Where to eat, drink in Chicago

Friday June 30th, 2017

Heading to Chicago soon? Trying to figure out the best places to eat? Whether you’re looking for pork jowl underneath a fried duck egg or spare ribs that could fit right in down in Memphis, we’ve got you covered right here with a list of the tastiest destinations to hit while you’re in town. 

The Purple Pig

500 N Michigan Ave, Chicago, IL 60611
This review of The Purple Pig originally appeared July 26, 2012. 

Even when I’ve eaten whole hog barbecue, I haven’t really eaten the whole hog. Sure, I’ve eaten snout at Petty’s in Starkville, Miss., but most of my swine dining has come from the popular cuts. On a visit to Chicago, I set out to change that.

The Purple Pig wastes none of the noble animal for which the restaurant is named. Pork neck bones are refilled with marrow to be spread on bread. When they have them, they serve the ears. Alas, ears did not make the menu for my visit. Tail did. So did jowl. So did the thymus glands, better known as sweetbreads.

The Purple Pig serves small plates, so the volume didn’t shock the bartender too much when I asked for tail, jowl and sweetbreads along with an order of broccoli with roasted garlic and Anchovy vinaigrette. She was a bit taken aback by the specificity of my requests. After all, the place serves a mouth-watering turkey leg confit, Wagyu beef tips and a host of other meaty delights. But I wanted pig, and I didn’t want the pieces of the pig they sell at my local grocery store.

I’m not sure why I expected an exotic flavor from the tail. At the end of the day, pork tastes like pork. Tail meat is similar in taste and texture to pork belly, but what makes the tail at the Purple Pig special is the pool of braising liquid that soaks up all the best bits from the tail as it cooks. At first, I wondered why the server brought me a spoon. After a bite, I understood. Every taste bud on my tongue begged, but it simply isn’t socially acceptable to chug braising liquid in mixed company. Fortunately, the spoon allowed me to scrape up every last drop without getting escorted to the door.

Next came the jowl, which arrived underneath a fried duck egg. The duck egg tasted spectacular on its own, but the jowl tasted like the best piece at a pig-picking. Crispy skin covered moist, tender meat. I had to remind myself to take smaller bites. Otherwise, the entire thing would have disappeared in 10 seconds.

My tour of porcine anatomy concluded with the sweetbreads, which are neither sweet nor bread, served with fennel and a dollop of pureed apricot. Sweetbreads seems a perfectly appetizing name, but it fails in every way as an accurate descriptor. Endocrine nuggets describe the dish better, but that probably wouldn’t inspire many diners to order it. If I ever run a restaurant that serves sweetbreads, I shall call them Glandular Flavor Bombs. The trick? Making them explode on the palate the way The Purple Pig does.

The wallet probably can’t take too many exotic pig parts. All that with a quartino of Chianti ran me about $60 before tip. I’ll return to the world of pulled shoulder meat and spare ribs, but I’ll know the truth. The whole damn thing tastes incredible.

Smoque

3800 N Pulaski Rd, Chicago, IL 60641
This review of Smoque originally appeared June 13, 2012. 

Unwritten rules permeate barbecue culture like post oak smoke permeates a hunk of brisket. Don’t drown the meat in sauce. Use spare ribs instead of babybacks. Never sacrifice attention to the meat for attention to side dishes. Everyone seems to know these rules, but they rarely get codified. The proprietors of Smoque have done just that, issuing a manifesto that records some of these rules while also explaining to Midwesterners unfamiliar with real barbecue exactly why following those rules produces such delicious results.

So does Smoque practice what it preaches? On a breezy night, I loaded down a platter for a test.

"They try to breathe new life into dry, tasteless meat by dousing it with an overpowering BBQ sauce—a shameful practice that we like to call artificial resaucitation. … Well, we won’t do it. No sir." —Smoque on sauce

I might have to borrow “artificial resaucitation” to use later. That’s a fine way of describing a despicable practice. Smoque serves its ribs sauceless, and the brisket has only a light coating. Servers provide extra sauce in plastic cups so diners can choose the proper of amount of the tomato-based mix with a vinegar kick. The pulled pork was a little too drenched for my tastes, so the pitmasters may want to dial back the sauce in that particular discipline. I prefer to choose my own sauce adventure, and if the meat is cooked as well as it is at Smoque, I might elect to forge ahead without accouterment.

"In much of Chicago, we realize, it’s all about baby backs. But in almost every one of America’s BBQ towns, spare ribs rule." —Smoque on the great rib debate

This told me all I needed to know when I had to choose between Smoque’s spare ribs and babybacks. I read it this way: We understand people in Chicago like baby backs, but baby backs are a lousy barbecue cut because they lack the fat required for a long smoke. So order the spare ribs.

Even though it's located in Chicago, Smoque would succeed in any of America's barbecue capitals.
Andy Staples

Smoque uses spare ribs trimmed St. Louis-style for dainty diners afraid of eating around a little knuckle. The sweet and savory rub doesn’t overpower the meat, but it marries with the pork so well that, without sauce, Smoque ribs wouldn’t seem the least bit out of place in Memphis. Smoque correctly eschews fall-off-the-bone for the gentle-tug texture.

"OK, we admit it. It wasn’t that long ago that we didn’t really get brisket. Every brisket we tried was dry, tough, or tasteless—often all three. But in Texas, brisket is the stuff of legend. So for the sake of completeness, and so as not to anger a very large Texan friend of ours, we sent an expedition down to Austin’s BBQ belt to see what the big deal was." —Smoque on brisket

The proprietors of Smoque must have found some sort of brisket Holy Grail in Austin—maybe at Franklin Barbecue?—because they get brisket now. The brisket was by far the best of the three meats on my plate. In Texas, the portion I was served would have been called “lean” brisket. The lean typically is drier and packs less flavor than the fatty section. But the brisket I had at Smoque was every bit as juicy and rich as a fatty portion without the fat. (Probably because it had completely rendered into the meat during cooking. Every pitmaster aspires to do this, but it’s especially difficult with brisket.)

If you aren’t as carnivorous as me and only plan on ordering only one meat at Smoque, make it the brisket.

"One thing that always puzzled us about BBQ restaurants: the sides. Side dishes should complement good BBQ and set it off by means of contrast. But more often than not, they seem like an afterthought. Not here." —Smoque on sides

I’m glad someone else noticed this. Some of the most legendary barbecue spots have terrible sides. A place with a two-hour line for brisket will glop a pile of bland baked beans next to the meat and call it a meal. While the sides should never detract from the meat, they should require a little effort. If not, why serve them at all?

I’m not a fan of Smoque’s saucy take on macaroni and cheese. I prefer my mac and cheese to be near solid because I’m weird, and my nostalgia for the way the deli at the Winn Dixie at Mile Marker 100 in Key Largo, Fla., made mac and cheese during my elementary school years continues to inform my tastes despite my best efforts to be open minded. That said, I appreciated the effort. It’s obvious great care goes into the mac and cheese at Smoque, and if a little runny is your preferred style, you’ll be in heaven. The brisket chili, meanwhile, deserves to be an entrée. The thick mixture of brisket and peppers explodes on the palate, and it blows away anything in the baked beans-cole slaw-potato salad triumvirate that infests the menu at most joints.

Between the brisket and the brisket chili, it’s quite clear the folks at Smoque can back up the bravado contained within their manifesto. The fact that they pull it off so far above the Mason-Dixon line is even more impressive. Most Chicagoans may not have much basis for comparison, but they’re lucky to have a joint that would clean up in any of America’s barbecue capitals. 

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