I KNEW IT WAS DANIEL VAUGHN walking down the street, because even given the crowd walking into Green Street Smoked Meats at 11:30 am, which strongly favored the middle-aged white guy, it seemed likely that only Vaughn would already have leftovers in his hand on his way to lunch.

As it turned out they weren’t leftovers, but a welcoming gift of Beaver’s doughnuts (which my son would be most grateful for a few hours later). He had just been to Fumare in the French Market to try their Montreal-style smoked meat, after a breakfast at Dove’s Luncheonette of an oversized brisket taco. Now it was time for serious eating. We greeted each other, he took a couple of quick phone snaps of Green Street’s sign—and we went inside.

Daniel Vaughn, clearly liking the look of the menu.

Daniel Vaughn, clearly liking the look of the menu at Green Street Smoked Meats.

Vaughn holds the unique title of Barbecue Editor at the one publication that puts barbecue on the same level as something truly important, like high school football: Texas Monthly. He popped into Chicago for two days to visit an old friend, and spent most of the first day hitting a well-chosen assortment of north side barbecue spots, starting with Smoque—as he said, “People ask me where to go for barbecue in Chicago, I needed to make sure it was still the best and that people from Texas would think it was good.” He also visited Smalls, Lillie’s Q, The Pork Shoppe, Rub BBQ and others, along with a few non-barbecue ringers (when he spotted Small Cheval on his way to somewhere else, he figured he better stop in for a burger, too).

He wasn’t working any particular assignment on Chicago (though it is the Way of the Food Writer to find a use for anything you eat)—as he said, “I just like to keep up on the major barbecue regions every year or two.” Sigh… wouldn’t we all. Today, after trying north side barbecue, I was to be his tour guide (and chauffeur) to at least a couple of key South Side spots representing the very different style seen there.

 

BUT FIRST, GREEN STREET SMOKED MEATS, which aims to recreate the dingy, holy temples of long-burning meatsmoke in Texas that Vaughn chronicles in his book The Prophets of Smoked Meat. He was impressed by the array of options at Green Street—from brisket and ribs to pastrami and, most temptingly, some gorgeous looking fillets of salmon tinged toffee brown with smoke. I started out trying not to clue in the staff that either of us was a food writer, but we pretty much gave the game away by studying the menu like bomber pilots poring over target photos, and the chef behind the counter began asking Vaughn if he was “somebody.” Vaughn fessed up to doing “a little” writing about barbecue, without making a big deal of himself.

I noticed that a moment later, when they added a fourth rib to our order, it was neatly arranged on top of the other three, ready for picture-taking. “I take it for granted in any place where they stack the meat on butcher paper, that they’re going to know who I am,” Vaughn shrugged.

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The staff seemed admiring of our selections, which was, basically, a little bit of everything (except the vegetable sides—”If I took a picture of broccoli salad, no one would ever read me again”). I told him what I thought, which was that the brisket at Green Street was very good, while the ribs weren’t bad but the rub is too sweet for my taste. He agreed on both, especially praising the burnt ends (brisket), and our focus shifted to things that were new to both of us—the pastrami, which was good but at the far salty end for the genre, and especially the salmon, which was outstanding—a solid block of fishy smokiness that reminded me of the fantastic smoked fillets at the vintage Ted Peters fish shack in St. Petersburg, Florida. We agreed that it was the best thing here—”But if I told a barbecue place the best thing they did was salmon, they probably wouldn’t appreciate it. They’d probably be depressed,” he said.

Buzz 2

 

We also tried smoked chicken, as we would at every stop—more because readers want to know about chicken than because Vaughn has any great enthusiasm for it, I suspect. (Green Street’s was fine.) I told him I had just written about Mexican grilled chicken places but in the end, I couldn’t legitimately rank them—chicken is chicken, they were all pretty good. He agreed: “I did a list of like 127 places to get smoked turkey Texas, and it would have been insane to try to rank them.”

Taking pictures on the ping pong table of the attached coffee shop, which opens Saturday.

Taking pictures on the ping pong table of the attached coffee shop, Sawada Coffee, which opens Saturday.

