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Friday, Dec. 9, 2005 DINING  

Rogers Park BBQ joint small, but packs a wallop

Posted Thursday, December 08, 2005

It can be frustrating to follow the smoky way in the Chicago area.

Barbecue, as I’ve written before, is a religious issue. Adherents of leathery Texas barbecued beef brisket, gamey Western Kentucky barbecued mutton or vinegary eastern North Carolina barbecued whole hogs may well have less in common than Muslims, Jews and Christians, who at least agree on a single deity. In Chicago, the baby back pork rib reigns over two sects: the more populous Fall-Off-the-Bone and — my creed — the select, Slow-Smoked and Chewy.

The latter branch of barbecue hasn’t been winning converts locally. Its seekers often must travel to distant neighborhoods to find their Mecca. So few Chicago restaurants devote the time and care necessary to create good, wood-smoked barbecue. So many — American Smokehouse in Lake Zurich, Bone Daddy in Chicago’s West Town, Uncle Mel’s in Evanston and Bones in Lincolnwood among them — have fallen by the wayside.

But, hallelujah! there is Bar-B-Que Bob’s. Bob’s, in Chicago’s far-north Rogers Park neighborhood, bordering Evanston, is much smaller than the bygone barbecue cathedrals — it’s not much beyond a carryout counter and a few tables. It’s not especially easy to get to. Yet as far as I’m concerned, this tiny spot is Chicago’s top temple of barbecue.

Bob Dunlap — call him the high priest — and his family brought their meaty magic from Merrillville, Ind., a year ago, and their ribs merit worship: fragrant, smoky, succulent and finely textured baby backs you can get your teeth into, each with that pink-tinged ring testifying to slow smoking with real wood, in this case hickory.

Once smoked, the toothsome whole or half slabs get a light anointing with Bob’s zesty, allspice-infused sauce and a brief caramelizing on the grill before serving. I think they’re perfect as they come, but a container of the sauce — faintly sweet, tangy and not too thick — comes alongside for those who prefer a wetter style.

Bob’s isn’t mono-rib-theistic, though. Besides baby backs, Saint Louis-style spare ribs (whole slabs only) and beef ribs are also usually available. Bob’s rib tips are meatier than many, with the same great flavor.

A pantheon of other good things fills out the menu. I find it hard to stray from the baby backs, but Bob recently began offering a heavenly brisket sandwich, filled with thick, tender, flavorful slices of smoky beef; ambrosial, crunchy charred ends; and a little of that zippy sauce, if you like.

The meat of the pulled-pork sandwich, served on a hamburger-style bun, seems a bit too finely shredded for perfection. The flavor’s fine, though, and the texture will satisfy unconverted Fall-Off-the-Bone devotees. A similar pulled-beef sandwich is also featured.

Moist, meaty, barbecued whole or half chickens, imbued with smoky goodness, provide another option. You can also get smoked turkey legs and wings. (At Christmastime, Bob’s will offer whole smoked turkeys, too; call ahead to order.)

There’s a powerhouse of a hot link, with spicy, coarsely ground pork packed into a snappy natural casing. A bargain “snack pack” offers half a link with a smaller order of rib tips, fries, cole slaw and the requisite squishy white bread. Bob’s offers beef hot links, too, and sausage lovers can also opt for a grilled Maxwell Street Polish.

Don’t overlook the sides. Most sandwiches and dinners come with nicely cooked crinkle-cut fries, but Mrs. Dunlap’s turnip greens, flavored with bits of ham and a touch of pepper, make a terrific accompaniment. Big cornbread muffins are made to Southern tastes, with lots of corn flavor and little sweetening. The only thing I haven’t liked is the rather bland macaroni and cheese, which is gloppy with oversoft noodles.

Save room for dessert. There are two house options, both divine: tart and creamy lemon cheese pie with a graham-cracker crust, and luscious sweet-potato pie, smooth and not cloying, flavored with brown sugar and a little lemon, in flaky pastry. (The Goodman Theatre served Bob’s sweet-potato pie on stage during every performance of its fall musical, “Purlie.”) You can buy a slice or — a real temptation — a whole pie.

Bottled soft drinks are the only beverages.

You don’t have to tithe to eat here. Only full slabs of ribs and the largest order of rib tips cost more than $10, and portions are ample. It’s well worth the gas money to drive in from the suburbs.

Conditions are pristine but spartan. Mainly a carryout operation, Bob’s offers three 6-foot folding tables set with bridge chairs for those who wish to partake on the premises. Photos of the Chicago skyline, Martin Luther King Jr., Muhammad Ali and The Sopranos, and light wood half-paneling adorn the otherwise plain space.

Having discovered this barbecue nirvana, I was horrified to arrive there the other day and find the doors locked at 8:30 p.m., though the telephone recording still said closing time was 10 p.m. Reached later by phone, Dunlap explained that things have been somewhat slow since wintery weather’s arrived, so they’ve been shutting earlier when there’s little business.

Don’t let such sacrilege continue. Get over there and you’ll soon be singing Bar-B-Que Bob’s praises and trying to round up converts, too. This barbecue must be saved!

• Restaurant reviews are based on one anonymous visit. Our aim is to describe the overall dining experience while guiding the reader toward the menu’s strengths. The Daily Herald does not publish reviews of restaurants it cannot recommend.

Bar-B-Que Bob’s

Howard-Hoyne Plaza,

2055 W. Howard St., Chicago,

(773) 761-1260

Cuisine: Revelatory hickory-smoked barbecue

Setting: Clean, bright, counter-service storefront in Rogers Park

Price range: Entrees $4 to $17; sandwiches $3.50 to $5.50; desserts $2 to $2.25

Hours: Opens daily at 11 a.m.; closing time, in theory 10 p.m. (6 p.m. Sundays), is somewhat variable in winter; call before heading there in the evening

Accepts: Major credit cards

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