The best BBQ Ribs in Chicago?

The title pretty well sums it up. What’s the consensus on where a guy can get the best ribs in the city? I’ve had Carson’s, Robinson’s, the artist formerly known as Hecky’s and a few others but none stand out.

I come to you. Who’s ribs are must have? Where should I go when that need strikes.

I like the ribs at the Fireside Grill and Twin Anchors. I used to like Smokin’ Woody’s but they’ve had so many management changes in the last few years it’s become very inconsistent. But Ribfest is this weekend in Northcenter / Lincoln Square. It’s a great opportunity to try a LOT of different places.

Ribfest might have had a little to do with my starting the thread to be honest. I’ve had Twin Anchors and they were good but not the slow-cooked, fall off the bone tender that I prefer in my ribs. I’ve had Fireside as well in the past and they were decent but not exceptional.

I tend to prefer the Kansas City and Memphis styles of ribs.

So far I think Carson’s are the best I’ve had in the city, but I feel like there has to be a less publicized place out there that beats them.

Do you prefer a smoked Hecky’s type or the Carson type?

For Carson’s style, many people like Gale Street Inn, very close to my home. I like the tomatillo soup there, too.
For smoked, try Smoque.

Ah yes. Gale Street Inn. Another classic. I’ve dined in over there and enjoyed it but again it wasn’t truly memorable. So many of these city ribs seem like they are boiled baked or braised. They are tender and moist but tend to be a little fatty and cling to the bone more than I prefer. I think I lean towards the smokier, slow outdoor cooked version where the fat and connective tissue renders away almost completely.

I definitely prefer Carson’s to Hecky’s (though I’ve only had the ill-fated Chicago franchise version of Hecky’s and not the original Evanston store’s) and find Robinsons to be a little too cloyingly sweet.

I’m going to head to Ribfest tomorrow. I will have to return with a complete review and ranking.

I ended up stopping by Ribfest tonight and got a start on my sampling.

First was Fireplace Inn, not to be confused with Fireside Restaurant. I tried a 3-bone sampler of their BBQ Baby Back Ribs. Very good ribs, meaty and reasonably lean with very little smoke flavor. The ribs weren’t seasoned too heavily and they came away from the bone easily, but did not fall off the bone. The sauce was very nice, tangy and slightly sweet without being cloying. This a fairly thin brightly colored sauce, not too heavy on the molasses. All in all, a wonderfully balanced rib.

Next I had Chicago Joe’s. Again I had the 3-bone Baby Back sampler. These ribs were strikingly similar to the Fireplace Inn ribs. The meat was cooked and seasoned almost identically and the sauce had the same basic character. A bright, tart orange sauce applied modestly. Again the smoke flavor was almost nonexistent. I think both of these two ribs were baked and braised before hitting the grill as opposed to wood smoked. The sauce had a unique flavor, something sharply sour, that I couldn’t place which set it apart from the Fireplace Inn version.

I followed those up with a dramatically different style in The Smoke Daddy. These ribs lived up to their name. Intensely smokey and dry. You could tell these ribs had spent a long time in the smoker, the pink smoke ring penetrated nearly all the way to the bone and almost all the fat and collagen was rendered out leaving the meat vaguely jerky-like. Nonetheless they were tender and fell away from the bone easily. The ribs also had a very heavy bark from the dry rub that tasted strongly of cumin and black pepper. I had these barely sauced as intended and let the smoke and rub carry the flavor. In the end I found the smoke and heavy rub to be too overpowering. The flavor of the meat was very difficult to discern.

