By Matt Taege
There is no sense trying to write a clever, captivating intro for our October meeting of BBQ Club at Irving Park’s own Smoque. The little cafeteria-style restaurant has its own manifesto, and tells you everything you need to know:
“Like clam chowder, pizza, or hot dogs, BBQ is a perennial subject of debate and controversy. People argue ingredients and techniques, make claims about the superiority of regional styles, and even dispute the meaning of BBQ itself. Strong opinions about BBQ are firmly rooted in the passion of its devotees—and we wouldn’t have it any other way. Just think how bland and diluted a world this would be if everything was designed for mass appeal or to achieve consensus. We’re no different from our fellow BBQ fans. While we think that there is validity and merit to a lot of opinions, we have a pretty strong take on BBQ ourselves, which we’re happy to share with you.”
For the first time since forming our club, it was flat-out cold, so we put on a few extra layers of clothes and brought some nice beers from home to warm ourselves while we stuffed ourselves once more.
MEAT (20 points possible): As a quick reminder, the meat category is broken down into variety, flavor, and smokiness. Each judge can make those components count however he or she sees fit. Despite taking over as top dog in September, Fat Willy’s was distinctly lacking in the smokiness department. But Smoque lived up to its namesake with strong flavors from the oak and applewood smoking process. As for variety, they offer as many choices as any other with brisket, pulled pork, sausage (hot links), and both baby back and St. Louis style spare ribs. The flavors were some of the best we had as the tender meat melted in our mouths. The brisket won high marks on the night, though perhaps a bit dry. The baby back ribs were favored over the St. Louis style by most in our group. As usual, the sausage received some praise but was not a star compared to the other meats. The pulled pork had a smoky, charred crust that kept the meat juicy and flavorful. In retrospect, I think Smoque tends to smoke their meats lower and slower than anywhere else we have been so far. There was not much fat left on the brisket and ribs as we’ve seen previously. Nevertheless, the tenderness of the cuts didn’t suffer, so I would say the staff at Smoque has the meat situation figured out. With the most impressive performance in this category, meat scored an average of 16.8.
SIDES (10 points possible): The sides at Smoque were a little limited compared to some other BBQ joints, and there wasn’t much consensus on how they fared. The mac and cheese didn’t carry much flavor and had a custard-like texture. I speculated that it was made with eggs like some other mac and cheese bakes I have seen, but a few judges had never heard of such a thing. Either way, the cheesy pasta side was average at best, though one judge described it as “fab”. I personally liked the Smoque baked beans, but others thought them to be a bit sweet. The hunks of meat in the beans were a delight, though we’re still not sure if it was brisket or bacon, and the menu offers no clues other than all sides are made from scratch. The coleslaw was crisp and fresh, but didn’t stand out one way or another. Sadly, there was no variation of greens on the menu, and that certainly hurt the bottom line. Lastly, some confusion with our order delayed the cornbread’s arrival until everyone had basically finished eating. The cornbread (like the beans, mac, and slaw) was just average…nothing special other than the individual kernels of corn mixed in. The average score for the sides was a 6.6, and as I am writing this down, I think we were a bit generous with that total…the sides just did not really impress.
SAUCE (10 points possible): Of the four spots we’ve tasted, Smoque has a few unique claims. They are the only restaurant that does not have a “table” sauce. They do, however, attempt to pair various sauces with the different meats that are served. At Lillie’s, Sheffield’s, and Fat Willy’s, we have all generally agreed that a strong Carolina sauce with its heavy pepper and vinegar notes has been a welcome addition to any meat. The staff at Smoque has come up with something entirely different for their Carolina sauce, and it includes some sort of tomato ingredient, which seems like a big no-no. I can’t find any popular recipes online daring to call themselves a Carolina-style sauce with tomato sauce or paste. I’m sure they exist, but it’s certainly not what we have come to know and love. The Memphis rub on the pork and ribs paired nicely with the Memphis sauce. And the hot-Memphis sauce was even a touch better due to the added spice. There were also some candied jalapeno slices served with the brisket that sort of fall into the “sauce” category as they were to be added to the meat and dipped in Memphis sauce, per the owner’s recommendation. Generally, the sauces were not bad, but having a better Carolina sauce could have really helped out here. The average was a 6.9.
VALUE (10 points possible): Just like Fat Willy’s, the per person price for Smoque was $19 after tax and tip. We added our own value by bringing our own beers, and the staff gave an extra slab of baby back ribs when they realized we were eating with a purpose. Regardless, there were plenty of scraps leftover for a to-go box, so the value score came out to 7.6.
I think it’s safe to say that our group had high expectations for Smoque, and Smoque delivered. In fact, one diner (@KyleK773) noted that this was the first time we actually saw a result that we as we walked in (Lillie’s was a bit disappointing, Sheffield’s and Fat Willy’s beat our expectations). They knocked off Fat Willy’s just a few weeks after Willy’s had claimed top spot by scoring a total average of 38/50. Depending on what makes you love good BBQ, if you’re looking for the best BBQ meat in Chicago, Smoque seems like a good place to start. Now if they would just take down that damn Guy Fieri poster by the front door….
UP NEXT: For our November BBQ Club outing, we are headed to The Smoke Daddy in Wicker Park (Division between Ashland and Damen). We will be visiting on Wednesday November 13 at 7:30 again. Please join us before you get stuck eating 2 weeks of nonstop turkey leftovers!