Our objective in Rib-athon II was to explore the far south side, and specifically the suburbs of Markham and Harvey, which are "shack-rich," at least according to the map I plotted from everyone's preliminary investigative work. (Thanks to Reneg, dickson, RST, and M'Th'Su for the early reconnaissance, and phone-calling.) We "visited" about 11 or 12 BBQ shacks that were on our master list; of those 6 were closed, 1 we simply drove past because it looked so unpromising, leaving only 4 that we actually sampled.
I await Reneg's ultimately definitive write-up, but here are my brief impressions. We started at Miss Lee's Home Cooking and BBQ, on 55th near the Dan Ryan. We discovered she didn't cook BBQ these days, but she had an incredibly rich menu of soul food, and homemade desserts. We got a nice tour of the kitchen, and tastings of a handful of her dishes, all of which were winners. Miss Lee was just the sweetest thing imaginable.
The next place that we found open, with actual BBQ, was Hilltop proudly advertising on a small billboard outside, "You don't need teeth to eat our meat." It would also be better if you had no taste buds as well. Flavorless and insipid.
Exsenator's was put on the tour (again), because it seems to be the BBQ "anchor" of Markham, and because our last visit as a group was at the end of a nine-hour tour, when all bodies, brains, and taste-buds were exhausted. My impression of this place remains the same, that is, it is adequate and reasonably tasty BBQ, but not the great BBQ we'd been hearing about. Gary and RST have their theories on what Dwight, the pit man, is doing wrong, and right. I'd prefer that they expound themselves, on Exsenator's product.
Big Poppa's, in Harvey, was a surprise in many respects. My inclination would have been to pass this place up quickly since it had the look and feel of a hot dog, burger, gyro, beef sandwich, and rib fast-food outlet. But by the time my car caught up with dickson's advance team, an order had already been placed. General consensus was that the tips were actually quite passable, although I fear at that point we were suffering so acutely from sensory deprivation that anything with the slightest bit of smoky flavor would have gladdened our tongues. The hot link was very spicy, but mediocre.
We finally found George's Rib House, which was in theory the whole reason for touring this part of the city. We'd been hearing repeatedly from great numbers of sources, that George's was one of the best, if not the best BBQ on the far south side. We were all hungry, and cranky, and George's tasted damn good. A critical observation was made that George does not build his fire with real wood, but rather with lump charcoal or wood briquettes ("because wood has worms and bugs in it, and they're all dead in the charcoal", according to George.) Gary sneered a little at our uneducated palates and pronounced it "evocative of real BBQ," but the meat was of a high quality, and there were very strong and nice flavors going on. The rub he used was perhaps a little too salty.
Of interest is that George says he used to cater BBQ to Reagan's White House twice a year, back in the 80s. He proudly showed us his faux brass elephant as proof, ostensibly a gift from the Reagan administration. I think that if formally written up, this story would require a LOT of fact-checking, but it was fun nevertheless. Also, AS IN THE FINEST 4-star restaurants around the world, George prohibits the use of cell-phones while you are standing around inside waiting for your order to be filled. Very Slow Food.
At the beginning of the day, we had half-heartedly joked with Miss Lee that we'd be back after dinner to sample her desserts. Sure enough, this seemed the perfect way to cap off the day, and return we did. It seems that our best "discoveries" on these BBQ searches often end up being non-BBQ. Old Fashioned Donuts was found on the first tour, Mrs. Johnson's Soul Food was found on an interim unofficial reconnoiter of the S. Ashland district, and Miss Lee's pies and cobblers are truly a joyous discovery in the no-man's land just west of Hyde Park proper. Rich, deep in flavor, sugary and complex at the same time, these desserts would stand up against any frilly bakery in the city. They're definitely not pretty, they're all a gloppy mess actually, but one bite and all thoughts of the importance of presentation are happily forgotten.
In general though, the Rib-athon II was a lot of effort for very little reward. I think the lack of reporting by the participants is the residue of our fatigue, disappointment, and discouragement.
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