Lastly and most remarkably were the ribs from the Chicago BBQ Company. They aren’t a restaurant and appear to essentially be a competition cooking team that tours the summer festivals around the Midwest. I upgraded to the Half-Slab of the Baby Backs and was thoroughly impressed. The ribs were very meaty and robust. These ribs were easily the juiciest and fattiest of the ones I sampled and also the heartiest. The meat was probably only briefly smoked and the quality of the meat was exceptional. They tasted like perfectly cooked pork chops, which is uncommon for most ribs which are generally transformed into something far smokier and less delicate. They were perfectly seasoned with salt, pepper and garlic and the rub was subtle and not overpowering. They were lightly sauced with a bold red molasses based sauce that married wonderfully with the seasoned meat. I augmented this with the two sauces they offered, a Sweet and Sour BBQ and a Smokey Chipotle. Both were wonderful, the Chipotle was fairly vinegary and had a very subtle and nice heat. I loved this sauce and would like to have it on a variety of grilled foods. The Sweet and Sour BBQ was your traditional midwestern BBQ sauce with a balance of sour, sweet and tart without being overly sugarly like some Kansas City styles can be.

In the end it was no contest.

1st - Chicago BBQ Company
2nd - Fireplace Inn
3rd - Chicago Joe’s
4th - The Smoke Daddy

I’ll probably be back tomorrow to try the ones I missed.

Ribfest? Ribfest?! And me with no car, no money, and no babysitter. Cruelty, that’s what that is. Seer wanton cruelty…Ignorance is bliss.

I wanted to give a special mention to a non-Rib entry at Ribfest on Sunday. Celtic Crown (what’s up with the awful website and weird url?) featured two of the most decadent and delicious things I have tasted in quite some time.

First was the Banana’s Foster Cheese Cake Bites. They are little nuggets of cheesecake crusted with a brown sugar and banana and lightly fried until crisp. Then they are dressed with a little strawberry coulis that cuts the richness of the cheese. I mean wow, these things were delicious, combining 2 of my all time favorite desserts.

Last but not least was the deep fried Twinkie. I’d heard of these and seen places making them on Food Network on occasion but I’d never had the pleasure of tasting one. Let me tell you, it is everything you think it is. The fried breading is firm and helps the Twinkie hold it’s shape and is dusted generously with powdered sugar. The creamy filling in the cake essentially disappears and infuses it’s way throughout the cake, essentially changing the Twinkie into a nice sweet banana accented bread pudding. Quite wonderful.

If you’re looking for real barbecue ribs (this means not braised or boiled, but cooked over wood and/or charcoal slowly, you know, the way God intended for ribs to be made), among barbecue afficiandos, there is pretty much a consensus that the best examples are Uncle John’s, Honey 1, Barbara Ann’s, and Lem’s. For ribs, my favorites are either Lem’s or Honey 1. For rib tips and links (what I normally get at a Chicago barbecue joint), my favorite is Uncle John’s. Except for Honey 1, none of these have dine-in options and they are located deep in the South Side. Honey 1 is a West Side barbecue joint that relocated to Wicker Park. The owner, Robert Adams, is from Arkansas and knows his way around an aquarium smoker (the predominant type of smoker used in old school Chicago barbecue in the African-American/Southern tradition, and also the type of smoker you’ll find at Cozy Corner in Memphis.)

My recommendation is always to ask for sauce on the side, so you could taste the meat itself, and then sauce to taste. The Chicago tradition is, generally, more sauce-heavy, though.

In my opinion, Carson’s and Robinson’s are not very good (or, I should say, not to my tastes.) And if you’re talking about Hecky’s that became Hickory’s (on Halsted), that place is utter crap. Hecky’s in Evanston is better, but still second- or third- tier for Chicago barbecue.

If you want a more sit-down, family friendly dining experience, there’ve been a couple new joints that opened up in the last few years. The best among them are Smoque and Honky Tonk barbecue.

Given the nature of barbecue and your timing, your experience can be hit-or-miss. I’ve had best luck hitting these places during lunch time or early evening (6 p.m.-ish), although Lem’s will quite often have ribs just coming off the smoker fairly late into the night.

Once again, Pulykamell said everything I would have said. Honey1 is my favorite.

I’d be curious how you’d rate the ribs from Chicago BBQ Company. Not sure if you’ve tried them or if you frequent the street festivals but I was pretty pleased with them.

