Those attempting to define Chicago barbecue as one specific style will have no such luck — at the least, there are three distinct approaches found within city limits. The interesting thing is if you plot out these restaurants on a map, the barbecue styles are often separated by the city's generational, ethnic and economic boundaries.
South Side barbecue: Perhaps the most distinct and individualistic of Chicago styles come from the South Side. Three items dominate menus here: Ribs (most popular are rib tips, the cartilage-nubby end of spare ribs), hot links and fried chicken. Almost always, the cooking vessel is a rectangular aquarium-style smoker, plexiglass on four sides, several levels of metal racks holding meats within, a fire raging beneath, with a pile of hickory logs sitting nearby. For these pitmasters — many with roots in the Mississippi Delta — kitchen timers and exact measurements are eschewed for instinct, eyeballing and feel. Temperature control sometimes consists of a garden hose, sprayed into the fire to billow smoke and temper heat. As a result, consistency of quality is often the wild card. Depending on time of day, ribs might come out dry and tough. But when the stars align, you land a perfectly timed batch out of the smoker, and it's unforgettable. Lem's (311 E. 75th St., 773-994-2428), Barbara Ann's (7617 S. Cottage Grove Ave., 773-651-5300), Leon's (4550 S. Archer Ave., 773-247-4360) and Uncle John's (337 E. 69th St., 773-892-1233) are the most famous names. North of Madison Street, the best-known practitioner of the South Side style is Bucktown's Honey 1 BBQ (2241 N. Western Ave., 773-227-5130).
Yuppie barbecue: The great boom of what we call "Yuppie barbecue" happened in the summer of 2010, when a half-dozen barbecue restaurants came on the scene almost simultaneously. Most of the openings took place on Chicago's North Side and adhered to a common aesthetic — that of the honky-tonk, rusted license plate, Mason jar-glassed, somewhere-south-of-the-Mason-Dixon-vicinity vibe. Or the aesthetics conveyed a sit-down, middle-to-fine-dining experience: Take Chicago Q in the Gold Coast (1160 N. Dearborn St., 312-642-1160), where a white-linen French restaurant could operate in its space without changing the decor. As for the style of food served, most of these restaurants cherry-pick from different regional styles such as North Carolina, Memphis and Kansas City, then assembling a Best of American Barbecue compilation (hence, a variety of sauces are typically available tableside). Even before the 'cue boom of 2010, successful restaurants that fit this mold include Smoque (3800 N. Pulaski Road, 773-545-7427) and Fat Willy's (2416 W. Schubert Ave., 773-782-1800). And in the suburbs, recent openings include Real Urban BBQ (610 Central Ave., Highland Park, 224-770-4227 and 1260 S. Milwaukee Ave., Vernon Hills, 847-613-1227), and Q BBQ (70 S. LaGrange Road, La Grange, 708-482-8700 and 103 S. Main St., Naperville, 630-637-6400).
Old-school Chicago barbecue: Here's a category that may get you in a heated argument. Some will argue that "barbecue" implies a cooking process where smoke is imparted into meat. Places like the venerable Twin Anchors (1655 N. Sedgwick St., 312-266-1616) get lumped in as barbecue (despite the restaurant being careful not to use the B-word as a verb), because their signature dish involves slow-cooking baby backs, then basting them with a tomato-based KC Masterpiece-esque sauce. Regardless of whether smoke is used or not, this style hinges on one trait: texture. A constant refrain is "fall off the bone," a somewhat-divisive term that an older generation seeks and barbecue purists abhor (they describe it as "meat jello," derisively). But many restaurants don't view it as a pejorative. In Jefferson Park, Gale Street Inn (4914 N. Milwaukee Ave., 773-725-1300) proudly embraces the words "fall off the bone" on its menu, and it has been in business for half a century. The Fireplace Inn (1448 N. Wells St., 312-664-5264) has been pushing baby back ribs in Old Town since 1968. So it is doing something right.