I ride my bike to the windy city's hidden gems, lost goldmines, new kids on the block, and old standbys then tell you what to think and what to order. Check, czech, Česká it out...

Monday, April 4, 2011

Street (Food) Fight: Part 5, Pork Sweats

Fact: Barbecue is a religion.

Its church: the backyard and the neighborhood restaurant. Its holy spirit: smoke. Its mantra: "low and slow." Its sacrificial lamb: the pig and, to a smaller degree, the cow and chicken. Its god? Well barbecue's god is a spicy, sweet, vinegary, tangy and saucy Sauce.

Its Mecca? Barbecue has many and none of them are Chicago. You must go to Kansas City, the Carolinas, Memphis, St. Louis or Austin if you want to pay homage to the holiest/smokiest sites in the Union. But there is hope for the Second City in the form of small, intrepid little restaurants that take their Q seriously. On Sunday I pitted one of Chicago's brightest BBQ stars, Smoque, against a cheeky upstart; Pork Shoppe. Let the bloodsport begin!

The Criteria
Each restaurant was judged on three BBQ staples and the combined strength of three sides.
1. Pulled Pork- Classic barbecue fare. At its most basic this is pork shoulder smoked or pressure cooked to a tenderness that requires a minimal amount of chewing while still having the hutzpah to hold sauce and, possibly, cole slaw (if that's your fancy). It's hard to dry out pork shoulder, so moisture isn't usually a problem. The sauce should be light in body with enough acidity to cut through the fats (insert personal trainer/mean girl joke here).
2. Brisket- A wily bronco to lasso. Brisket is tough bitch of a meat naturally and can easily dry out during the cooking process and must therefore be monitored closely. A sauce with medium body and a decent amount of spice usually works best.
3. St. Louis Style Ribs- Baby back's bigger, meatier and more wallet-friendly counterpart. These bone-in bombs are a great place to show off the beautiful yet dangerous combination of dry-rub and sauce (preferably thick, sweet, and dark).
1. Baked Beans- Like barbecue, but in bean form. Don't overcook the beans, keep the sauce smoky (not too sweet), add a touch of pork (could be bacon, could be pork shoulder, I'm not picky) and you're pretty much golden.
2. Cole Slaw- I'm not the biggest slaw fan on the planet, it's true. When it comes to barbecue, it serves the all important dual purpose of palate cleanser and flavor/texture contraster. If it does these jobs, I'm more than happy to order it (just don't expect me to finish it).
3. Macaroni and Cheese- Like many of you, I could die a happy death as long as it involved macaroni and cheese in some way, shape, or form. In terms of working with BBQ, I'm not sure it does. I just like it. Don't think too much about it.

Staple Showdown
Pulled Pork
Pork Shoppe
Both joints served up very respectable renderings of this BBQ standard. Pork Shoppe's pork was moist, mild and springy. There was little smoke to the meat, and the cut was a bit on the short end. Smoque's version can only be summed up in one word: flawless. The meat was incredibly tender, juicy and was paired with a sweet, twangy sauce that kept this fatty meat from feeling heavy.
Edge: Smoque

Pork Shoppe
This meat shines a revealing light on the skill of the cook and the quality of ingredients used. Unfortunately for Pork Shoppe, what we saw wasn't gorgeous. The meat (though it possessed a nice smoky character) was dry, chewy and needed some serious sauce dumpage to save it from itself. Smoque's brisket was damn good. It was spicy, had good moisture content and was expertly paired with a sauce that had enough acidity and body to compliment the meat's many hidden qualities.
Edge: Smoque

Pork Shoppe
Pork Shoppe's ribs were marked by mild pork flavor, a good firm body, and a well seasoned dry rub. However, they were cooked unevenly resulting in some bites being scrumdiddlyumtious and others being tough and flavorless. Smoque's ribs were succulent, evenly cooked (maybe a bit too tender) and showed off an ideal balance of spicy dry rub and sticky-sweet-thick sauce. I loved them.
Edge: Smoque

War of Sides
the Smoque trio
Smoque: Smoque's sides just rolled up their sleeves and went to work. The macaroni was paired with a cheese that was sharp and piquant, a bold choice. The beans had a distinct onion character that I don't usually care for but didn't mind in this case. They were also smokey-sweet and were cooked to just the right firmness. The slaw was a vinegar bomb. This made it great for cutting through the thick layer of sauce that coated my mouth, but I don't think I'd eat this on its own.

Pork Shoppe mac up front,
beans singing backup
Pork Shoppe: I have to give big props to these guys for their sides. The beans were so porky I thought I heard them squeal and had an interesting curry note at the end that I didn't expect. The macaroni was salty (in a good way), mild and had a delightful balance of soft and crunchy texture. The slaw was crisp, creamy and had a ton of fruit character (pineapple and raisin) that made it a joy to eat. It didn't work as a palate cleanser but I didn't mind.

Edge: Pork Shoppe

that's a thumbs up
We boozed it up at Pork Shoppe in the form of a Durango, CO brewed blonde ale that was fruit forward and pleasantly malty. I also had a Makers on the rocks because it felt right. Both were really good with the barbecue. Smoque is BYOB and we didn't so instead we washed down our grub with Barq's (it has bite) and iced tea.

The Verdict
I'm no math savant but I'm pretty sure that winning 3 of the 4 categories means you win. Smoque was the favorite coming in and a winner coming out. They are very serious about their meats, very serious about their sauces (each dish is paired with its ideal sauce) and very serious about Guy Fieri (who is very serious about inventing new ways to be exclamatory). Simply put, they have their shit together when it comes to smoking, saucing and spicing meat. If I had a car I'd be there every weekend, but I don't so I'll have to save it for special occasions like full moons and shark week.

The Pork Shoppe is elemental. That's a great thing for a specialty restaurant to be. It serves barbecue, it serves beer and it serves Bourbon*. And it just so happens I love all three. I appreciate their gusto and their style but they lack the polish and focus of Smoque when it comes to their Q. It should also be mentioned that, unlike Smoque, they don't sauce their meat. Instead, they have three house made sauces (spicy, tangy and sweet) for your dipping, dumping or slurping pleasure (the favorite amongst our group was the tangy). This puts the control in your hands but also takes some of the cooking artistry out of their final presentation. 

*they also sell a concoction called a "bloody larry" which consists of Jack Daniels, coke and a spare rib
Pork Shoppe on Urbanspoon
Pork Shoppe
Smoque BBQ on Urbanspoon


  1. omg, I almost can't read your blog anymore because it always makes me soooooooooo hungry!

  2. a-thank you, lauren. but please, keep reading.

  3. Excuse me Mr. GBGB but I happen to loooooooooove Pork Shoppe and was sad to see them come in second :(.

    But I appreciate you calling attention to the obvious differences between Pork Shoppe and Smoque. HELLO: SOS makes a HUGE difference in taste, texture, and delight!

    I can't completely refute your claim that Smoque is better 3 to 4 until of course I try it for myself. So I guess in the end you win because BBQ from Smoque is what's for dinner… TONIGHT! :)

    Great Post!

  4. flowers, how did you like smoque?!