From tasting we soon turned to barbecue philosophy. Vaughn had been admiring of the hulking black Oyler smoker at Green Street—”They make those a couple of miles from my house”—but he had mixed feelings about someone trying, so successfully on the whole, to replicate the Texas barbecue taste and atmosphere that he experiences every week. “A Texan coming here wouldn’t think he was having anything unusual. Anything uniquely Chicago. Nothing about this is a Chicago style,” he said.

“North side Chicago barbecue is guys who saw other barbecue regions on TV and decided they could do them here,” I agreed.

“Meanwhile, the real Chicago style is dying out,” he said.

“Maybe not dying. Holding on, at least,” I said.

“Why did Honey 1 have to move to the south side?” he asked, meaning the Bucktown barbecue spot, a foodie cult favorite, that recently relocated to 43rd street.

“I think it was a better opportunity for them,” I said. “They never quite caught on on the north side. Too many north siders couldn’t handle the authentic south side experience.”

He made a rhetorical shrug. “What’s wrong with authentic?” he asked.

 

I MADE A WHOLE DOCUMENTARY about South Side Chicago barbecue, but to sum up what the term means, it’s a specific style that grew out of the African-American south side’s proximity to the old stockyards. So it’s built on spareribs and rib tips, plentiful and cheap in the Hog Butcher of the World, and sausage (“hot links”), likewise plentiful and cheap in a city full of Germans and Eastern Europeans. The cooking method, unique to Chicago, builds live fire in a glass and steel pit known to BBQ buffs as an “aquarium smoker,” which came into existence here because the health inspectors favored a pit that could be taken apart and cleaned like any other piece of equipment. (No one cleans a vintage pit in Texas—they revere its accumulated grime like the bones of saints.) It may not be as heralded as the barbecue styles of Texas or Memphis, say, but it is a genuine regional style, that grew organically out of conditions here in the 1950s and 1960s—not from TV. Nothing against the latter, but it’s just not the same as a style developed in a particular area’s isolation.

Vaughn is no stranger to our style—he’d been to places like Uncle John’s BBQ and Lem’s on past trips—and with his flight home at 4:00 pm, he had settled on two spots relatively nearby. The first one we stopped at was the new location of Honey 1 BBQ, on 43rd street near Cottage Grove.

Talking to Robert Jr. and Robert Sr.

Talking to Robert Jr. and Robert Sr.

It was my first visit to the new location and the Robert Adamses, Sr, and Jr., greeted me like the prodigal diner, inviting us inside their handsome new shop to see their pride and joy—a massive 10-foot glass pit, newly made for the location by Belvin Metal in Chicago. “You couldn’t move your old one here?” Vaughn asked.

“It would have cost more to move it than to have a new one made,” Robert Sr. said. “It’s a true ten footer,” he added, which you could have guessed just by the fact that its massive fire kept the temperature inside the kitchen, even on this winter day, around 85 degrees. “Everything’s new,” he beamed.

“Except your chair,” Vaughn said, noting the desk chair, repaired in a couple of spots with duct tape, stationed by the smoker.

Buzz 2

 

“Oh no, not my chair,” Robert Sr. laughed. “I’m not giving up my chair. Take me ten years to get comfortable in a new one!”

He invited us closer to see how the meat was cooking. A row of fat rib tips—the part of the sparerib closest to the center, run through with cartilage rather than bone—was cooking beautifully on the bottom row, Robert Sr. occasionally opening the door to hose down the fire to keep them from burning. Honey 1 has always had the meatiest rib tips, and he and Vaughn got into a discussion of pork prices and why he paid more for a more satisfying tip—to both cook and eat.

Rib tips on the grill at Honey 1 BBQ.

Rib tips on the grill at Honey 1 BBQ.

No South Side barbecue restaurant has seating, and so a few minutes later we were making a makeshift photo studio and picnic table out of the back of my Prius, parked across the street. I waited tensely to hear the verdict as Vaughn worked his way through photographing the food. I like to think I’m a realist about what Chicago institutions will impress an out-of-towner, but I’d have been sad to hear that this didn’t measure up, because it sure seemed to me like Robert Sr. was on his game today. The tips were smoky but not so strong we’d be belching it later, juicy and meaty, and the ribs were even better.

