2013 could go down as the Summer of Barbecue.
Slow-cooked, spiced, smoked and sauced meats are everywhere ... in new barbecue shacks -- and I use the term endearingly -- in Naperville clear up to Gurnee, to city parks where enthusiasts gather for barbecue contests and smokin' good times.
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Barbecue stylesWith apologies if I offend enthusiasts of Georgia's pit-style cooking, American 'cue can be broken down into four regional styles. The following list is alphabetical, not by personal preference.
Whole-hog barbecue and pulled pork in sauces that lean toward vinegar and mustard (versus tomato) are the hallmarks of Carolina-style barbecue. Hickory and oak are the woods of choice.
Its middle of the map location means its a melting pot of barbecue styles. The tomato-based sauce is generally sweeter, thanks to the addition of molasses. Chicken joins ribs as the meat of choice.
Dry-rub is identified most often with Memphis-style barbecue, but the Tennessee town also is known for its "wet," hickory-smoked pork ribs. The sauce is usually tomato- and vinegar-based.
Beef, beef, beef, as in brisket, brisket, brisket, is the signature dish of the Lone Star State. You'll find it cooked over oak and slathered with a perky tomato-based sauce with a hint of sweetness.
-- Deborah Pankey
We asked our hungry Daily Herald staffers where they go when they want -- make that need -- to scratch the itch for great 'cue. Here are the spots they visit for ribs, chicken, brisket and a whole lot more:
425 Roosevelt Road, Glen Ellyn,
(630) 858-2506, alfiesinn.com
Casual, decorated in the style of an English pub, Alfie's Inn has done steady business in Glen Ellyn since 1967. Long known for its half-pound, house-seasoned hamburgers, another reason for the restaurant's success is its back ribs. Diners rip through 12 to 15 cases of pork ribs a week, cooked to produce that fall-off-the-bone goodness and dressed with a rich, lip-smacking hickory sauce. Paired with coleslaw and a baked potato, half-slabs will satisfy many appetites with a full slab of 13 ribs presenting a yummy challenge.
-- Dave Oberhelman, sports writer
Hickory River Smokehouse
2130 Bloomingdale Road, Glendale Heights,
(630) 529-1227, hickoryriversmokehouse.net
Whenever my wife and I get a hankering for barbecue, it doesn't take long to decide where we're going: Hickory River Smokehouse. This place specializes in Texas-style barbecue smoked over an on-site hickory-wood fire. It offers all the classic items, from baby back pork ribs to pulled pork and beef brisket. One of the perks is having the option of both hot and mild sauces. They'll even mix your order so you get a little of both. Probably the toughest part is choosing from more than a dozen side items and other "fixins'," which include ranch beans, homemade Texas-style chili, sweet potato fries and sweet cornbread. For $37, you can get a special deal to feed the whole family.
-- Josh Stockinger, Daily Herald staff writer
JD's Brew and Q
286 W. Rand Road, Arlington Heights,
(847) 670-0100, jdsqandbrew.com
You'd be a fool not to order the Memphis-style wet ribs and wash it down with a amber-hued craft brew at this comfortable counter-service eatery that opened in 2012. Ribs, pork, chicken, beef and turkey smoke over hickory and apple wood in a pit tucked behind a brick partition in the dining room for up to 14 hours (depending on the cut), and that incredible aroma fills the air inside and out. All the rubs and sauces are original recipes. The pulled pork sandwich is another standout and yet we found a way to, dare I say, make it even better: pile a scoop of the homespun mac and cheese on top. That's a tummy pleaser for sure.
-- Deborah Pankey, food editor
Main Street Smokehouse
536 N. Milwaukee Ave., Libertyville,
(847) 247-4330, mainstreetsmokehouse.com
Quite simply, Main Street offers the best brisket I've ever had. Crispy on the outside, tender and flavorful on the inside. The menu also offers marvelous barbecue chicken, pulled pork tacos and a pulled pork sandwich that is just perfect. They have terrific sides, too, including a sweet corn pudding that is worth the trip by itself. Bottled sauces on the counter include an Alabama white and a maple chipotle that's great on everything. I wish they offered hot links, but that's the only thing missing on the menu.
