Move over St. Louis, Texas and North Carolina — Milwaukee's about to land on the barbecue map.
At least that's the hope of chef Aaron Patin, who on Friday is debuting something called the Milwaukee rib. The dish is the star attraction at his just-opened Iron Grate BBQ on Milwaukee's south side — which for some Chicago barbecue lovers is closer than Chicago's South Side. There, Patin shares a couple of things with Hawthorne Coffee Roasters: an open space converted from an old cowboy bar, and a common goal of creating a taste that's unique to the city.
So what the heck is a Milwaukee rib?
"It's a special cut of spare rib with the belly still attached to it," Patin explained in his dining room last week. "My biggest complaint with ribs was there was never enough meat. You're always eating the meat between the bones. To achieve the cut of ribs — St. Louis or spare ribs — you have to take it off the meat. But I thought, 'Why not leave the meat attached to the rib to make it more meaty?'"
The resulting product is a luscious marriage of smoky pink meat layered with melty fat that sometimes loses its bone before it hits the plate.
"When you come here for ribs you won't get a slab, you'll get it by the pound," said Patin who grew up in Lake County and was sous chef at Millennium Park's Park Grill. "To utilize as much as we can off of the animals, some meat might come from the tips and some might come from the belly end, and the bone can fall off when I slice it."
But the Milwaukee rib is just one part of the Iron Grate menu, which offers Southern-style "meat-and-three" meals (meat and three sides) based on the talents of an offset smoker named Edna. Patin built the smoker with a farmer friend from Kankakee, Ill., out of recycled materials, including a 500-gallon propane tank. Fed with oak and cherry wood, Edna touches almost every dish on the menu — from Texas-style beef brisket, hot links and pulled pork to mustard greens and grits — yes, smoky grits.
"We basically take two hours to make instant grits," Patin said. "We do add a little milk, but the soulfulness comes from the drippings we collect (from the smoking meat). That's how we give them such a deep flavor."
Edna also produces a smoked cider vinegar that flavors Patin's mustard greens, cole slaw and baked beans. The smoker even plays a role in the mac and cheese, made with smoked Roma tomatoes, gouda and cheddar.
Customers can buy Iron Grate meats by the pound ($11-$16), but most dine-in customers are expected to choose a meat-and-three combo that goes for $15 with one meat choice and $30 for three meat choices.
Some who've been following Patin's career — most recently as sous chef at Milwaukee's James Beard-nominated modernist restaurant Ardent — were a little surprised by his casual barbecue turn. Still, he says his fine dining skills are applicable anywhere you want to make good food.
"There's just as much care and concern and thought to the actual cooking here," he says. "It's just presented in a much simpler way."
Despite a lengthy licensing process with Milwaukee officials for his outdoor smoker, Patin says he loves his adopted city and its distinctive culinary traditions. These include, of course, butter burgers, frozen custard and fish fries, but also the lesser known hot ham and rolls.
"It's kind of an early morning thing where you go get yourself some hot ham and rolls and a little bit of butter and call it a day," he says of Milwaukee's post-church Sunday snack that usually features boiled or baked ham. "So I'm thinking, 'Why not get some hot ham that's deliciously done in the smoker and do that Milwaukee style?'"
Iron Grate BBQ is open 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Friday through Sunday (or until the food runs out). Patin expects to expand to Wednesday through Sunday when "patio season starts."
Monica Eng is a food and health reporter for WBEZ Chicago Public Media.