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Monday, Sep. 26, 2005 DINING  

Calvin's serves barbecue that's worth a trip to the city

Posted Thursday, September 22, 2005

Barbecue is a religious issue.

The best kind of meat - pork or beef or mutton? The style of sauce - sweet, spicy or mustardy? The kind of fire, the type of wood, the style of cooker, whether the finished product should taste strongly or faintly of smoke, what constitutes the perfect texture. Disciples of the pit have debated these questions as heatedly as any clerics ever argued over how many angels can dance on the head of a pin.

At Calvin's BBQ, the new Logan Square barbecue joint from Calvin Woods, proprietor of Smokin' Woody's in North Center, the wood is hickory, the sauce is tangy and the meat worthy of worship is the pulled pork.

"That spends 18 hours in the oven," says Ted Roombos, Woods' partner in Calvin's. "Then we pull it by hand."

The meat gets a rub of savory spices before going into the smoker. Care shows in every bite of the tender, succulent strands of pork, redolent of smoke and lavished with Woods' thick, piquant, tomato-based sauce.

The zesty sauce is made off the premises to the restaurant's specifications, says Roombos, who notes that the two diminutive establishments go through 180 gallons every two weeks. (They do apply it over-generously, though, and I recommend requesting a lighter hand with the sauce or a serving on the side.)

The new Calvin's is slightly larger than Smokin' Woody's, seating 20 or so inside with a few more tables outside, although it's no fancier - expect just the basics. Prices run a bit lower here, though, and there's a small adjoining parking lot. Combined with easier access from the Kennedy Expressway, that makes this place a better barbecue destination for suburban barbecue devotees than Woods' original.

The menus are fairly similar and both restaurants use the same recipes, though each cooks its own food. Like Smokin' Woody's, Calvin's offers several smoked meats, and while none of the others reaches the heights of the pulled pork, they're quite good - excellent by the standards of North Side barbecue, if not at the top of citywide rankings.

The nicely smoky baby back ribs fall just short of perfect texture according to the Church of Chewy doctrine to which I adhere; the beautifully pink-tinged meat pulls just a bit too cleanly from the bone. I prefer a little more fight. (Those who bow at the altar of fall-off-the-bone, eat-with-a-fork, however, should attend services elsewhere.)

The chicken, on the other hand, strays a tad too far into chewiness, bordering on tough. It has a good, crisp skin and fine flavor but feels a trifle dry. I love the beef brisket's moist, fork-tender texture - it almost melts in your mouth - but I'd like to taste more smoke. (And while I'm not a partisan of Texas-style beef barbecue, an altogether drier type, members of that cult will think Calvin's beef stems from a separate sect, closer to Bubbe's brisket than Bubba's.)

The turkey, meanwhile, mixes things up: pieces cut from the outside have good smokiness but tend to be dry; juicy center slices seem bland. Fortunately, it comes all mixed up together and the sauce evens things out.

Other items include rib tips, center-cut pork and a jumbo turkey leg.

Calvin's offers a variety of options for ordering its smoked meats - as sandwiches (discounted at lunch on weekdays), platters or combos. All come with lightly creamy coleslaw and your choice of crinkle-cut fries, redskin "Calvin's Potatoes" or potato salad. Full dinners get a mixed house salad as well. For a $1.50 upcharge, you can get a baked sweet potato or sweet-potato fries. Go with the baked - the skin-on fries are limp.

You can also buy smoked meat by the pound.

Beyond barbecue, there's house-battered fried chicken, which can be doused in barbecue sauce if you like; fried shrimp and catfish; burgers; a few other sandwiches; a New York strip steak; and a few entree-sized salads. The restaurant's just introduced daily lunch specials and plans to add some "down-home" specials like meatloaf at dinner soon, according to Roombos.

On the side, try the jalapeno cheese cornbread, full of corn flavor with just enough zip. I'd like this even better if it were served warm and crusty instead of in a plastic clamshell. The house-made mac and cheese seems like it's been styled as a dish for kids: soft, goopy and bland. (The actual kids' menu offers items such as chicken nuggets, a cheeseburger, barbecue spaghetti and fries.) Breaded fried okra starts out frozen, but it's nevertheless crisp and fresh tasting, served with ranch dressing for dipping.

Beverages come in cans or bottles from a cooler near the counter or you can bring your own beer or wine.

The desserts are house-made, but nothing to sing about. You'd do better to stop in for a sundae at Margie's Candies down the street.

As for the service, you may have to be a bit patient, but considering that most of the high-church barbecue places in town don't even offer table service, it's no real sacrifice.

Whoever said religion was supposed to be easy?

Calvin's BBQ

2540 W. Armitage Ave., Chicago, (773) 342-5100, www.calvinsbbq.com


Hickory-smoked barbecue



Price range:

Soups, salads and sides $1 to $7.95; sandwiches $4.95 to $6.50; entrees $6.50 to $15.95


11:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday to Thursday; 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday; noon to 9 p.m. Sunday


Major credit cards


Limited free parking; BYOB

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