Vaughn kept his poker face for a while, but after his third or fourth bite, a smile seemed to overtake him, and I knew he was a happy man. Honey 1 was as good as ever and good enough to please a visitor from the heart of barbecue country, Texas.

 

“IT DRIVES ME NUTS WHEN PEOPLE say things about a barbecue place like, ‘You better be packing if you’re going to go there,'” he said as we drove to our next stop, on 47th street. On a sunny day like this, the idea seemed especially ridiculous. “They’re just regular people running restaurants. Those guys couldn’t have been nicer.”

“Yeah. There might be places I wouldn’t go at 10 pm on Saturday night, but that’s true in any part of town. I’ve never been afraid to go in a barbecue place on the south side,” I said.

“But people won’t go this far south, is that it? Or they don’t even know that these places exist?” he said. “Kevin Pang said nobody in the media even wrote about the Uncle John’s guy when he passed away,” he said indignantly, as one might scold a culture for failing to note the passing of a great underappreciated artist.

“It’s better than it used to be,” I said. “Reviewers will review places on the south side now, thanks to places like EL Ideas. But still, a lot of places just don’t pay any attention to what’s here. That’s true all over the city—like when Big Star opened, there were articles that said finally, Wicker Park has tacos. There’s tacos all over Wicker Park! But people learn how to not see them.”

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We pulled up at the corner of 47th and Vincennes. If Uncle J’s sounds like Uncle John’s, there’s a good reason for that—it’s run by the stepdaughter and granddaughter of Mack Sevier, who was “Uncle John” (never did find out the story on that), whose place was often cited as the best BBQ place on the south side, but who passed away earlier this year.

Three different restaurants spun off of Uncle John’s; this was the one that was closest, so Vaughn could hit it and still make his flight. They weren’t allowed to use the name in full (someone else got those rights), but the inside had become a bit of a shrine to the late Mack, with signs of previous journalist traffic—an article by Pang was framed on the wall, while an image of Mack from my video was part of a photo collage next to the menu. The pit behind the bulletproof glass was the same one he’d used.*

Mack's granddaughter spontaneously posed in the bulletproof carousel.

Mack’s granddaughter spontaneously posed in the bulletproof carousel.

We ordered the same thing that we had ordered at Honey 1—some ribs, some tips, some links and some chicken. The links were especially prized at Uncle John’s—made to Mack’s specifications with a lot of sage, which gave them a more breakfast sausage-like taste than the typical Texas-Mississippi link.

We waited for our order. “You know, it’s interesting. The barbecue is already made,” Vaughn mused. “When you wait ten minutes for it, all you’re really waiting for is the fries.”

“The part we could care less about,” I said.

As we were waiting, he spotted turkey tips on the menu, and asked the woman behind the plexiglass what part of the turkey it was. She didn’t know. So we ordered that too.

When we got all our food, it turned out to be was smoked dark meat, so much of it that it was easily the heaviest styrofoam container I have ever handled. I expected it to buckle in my hand and spill. How was it? You know, it was turkey. Turkey, it’s no pork.

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We repeated dining, and photographing, out of my trunk. The tips were pretty good, though Honey 1’s were better; these were somehow more leathery on the outside, yet less smoky. The links on the other hand, great as ever, brought Vaughn back fond memories of his long-ago Uncle John’s visit.

As we were getting sauce all over our hands and faces, Mack’s stepdaughter, Ella Hughes, came out of the restaurant and asked us how we were enjoying it. Hot link in hand for emphasis, Vaughn expressed our appreciation. Then she asked what publication we were writing for (clearly, there’s no fooling anybody on 47th street), and I told her.

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“Well, I’m glad you’re enjoying it and I hope you’ll come back soon,” she said, as she went on her way.

I will, ma’am. I surely will. “We should start getting you to the airport,” I said to Vaughn.

He looked at his phone for the time. “You think we have time to swing by Lem’s?”

 

* Though not the same one as in my video, which burned about two weeks after I filmed him using it.


Michael Gebert is pitmaster of Fooditor.


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