I’m adding Honey 1 to my queue for the next tasting, they are located fairly close and I’ve seen them featured on Food Network and Check Please. One day this week there will be a meaty adventure.

Man, I must have hit Honky Tonk on a bad night. I keep hearing wonderful stuff about them, but their pulled pork was so dry it flaked and their ribs were downright tough. Even my 16 year old boy didn’t bother finishing his ribs. Incredibly disappointing.

Yep. That’s the nature of barbecue, very hit or miss depending on your timing. I’m not a huge fan of Honky Tonk’s ribs, but their pulled pork is quite nice. If it was dry and flaky, you definitely hit them on an off-night. My main complaint with Honky Tonk is the bread they serve with the barbecue. Barbecue is the one place where squishy American-style white bread really is what’s needed. Their meats are usually very good, but I’m a rib tips and hot links guy, so I find myself most often at Uncle John’s.

Also, if anyone likes fall-off-the-bone type ribs (Twin Anchor, Gale Street Inn), my suggestions are NOT that style.

I missed this the first time around. Twin Anchors is kind of the epitome of fall-off-the-bone ribs that barbecue purists deride as “meat jello”. They are baked, slathered with barbecue sauce, then finished on a gas grill. Other than the sauce, they have nothing to do with barbecue. Memphis and KC ribs, which you say you like, are toothsome and not soft, fall-off-the-bone styles. They should be somewhat tender and pull away from the bone, but they don’t just fall off.

My kids and I are in that Check Please episode. I’d kill for a slab right now.

I would be willing to make another trip to Twin Anchors (it’s been a couple years since I last went) but I distinctly remembering thinking the meat was still fairly well attached to the bone and took a bit of chewing. I went in with the expectation of slow-cooked, buttery soft ribs and was disappointed. I wonder if I dined on a bad night. The flavor of the meat was good, porky and peppery, and I think they were served naked or very lightly sauced. Good but not worth the hype.

Maybe I’ll walk over for another trial after Honey 1 gets it’s sampling.

Hmm, I feel like maybe there’s a blog to be written in this rib adventure.

I personally am not a fan of Twin Anchor. If you are a fan of this style of ribs (baked/boiled/braised, fall-off-the-bone) then I’d say Gale Street Inn is the best example of this style. Just don’t call it barbecue.

I’ll be curious to hear what you think of Honey 1. I have a feeling you might be disappointed given what I’m making out your preferences to be. At any rate here is a local message board’s thread on Honey 1 (with pictures and links to another massive thread on the joint.)

Here’s a thread on Uncle John’s (my personal favorite.) And here’s Lem’s (another favorite.)

I should also note that spare ribs are the name of the game at all the places listed in the above post. No baby backs. I’d suggest getting sauce on the side, to give the meat a chance to shine through.

Actually, I’m not quite so sure about my statement, now re-reading. But if Honey 1 doesn’t fit the bill for you, I think Smoque might be up your alley (it’s real barbecue, too, but I think it might be more to your style, given the reviews of Ribfest.) Another one worth a shot is Fat Willy’s. Fat Willy’s has a mixed reputation – the barbecue snobs tend to look down their noses at it – but I’ve always had good experience there.

I think I need to start making a clearer distinction between baby backs and spare ribs. Perhaps my preferences are influenced by that more than by cooking style or time. Hmm.

The photos of Honey 1’s ribs look like they will be texturally right up my alley. I think I tend towards a slightly softer texture but these obviously show the time and process taken. Looking forward to it. I’m not a huge fan of a really heavy smoke character and I like them wet, but not too wet, so it will be a fun experiment.

I’ve had Fat Willy’s and was really disappointed with them. I don’t recall precisely what bumped me about them, but I didn’t particularly like anything about them including the service. The movie I saw afterwords was more remarkable and I’m pretty sure it had Nick Cage in it.

I’m starting to think I need to take a very systematic approach to this like oenophiles and beer snobs do.

Do you ever have BBQ at Carson’s eaten, it is really good?