Restaurants & Bars

Eight Hours of Barbecue on the South Side

Rene G | Jan 9, 200407:33 PM     50

In a fun but demanding day 6 or 7 of us ate barbecue from about 2pm to 10pm. As always on this sort of outing the company was great and the friendliness and generosity of the people we met along the way was amazing. Special thanks to Gary for tutoring us in some of the finer points of barbecue ("Now just lick the surface of the rib and tell me what you taste."). He was able with a single bite of a rib to determine with a frightening degree of accuracy exactly how the batch had been prepared and what shortcuts might have been taken. Hopefully he’ll have time to provide some more insight and details.

We averaged about 1 place per hour, nearly all south of 71st and east of Ashland and generally ordered a slab of ribs, rib tips, and hot links with both hot and mild sauce on the side. White bread and fries invariably came along. There was a high degree of similarity in menus, barbecue pits, fuel, etc but the meats that emerged from each establishment were very different.

Things started out fairly auspiciously at I-57 Rib House. Excellent rib tips with good meaty texture and decent smoke flavor. Very spicy hot links were good too. Ribs were less successful with something of a fall-off-the-bone texture and less flavor than the tips. Some of the sides like okra probably merit attention (we had to try to stay focused). Shirley, the owner couldn’t have been nicer, talking with us the entire time we ate in their small waiting area, sharing her stories and insights with us. Worth a visit.

Best BBQ is on the other side of the Interstate from I-57 Rib House and is run by their relatives. Food was fairly similar to I-57 but overall a notch down. Gary arranged a tour of the pit area where we admired the stainless steel and glass pit with a nice hickory fire.

There used to be quite a number of BBQ houses on 111th, 115th and surroundings. Most are now boarded up, vacant lots, or holes in the ground. We made definite progress in paring down and updating the list of south and west side places.

We took a BBQ break at Old Fashioned Donuts and were glad we did. This place is fantastic, a real civic treasure. Superlative blueberry donuts and apple fritters (Gary almost wept), nice caramel glazed cake donuts, and excellent pineapple frosteds. Only the filled donuts were generally disappointing. The highlight of the day. Go!

Then to 87th Street BBQ, a Chicago Magazine recommendation. Very mediocre across the board though I did like their hot sauce quite a bit. As Prof Wiv would say, "If you’re talking about the sauce it’s a bad sign." The only BBQ place we visited that has tables.

The Rib Joint, where I’d been only once before, was a pleasant surprise to me. With some of the better ribs of the day (number three?) plus good tips and links, it definitely went up a notch or two in my opinion. Another lesser-known but worthy place.

Barbara Ann’s is currently closed for remodeling. We peeked in and saw much progress has been made but there is clearly a lot of work still to do.

I used to go to DD&S and liked it. I don’t know if we hit them on a bad day or if things have really slipped but this was definitely not the BBQ I remember. There was a suspiciously long wait (reheating leftovers?) and the whole assortment just looked bad and didn’t taste much better.

While looking for a long-departed BBQ house (thanks Metromix!) we stopped at George’s. They have a real cute little mini pit but that’s about the only good thing I can say. Really bad barbecue. Josh and I were standing on the sidewalk gagging down a couple rib tips (the others had retired to the cars in disgust) when a homeless woman approached us for money for food. We gave her the entire big bag of meat and I almost felt guilty about it.

Time for taste bud recalibration at Lem’s. Top notch hot links, excellent tips, good ribs. The ribs had that wonderful char and good firm texture but seemed a little lighter on the smoke than usual. Still one of the class acts in Chicago BBQ. We ate outside hunkered over a building ledge and nearly froze out butts off (the wind had really picked up at that point). The people inside were amused watching us and kindly brought out some more utensils, napkins, and moist towelettes for us.

We needed to get inside and we needed a drink (we were nearing the 7 hour point) so we went across the street to the New Apartment Lounge, home of the great saxophonist Von Freeman (he only plays on Tuesday, cruelly the day Lem’s is closed). You’ll never guess what we talked about with the bartender and other customers—barbecue! A place called Exsenator’s came highly recommended for the second time in the day so we decided to head south, far south.

Exsenator’s is a little yellow building on 159th Street in Markham. We just managed to beat the 10pm closing time and went through the usual ordering drill. I don’t know about the others but I was just going through the motions as the thought of still more smoked meat was not very appealing. Thankfully they let us eat on the bench in the little ordering area. I really wasn’t looking forward to standing around in the snow any more. As soon as we opened the styrofoam tub something was obviously different: the fries actually looked good. Amazingly enough they tasted good too, a first for the day. Rib tips had good texture and flavor. Hot links were excellent though not as spicy as at many places. Ribs were very meaty and smoky with excellent texture. Everyone began eating with renewed vigor. A real winner. We spent quite a while afterwards talking with the pitman, Dwight, a young but obviously very talented and dedicated artist. I need to get back here but wish it wasn’t so far. By the way, Exsenator is the owner’s first name.

On the way home we stopped outside the former location of the State Street Lem’s (those are very sad words to type) and looked inside the newly remodeled building. It seemed to be a doctor’s office or something and it seems highly unlikely that Lem’s will ever reopen in that location. I shot a few sad photos of Gary standing forlornly outside the door marked 5914.

Then home to bed and dreams of meat. A friend called early next morning to see if I wanted to go to Manny’s for a breakfast of corned beef hash. "No way in hell," I replied, then chugged another liter of Apolinaris and went back to bed.

I-57 Rib House
1524 W 115th St

Best Bar B Que
1648 W 115th St
Tue-Sun 11-2am, Mon 11am-10pm

Old Fashioned Doughnuts
11248 S Michigan Av
Mon-Sat 6am-6pm

87th Street BBQ
100 W 87th St

The Rib Joint
423 E 87th St

Barbara Ann’s BBQ (temporarily closed)
7617 S Cottage Grove Av

DD&S Bar-B-Que
7100 S South Chicago Av

George’s Chicken & Ribs
7113 S State St
Mon-Thu 11-3am, Fri-Sat 11-5am, Sun 11-12am

Lem's BBQ House
311 E 75th St
closed Tue

New Apartment Lounge
504 E 75th St
Von Freeman plays Tue

Exsenator’s Bar-B-Que
3349 W 159th St
Markham IL
Tue-Thu 3pm-10pm, Fri-Sat 3pm-1am

Lem's BBQ House (CLOSED)
5914 S State St

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