and massive, like an old-time saloon you’d expect to stumble upon in New Mexico. The food is right in line with the vibe, featuring items like smoked chicken, St. Louis-style ribs and gluttonous portions of mac 'n' cheese. 

Courtesy of Smalls

One of the more eclectic and inspired barbecue institutions in Chicago, truly exhibiting that melting pot manta, is Smalls. The tiny Irving Park eatery peddles barbecue with an Asian accent, taking the whole regional inspiration to a new level and proving that the all-American pastime pairs nicely with the flavors of the Philippines and Korea. Case in point, fork-tender pulled pork is served with bacon mustard and toasted garlic rice, smoked brisket gets heaped atop bibimbap and buttermilk brined fried chicken comes alive when splashed with banana ketchup. 

Derek Meyer/Flickr

It’s no coincidence that the restaurant best exemplifying Chicago’s true barbecue melting pot also happens to be the most acclaimed. Irving Park’s ever-popular Smoque BBQ even published their famous manifesto, which you can read on their website, illustrating the owner’s respect for different regional styles of smoking, saucing and cooking. Smoque employs a Memphis-style dry rub for their ribs before smoking them over apple and oak. There’s also a St. Louis-style ribs offering, which skew smokier and richer. The succulent and spicy brisket is an apt homage to Texas, as are the zesty Texas sausages. And the pulled pork borrows a page from North Carolina tradition with a tendency towards vinegar-based sauces and slaws as accompaniments to cut through the inherent richness.