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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
2055 W. Howard St., Chicago,
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
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
Accepts: Major credit cards
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