In a real spur-of-the-moment outing last Friday, a subset of the previous crew headed out for the west side. Again we found mostly not-so-great barbecue but there was one real winner. And again we got a hint of the non-barbecue treasures that are out there. For example, one small business that seems to deal primarily in fresh-killed catfish and sorghum syrup (three varieties). Here are a few comments before my memories vanish in a porky haze.
We started on the south side at Alices, a classic south side barbecue joint. As on a previous visit I thought it was solid but not spectacular. Both the ribs and tips had a pleasant firm texture but not a lot of pork or smoke flavor. The same family runs Fredines and Ribs Unlimited.
Then on to the newest member of the Leons empire on Archer where we had some suspiciously textured and colored ribs with a not-unpleasant (at least to me) bacony flavor. Curiously at about 3pm on a Friday afternoon the pit (standard Chicago-style stainless steel and glass) was clean as a whistle and apparently not in use. Leons insipidly sweet mild sauce has long been one of my least favorites. I much prefer the hot although it too is quite one-dimensional.
The last time I was at Fredines they were out of ribs. Same story this time so we settled for an order of tips. The moment the package was unwrapped it was obvious that these tips were unusual, basically a pile of shreds and shards of meat. There was some nice char around the edges but they had an unpleasant soft stringy texture, possibly a consequence of steaming or boiling. Not a whole lot of flavor beyond the initial blast of char and burned fat. These were very different than the tips I remember from my visit two years ago.
At Phillips they claim to cook their ribs in 20 minutes, something we found difficult to believe. Regardless of the time the result is different, more akin to backyard grilling than real barbecue. Even though I wouldnt recommend this place there was something I found somewhat appealing about the ribs (memories of backyard cookouts?). The mild sauce was very, very sweet.
Honey One BBQ is a newcomer, in business less than a year, but its clearly one of the class acts in Chicago. RST came across this place earlier in the week and it has become a real favorite. The care and dedication of the father and son team is evident and the tips and ribs are exemplary. Good chew but not tough, good meat and smoke flavors but not overdone. Something very exciting is that they plan to eventually offer Arkansas-style pork sandwiches. I can hardly wait. Only a single sauce but theres quite a bit going on in it. I thought the only weak link was their hot links, which for my taste could have been spicier and charred a bit more.
After Honey we were mainly scouting for future trips. We briefly stopped at Colemans #1, then decided to order from Colemans #2. The tips were tough as leather and bordered on inedible (in fairness I have to say the tip I tried a couple hours later was considerably more tender). While waiting for my order I noticed a box from Zoll, a brand specifically mentioned by the owner of Honey as inferior (I think he really knows what hes talking about). Links were extremely salty and had a fair amount of gristle chunks. A real disappointment, as this is one of those places that often gets recommended. I have to think (hope?) those tips were an anomaly.
At this point palate fatigue was becoming a factor but we stopped at Rib Palace for a "tips and link taster." Tips had a firm meaty texture (though with quite a bit of fat) and some good flavor. Links were extremely spicy but werent charred as much as I prefer (oh, Barbara Anns, when are you coming back?). Might merit another visit, tough to say for sure. They also serve hand-packed ice cream, boiled pigs feet, and several other non-standard items.
So is there a distinct west side style? Based on too-limited evidence I would have to say no. The pits, the fuel, the meat, the methods, the results all seem to overlap those on the south side. Some claim that the better cooks are on the west side but I think most who say that are westsiders (a completely honest and unbiased group I am sure). I think the sad truth is that there are precious few outstanding barbecue houses on either the south or west sides. I wouldnt be surprised if the southern suburbs hold more pleasant surprises. Happily, there is still much to investigate all around.
35 E 43rd St
4550 S Archer Av
Fredines Bar B Q
3334 W Chicago Av
5048 W Chicago Av
Honey One BBQ
5135 W Division St
Colemans No 2
5754 W Chicago Av
5607 W Lake St