Tuesday, October 30, 2007

BBTuesday - Chicago

I've spent nearly 20 years of my life living in Chicago. I first moved there in the 1970s when I was in high school and then spent several college summers living and working there. In the mid '80s, the Remarkable Marcy and I moved to Chicago from Ohio and lived there for more than a decade.

It's my kind of town. A toddlin' town, whatever that means. Poet Carl Sandburg called Chicago, "Hog butcher for the world." With a rep like that to uphold, it's no wonder that BBQ figures mightily into the Windy City's food spectrum.

When it comes to BBQ, Chicago is a ribs town. Chicago ribs are distinctive in that they don't feature much in the way of rubs, and in most cases, sauce goes on before they're smoked, rather than near the end of the process. That requires a very slow cooking process, sometimes at temperatures below 200 degrees.

The most notable rib joint in town is Carson's. The restaurant has only been around since the late '70s, but has established itself as rib central. The pre-sauced ribs are smoked, slowly, over a hickory fire. More of Carson's syrupy, tangy barbecue sauce goes on near the end of the cooking to give the meat a reddish glaze.

When Marcy and I moved to town in 1986, we settled in Oak Park, birthplace of Ernest Hemingway, home of Frank Lloyd Wright and where you'll find Robinson's #1 Ribs. Charlie Robinson grew up in Mississippi and started making a name for himself in the 1980s. In 1982 Robinson won the first annual Ribfest organized by the late, great columnist Mike Royko. Robinson won further acclaim on the competition circuit in the '80s. Robinson marinates his ribs in a blend of sauce and seasoning, then refrigerates them overnight before they're slowly hickory smoked. Make sure you finish them off with lots of the sweet and peppery sauce.

For pure BBQ kitsch, it's hard to beat Russell's Barbecue in west suburban Elmwood Park. Russell's opened in the 1930s and the building at the right, from a photo taken around 1950, still stands on Thatcher Avenue, a beautiful shady road that cuts up along the Des Plaines River, giving you a respite from the ugly urban sprawl that's grown up around it. Russell's ribs and sandwiches were okay, but it was the atmosphere of the place, more than the food, that drew me back for return visits. Dark, wood-paneled walls, picnic-style tables and benches - it's what a BBQ joint should look like.

There are many, many more great 'Q stops in Chicago, but these three are the ones I can personally recommend. And this time of year, when the first chilly breezes are starting to blow in off Lake Michigan, any place serving a hot slab of ribs is worth a stop.


Buddy Guy may be the greatest blues guitarist of all time and an adopted son of Chicago. Here he is with the one of the many musical tributes to the city, "Sweet Home, Chicago." Not a bad cast of sidemen on this either. Keep and eye and ear out for Eric Clapton, Robert Cray, Jimmie Vaughan and others.


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