County BBQ – 1352 W Taylor St, Chicago, IL
A group of friends and I have a rotating birthday dinner club – we were once seven or eight strong and younger with less commitments, so we were eating out usually at the nicer Chicago Steakhouses, almost every month. Now we’ve dwindled down to four, and other life realities have backed up our schedule a bit. So even though my official birthday was in September, we headed down to County BBQ to celebrate, only six months late.
There has been an explosion of BBQ spots over the past few years in Chicago. I have no idea what’s driving this movement, but I’m not one to complain. Some are small independent shops like Rub’s and MIlt’s, some are chains branching out, like Q, and some are the big restaurant groups in the city trying to get into the game. Of the latter, County was the first of these, the BBQ joint from the DMK group that opened up in Little Italy about two years ago.
The sauces served tableside at County mirror the restaurant’s BBQ influences. The Carolina-inspired mustard sauce on the right has a medium consistency and a subtle flavor, while the house is a bit tangier. The spicy is pretty light on kick, and the the trio themselves are a bit underwhelming, but serve only as a accompaniment to the real star of the show here, which is the slow smoked meat.
County uses a variety of brining techniques and dry rubs to create the base of the flavors for its meats, then slow smoking the meats, seen as a timer on their website. They offer a wide variety of cuts – St. Louis spare ribs, burnt ends, Rib Tips, Texas Brisket, Chicken, Hot Links, and a Veal Brisket. Add a good choice of interesting sides, and a pinch of well selected apps and you got a menu for success.
We started with a taste of two of their wing choices, the first topped with a solid buffalo sauce with a spice that lingered but without being overwhelming, and a thai chili wing that had a balanced sweetness to it. Both had a good amount of smokiness that lingered underneath all that flavor. The wings themselves were were just a tad overcooked, probably due to their smaller size, but they were a perfect way to wet the appetitie. The fried pickles and okra were an added bonus, pulling from the menu at DMK.
If you’re indecisive, the “Taste of County” is a great spread – you get a chicken quarter, three St. Louis ribs, a few slices of brisket, and a hot link. The chicken is tender, with the skin having a slight char, the meat being moist, and the slow cooking coming through just enough to add a hint of smokiness to the meat. The brisket ups the smokiness just a bit, perfectly cooked, with just a bit of fattiness and prominent smoke rings. The rub for the brisket is heavy on the black pepper adding a nice bite to the crust that contrasts the tenderness of the meat. The hot link probably ends up with the deepest smoke of the four with a nice bite of cayenne spice that lingers in your mouth. Very rich flavor that adds up throughout the plate. Along with the brisket, the ribs are a highlight – very meaty, with a chewy texture and again, the smoke.
The sides here are interesting and unique – the Gina’s potatoes are a gently mashed potato with cheddar and a hint of pickled jalapeno that’s hard to pick up on. The corn pudding is a must, a light sweetness and a great texture. The collard greens were probably the lower point of the meal – very heavily salted that overpowers the greens.
There’s no doubt that Smoque holds the barbeque crown in Chicago right now. The lines are long, the quality is great, and the price point is reasonable. However, I’ve said in previous posts, I think Smoque has lost a step and I think anyone that big can be a victim of its own success. If you ask me (and I am by NO means an experts, the most important things with good barbeque are a deep, smokey flavor that will make the meat standout sans sauce, and consistency. It’s the consistency that is falling for Smoque – a few recent trips have left me wanting more. Maybe the increasing competition is making me jaded, or maybe it’s giving me a more discerning view. But if you ask me where I would choose to go for ribs or brisket in the city right now, County hits the top of my list. After four visits now, the ribs are always superb, and the rub on the brisket is unforgettable. In fact, my mouth is watering just thinking about it….just gonna have to go back – monday for Monday night fried chicken….