When it comes to smoking meats, Chicago has two distinct BBQ cultures you ought to keep tabs on -- the traditional pork-packed South Side style and the newer fusion-y North Side style that combines elements of the other famous types of 'cue. Whereas our Southern counterparts may have more storied histories, our diverse BBQ culture ensures the scene is changing -- a lot. Over the past year, we lost two OG South Side pit masters of long renown, Mack Sevier and James Lemons and one of the mainstay BBQ joints, Barbara Ann’s, closed as well. On the plus side, an old favorite made a South Side comeback, and the scene overall is still alive and healthy. (Or at least smoky and tasty.) These 12 spots let you experience the entire multitude of Chicago’s very best meaty flavors.
I was in line at Lem’s last summer and started asking people where else they go for BBQ. Every single person who had a second choice at all named I-57 in Morgan Park as their other regular stop. So I went down to the south edge of the city, just off the expressway, and sure enough, it’s old-school, no-frills BBQ all the way, and damned good rib tips and links.
Uncle J's Bar B Que
Mack Sevier of the great Uncle John’s passed away in 2015, but his daughter and her family as well as one of his former pit masters keep his flame alive at this spot just off the Dan Ryan on 47th. The rib tips and sage-tinged smoky hot links are close to dad’s, and so is the sweet hot sauce -- while those looking for a healthier alternative to pork can find good smoked turkey here (though bird’s still no serious competition for pig in my book).
Crazy Bird Chicken
East Garfield Park
As you might guess from the name, this is a fried chicken and soul food-sides place first and foremost, but owner Larry Tucker was one of Chicago’s great names in BBQ in the '90s, and he fires up a glass smoker for tips and links on weekends to recall those glory days (call ahead to make sure -- or don't, the worst that can happen is you wind up with some tasty fried chicken).
The city’s oldest BBQ stand lost the last of the Lemons brothers who founded it -- James Lemons passed in December at age 87. But the restaurant is still going strong as ever. Rib tips and links are good, not surprising since Lem’s helped establish the rib tip as Chicago’s bargain BBQ meat of choice, but the real glory here is a stack of juicy, smoky spare ribs in the vinegary-spicy sauce that put Lem's on the map back in the 1940s.
The former Bucktown favorite moved to the South Side, too recently for last year’s list. (You have to give a pit master time to settle in.) But I went there recently with no less a wingman than Daniel Vaughn, barbecue editor for Texas Monthly, and we were in agreement -- pit master Robert Adams is at his peak making great Chicago-style barbecue in the classic style. Along with a Southern meat you don’t often see on the south side, brisket. It’s a pleasure to give him the number one slot as the place to go and see what South Side-style BBQ is all about.
Rub's Backcountry Smokehouse
West Rogers Park
Great, smoky Texas brisket and ribs belch forth from a big black furnace of a smoker, truffle mac and cheese and baked beans are there for sides, while house-made root beer and desserts counteract the cholesterol with a heaping helping of sugar high.
Loop (& other locations)
At first Blackwood BBQ astounded us merely by smoking real barbecue in the Loop. But if that wasn’t enough, now they’re quietly becoming an empire, opening first near Union Station and now on Lakeview, with more locations planned in what will be our first real BBQ chain on the north side. Hit it for freshly smoked brisket, pulled pork, and more, all good.
Wicker Park (& other locations)
Charlie McKenna worked at swanky places like Tru while winning barbecue competitions on the side, and combines his two heritages in the unique, gently smoked tri-tip steak. Besides the standards, he also has a nice line in authentic Southern sides, like pimento cheese spread and Brunswick stew.
Restaurateur Brendan Sodikoff breaks out the honky-tonkyest faux-roadhouse a city of eight million ever saw. Brisket, pulled pork, the juicy hot link, and even smoked fish are all first-rate -- the ribs less so -- but if you just want a trashy quickie from the bar, get the Frito pie loaded with the brisket chili.
Avondale (& other locations)
The pork belly sandwich -- thick slices of smoky bacon-to-be piled on a sandwich -- is the OMFG on the menu, but beyond that, this is a good spot that does quality brisket (including brisket tacos) and pulled pork, apparently well enough to land a second location in Andersonville.
Texas barbecue with Asian sides proves to be an inspired combination (who really needed cole slaw, anyway?), and it’s no disrespect to the brisket, or the fusiony brisket bibimbop, to say that it’s also the one BBQ place where I could also be tempted away by fried chicken -- it’s great, too. Nearly no seating, but you can head over to the bar next door and have your 'cue brought over.
