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Chicago BBQ Research Trip–Southside Edition

The research for Black Smoke, my forthcoming book on African American barbecue culture, is underway! I took my first trip to Chicago, and explored the city’s south side. That area has been predominantly African American for several decades. 

Saturday, July 21st

Most barbecue joints on Chicago’s south side are takeout joints. So, I decided to rent out a room at the Calumet Park Recreation Center where my cousin Jonathan Shaw is the director. Here’s what we sampled:

I’m grateful to the friends and family who joined me to that day to sample and talk barbecue. I learned a lot!

My Chicago BBQ Tasting Party

Aftewards, local food writer Mike Gebert offered to take me to the legendary Lem’s Bar-B-Q.

Lem’s Bar-B-Q

Of course, we followed the locals advice, and ate ‘cue out of the back of his car. The other option was to eat it on the car’s hood.

Later that night, I needed to hit a spot that balanced out what I ate earlier in the day. I went to Majani’s, a vegan soul food restaurant, that had a vegan barbecue option:

The barbecue cauliflower was tasty, reminded me of sweet and sour vegetables served at a Chinese restaurant.

Sunday, July 22nd

I had a full day going to church and visiting relatives, so I only hit one spot . . . the famous Leon’s BBQ and Grill. This place is so beloved that after it closed a few years ago, Denzel Washington’s public pining reportedly convinced the cooks to come out of retirement. Catch the recap here.

Monday, July 23rd

I purposefully got an evening flight so that I may hit a few more spots before heading back to Denver. Here’s what I got:

My general observations about Chicago south side barbecue based on the places that I sampled:

  • A rib tip and hot link combo is this area’s archetypal barbecue. 
  • Fries and white bread come with every order. Some speculate that early barbecue purveyors used both to soak up the grease and sauce.
  • The hot links aren’t really spicy. A surprise.
  • The typical sauce is a thin, sweet, tomato-based sauce.
  • Unless requested otherwise, the barbecue sauce is liberally applied over everything.
  • “Barbecue chicken” in Chicago is fried chicken drenched in barbecue sauce!
  • Not many side dishes and desserts on the menu.
  • The use of glass-encased aquarium smokers is prevalent. 
  • Turkey is a consistent menu option.

The restaurants I mention:

The best things that I ate on this trip:

  • Haire’s seasoned shrimp.
  • Lem’s rib tips.
  • Leon’s rib tips.
  • Majani’s sweet potato rolls. 
  • Q’s Tips & Wings turkey tips.
  • Uncle John’s jerk-seasoned rib tips.
  • Sunny’s rib tips.

Farewell, Chicago! I had a blast on this trip, and y’all have some great barbecue on the south side of your city. I look forward to exploring other parts of town. 

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