Over the last three years or so, I’ve written about nearly 20 new barbecue restaurants. That’s more than the steak houses, Italian joints, ramen-ya, boutique taquerias, and all the other overplayed restaurant trends of the moment. Reiterating the common flaws inherent to most of these barbecue spots has become just as exhausting and formulaic as they are.
And yet here we are again.
In the last few months two new barbecue restaurants have opened that, by the very nature of their marketing thrust, demand attention. The 800-pound hog in the room is Myron Mixon’s Smoke Show BBQ, the first restaurant from a competition circuit champion many times over, aka “the Winningest Man in Barbecue.” That Mixon, who has parlayed this success into books, TV shows, and his own commercial-grade smoker brand, chose a corner of Upper Douchelandia as the site of his first brick-and-mortar restaurant isn’t as puzzling as why the Georgia native chose Chicago at all. But he clearly did his due diligence. By Wrigleyville ordinance, there are no less than two dozen TVs roosting on the walls, and even during the lonely weekday lunchtime hours, frat reggae wails through the empty barroom like it’s mid-March on South Padre Island.
There is barbecue to be had at this hour, however. The question is how to order among Mixon’s large and sundry menu of gimmickry, which includes barbecue egg rolls, nachos, deviled eggs, mushrooms, and something called cupcake chicken. I feel as if I’ve written it a thousand times, but a clear indicator of a substandard barbecue establishment is one that tries to satisfy every preference, produces each regional variety, and/or creates too many value-added mutations to make use of leftover meat. But it’s important not to get distracted by these things. The only way you can accurately appraise the quality of any given operation is to focus on the basics: ribs, brisket, pulled pork, chicken.
I went into Mixon’s already skeptical. If you’ve ever judged any professional barbecue competitions, you know that the set of values that determines winning barbecue isn’t the same as lovingly smoked commercial barbecue, which comes with its own challenges with regard to consistency and longevity. For one thing, competition barbecue frequently places too much emphasis on sauce, which can be and often is used to disguise weak meat. So I was immediately disarmed when, after placing an order for brisket, pulled pork, and ribs with sauce on the side, I was told that the kitchen never reflexively sauces the barbecue. Myron Mixon had my attention.
When the order arrived and I was confronted with a half slab smothered in candy-apple-red syrup, the server apologized. “They just started doing that.” That’s too bad, because there’s a nice chewy texture to the musculature under all the sticky glop, which still serves to obscure any smoke absorbed in the meat. Pulled pork is a different story, with a near-recommendable ratio of fat to juicy flesh and a healthy amount of crunchy caramelized bark for texture. Brisket is yet another matter: tight and overlean, any tenderizing fat in the muscle renders long before this leather emerges from the smoker.
Mixon may have conquered the itinerant competition circuit, but he still has work to do in this restaurant.
Myron Mixon’s Smoke Show BBQ, 3801 N. Clark, 773-360-1452, mmsmokeshowbbq.com
At Rylon’s Smokehouse on the Near South Side, chef-owner Derek Rylon of the Lincoln Park brunch spot Batter & Berries takes a similarly imprecise approach when it comes to barbecue, offering everything from tacos to po’boys to crab cakes to lobster mac and cheese. When it comes to barbecue, he posits an almost insurgent creed, drawing a dubious distinction between south-side and north-side barbecue styles and placing Rylon’s right in the middle. OK, there’s something to be said about the south side’s traditional use of the aquarium smoker, which performs at a relatively high temperature, versus the newer school of north-side barbecue spots (like Myron’s) that tend to use more complicated smokers.
But when the meat hits the table, what’s painfully clear is that Rylon’s doesn’t fall in middle of this perceived spectrum. It isn’t even on the spectrum. The best that you can say is that it uniformly falls into the ignoble category of meat Jell-O. Ribs slide from the bone like they’re melting. Serve the brisket with some kasha varnishkes on the side and it wouldn’t be out of place at a seder. Most damning of all, nothing—including the pulled pork, perhaps the most smoke-absorbent meat of them all—tastes of the crucial element of woodsmoke. You can call this roasted pork, but you can’t call it barbecue.
Adding insult to injury, Rylon talked a good game to DNAinfo prior to opening about sauce being a “cover-up,” but I suppose he didn’t say he wouldn’t be employing sauce, since orders arrive thoroughly drenched in it.
Rylon’s Smokehouse, 67 E. Cermak, 312-794-5901, rylonssmokehouse.com
When you have to summon the energy to declare lunch at your 21st barbecue restaurant a waste of digestive real estate, you’ve fallen into a rut. Such a sorry state of affairs calls for only one remedy. You make your way to 43rd Street and recalibrate your settings for what constitutes good Chicago barbecue. As it is and ever was (for the last 12 years, anyway), a large rib tip combo from Honey 1 BBQ is all it takes to get right with the world.