Our party of four — my wife, our son, his girlfriend and me — dine standing in the parking lot of Leon’s BBQ, a small takeout joint on Chicago’s South Side. We’ve been cautioned that the neighborhood is dicey and advised to eat our barbecue elsewhere, at a park, say, or even back at our hotel.
Delay gratification? Not a chance. The wood-smoked aroma is too seductive, the glistening meat too alluring.
We set the plastic foam boxes heaping with fat-finger-size pork nuggets on the car hood and in a blur of hands dig into the pile of rib tips. The juicy morsels pull easily from the bone — from the cartilage, actually — exploding with flavor, messy with a mildly spicy sauce. The tips are mounded on a bed of french fries, as is the Chicago way, and there are a couple of slices of white sandwich bread for mopping up the glorious mess.
Leon’s is the first stop on our moveable barbecue feast through the self-described Second City. The inferiority complex implied by that term is deserved when it comes to barbecue. Smoked-meat aficionados generally acknowledge four barbecue capitals: Memphis, Kansas City, Texas and North Carolina. Chicago is, at best, what you might call the Fifth Beatle. Which is to say, a player that no one remembers.
But Chicago has long enjoyed a distinctive and lively barbecue scene, as one might expect from a city that poet Carl Sandburg called “hog butcher for the world.” As with the city’s fabled blues, barbecue rode the wave of the second Great Migration of African Americans from the rural South who arrived in the 1940s to find work in factories going full-tilt for the war effort. They settled mostly on the south and west sides and brought their taste for barbecue with them.
In the South, they cooked on open pits. In Chicago, codes required that commercial cooking fires be contained, which led to the creation of the aquarium pit. It has a rectangular metal base with tempered glass on top; sliding doors allow pitmen to reach inside to adjust the meats. The cooking fuel includes wood, charcoal or a combination of the two. The burning wood is directly beneath the meat, about three feet from the grate. A water hose is typically attached to the side of the pit. Pitmen spritz water on the fire from time to time to keep the fuel just above a smolder.
The pits are practically museum pieces. Like other cities nationwide, Chicago has caught barbecue fever. New restaurants such as Smoque, Lillie’s Q, Chicago qand the Pork Shoppe have opened in the past five years, typically serving a region-hopping menu of pork ribs, beef brisket, sausage and pulled pork, with regional sauces to match, and cooked in wood-enhanced gas ovens. Even Weber, the famous grill manufacturer, headquartered about an hour from Chicago in Palatine, Ill., has opened a restaurant, called — what else — the Weber Grill Restaurant. (For yet more Chicago barbecue cred, it was a Weber’s employee, George Stephen, who, in 1952, cut a metal buoy in half to create the first kettle grill.)