Does Chicago Have a Signature BBQ Style?
The city’s top pitmasters weigh in
This is the second installment of a two-part series profiling the best pitmasters in Chicago. The first installment covered the places around the city where they like to buy their meat and fixings when they’re grilling at home.
Chicago isn’t shy about laying claim to a lengthy list of iconic cultural exports.
In music, you have Chicago House, Chipmunk Soul, Drill, Blues, Jazz and Dixieland, plus dances like Steppin’, Footwork and the Cha-Cha Slide. There are well-defined Chicago schools of architecture, economics, editorial style and improv comedy. And, of course, there’s the food: Italian beef, deep-dish pizza and Vienna Beef hot dogs, dragged through the garden, sprinkled with celery salt, doused in bright yellow mustard (never ketchup) and tucked into a steamed poppy seed bun.
But what about Chicago BBQ? That’s a concept that’s trickier to define.
Consider that just about every other great American meat haven abides certain regional truths that intrepid eaters hold as self-evident. Kansas City has their burnt ends and thick tomato- and molasses-based sauce. Texas is famous for tender smoked brisket and flavorful dry rubs. South Carolinians prefer pork pulled from a whole hog and drenched in tangy mustard sauce. Memphians dress their nachos with juicy shredded pork and sweet, slightly spicy tomato sauce. And the good folks of Alabama swear by smoked chicken under a blanket of creamy, pepper-flecked white sauce.
It only makes sense that Chicago, a city Carl Sandburg deemed deemed “the hog butcher for the world” and home to more BBQ joints than you can shake a spare rib at, would also have its own signature smoke style. So what gives?
We turned to some of the area’s most seasoned experts to get to the bottom of this saucy pit of Chi-town ambiguity. Here’s what we learned.
If there’s a signature dish, it’s ribs
“Chicago has always been a rib city,” says Doug Psaltis, Chef-Partner at River North roadhouse Bub City. “From racks of ribs to rib tips on South Side showcased in aquarium smokers, like at Lem’s Bar-B-Q.”
“We sell a lot of rib tips,” Robinson adds. “If you were to compare it to beef, the rib tip is the meat that you have to butcher to get the tenderloin out. People used to throw them away, but it’s very tender, very moist, and it’s a big thing on the Southside and we’ve been doing it for awhile. We put a dry rub on it, smoke for two, three hours and then toss it in sauce per customer order and serve it with french fries and white bread. And you have to wrap it in paper — that’s the staple.”
“You definitely see a lot of ribs,” explains Downing Salas. “There’s boiled ribs in some areas, probably coming from Eastern Europeans bringing the tradition of boiling meats over, sometimes smoking them and then quick-finishing them on a grill or over an open pit when they’re mostly cooked. Rib tips are a big thing here, doing that combo of rib tips and sausage and fries with a tomato-based sauce over white bread, that’s what you’ll find in a lot of the smaller BBQ shacks. We serve our cut burnt ends on top of white bread with a little bit of our sauce on it, so we adopted that as well.