The suburb of Wheaton is 90 percent white and just 3 percent black, yet I found a sign of racial mixing out there that you’d be hard pressed to find in the city. But hold that thought and let me back up. I was in Wheaton for an annual all-night flea market, an event my kids find irresistible since it involves roaming a gravel lot in darkness with a flashlight, looking through other peoples’ stuff. (Me, I already bought the pop culture of the 70s and 80s once—I don’t need to buy it again.) Beforehand, the friends who invited us suggested a barbecue place out there called Steamboat Barbeque—they hadn’t been, but had heard it was good.
The signs I saw as I ordered—a glass-fronted Southern Pride cooker, sauces that identified with Kansas City and the Carolinas, food with lots of black smoky bark—all suggested that this was what a friend had called “Food Network Barbecue.” That sounds like it’s meant to be a dig, but it’s not—it means that as opposed to having grown up in a regional style, it’s a place run by somebody who learned about the regional styles of barbecue from media, checked them out, and then came back to Chicago determined to reproduce what they found and liked. These kinds of places often mix different regional styles, so that you’ll see Texas brisket and Memphis pulled pork next to each other as you wouldn’t in a traditional place in Texas or Memphis. The much-esteemed Smoque on the northwest side is a perfect example of the type.
When I spoke to Steamboat Barbecue owner John Bovinette a few days later, I learned that I was half right. He’d traveled around and tried many styles of barbecue himself, but it wasn’t TV that sparked his interest. He grew up eating and cooking barbecue near Saint Louis, but his career gave him a chance to expand his range. “I worked for Northern Telecom, Nortel, for 19, 20 years, and I traveled the whole time,” he explained. “I went to 47 states. And the whole time, I was on a mission to find barbecue, to find styles I could emulate.”
I asked him what styles and places impressed him the most, and he reeled off a pretty eclectic mix of places he admired. In Kansas City he loved the current darling, Joe’s Kansas City (previously Oklahoma Joe’s), and says, “If you got to have one more sandwich before you go, I’d have Oklahoma Joe’s.” But he also mentions a small place run by a competition barbecue team, Smoking Guns. “I was full and I told them not to bring me too much. So they bring this huge platter with a sample of everything, and lit me up.”
In Memphis he also admired Silky O’Sullivan’s, a famous Beale Street bar, as much for the way the late Silky ran things as for the Memphis-style ribs Bovinette would try to reproduce. “He was very charismatic, you just felt good in his place, the way he ran it.” In Texas he found brisket nirvana, and in the Carolinas, “I don’t recall any particular place, but they have these roadside stands and you just feel like, when it comes to pork, they got it.”
Around 2004 he went into competition barbecue, running a team called Church of Swinetology. The first competition he ever went to was the amateur side of, Memphis in May, the top event of the Memphis barbecue circuit, but he soon switched to the Kansas City Barbecue Society circuit because it was more common in the southern Illinois area where he lived. (He may be in the background in my video about the 2012 Praise the Lard competition in Murphysboro, Illinois—he was consulting with and helping out the Duce’s Wild team, who I interview in the film.)
Bovinette enjoyed competition barbecue and learned a lot from it—”I struggled mightily with brisket, but I went around with a notebook, asked a lot of questions and took notes. Actually knowing what adjustments you’ve made and what effect they have makes a difference, you know?” His philosophy of barbecue is pretty much the same as I’ve heard from people like Robert Adams of Honey 1: “There’s no magic wand. Anybody can make pretty good barbecue, if you’re willing to put in the hours.”
But at the same time, as it’s gotten more professionalized, with winning teams running seminars on how to appeal to the judges, Bovinette feels like he’s seen competition barbecue become more homogenous. “The fun part for me was that you got to sample so many different styles of barbecue. A whole range of flavors. When you have everybody cooking the same style, from somebody else’s recipe, you lose that and it’s not as interesting, even though I feel like the overall level of barbecue is probably higher.”
He went to work for a restaurateur in the Wheaton area for a number of years and then started running the pit at a restaurant called Smoke Ring. At the same time he was helping a relative open a restaurant southeast of Saint Louis, in New Athens, Illinois (pronounced “Ai-thens”), called Steamboat Biscuit and Brisket—”It’s a tiny town, so you got to have more than just barbecue in a restaurant.” Finally, he took over Smoke Ring and at the beginning of 2014 renamed it Steamboat Barbecue.
Bovinette said that in competition, his standout meat was ribs, and I’d say that’s still true—some might find that the meat falls off the bone a little too easily, but the smoke flavor is deep and they were mighty fine. I also really liked the smoked sausage, which was similar to the Rudy Mikeska sausage from Texas served at Smoque (it could be Mikeska sausage, I forgot to ask) and cooked to a perfect moistness. Brisket and pulled pork were good but suffered a little from being held, steaming themselves a bit—a challenge for most places. In the nonbarbecue category, fresh-cut french fries were first rate. The Kansas City-style sauce was pretty sweet, as they usually are, but there were other choices (a spicy tomatoey style and a Carolina mustard style) so you can dabble to find your taste.
And then there was the item I was surprised to see: rib tips. In Chicago there’s a definite color line in barbecue. On one side it’s brisket—only north-side white barbecue places do beef; south-side African-American places are almost all pork all the time. On the other side, the line is defined by rib tips, the cartilaginous area where the two sides of the spareribs meet, that allows the chest cavity to expand for breathing. It’s usually trimmed off and discarded by white establishments (the resulting spareribs are then called Saint Louis ribs), which made the scrap-meat price right for the African-American south side of Chicago in the 1940s and 1950s. You almost never see rib tips in white-owned barbecue spots in the city—yet here they were, in a spot in suburban Wheaton.
I asked Bovinette about that and it turned out that for all his traveling, he did kind of come out of a regional style of his own. “I grew up on the edge of East Saint Louis, and I started barbecuing when I was young. We cooked a lot of pork steaks, whole spareribs, and snoots”—the snout of a pig put on a sandwich, which is a Saint Louis specialty. He grew up cooking Saint Louis ribs, but he cooked the tips too—because he’d grown up eating them. “There was a place in French Village called Sam’s Barbecue. It was about five miles away, and any time I could get the money together, I’d ride my bike over and get some barbecue and some baseball cards. That was the life for me.”
Steamboat Barbecue, 322 E. Geneva Road, Wheaton, 630-665-6227, steamboatque.com.