Smoque kicked off the BBQ movement on the North Side not quite a decade ago, delivering great Texas-style ‘cue, including brisket, pulled pork, St. Louis ribs, and Rudy Mikeska sausage. It still has lines out the door today, but it's a model for customer service in a busy joint. No Chicago BBQ tour would be complete without a visit to this spot.
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Mike Gebert is a James Beard Award-winning food video producer and writer and founder and editor of Fooditor.com. Follow him on Twitter @skyfullofbacon.
This road side BBQ joint is serious about their no-frills menu. If you can look past the unique graffiti drawings on the outside of the place, inside you'll eat some of the best BBQ available in Chicago. We highly recommend I-57 Rib House to anyone who is looking to eat some phenomenal BBQ.
The South Side’s beloved Uncle John’s is gone, but luckily it spawned heirs among different members of pitmaster Mack Sevier’s family, and this one -- run by his daughter and her family -- is, for one thing, the easiest to get to (right off the Dan Ryan). The rib tips and sage-tinged smoky hot links are awfully close to Dad’s, and so is the sweet-hot sauce.
As you might guess from the name, this is a fried chicken and soul food-sides place first and foremost, but owner Larry Tucker was one of Chicago’s great names in BBQ in the '90s, and he fires up a glass smoker on weekends to recall those glory days (call ahead to make sure -- or don't, the worst that can happen is you wind up with some tasty fried chicken).
Lem's has BBQ that's both satisfying and mouth-watering, and their hot links and rib tips are seriously worth the drive. The prices here are reasonable and you won't be disappointed with the portion sizes. The meats are cooked in an aquarium smoker, named for their appearance, and the imparted flavors are a big sell for Lem's offerings.
This no-nonsense barbecue joint has cafeteria-style seating and lean, juicy rib tips to kill for. Honey 1 offers a bounty of saucy, smoked meats and veggie-based (not to be mistaken for “low-calorie”) sides. Restaurant goers get a view of the glassed-in, hickory-burning smoker and can enjoy a full slab of fall-off-the-bone ribs. Their slogan is "Real Smoke...No Joke," and once you get within a block of this place you'll instantly realize why.
You're likely going to want to gather around one of two live-fire barebecue pits when you turn up at this spot. Rest assured your tastebuds will be just as satisfied as your eyes once you sink your teeth into the Saint Louis spare ribs whether or not you opt to go with one of the four house-sauces.
This Chicago favorite has now expanded its reach to Lakeview, providing pulled pork, chicken and brisket to even more Chicagoans. This location also has craft beer, new sides like chipotle potato salad and larger meat platters on the menu. Plus, they've added weekend hours so you can get you BBQ fix 7 days a week.
LQ's a patio-abetted 60-seat temple of slow-n-low BBQ, decked with butcher's hooks outfitted with Edison bulbs, tables made from reclaimed barn boards, and seriously delicious barbecue-style smoked, fired-up meat. We think that Lillie's serves up the best BBQ in Chicago, and locals agree.
This clandestine Texas BBQ smokehouse is down an alley off Restaurant Row. From world class beers to brisket chili Frito pie, this is Chicago's hottest restaurant, open Tuesday-Saturday, 5pm-close. We think that Green Street serves up some of the best BBQ in Chicago, but you won't know for sure until you visit.
The outlet of porcine goodness is decked out with mounted farm tools and pig diagrams in a barn-like 38-seat space. Menu items include the likes of smoked baby back ribs, pulled pig & fowl, Texas-style brisket, and sliced steak, all paired with your choice of three different sauces: molasses-based Sweet & Sticky, vinegar-y Tart & Tangy, and Wicked Spicy. Try the pork belly pastrami sandwich -- thick slices of 10-day cured and 12-hour smoked bacon-to-be piled on a brioche bun. Meaty, fatty, and smoky with a little pastrami spice crust makes for one hell of a sandwich.
11. Smalls 4009 N Albany Ave, Chicago, IL 60618 (Irving Park)
Smalls is a Filipino smoke shack that's got a tasty mix of American barbecue and Asian comfort food in a snug Irving Park space. If you are looking for a menu full of unique cuisine, a cozy atmosphere, and some of the best food in Chicago, look no further than Smalls.
This Texas-style barbecue joint in Irving Park kicked off the smoked meat movement on the North Side in the mid-aughts, and it's been delivering great brisket, pulled pork, St. Louis ribs, and Rudy Mikeska sausage ever since. Smoque still has lines out the door because it's a must-stop on any eating tour of Chicago. FYI: it's BYOB so bring a frosty six-pack to fend off the inevitable meat sweats.