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Charred lamb ribs at Bub City

Smoke Houses

by Lisa Shames | Men's Book Chicago magazine | March 4, 2013

If you want to start a debate, forget politics or religion. Instead ask a group of people what they think is the best regional American barbecue—say, Kansas City-style versus that of North Carolina or Memphis—and stand back. Want to add more fuel to the fire? Ask which restaurant is their favorite.

Judging from the number of new local barbecue spots opening, that discussion is far from over.

In the heart of River North, the Melman siblings (Hub 51, Paris Club, RPM Italian) recently launched Bub City, which pairs live country music and cocktails from mixologist Paul McGee with barbecue. Next door, Billy Dec and his partners at Rockit Ranch Productions (Rockit, Sunda) opened Dragon Ranch Moonshine & BBQ last summer. On Taylor Street, Michael Kornick (mk, DMK Burger Bar, Fish Bar, Ada Street) is putting the finishing touches on DMK BBQ. In Wrigleyville, Jack Jones has stepped away from the fancy trimmings at Jack’s on Halsted, where he once was chef, to open laid-back Wrigley BBQ. Not far away, John Barleycorn’s Sam Sanchez has teamed up with two chefs on an 11,000-square-foot barbecue-focused restaurant scheduled to open this summer. In Boystown, Milt’s Barbecue for the Perplexed, which opened in late January, features kosher barbecue with 100 percent of the profits donated to local charities. And Bucktown’s Lillie’s Q from award-winning barbecue chef Charlie McKenna just opened a second location in the Chicago French Market.

The way Gary Wiviott sees it, it’s the comfort aspect of barbecue that’s helping to drive the interest. And he should know: A local ’cue expert (check out his book Low & Slow), Wiviott is the pitmaster at Lincoln Park’s Barn & Company (950 W. Wrightwood Ave., 773.832.4000), which opened in mid-2011. “It’s something people can easily relate to,” he says. “You don’t have to explain barbecue.” Even though Wiviott has some 20 years experience as a “barbecue guy” that doesn’t mean he knows it all. “It’s important that you tweak and adjust and every day make your barbecue a little bit better,” he says.

“People want to be comfortable and have fun,” says Doug Psaltis, chef/partner at Bub City (435 N. Clark St., 312.610.4200). And that’s exactly what you’ll find here, in addition to plenty of barbecue coming out of “Lucille” and “Wanda,” the two Southern Pride smokers that Psaltis calls “the heart and soul of the restaurant.”

Like many barbecue spots in town, Bub City doesn’t focus on one region. “We’re in Chicago, not Tennessee or North Carolina,” says Psaltis. “So we do our own interpretation of various types of barbecue and cook the things we love.” In addition to the standards—ribs, pulled pork, brisket—you’ll also find nontraditional items such as pastrami made from short ribs and charred lamb ribs. Up next: smoked prime rib.

TV shows like BBQ Pitmasters have also helped create the barbecue frenzy, says Sanchez. “People are more educated on barbecue and they’re looking for the same flavors they’re seeing on TV,” he says. Not a barbecue expert himself, Sanchez turned to Master Chef contestant Tony Scruggs to man the smoker and kitchen at his yet-to-be-named restaurant (3506 N. Clark St.). “Times have changed and so have tastes,” says Scruggs. “You could never find the ingredients back then that you do now, and even noncooks know flavor profiles that are far more advanced than the simplicity of the past.”

Asian-style barbecue also will be on offer at Sanchez’s restaurant, and will be headed up by Bing Zhou, chef/owner of Chen’s, which is currently occupying space that eventually will be absorbed into the new concept. Zhou will use a robata grill imported from Japan and, in keeping with tradition, binchotan charcoal for dishes such as chicken tsukune, or grilled skewered meatballs.

Kosher barbecue may sound like a misnomer, but that’s not the case says Dan Weiss, general manager at Milt’s Barbecue (3411 N. Broadway St., 773.661.6384). “As long as people can get over the fact that we don’t have pork, there’s no barbecue we can’t do,” he says. Mac and cheese is also off limits and Milt’s is closed on Friday evenings, reopening on Saturday after sundown in observance of the sabbath. But with all profits going to charity, Milt’s is about much more than making money. “The owner wants it to be like a community center without the pool,” says Weiss.

There’s an emotional aspect to be found at Dragon Ranch (441 N. Clark St., 312.955.1900), too. “It was a complete passion project centered around our love for barbecue,” says partner Billy Dec. “We [Dec and his partners] don’t always love the same thing, but we all love barbecue.” It was while experimenting with spices, sauces and handheld food items at Sunda, while at the same time enjoying comfort food tastings at Rockit, that the idea for Dragon Ranch—a mix of traditional American barbecue with touches of Asian influences—came together. “We started mixing and matching, and it went from personal enjoyment to ‘there’s nothing like this’ to ‘let’s knock out a place,’” he says. (Note: Dragon Ranch is temporarily closed for repairs due to a fire underneath its floor. It’s scheduled to open soon.)

That means on the menu you’ll find traditional barbecue items coming out of the custom-built Louisiana Backwoods Smoker as well as ramen and roasted duck. But it’s the hybrid dishes, such as Chinese buns stuffed with pulled pork and American-Asian Brussels sprout slaw, that are the top sellers. “We wanted to create our own genre of barbecue,” says Dec.

Real Urban Barbecue may have opened its first location in Highland Park (610 Central Ave., 224.770.4227) in 2010, but the demand has been so high for owner Jeff Shapiro’s brisket, pulled pork and housemade sauces that he recently opened a second spot in Vernon Hills (1260 S. Milwaukee Ave., 847.613.1227).

Shapiro has spent many years on the competitive barbecue circuit, but, beyond experience, gives a lot of credit for his barbecue’s popularity and consistency to his Cookshack smoker, which uses wood pellets rather than logs. He also smokes his meats twice a day, providing his clients, including a number of Chicago Bears players, with super-fresh product. “It’s all about the low and slow cooking,” he says. “That’s when the barbecue magic happens for us.”