smoke daddy chicago
Every great BBQ starts with really great meat.
Smoke Daddy
By Meredith Heil / August 20, 2019 10:50 am

Labor Day is fast approaching, and with it comes one of America’s most mouthwatering traditions: the almighty backyard BBQ. Ready your tongs, dust off the old Weber and prepare to close out the summer in style with these words of wisdom from some of Chicago’s top BBQ insiders.

Where to find the finest cuts in town

Paulina Market
Paulina Market

Paulina Market
“For meats and such, Paulina Market on the northside,” says Amanda Downing Salas, Executive Chef at Smoke Daddy’s high-volume Wrigleyville location. “They’re a great butcher shop. We currently don’t have a hot link on our menu, but I’ve smoked their fully cooked Andouille sausage before and it’s great as a hot link. If you’re looking to get some quality meats, that’s definitely the place to go.”

Gene’s Sausage Shop
“Even further north is Gene’s Sausage Shop, which is right in Lincoln Square,” adds Downing Salas. “It’s a nice little grocery and butcher shop. They do smoked dry sausage links and then they have plenty of other cuts of meat. I personally love the breakfast sausage they make.”

Slagel Family Farm
“We buy all of our beef and pork from Slagel and there’s a couple places in the city you can get it,” notes Chef Brian Bruns. Along with his wife Taylor, the classically-trained Spiaggia vet recently opened up Flat & Point, a handsome Logan Square outpost serving wood-fired BBQ favorites with a cheffy, fine dining-influenced spin. “You can get different cuts from Publican Quality Meats. Rob Levitt there, he does a great job of pulling out whatever cuts you want to do. Whole Foods is another market where you can get Slagel products or nice local beef or pork.”

Chicago Game
Chicago Game is a staple. They carry a bunch of specialty cuts, from wild boar to elk and buffalo, and they’ve been here for 20 years,” says Ken Robinson, Executive Chef at Porkchop in Hyde Park. The popular smokehouse has been drawing Southside crowds with dry-rubbed comforts like rib tips, beef brisket and smoked sausage since 2014. “Tallgrass is a really good place, as well. Bill Kurtis, the news guy, founded it and he was raising great cattle.”

Where to dig up some fresh produce …

Green City Market

Green City and Lincoln Square Market
“Farmers markets are no brainers when you’re talking about vegetables,” says Downing Salas. “What’s great about this city is that you can pull from Michigan, Indiana, Wisconsin and Illinois — all those big farms come to Green City Market, which is twice a week now and once a week in the winter. That’s probably the biggest one, but there are so many other neighborhood markets with some of the same farms. I live on the northside so I go to the Lincoln Square Market. It’s obviously smaller but you can still find a lot there.” 

Testa
“For produce, I like Testa,” says Robinson. The family-owned Back of the Yards wholesaler has been specializing in local and sustainably sourced fruits and vegetables for more than 100 years. “It’s always really good.”

Nichols Farm
“In the restaurant we BBQ all our vegetables and getting things in-season is the number-one, most important thing. The quality of your ingredients is above and beyond what’s going to make the food taste better,” explains Bruns. “I love going to Green City Market. We used to live in Lincoln Park, so we would walk there all the time. Now we always buy everything from Nichols Farm. They get a nice wide variety of stuff and if it’s in-season, they’re going to have it. A lot of competition people ask where my wood comes from, what’s my seasoning or what’s my rub, but that’s not the important part. The important part is that your ingredients are grown in the height of season and not super far away. They don’t really need much.”

Where to stock up on standout BBQ essentials …

Yoder Smokers
Yoder Smokers

Chicago Firewood
“Our go-to for wood and charcoal is Chicago Firewood,” says Doug Psaltis, chef-partner at honky tonk hangout Bub City in River North. “They have a great variety of cooking wood to choose from: oak, apple, cherry, maple, hickory, etc.” 

Fat Stack Smokers
“For the smoker, I actually found this guy on Instagram, his handle is @FatStackSmokers,” says Bruns about Flat & Point’s gargantuan 500-gallon custom-made machine. “His name is Eric and he’s a welder in L.A. making smokers out of the Franklin BBQ cookbook. Aaron Franklin from the big-name BBQ place down in Texas put out a book with designs for different kinds of smokers he’s built. So that guy’s taken those designs and has been cranking them out for people. A year ago his waiting list was like nine months, so I’m sure it’s over a year to get one now.”

Yoder and Lang
“I went through a couple different sized smokers when I first started,” recalls Bruns. “When I really got into it, I needed something that was going to control heat a little better, so I bought a Yoder. It’s like 800 pounds and me, my brother and a friend carried this thing up three flights of stairs to my deck, which was kind of nuts. That one was really nice, very fancy, very thick steel, held heat really well. Then we bought a much larger Lang that had a grill attracted to it and a sausage smoking box, all the bells and whistles. We just contacted them through their website and they delivered it to us. I liked that one a lot and now it’s parked down at my parents’ house out in the suburbs.” To get their hands on a Yoder, smoke-savvy Chicagoans can head to EDG Patio & Shade in Spring Grove, Illinois, the Chicagoland area’s official Yoder dealer. Lang smokers can only be purchased directly from the company.

Traeger
Bruns also has a pointer for BBQ enthusiasts who aren’t quite ready for the big guns: “I have a friend who just bought a Traeger, which is a pellet smoker. He was like, ‘You know I don’t really want to stay up and cook a brisket all night, I just want it to happen for me.’ It’s automatically managed, kind of a set it and forget it thing. He has a great time with it, just sets it up outside and 12 hours later he can have people over.” You can find Traeger products at several places around the city, including multiple Gordon’s Ace Hardware and Home Depot locations. 

Sur La Table
“For a home cook, I’d just go to a good kitchen store like Sur La Table,” suggests Robinson. “They have a section where they carry BBQ stuff and you can get a couple of pounds of wood chips there. A two-pound bag will last you at home, because you’re only using maybe an ounce on top of the charcoal.”

And heed a little advice from the experts …

Yoder Smokers

Start small
Says Downing Salas: “Traditionally, BBQ is an open fire over wood, so you don’t need to go and spend anything crazy on fancy equipment. It’s low and it’s slow and it’s also playing around. Do you season the meat ahead of time and let it sit for a little bit or do you season it just before it goes in? How long will it take? Play around with your temperature and your time. You learn as you go. What you need to spend the money on is the actual meat. If you start out with poor quality, it’s not going to get better with cooking.”

Manage your own expectations
“Advice for home cooks? Number one, be honest with yourself,” Bruns says. “Are you trying to stay awake for 18 hours smoking a brisket? If that’s what you want to do — which is what I wanted to do — then you need to get a Lang or a Yoder, you’ve got to get a face cord of wood sent to your house, and you’ve got to be buying really nice briskets. If you just want to cook your own brisket every once in awhile but don’t want to stay up that long, you’re going to have a horrible time and you’re going to waste a lot of money buying wood and the smoker.”

Above all, it’s about the meat
“Have a great purveyor,” says Robinson. “It all starts with a quality cut of meat. If you can get grass-fed, that’s even better. It has a little less fat, a little less marbling, but it makes up for it in flavor. And for your dry rub, it all depends on what you like — if you want spicy or not spicy, if you want to add a little chipotle to make it Southwest-style. The culinary world is huge, just remember to go low and slow.”