Chicago restaurant-goers feast at some of the world's finest tables. Alinea. Everest. NoMi. But on a particular August day, the front of a 14-year-old Toyota Camry is the best table in town.
Our party of four -- my wife, our son, his girlfriend and me -- dine standing in the parking lot of Leon's BBQ, a small takeout joint on Chicago's South Side. We've been cautioned that the neighborhood is dicey and advised to eat our barbecue elsewhere: at a park, say, or even back at our hotel.
Delay gratification? Not a chance. The wood-smoked aroma is too seductive, the glistening meat too alluring.
We set the plastic foam boxes heaped with fat-finger-size pork nuggets on the car hood and in a blur of hands dig into the pile of rib tips. The juicy morsels pull easily from the bone -- from the cartilage, actually -- exploding with flavor, messy with a mildly spicy sauce. The tips are mounded on a bed of french fries, as is the Chicago way, and there are a couple of slices of white sandwich bread for mopping up the glorious mess.
Leon's is the first stop on our movable barbecue feast through the self-described Second City. The inferiority complex implied by that term is deserved when it comes to barbecue. Smoked-meat aficionados generally acknowledge four barbecue capitals: Memphis, Kansas City, Texas and North Carolina. Chicago is, at best, what you might call the Fifth Beatle. Which is to say, a player that no one remembers.
But Chicago has long enjoyed a distinctive and lively barbecue scene, as one might expect from a city that poet Carl Sandburg called "hog butcher for the world." As with the city's fabled blues, barbecue rode the wave of the second Great Migration of blacks from the rural South who arrived in the 1940s to find work in factories going full-tilt for the war effort. They settled mostly on the south and west sides and brought their taste for barbecue with them.
In the South, they cooked on open pits. In Chicago, codes required that commercial cooking fires be contained, which led to the creation of the aquarium pit. It has a rectangular metal base with tempered glass on top; sliding doors allow pitmen to reach inside to adjust the meats. The cooking fuel includes wood, charcoal or a combination of the two. The burning wood is directly beneath the meat, about three feet from the grate. A water hose is typically attached to the side of the pit. Pitmen spritz water on the fire from time to time to keep the fuel just above a smolder.
The pits are practically museum pieces. Like other cities nationwide, Chicago has caught barbecue fever. New restaurants such as Smoque, Lillie's Q, Chicago q and the Pork Shoppe have opened in the past five years, typically serving a region-hopping menu of pork ribs, beef brisket, sausage and pulled pork, with regional sauces to match, and cooked in wood-enhanced gas ovens. Even Weber, the famous grill manufacturer, headquartered about an hour from Chicago in Palatine, has opened a few restaurants, called -- what else -- the Weber Grill Restaurant. (For yet more Chicago barbecue cred, it was a Weber's employee, George Stephen, who, in 1952, cut a metal buoy in half to create the first kettle grill.)
Despite all the new activity, a drive around Chicago's West and South Sides show that the old-school joints are still hanging in there, with rib tips as their mainstay. The "tips," as Chicagoans call them, are the smallish morsels at the bottom of a rack of pork spare ribs. They are the long section left over when a rack is trimmed into St. Louis-style ribs. The tips caught on because they were the cheapest part of the rib.
They are juicy, meaty nuggets that, when cooked right, release from small tubes of cartilage when you gnaw on them. And you will gnaw on them. You can't help it.
That's because a strip of cooked tips is hacked with a cleaver into a pile of about 1-inch-thick-by-3-inch-long tidbits of gristle, fat, meat and char, somewhat in that order. To get to the meat, you must chew around the cartilage. And when you do, your world, for that moment, narrows to the bonbon of smoke-swaddled pork clasped between your fingers. You see nothing but that bonbon, and you zero in on it, as if your mouth were a drone in attack mode. Thank heavens you're not Odysseus, is all I have to say. Because there is no rope strong enough to keep you from resisting this swine song.
Barbecue snobs, such as myself, argue that rib meat should have a little tug, a little mouth feel, and not wither from the bone. But because tips are inherently chewy and because they provide the most primal of all barbecue experiences, they are prized for their melting tenderness.
"There's a smoke ring right to the bone, and the meat falls right off," rhapsodizes Craig Goldwyn, who goes by the nom de 'cue "Meathead" and blogs about barbecue at AmazingRibs.com.
Unless you specify otherwise, the tips come drenched in a tomato-based sauce, its texture smooth and thin, its flavor usually sweet or with a gentle sting. Barbecue articles and TV shows, though, realign the focus, albeit slightly.
"When people come in and ask for the meat without sauce, I know they know barbecue," says Marco Ferrer, manager of Leon's. "They want to taste the flavor. But almost everybody gets it sauced. The way it's always been done."
At our next stop, the redbrick corner spot Uncle John's Barbecue, owner Mack Siever, 68, sits in a chair behind the glass-enclosed counter, keeping a watchful eye on the pit crew tending meats on the aquarium smoker. He has been in the Chicago barbecue business for 25 years, he tells me, having cooked at well-known Barbara Ann's BBQ (closed on this particular day) before opening Uncle John's eight years ago.
Siever smokes his meat over a combination of hickory, oak, elm and mulberry. When I ask about his spice rub, he just smiles. "You know I can't tell you that," says Siever, who moved to the city from Arkansas when he was 18.
"What they call barbecue isn't the same (in Chicago) as it is in Arkansas," Siever says. "In Arkansas, they cook a ham overnight, pour barbecue sauce on it, then (serve it) with coleslaw."
The mention of coleslaw triggers a realization that one characteristic of South Side barbecue is the lack of sides. Offerings rarely include potato salad, greens, mac 'n' cheese or slaw.
The cashier rotates our order to us on a plate beneath glass. I tell Siever we're parked on the street and ask if it is OK to eat there. "Everybody says this area is bad," Siever says. "Every place is bad."
Good enough perspective for us. We crowd around the Toyota hood again and lip-smack our way through smoky, toothsome tips.
Our next stop is the Chicago institution Lem's Bar-B-Q, which opened in the early 1950s. Lem's is credited with popularizing rib tips. Seems the often fatty, always gristly things were so derided that they were regularly discarded. "My brother say, I'm going to take that tip and see how it do," owner James Lemons, now 84, told the Southern Foodways Alliance in a 2008 interview.
They did well enough to put Lem's on the barbecue map.
Lemons isn't around the day we arrive, so we just grab and go, setting the paper boat of piled-high tips on our makeshift table in the parking lot, trying to look as though we don't feel just a bit goofy as patrons glance over at us on their way into and out of the small, window-wrapped joint.
Before the trip is over, I will hit several other places, including some of the newer restaurants, along with rib institutions such as Carson's and a couple of North Side old-school-style joints that, except for the more expansive menu offerings and tables, could fit right in with the South Side joints. One of them is Honey 1 BBQ, which dished up some of the best tips I tasted. (It was an eight-napkin meal.)
Honey 1 offers pulled pork and beef brisket, unusual among the South Side joints. Owner Robert Adams Sr. isn't around, but his son is. Robert Adams Jr. tells me that his father moved to Chicago from Marianna, Ark., as a teenager, worked at factory jobs, drove a truck and worked construction before opening Honey 1 on the West Side a decade ago and moving to this neighborhood seven years ago.
I ask Adams how he gets the tips simultaneously crisp and tender. "You just got to know the fire," he replies, as though there's nothing much to it.
On this day, I have no car hood to dine upon because I have no car. I am on my own.
Fortunately, Honey 1 has a dining room. White linoleum floor. Fluorescent lights. Ten tables with red vinyl tablecloths. I pull up a seat at one. And, at this moment, it is the best table in town.