We compare slabs of the city's most popular barbecue-
and show you how to judge for yourself
I came close to placing this classified ad when I moved to Chicago: KANSAS CITY BARBEQUE SOCIETY–CERTIFIED BARBEQUE JUDGESEEKS PERFECT BARBECUE. Must be tender, smoky and, last but not least, look good. Dried-out or oversauced applicants need not apply.
The barbecue snobbery was inborn; the certification came later. In Kansas City, babies teethe on rib bones. Whether you're in grease-stained digs working on a plate of Arthur Bryant's legendary burnt ends (made famous by KC-expat, writer Calvin Trillin) or standing around a neighbor's makeshift oil drum smoker, the smell of barbecue is in your hair, your clothes and your brain. Once you've had the real deal, you can't shake the memory if you try.
And I tried, especially in Chicago. Kansas Citians warned me with the shake of a sauce-stained finger that I would have little luck finding top-notch barbecue here. I scoured the city to prove them wrong. How could the City of Big Shoulders have gotten so broad? Surely not on steak alone.
Gathering tips from Chicagoans who seemed to know their 'cue (one doesn't toss around terms like "smoke ring" and "dry rub" lightly), I settled on six spots that serve classic pork ribs. Controlling the variables, I picked up a "slab with sauce on the side" from each place within a two-hour span and sat down to judge them on a scale of one to nine, according to KCBS standards (for more on these criteria, see "You be the judge," opposite page). Here's how the slabs stacked up:
Fat Willy's: total score 25
2416 W Schubert Ave between Western and Artesian Aves, 773-782-1800
Appearance: 6; over-charred from too much dry rub, but plenty of pink smoke ring
Taste: 7; rub lends a complexity, good smoke flavor and nice juiciness from the right ratio of fat to meat
Tenderness: 5; the exterior layer is a bit chewy—fatty tips are juiciest
Robinson's No. 1 Ribs: total score 26
655 W Armitage Ave between Howe and Orchard Sts, 312-337-1399
Appearance: 6; bits of pink smoke marks; nice raised "top cap" with visible juice from well-marbled meat
Taste: 7; subtle smoke taste, perfectly salty with hints of paprika and garlic
Tenderness: 6; middle ribs of the slab are juicy and tender, ends are a bit overcooked
Carson's the Place for Ribs: total score 11
612 N Wells St between Ohio and Ontario Sts, 312-280-9200
Appearance: 3; looks like leather across the top from the lack of fat, visibly dry when cut
Taste: 3; no seasoning, bit of tomato taste from being sauced during cooking, like a boring overcooked pork chop
Tenderness: 2; won't pull apart, have to cut, feels like holding a bone
Barbara Ann's BBQ: WINNER 28
7617 S Cottage Grove Ave between 76th and 77th Sts, 773-723-4780
Appearance: 7; nice marbling of fat and meat, perfect light charring of spice rub and visible pink smoke ring
Taste: 7; very smoky, salty cured pork-type flavor, but a bit one-dimensional
Tenderness: 7; the fat layer makes ribs juicy and greasy in a good way, tender to the touch
Lem's Bar-BQ House: total score 16
311 E 75th between Prairie and Calumet Aves, 773-994-2428
Appearance: 4; very little meat but also very little fat, dried and crackly like day-old holdovers, tiny random spots of pink
Taste: 4; indistinguishable meat flavor (doesn't really taste like pork or beef), no seasoning, minimal smoke, few juicy spots
Tenderness: 4; dry and chewy
Honey 1 BBQ: total score 24
5135 W Division St between Leamington and Laramie Aves, 773-626-5436
Appearance: 7; huge, meaty ribs with a definitive smoke ring
Taste: 6; good pork flavor, plenty of smoke flavor but little else coming through, could use a rub or marinade to pep it up
Tenderness: 6; hit or miss, a bit dry except for random juicy parts at tips
You be the judge
To get certified as a barbecue judge from the Kansas City Barbeque Society, all you need is a couple of hours for the "class." (Find classes near you at www.kcbs.us.) The KCBS sanctions close to 300 barbecue competitions each year, and once you're certified, you can judge at any of those, including the American Royal Barbecue Contest (the KCBS World Championships) held each October in Kansas City. Don't want to bother with certification? Use the KCBS judging criteria to do your own taste tests around town:
Judges consider three categories—appearance, taste and tenderness—and score from one to nine, with five being average and nine being excellent. The three categories are weighted, so that the taste score carries the most weight (2.2858), followed by tenderness (1.1428) and then appearance (.5714). The highest possible score is a 36.
Appearance You're looking for a nice pink smoke ring (visible pinkness around the edges of the meat that signifies it has been barbecued low and slowly with wood) and the meat shouldn't appear crackly (dry) or have an unusual color.
Tenderness Pushing on the meat with your finger (the meat should give, and juice should ooze a bit), and take a bite (there should be a little resistance; somewhere between falling off of the bone and needing to be cut). Some hefty cuts will have a thin layer of fat topped by another layer of meat that runs along the top of the ribs (often called a "top cap") that helps insulate the meat, keeping it juicy.
Taste You're judging on complexity, achieved through a combination of high-quality meat, proper low-and-slow cooking with a mix of hickory and fruit woods for juicy and smoky results, and marinades or dry rubs of spices and herbs that enhance but don't overpower the meat.
This weekend you can get in on the barbecue action yourself at one of two smokin' events. If you're looking to stick close to the city, Ribfest Chicago is being held Saturday 11 and Sunday 12. If you're looking to hit the road, the KCBS-sanctioned King City BBQ Showdown is being held Friday 10 and Saturday 11 in Mount Vernon, Illinois (www.southernillinois.com). Entries to compete are still being accepted; the winner will be crowned Illinois State Champion and compete in Kansas City's World Championships in October.