Our Hungry Hound says Chicago is split in half when it comes to barbecue preferences, with brisket and pulled pork on the North Side; rib tips and hot links to the South. So he's tasting both this weekend. He begins down south in Homewood.
I spent a week, re-visiting several of the big names: Lem's on 75th Street, Leon's - both the one on East 106th, as well as the newer one on East 63rd - and all I found was disappointment. Overcooked tips and links; artificial-tasting sauce.
But then I made the trek to Homewood, where the family behind Uncle John's is carrying on an important South Side tradition, and most importantly, keeping an eye on the product.
Garry Kennebrew, Sr., works his aquarium-style smoker like a violinist plays a fiddle. Called a "pit" on the South Side, these massive, clear-sided smokers allow pitmasters to place the beef and pork directly over the flame. The key is knowing when to hose that flame down.
"Hands-on experience, more or less. This is not something you can go to school for necessarily, but I had a good teacher in Mac Sevier, the original Uncle John," said Kennebrew. "The tip and link is the bread and butter of our business."
Chopped into bite-sized pieces, the tips reveal their perfect smoke ring, the sign of a pitmaster who is paying attention.
"Tedious if you will, you have to watch the time and temperature more. If you overcook it, it's going to get brittle and hard, and you undercook it's going to be chewy and tough, so over time you get a feel for the balance," he said. "Just kind of by feel. There's no scientific method to it."
The hot links are made by a local packing company, then smoked on the upper tier first, before getting finished in the fryer, just to crisp-up the outside.
Orders are typically served all the same way, whether you get it to-go or to dine-in.
That means sauce poured over everything, including the french fries beneath it, then a few slices of white bread, all wrapped in wax paper. Kennebrew says most of his customers love the sauce.
"Some folks call back because they didn't get enough sauce on it. The connoisseurs, if you will, are the ones that like the flavor of the meat, like the smoke. So they're the ones we call the dippers," said Kennebrew.
In Steve's Extra Course video, he talks about the restaurant's other notable items, like smoked baby back ribs and fried chicken wings.
Uncle John's BBQ
17947 S Halsted St, Homewood