From Fat Willy's and Smoque on the North Side to Barbara Ann's and Uncle John's down south, Chicagoans have plenty of choices when it comes to slow-smoked ribs, brisket and chicken. But then I got a call from my new Lake County bureau chief, Burt, praising the barbeque at Big Ed's in North Chicago. Ever since then, I've been looking for any excuse to drive back up there and eat my way through the menu.
Typically, pitmasters are either born into the business, or must apprentice at the side of a pro. In Eddie Nero's case, corporate downsizing combined with his life-long passion for great barbeque, led him and his family to open up Big Ed's Barbeque in North Chicago, near the Great Lakes Naval Station.
"I love to cook. Always wanted to get into the restaurant business, and after being laid off from a job for a number of years, we decided that we would pursue our dreams," said Eddie Nero, owner of Big Ed's BBQ.
There are no baby backs here, just thick, meaty spareribs, which he trims himself, then sprinkles with a homemade dry rub, making sure it sits overnight. Next day, they go into his South Side Aquarium-style smoker for up to three hours. Nero constantly feeds the smoker with hickory wood that's been soaked in water, managing the fire, keeping the flames in check. He proudly shows off his 15-hour smoked pork shoulders, juicy sliced brisket and addictive tips.
Extra trimmings from those ribs go into the homemade hot links, which are just fatty enough, and pack a whollop of meaty, porky texture.
Sauce is also a point-of-pride: Nero says he's trying to replicate the flavor balance he had as a kid.
"I grew up on the South Side of Chicago. I've been to Kansas City, I haven't gone to Memphis so I really can't compare it; it's what I remember barbeque being on the South Side of Chicago," Nero said.
Sides are also worth bragging about: mac and cheese made with heavy cream and multiple cheeses; vinegary collards embedded with smoked turkey and ground beef-studded baked beans that are simultaneously sweet and smokey.
Desserts are clearly not an afterthought: the moist pound cake is world-class, the German chocolate is a revelation and the "bumpy" cake a sweet surprise.
"We take a chocolate cake, once it comes out of the oven; we poke holes throughout the entire cake and then we take a warm, walnut confectioner's frosting, pour it over the top and it just kind of drinks into the cake," said Nero.
Nero says there isn't a whole lot of competition in Lake County but that doesn't keep him and his family from striving to make the best barbeque possible.
"I think because there's not a lot of BBQ in this area and we only know how to do it a certain way and we believe in quality," Nero said.
Best to call ahead, just to make sure they haven't run out of anything. You'll be sorry if you don't try the pound cake, by the way.
Big Ed's BBQ
2501 N. Martin Luther King Dr., North Chicago