-- Russell Lissau, staff writer
Real Urban Barbecue
1260 S. Milwaukee Ave., Vernon Hills, (847) 613-1227;
and 610 Central Ave., Highland Park, (224) 770-4227;
What I like best about Real Urban Barbecue is the variety and flexibility. You move through a cafeteria line and choose your meats and sides. There are mini sandwiches for the indecisive or the light eater. This may be a casual restaurant, but it's serious about quality -- the pulled chicken, pork and brisket are all tender and flavorful, and diners line up early for the burned ends. You're not locked into one style of sauce, as there are several available. Even kids will be pleased with the mac and cheese. The restaurant also sells barbecue by the pound and family packs.
-- Susan Klovstad, community news editor
Sweet Baby Ray's
800 E. Higgins Road, Elk Grove Village, (847) 437-9555;
and 249 E. Irving Park Road, Wood Dale, (630) 238-8261;
You can smell the barbecue from the parking lot, so you'll immediately start drooling for their famous baby back or St. Louis-styled ribs. The barbecue sauce is so popular, you can buy bottles of it in local grocery stores. They add just the right amount of it to their ribs, brisket and pulled pork sandwiches. Can't decide which type of meat you want? The menu features several "platters," including half a slab of each type of ribs. Get one with a side of extra creamy mac and cheese, and prepare for that happy, stuffed feeling. Sweet Baby Rays is a good family spot, too -- with oversized booths, TV sets everywhere, friendly service, a kids menu and a kids-eat-free special on Tuesday nights. Plus, there's rarely a long wait for a table, even on weekends.
-- Jamie Sotonoff, staff writer
The Texan Bar-B-Q & Chili House
101 N Main St Algonquin,
(847) 658-2130, texanbbq.com
My wife and I were newlyweds when we moved to Algonquin in 1986. At that time there were three restaurants in town; the Texan was one of them. It took us about a year to try it out. The first sandwich I ordered was called the Virginian Pork, pulled pork on a homemade bun and topped with creamy coleslaw. My wife ordered the Cowboy Beef, lean beef brisket topped with bacon, cheese and tomato. We're happy to say that both sandwiches are as good today as they were 27 years ago, and are still our favorites. Everything at the Texan is slow cooked and smoked over hickory logs. The ribs, both beef and baby backs, are outstanding as well. The curly fries are a must, and the sauce is so good I sometimes just eat it with a spoon. Ask for some extra on the side, and be sure to try the spicy. Wash it all down with a Lone Star long neck and you'll soon be looking to rope some cattle.
-- Bob Chwedyk, staff photographer
132 S. Cass Ave., Westmont,
(630) 493-9000, unclebubs.com.
Whatever your tastes, Uncle Bub's has something that you're going like, even if you proclaim to not like barbecue. The key to the success of Uncle Bub's is the flavor. Its award-winning sauces don't use exotic ingredients, they just rely on the perfect mix of standard barbecuing spices. If you can barbecue a meat, it's probably on Uncle Bub's menu, but the ribs alone could keep the eatery in business. Tender and tasty, Uncle Bub's ribs pluck easily off the bone and fill you up. However, the thing that truly sets Uncle Bub's apart from many other local barbecue haunts is the philanthropic spirit of owner Mark Link. For years, Uncle Bub's has been part of larger community charitable projects as well as individual efforts for sick kids in the area. There's a good chance when you buy a plate of food at the Westmont shop, some of those dollars are going to a good cause in your neck of the woods.
-- Jake Griffin, staff writer
• Have a favorite spot for barbecue? We'd love for you to weigh in on the subject at facebook.com/dhtimeout.