- Mike Sula
- Fried chicken, Smalls
“If it were easy everybody would be doing it” is an axiom that doesn’t seem to apply to making barbecue. It isn’t easy, and yet Chicago has been flooded with so much sorrily smoked meat over the last few years that I fear we’ve all forgotten—or never known in the first place—what really good barbecue is. Not true, of course. But I was torturing myself with these thoughts over a couple visits to a recently opened high-profile barbecue spot (to be reviewed next week), and wishing I were eating at Smalls Smoke Shack.
Smalls, you might have heard, is the tiny Filipino-Korean barbecue/fried chicken joint in Irving Park started by the folks behind the Brown Bag Lunch Truck. It’s one of those road-to-brick-and-mortar feel-good stories that is one of few nice things to come out of the mess the city made of the food truck ordinance. Smalls’s Joaquin Soler painted a tight kitchen space just off Irving Park Road bright aqua blue to distract attention from the middling strip of sports bars on the main drag, installed a Southern Pride smoker, and began smoldering brisket, pulled pork, and Saint Louis spares over cherry and hickory wood.
- Mike Sula
- Saint Louis slab, Smalls
It’s taken me a while to write about it because I had to be won over. The brisket on my first visit was terrible. Served chopped, it was dry and difficult to choke down, and you could tell by the clean, angular cuts in the meat that it probably hadn’t spent much time in that Southern Pride. The pulled pork was dry and smokeless too, but the ribs, heavily rubbed and lightly glazed in a sweetish sauce, developed a crusty bark, a respectable smoke flavor, and maintained a texture that wouldn’t insult the strength of your mandibles. It was that slab that gave me hope.
- Mike Sula
- Brisket bibimbap, Smalls
Part of the problem here is that there are only a few stools inside Smalls and if you’re taking away, this stuff doesn’t hold very well on a journey of any sort. Your best bet is to eat al trunko, or retire next door to Lizard’s Liquid Lounge,* where they’ll deliver your order as soon as it’s done. I did just this and found the brisket much, much improved, sliced this time, moist and smoky, and an order of brisket bibimbap worlds better, the fried egg adding a much needed fatty slickness to the vegetables and chopped meat.
The thing that brought me back, however, and will again and again, was the fried chicken, buttermilk-brined and lightly battered, but fried hard, so that it maintains a moist interior whether you’re taking it 15 minutes away or sipping a whiskey at the bar while you wait. We are certainly on the cusp of a fried chicken wave, with the ascendance of Parson’s and the very soon to open Honey Butter Fried Chicken. If Smalls maintains this kind of consistency it won’t be lost in the fray.
Also true of the recent barbecue wave: the overemphasis on sides is such that you wonder if this is what the problem with the barbecue is. Smalls’s sides are simple and hard to screw up, but far off the standard southern template: charred shishito peppers and Texas toast, grilled elotes, and buttery Filipino-style garlic rice. Only the limp hand-cut fries are a bummer. They need an extra bath in the oil to stand up to the chicken.
- Mike Sula
- Smalls Smoke Shack & More
Smalls Smoke Shack & More, 4009 N. Albany, 312-857-4221, smallschicago.com
*The erstwhile Lost & Found Lounge, once the city’s oldest lesbian bar.