It was over 90 degrees in Chicago at the start of the Labor Day weekend and we were four souls looking for some honest-to-goodness BBQ ribs and hot links. To help us taste, we invited several hungry guys to join us. We focused on authentic smoked ribs on the south side - smoked in an aquarium smoker – a glass sided smoker that lets customers see the ribs and links as they cook.After reading reviews, we set out to visit four establishments, targeting places that received top ratings. But our journey wasn't without some misses and one serendipitous find. Of the four places we ended up at, three were outstanding and one was merely good. The three outstanding places shared several characteristics:
- a constantly-moving line of customers
- no seating for eating
- bullet-proof glass with a service window, separating customers and workers
Lem's BBQ House
311 E. 75th St.
whole slab: $23 3
hot links: $9
Ryan: Lem's BBQ House runs out of a well preserved, 50's style building, cheerfully painted green and yellow with a giant sign out front to herald you in. They also, blessedly, have their own parking lot. Hanging out front I got some of the awesome, neighborhood feel of this area, and will definitely return for some of the other great-looking restaurants we passed. Munching our fries on the window ledge of Lem's, we even got a thumbs up from another patron waiting for her order, and as the sharp, clove-laced sauce (that we later poured over toothsome, dry-rubbed ribs) dribbled down our chins, I exclaimed "Damn!" Their hot links also have a unique, almost chopped texture, which definitely helps maintain Lem's distinction among the rib places. Linda: Lem's has been in business since the 50s and I can see why. The ribs were tender and tasty, even without any sauce. The sauce was vinegary and sooooo good! It was my favorite sauce of our top three. Upon my first dip of a French fry into the sauce, I said "Damn, that's good". The hot links had big chunks of meat and they snapped when you bit into them. Health food, this is not, but damn, it was good!
337 E. 69th
Whole slab: $16.75
4 hot links: $9.25
BBQ sauce: $.55 each
Linda: The pit master here is Mack Sevrier, who used to be at Barbara Ann's. A friendly guy in line told us that he thought Barbara Ann's had gone down hill since Mack left. We told him that we were going to visit Barbara Ann's to taste for ourselves. But, as it turned out, Barbara Ann's was locked up tight when we dropped by. At 5 p.m. on the Friday of Labor Day weekend !?! What the heck?
Back to Uncle John's. The ribs were the meatiest of our top three (these ribs were BIG, but not quite as tender as Lem's). We ordered the mixed sauce (a mixture of the hot and the mild sauces). It was really spicy! The fries were the best of our top three – crinkle cut. The hot links were very boldly seasoned, lots of herbs to see and to taste. I slightly preferred Lem's to Uncle John's, but only slightly. And Uncle John's was a really good value.
Ryan: This place has a definite "rib-shack" air to it: Unassuming exterior, small, un-air-conditioned interior, with enough bullet-proof glass to satisfy the Pope. Small-talk with the other patrons waiting on the relatively cool sidewalk came easy, and for the price, the long line was understood. Everything about the food at Uncle John's is BOLD: Huge ribs, cayenne-laden, dunk-as-you-dare sauce, and what I would argue are the tastiest, rosemary flavored, hotlinks that we tried.
65 E. 43rd St.
Whole slab: $23.32
2 (fat) hot links: $11.12
Linda: This was our serendipitous find. We wanted to visit four places and two ended up been closed (Barbara Ann's, temporarily, and Smoke Signals, permanently.) As we were driving on Michigan Avenue from our third stop, we saw the smoke rising from Alice's. After reading on-line reviews as we were driving, we turned around to check it out.
It was fantastic! The ribs were tender and so juicy, and the mixed sauce had an initial sweetness followed by a spicy kick. Sublime! The hot links were chunky and snapped when you bit into them. It took a while to get our order and the waiting area was at least 15 degrees hotter than it was outside (and remember it was over 90 degrees that day in Chicago). But it was worth it. The T-shirts the workers were wearing said Alice's was established in 1980. I'm surprised it's not better known outside the neighborhood.
Ryan: Though located in a slightly rougher area than the other places we visited, Alice's, with its billowing chimney up top, window-view smoker, and bible-verse painted interior was well worth the visit (but the heat! My god, the heat!) Alice's ribs are tender, lean, and an arguably perfect incarnation of what you imagine when you think "ribs." The hot links are very good, but I would say they're more an herbacious fount of pork grease for the delectable fries served underneath. I will state here that this was my first experience with the hot link, which one may describe as a deep-fried sausage, but which I'm calling a meat doughnut.
Also, Alice, if you haven't realized that your sauce is the most perfectly balanced, stand-alone sauce this side of the Mason Dixon Line, than you better get to realizin'. Sweet Baby Ray's, eat your heart out.