The parking lot is sweltering hot. You can crack an egg and fry it on the pavement. But I don’t care. I am tucking into a paper boat full of expertly smoked brisket, a wet nap in one hand, a cold-ish beer in the other. It is hot and humid and the air is redolent of smoke and bacon. This is one of my favorite summer events, Windy City Smokeout, and I am one hundred percent here for it.
“We believe in BBQ!” The sign featuring chicken wings is right. We do believe. In this town, we have plenty of good Q. And the festival pit master lineup is stellar. My personal favorite, Smoque, is slinging brisket so tender, I can eat it with a spoon. Their housemade Spicy Memphis BBQ sauce is outstanding as well. Not that the brisket needs any, truly. Smoque is my home team, and it wins my heart every time.
However, this isn’t just a Chicago lineup. Pit masters from all over the nation are here to flex their muscles. And flex they do. The parking lot of the United Center is crowded with smokers and grills. Several whole slow roasted hogs are being taken to task by weathered men with scary knives. This is serious business.
Let’s get one thing straight. I am here for the food. Yes, country music is playing on multiple stages. Yes, Old Dominion is fantastic. Yes, the music lineup is glorious. But make no mistake: I am here for BBQ. I train for this event as if it were a marathon. BRING ON THE MEAT. I sample and sample until the meat sweats hit. I stay well hydrated thanks to convenient Yeti water filling stations. I am wearing elastic waist shorts and comfortable shoes with non-slip soles. BBQ. I am here for it.
I travel with my own resident expert in the form of a gal pal from Texas. They know Q in Texas, and my bestie grew up on a ranch. This is her specialty. We divide and conquer, collecting plates, taking turns saving seats, sharing bites to save room for more. We have done this before, we know the drill. In fact, we share our bounty with strangers at the tables around us as well. Why not spread the Q love a little?
Let’s discuss some highlights. For me, the Hatch Chile Fried Bologna sandwich from Atlanta-based Fox Bros BBQ hits home. This is no ordinary bologna. Verdant with green Hatch chilies, it is fried crispy and nestled into a bun with cheese, corn chips and pickles. Same tent is behind an outstanding salt & pepper beef rib the size of my head. Those Fox Brothers know what’s up! I stop by their tent to meet them and get invited to stop by the restaurant. When in Atlanta, you know where I will be. My gal pal raves about the burn ends from HooDoo Brown BBQ, an East Coast joint that slings classic Texas-style Q. I grab a bite off her plate. The burnt ends are crispy and unctuous and aggressively seasoned. Perfection with HooDoo’s sweet pit beans.
I keep hearing rumblings about the fried ribs with white sauce. I sniff out the name behind the magic: Home Team BBQ from Charleston, South Carolina. Conveniently, their tent is next to the Shiner beer garden. What’s that if not the Universe telling me I need to get some? Woe is me, the fried ribs are sold out. I almost cried. Almost, that is, until I got handed a paper boat of beef short rib so tender and flavorful, I forgot I was missing the famous fried ribs.
The heat is rising. The beeritas aren’t getting frozen. My face is red and my hands are greasy. It has been a long exhausting day, but someone had to take one for the team! The next day I get to get up and do it all again. The Smokeout is a marathon, not a sprint. Believe in BBQ, folks. It’s pure magic.
Windy City Smokeout takes place annually in the United Center parking lot, in West Town neighborhood.
The Local Tourist media access for two courtesy of The Door Idea House.
Photos from Windy City Smokeout website.