CHICAGO – Unwritten rules permeate barbecue culture like hickory smoke permeates a hunk of brisket. Don’t drown the meat in sauce. Use spare ribs instead of babybacks. Never sacrifice attention to the meat for attention to side dishes. Everyone seems to know these rules, but they rarely get codified. The proprietors of Smoque have done just that, issuing a manifesto that records some of these rules while also explaining to Midwesterners unfamiliar with real barbecue exactly why following those rules produces such delicious results.
So does Smoque practice what it preaches? On a breezy June night, I loaded down a platter for a test.
They try to breathe new life into dry, tasteless meat by dousing it with an overpowering BBQ sauce—a shameful practice that we like to call artificial resaucitation. … Well, we won’t do it. No sir. – Smoque on sauce
I might have to borrow “artificial resaucitation” to use later. That’s a fine way of describing a despicable practice. Smoque serves its ribs sauceless, and the brisket has only a light coating. Servers provide extra sauce in plastic cups so diners can choose the proper of amount of the tomato-based mix with a vinegar kick. The pulled pork was a little too drenched for my tastes, so the pitmasters may want to dial back the sauce in that particular discipline. I prefer to choose my own sauce adventure, and if the meat is cooked as well as it is at Smoque, I might elect to forge ahead without accouterment.
In much of Chicago, we realize, it’s all about baby backs. But in almost every one of America’s BBQ towns, spare ribs rule. – Smoque on the great rib debate
This told me all I needed to know when I had to choose between Smoque’s spare ribs and babybacks. I read it this way: We understand people in Chicago like baby backs, but baby backs are a lousy barbecue cut because they lack the fat required for a long smoke. So order the spare ribs.
Smoque uses spare ribs trimmed St. Louis-style for dainty diners afraid of eating around a little knuckle. The sweet and savory rub doesn’t overpower the meat, but it marries with the pork so well that, without sauce, Smoque ribs wouldn’t seem the least bit out of place in Memphis. Smoque correctly eschews fall-off-the-bone for the gentle-tug texture.
OK, we admit it. It wasn’t that long ago that we didn’t really get brisket. Every brisket we tried was dry, tough, or tasteless—often all three. But in Texas, brisket is the stuff of legend. So for the sake of completeness, and so as not to anger a very large Texan friend of ours, we sent an expedition down to Austin’s BBQ belt to see what the big deal was. – Smoque on brisket
The proprietors of Smoque must have found some sort of brisket Holy Grail in Austin – maybe at Franklin Barbecue? – because they get brisket now. The brisket was by far the best of the three meats on my plate. In Texas, the portion I was served would have been called “lean” brisket. The lean typically is drier and packs less flavor than the fatty section. But the brisket I had at Smoque was every bit as juicy and rich as a fatty portion – without the fat. (Probably because it had completely rendered into the meat during cooking. Every pitmaster aspires to do this, but it’s especially difficult with brisket.)
If you aren’t as carnivorous as me and only plan on ordering only one meat at Smoque, make it the brisket.
One thing that always puzzled us about BBQ restaurants: the sides. Side dishes should complement good BBQ and set it off by means of contrast. But more often than not, they seem like an afterthought. Not here. – Smoque on sides
I’m glad someone else noticed this. Some of the most legendary barbecue spots have terrible sides. A place with a two-hour line for brisket will glop a pile of bland baked beans next to the meat and call it a meal. While the sides should never detract from the meat, they should require a little effort. If not, why serve them at all?
I’m not a fan of Smoque’s saucy take on macaroni and cheese. I prefer my mac and cheese to be near solid because I’m weird, and my nostalgia for the way a certain Winn Dixie deli made mac and cheese during my elementary school years continues to inform my tastes despite my best efforts to be open minded. That said, I appreciated the effort. It’s obvious great care goes into the mac and cheese at Smoque, and if a little runny is your preferred style, you’ll be in heaven. The brisket chili, meanwhile, deserves to be an entrée. The thick mixture of brisket and peppers explodes on the palate, and it blows away anything in the baked beans-cole slaw-potato salad triumvirate that infests the menu at most joints.
Between the brisket and the brisket chili, it’s quite clear the folks at Smoque can back up their manifesto bravado. The fact that they pull it off so far above the Mason-Dixon line is even more impressive. Most Chicagoans may not have much basis for comparison, but they’re lucky to have a joint that would clean up in any of America’s barbecue capitals.