BBQ Restaurants and Festivals: A Taste of the South in the Windy City
Tobias Roberts, June 5, 2018
Winters in Chicago certainly have their charm, though they can seem to be neverending. Fortunately, once spring does roll around (and it admittedly can seem to take forever), food festivals, concerts, and every other imaginable outdoor activity can allow you to get the most out of those long, sunny, days.
About a decade ago, I became a part of the number of native Chicagoans who moved temporarily to other parts of the country. When I eventually stumbled upon a home in the heart of Kentucky, I found myself constantly asking people to repeat themselves to make sure I understood what they were saying. One thing I did immediately understand, however, was the food.
Those abundant platefuls of pan-fried chicken, heaps of steamed collard greens, cornbread portions that obviously disregarded any government-sanctioned food pyramid, and pecan pie and peach cobbler as the proverbial two-course dessert led me into a love affair with southern cuisine. And of course, there was the barbecue.
Traditional southern barbecue is more of an art than a meal. While some historians believe that barbecue was originally a term for slow roasting or smoking meat by Caribbean indigenous populations, barbecue has been a fundamental part of southern culture since at least the 19th century.
Chicago style barbecue (or Midwest Barbecue) involves seasoning meats with a dry rub, then searing the meat on a hot grill before slowly baking it in an oven. The finishing sweet and tangy sauce is often the “signature” taste on our city´s barbecue tradition.
While Chicago BBQ certainly has a charisma all its own, if you’ve never tried a real southern Barbecue, you are missing out on the real deal. If you are looking for an authentic way to satisfy those BBQ cravings that surface once the temperatures allow you to comfortably head around in shorts, original southern barbecue is a must.
What to Look for in Authentic Southern BBQ
Southern barbecue traditions are certainly not homogenous. Rather, different states and regions have local peculiarities and defining characteristics. For example, while almost all of the southern BBQ traditions focus on pork as the primary meat, the region of Western Kentucky where I lived traditionally served mutton. Similarly, different sauces are representative of different areas. Nonetheless, there are certainly a few shared characteristics that all authentic southern barbecue tradition share.
- Pork is the main meat for barbecuing purposes. If a restaurant is serving barbecued chicken, it´s most likely not authentic southern BBQ.
- Southern barbecue sauces do differ and include a wide variety of spices, but the two main ingredients are almost always vinegar and ketchup (though in differing proportions). The exception here is Alabama barbecue, which includes a signature mayonnaise and vinegar white sauce.
- Hickory and oak are the preferred woods for smoking authentic southern BBQ.
- Of course, all real southern barbecue needs to be cooked slowly over indirect heat. Real wood and charcoal are almost always favored over gas grills.
Recommendations from a Southerner in Chicago
Following these criteria, it is fortunately possible to find quality, authentic, southern Barbecue in the heart of downtown Chicago. Whether you´re a southerner who has migrated to the Windy City or a native Chicagoan looking for his or her first experience with real southern cooking, the following restaurants and food festivals are my picks that have been prompted by decades of eating the real thing.
BBQ Supply Co. (Formerly Rubs Backcountry BBQ)
While we admit that the name “Rubs Backcountry BBQ” had more of a southern feel to it, the newly entitled BBQ Supply Co. hasn’t lost its touch of authenticity. They religiously follow the southern tradition of slow smoking and wood fired barbecue, even bringing in post oak wood from central Texas to both of their restaurants. Besides conveniently having venues on both the south and north side of the city, they also offer a catering menu, and even BBQ classes from their pit masters.
If you are looking for a truly special summer treat, you can book a unique pit-to-plate, three course southern BBQ meal wherein you and your company will be seated directly next to the next the grilling and smoking pit. While you will most likely leave smelling like you were the master griller, the smell on your clothes is a small price to pay for a menu that includes a full Texas BBQ platter, grilled jalapeños, smoked onions, sliced cheddar cheese, smoked Texas sausage, deviled egg potato salad, salt and pepper Wagyu brisket, and of course the berry cobbler with custard.
- Northside: 6954 N. Western Avenue
- Hyde Park: 1301 E. 53rd Street
Honky Tonk in Pilsen
This family run restaurant is located just a few miles from the Loop in downtown Chicago. They serve a wide variety of Memphis-style BBQ, meaning that the meat is seasoned with dry rubs, grilled and smoked over wood and charcoal, and served with signature sauces on the side. If you want to mix a bit of Chicago with the authentic culinary traditions of the south, their Chicago Sweet sauce is also ready to order.
Unlike other BBQ joints in Chicago, the Honky Tonk uses no propane or natural gas, but rather slow roasts their prime brisket and premium pork for 14 hours over their fire pit. Their baby back ribs are also slow roasted for over 6 hours ensuring that the restaurant is permanently infused with the mouth-watering smell of genuine southern cooking.
They also regularly have live music on their Saloon Stage, and you can check the upcoming schedule of performers here.
- 1800 S Racine Ave, Chicago, IL 60608, USA
RibFest in Naperville
One of the defining characteristics of southern barbecue is that it is a social food best enjoyed in the company of others. Slow roasting pork for half a day for only a two person meal doesn’t make much sense. If, however, you spend the day (and night) slow roasting a meal that you´ll end up sharing with the whole neighborhood, then barbecue has achieved its ultimate purpose of bringing people together.
The RibFest in Naperville is held every year from July 4th to 7th, and is truly a party with a purpose as it donates millions of dollars to local charities. Not only will you be able to enjoy quality music from renowned musicians such as Pitbull, Jake Owen, and Steven Tyler, but the food is more than enough of a reason to purchase your tickets.
The several food tents offer an assortment of authentic southern BBQ ribs, pulled pork, BBQ chicken, alongside several scrumptious sauces. Each vendor has their own unique recipe meaning that you can gouge down platefuls of barbecue ribs and never repeat a flavor the entire weekend. If you want to bring your own side dishes, this video offers a complete rundown on how to prepare delicious and authentic mojito fruit salad, corn bread, and a potato salad, which is a great complement to any BBQ dish.
- Knoch Park, Naperville, Illinois, (located 26 miles west of Chicago)
- July 4th-7th, 2018