Saturday, June 9, 2007
"Hey. Hey wait a second"
Engaged in conversation we turned around wondering who could be yelling at us to stop. The neighborhood, basically Pulaski and Addison, was fine so it was unlikely some fiend was after us, but just the same one never knows.
"Hey, I hear you're doing a bar be que tour!" the voice said as it caught up to us.
For this, we turned around to see none other than one of the partners of Smoque, a newish bar be que joint located on Chicago's northside.
"Yup, not sure when I'm leaving, but we're definitely going" I said.
"And get this", one of my dining companions piped in, "his daughter actually requested the trip!"
"Unbelievable, you're a lucky man".
And so, there on the sidewalk on Chicago's north side, four aficionados of the art of smoking meat spent the next 20 minutes trading stories, bar be que thoughts, and most importantly for me, recommended stops in Texas for the best in beef brisket.
Such is the passion, of the proprietors of Smoque. Despite more than one request by the staff to come back inside and help serve the crowd, our new found friend stayed with us, because when it comes to bar be que, fellow travelers take care of each other.
You can read it all in the four page manifesto on Smoque's website of course, but even then you only get a taste of the passion these boys have for their art. I was particularly interested in their Texas recommendations because, like them, I for a long time did not "get" beef brisket. And like the boys at Smoque, I dedicated myself to exploring this exotic side of bar be que because, I figured, if an entire state is dedicated to the dish, well then, there must be something there. While I limited my investigation to the repetitive smoking of countless briskets, the boys at Smoque did me one better.
They went to the motherland and ate. To hear them tell the story one gets the sense that this must have been some kind of trip. "We drove thirty miles one way for brisket and then sixty miles back the other way for more!" I'm told. Over the course of 3 days, 15 to 16 joynts were visited. When I ask for some must stops I'm told to "go to Austin", and then once there try Mikeska Bar be Que in Taylor, and Louie Muellers'. "Kruez, which we've all heard so much about, isn't all that good" is another thought.
So between my buddy Scott, and the boys at Smoque, I think I"m beginning to zero in on some very nice Texas based targets for the Pursuit Bar be Que Tour.
But what about the que at Smoque?
In a word, it is very good. Ok, that is two words but you get the idea.
The trip to Smoque began like any other. I left the office about 6pm and drove down Pulaski looking for the place. Oddly, in spite of the fact that I was looking at odd numbers (Smoque is at 3800 North Pulaski) it never registered that I was watching the wrong side of the street! For most restaurants this might have caused me to zoom right by, but of course this wasn't the case with Smoque. As I drove within a block or two of the place, the scent of burning wood began to play on my senses and I knew that I was in the right area. Realizing I was looking at the wrong side of the street, I turned my head and saw Smoque; a smallish brick building next too an auto repair place. I pulled into the lot (there was also plenty of street parking) and went inside.
The restaurant is small - no more than 20 tables. The way the deal works is that you go up to the counter place your order and then pick out a table. On the night we were there, there was a small line to the counter and all the tables were full. Happily, one of Smoque's partners was out front and came over to take our name.
"Nice bottle of wine you have there" he said noticing our 2003 Ridge Lytton Springs. "I'll take your name and then when a table opens get you seated before your order is up". True to his word, our table was ready in about 5 minutes. "Stem ware is over by the pop machine" he said pointing to the soda cups that other diners were loading with ice and pop. We all had a chuckle and took our seats. Our order was ready in about 3 more minutes.
When our que arrived, it was just as we had ordered; Pulled pork, sliced brisket, a half slab of baby back ribs, and a half slab of St. Louis ribs - each served with a different sauce. Our sides were some fabulous baked beans, corn bread, and mac cheese.
The pulled pork was very good. The smoke was just right and the pork was very tender. The good folks at Smoque paid attention to detail as well, making sure that my order contained a well balanced mix of crusty outside meat, and moist inside meat. The combination melted in my mouth, providing a sensory experience that every bar be que fan has come to know and love. Looking for a quibble, I might say the pork was a tad mushy, but this, as I said is just a quibble. After our meal was done, I went back and ordered a second batch.
Oddly, the brisket, which Smoque's manifesto says was the last addition to their repertoire, was in my view, their best dish. Unbelievably tender, with excellent smoke and a wonderful sauce, I really enjoyed the brisket and thought about ordering another batch of that as well. One of my pieces was a tad on the fatty side, but all of it was so tender - it parted at the sight of my fork - and so flavorful that I highly recommend you order it if you have a chance to go.
The ribs we quite good too. A nice rub was present on the crust, and the meat, while coming of the bone with minimal effort, had lost none of its flavor or texture. Inferior joynts never seem to learn this important lesson and do awful, criminal things to meat in order to achieve the over rated "falling off the bone status". Make no mistake, the boys at Smoque have not fallen for this ruse, and I would bet that they would agree that such people should be locked up for their crimes.
The sides were generally good. Cornbread was tasty and the mac cheese had a terrific cheddar flavor, but suffered a bit from being too grainy. The beans, however, were out of this world. Cooked in the smoker, at first taste they reveal a very sweet flavor that is then overtaken by a nice smoke and vinegar taste that leaves you wanting another spoonful immediately.
All in all I recommend Smoque as one of Chicago's finest. Knowledgeable diners will know that such a recommendation can be viewed as a sort of best hockey player in Ecuador kind of rating, since truly fine que is difficult to find in our wunnerful city. I intend no such slight, so allow me to be clear.
Go to Smoque. It is a very good example of the wonders that passionate pit masters can do when they set out to combine meat, smoke and spice with the added ingredient of patience in the pit.