Barbecue is definitely one of my favorite types of food. I mean come on! Tender meat that’s been smoked or grilled covered in sweet or spicy sauce served with countless indulgent sides such as mac & cheese, beans, and corn bread. You can’t get much better than that right? Barbecue is quintessentially American, with deep roots especially in the culture of the South. BBQ also has a ton of variety, preparations, and styles that largely depend on the region.
In Kansas City the BBQ sauce is made from tomato sauce or ketchup, sugars, vinegar, and other spices that make it sweet and smoky. A wide variety of meats, including beef, pork, and lamb are usually smoked with a dry rub and served with sauce and french fries. Parts of South Carolina and North Carolina make barbecue sauce with a yellow mustard base, vinegar, sugar, and other spices that make for a tangy sauce. Carolina BBQ tends to be pork, served pulled, shredded, or chopped, that is rubbed with a spice mix before smoking over a hardwood such as oak or hickory. In parts of Alabama a unique white barbecue sauce with a mayo base is used primarily on chicken while areas of Texas focus heavily on the cooking techniques of the meat, directly cooking goat, mutton, and beef over mesquite. Other unique styles come from Hawaii, St. Louis, Georgia, and Oklahoma.
Despite some of the best barbecue coming from Southern states and cities, Smoque BBQ in Chicago, Illinois has stepped up the BBQ game in the city with their favorite takes and preparations for ribs, chicken, pork, brisket, and sausage. Smoque serves their meat with sides of memphis-style (sweet and smoky flavors with molasses used as a sweeter) and carolina-style (tangy flavor from a yellow mustard base and vinegar) barbecue sauces. The outside of the restaurant includes a huge mural of their logo with their slogan “Low and Slow.” Smoque’s manifesto titled Our View on Q is a great read detailing their thoughts on different BBQ types, Chicago barbecue, and what style they are going for with each of their meats. I highly recommend checking the manifesto out here.
Smoque is located on N Pulaski Rd in the Old Irving Park neighborhood and they now have a stand at Revival Food Hall in Chicago’s Loop neighborhood. The interior of Smoque is pretty small, fitting about 30 people comfortably in communal style tables. A large chalkboard shows those standing in line the meaty goodness they can order and is surrounded by various awards they have received since opening in December 2006. Smoque won a 2012 Michelin Bib Gourmand award as one of the city’s best values and has been featured on Food Network’s Diners, Drive-Ins, & Dives. The restaurant is BYOB, making it a perfect spot to bring over some brews to wash down your BBQ with. I recommend going with a few hungry friends and/or family so you can order a bit of everything off their menu, which is exactly what I did. And really when you think about it barbecue is more than just food, it’s a social and cultural activity that is best experienced with other people, hence the communal table set up at many barbecue joints across the US, including Smoque.
As my friends and I stood in line contemplating what we should order I suggested grabbing a variety of meats and sides to share. This strategy never fails and I was joined in my quest to try a bit of everything by Erin and Anthony. However, after ordering everything and coming back to the table to let them know the damage I had done they both seemed a bit shocked by the amount of food I ordered. It ended up being just the right amount for us and gave us tastes of some amazing varieties of meats and pretty good sides. We ordered a half slab of the St. Louis ribs, sliced brisket, half a chicken, and Texas sausage with coleslaw, macaroni & cheese, cornbread, brisket chili, and BBQ beans. Did I mention I like barbecue? 🙂
The sausages were a nice touch to the menu, as many barbecue places outside of Texas don’t seem to offer this type of meat. I certainly did not regret ordering these bad boys, as they were smoked to perfection. They had a faint spicy kick to them, most likely from the pepper, and paired extremely well with the sweet and smoky Memphis-style barbecue sauce. The coleslaw and BBQ beans were average, lacking a bold or unique flavor to set it apart from other coleslaws and beans that I’ve had in the past. The cornbread was warm and crispy on top, but pretty dry. It was nothing gobs of butter couldn’t fix though.
The ribs at Smoque are certainly a standout item due to its perfect balance of smokiness, spice, and tenderness. Smoque uses a Memphis-style dry rub to form a savory crust, and then smokes them over oak and sweet applewood. They are finished with a tangy, semi-sweet BBQ sauce to complement the spicy rub and smoky meat. The ribs don’t fall off the bone like some other styles of ribs do, but they are just tender enough to melt in your mouth a bit and certainly are not too chewy. When topped with the Memphis-style sauce for a sweet element, the combination of smoky, spicy, and sweet makes for an excellent fusion of flavors.
I was originally leaning on getting pulled pork over the chicken but my friends and I ended up going for the chicken instead, as it was something different from the lineup of red meats we had already ordered. The chicken is smoked for three hours, which gives the meat a pink color inside and a smoky flavor on the outside. It was certainly moist and juicy, as upon cutting into the chicken, some juice squirted out onto another one of our four platters (yes, I know it sounds incredibly dirty). The flavor of the chicken depended upon the sauce, which was Memphis-style, more than any other type of meat. However, the combination of the sauce and chicken was a hit for me and my friends. The brisket chili sounded insanely good on paper, but unfortunately my friends and I agreed it was pretty flavorless, despite the added smoked brisket in this side dish.
Last but certainly least is the sliced brisket and macaroni and cheese. The brisket is said to be cooked for 15 hours in the smoker and is complemented by a 2-layer spice rub and the vinegar-based Carolina-style BBQ sauce. I could tell that Smoque’s brisket took a lot of time to make, as it was reminiscent of the moist and tender brisket I had in Austin, Texas. While no brisket can quite beat what I had in Austin, it was one of the best briskets I’ve had outside of Texas. The Carolina-style barbecue sauce was an excellent choice to top the brisket, brining out a tangy flavor and keeping the brisket nice and moist. The mac and cheese had a terrific crunch to it as it was topped with breadcrumbs and baked to perfection. The mac and cheese was by far the best side we ordered.
Overall, Smoque excels at exactly what their name implies, smoking meats. The preparation of all the different types of meats was excellent, especially for their ribs and sliced brisket. I really like that they offer different types of barbecue sauces inspired by different regions depending on the type of meat. While the sauces were not the best I’ve had in Chicago, they did compliment the specific types of meat that they were served with very well. The only let down at Smoque was their sides, as only the mac & cheese and cornbread were pretty good. The rest of the sides were average at best. After consuming an insane amount of protein my friends and I were ready to channel our inner lumberjack and throw axes at targets at the new Thunderbolt Chicago Axe Throwing, which I highly recommend checkin out! If ever in the Old Irving Park area again or near Revival Food Hall I would not hesitate to devour some more delicious barbecue from Smoque. I definitely recommend you make the journey to one of their locations to try it out for yourself.
-Michael Averbook, Foodie Extraordinaire