Epicurious Eating: Chicago BBQ
Finger-licking meat fest
Published Thursday, 01-Oct-2009 in issue 1136
There are three forms of flesh that food snobs detest: Medium-well steaks; white poultry meat; and so-called non-authentic barbecue, which involve cooking a slab of protein without a smoker, and then finishing it off on a high-flame grill with some type of sauce.
Admittedly, I like them all.
In a recent visit to the family-run Chicago BBQ in Mission Hills, a friend and I consumed the gamut. Our New York steak wasn’t bloody as ordered, nor did it reveal the luxurious texture of a Midwest cut. But in combination with a half rack of outstanding baby back ribs for $16.95 (plus two sides), we found merits in its juiciness, seasoning and size. Anything fancier would’ve required throwing our wallets into the fires of an expensive steakhouse.
Then there is chicken – lots of breast meat used in pitas, paninis and various other sandwiches. We ate it straight up as tenders, dredged in homemade batter and brushed with homemade honey-barbecue sauce. They were savory and cloying – better than plain ole’ strips that rely solely on Ranch dip to achieve mediocrity.
As for the ribs (beef and pork), it was their lack of smokiness that allowed us to distinguish the flavor difference between cow and pig. Authentic barbecue originating from Southern roadsides is no doubt a treat when the mouth hankers for intense carcinogenic blasts from meats sitting hours in a smoker. The slow oven-baked ribs at Chicago BBQ are equally thrilling, given their ultra-tender quality and charry edges from flash-grilling – and few will reject their judicious coating of various barbecue sauces mixing sweet and sour elements.
Owners Peter Vithoulkas and wife Carol opened Chicago BBQ several months ago after moving here from the Windy City, where they worked for decades in the restaurant business. The eatery fills a niche on the local restaurant scene in terms of hospitality and hominess. While Peter cooks, Carol mingles unpretentiously with customers. The restaurant sticks truly to the waning concept of restaurant owners feeding you well, as though you’ve entered their backyard for a picnic.
High-back leather chairs and upholstered banquettes comprise the dining area. It’s a cute space dominated by an emblematic mural of Chicago’s skyline painted in black against a deep-orange background. There’s also a small bar should you want to cozy up with denizens over a stiff, celery-adorned bloody Mary. Newcomers should note that for now the outdoor signage reads, “House of Barbecue.” The new name will be displayed soon, we’re told.
Menu items indigenous to The Windy City include a classic Italian beef sandwich on a soft yeasty roll. The thinly sliced beef was right on, void of connective tissues and oozing with clear juices. Our waitress recommended we get it with mozzarella and Giardiniera (pickled hot peppers). She steered us well.
The Chicago-style pulled pork sandwich is also a must. The meat was so tender and flavorful that we suspected it was extracted from rib bones. It’s from a roast, we learned later. What makes the sandwich Chicago style (or so the Chi-towers claim) is that it’s served open-faced on a butter-toasted roll with a plop of homemade coleslaw sitting on the other half of the bun. Carol urged us to smash the two halves together, which resulted in a perfect, creamy condiment for the pork, adding an organic crunch to an otherwise hardcore dose of saturated fat.
The menu continues in a meaty ramble of burgers, Italian sausage and numerous combos of ribs, chicken, steak, shrimp and pork.
“We use different spices and sauces on all of our meats because we don’t want them to taste the same,” said Carol.
After eating a couple of times at Bull’s Smokin’ BBQ on Morena Boulevard, where all of the meats are cooked in a hefty smoker and undergo similar dry rubs beforehand, you’ll get her drift.
However, in the case of freshly breaded chicken wings that we chose “Buffalo style,” the spices were amiss, kind of like powdered Cajun seasoning and not really necessary since Frank’s Hot Sauce and butter are the only ingredients required. The plump wings also failed the litmus test for crispiness, expectedly. Only when made by Buffalonians do chicken wings sound like delicate potato chips when biting through their skins.
We also tried the fajita pita, a satisfying rendition to Southwestern versions, thanks to Portobello mushrooms paired nicely to non-generically seasoned chunks of chicken breast. There are also fries, onion rings, fried zucchini and decent, down-home baked beans that you wouldn’t guess sprang from a Northerner’s kettle.
Yes, there are salads as well; including a Greek salad with anchovies that pays tribute to Chef Peter’s roots. But with a name like Chicago BBQ, and the aroma of a fiery kitchen grill working in overdrive, things like lettuce and croutons become a footnote.