Sky Full of Bacon

Dept. of Second Chances: Pork Shoppe

I was excited about a barbecue place opening a walkable distance (not the most pleasant walk in the city of Chicago, perhaps, but technically possible) from my house. But before I could act on my excitement, the reviews for Pork Shoppe started pouring in. LTHers struggled to be kind; Heather Shouse in Time Out felt no such need. I passed it often, and passed on it, regretfully, last fall.

But I didn’t do so because I believed that the last word had been spoken. The one thing that everybody had praised guardedly— a pork belly pastrami, inexplicably served cold— was different enough to make me think that there could be potential in this place down the line; if any food has a learning curve, it’s slow-smoked barbecue. Finally the day to check in at Pork Shoppe arrived at the beginning of February.

I’ve been back twice since.

Is this the greatest barbecue place in Chicago? No, but it’s significantly better and more consistent than the place described last fall must have been, with enough unique things about it that it’s well worth giving another chance (the last LTH post was in December; only three out of more than 100 have been since August). The kitchen seems to have gained in skill, and they also seem to have listened to the criticism— since for one thing, you’re now asked if you’d like the pork belly pastrami warm or cold. (I still don’t understand why it’s even a question with a meat this fatty.) Such determination to learn and improve deserves reward in the form of a second chance.

The most interesting thing is definitely the pork belly pastrami, though I have to admit, having tried and liked it once, I also kind of felt like I never needed it again; it’s just so fatty and salty that one blast of its voluptuous excess will last a long time in the memory. There’s also beef pastrami, which is to say more conventional pastrami; since pastrami is usually steamed, this has to be smoked long enough to be soft enough to eat, so some may object to the brittle, falling-apart chunks this turns into, which again yield a pretty serious saltiness. On its own terms, I thought this was first-rate, and both of the pastramis show where Pork Shoppe’s commitment to better and more sustainable meats yields a cleaner, meatier taste even under lots of smoke and salt.

A complaint about the regular brisket and pulled pork was that it was soft, a likely consequence of being held after smoking in warming bins (where barbecue kind of steams itself soft). That’s almost inevitable in restaurants— one time at Smoque, Barry Sorkin advised me to wait for a batch coming fresh from the smoker, and that showed what a difference that made even for Smoque’s very good restaurant barbecue, which squares the circle of restaurant practicality with barbecue better than almost anybody’s. When the descriptor “pot roast” is used somewhere in a review, that steaming effect is why. But even the great places in Texas that have ferocious lunchtime turnover sometimes call pot roast to mind (City Market in Luling did, for instance, and so did Black’s in Llano on one of my two visits), and unless you’re absolutely fetishizing ripping meat with your teeth, it’s just not something to get crazy over. The brisket had a rich beefiness that was quite satisfying; I didn’t get a comparable porky bliss out of the pulled pork the one time I tried it, but it was decent, and I’d try it again to see if it was better another day. There’s also a lunchtime special of Texas brisket tacos which I’m going to try one of these days, probably before I get around to trying any more Korean tacos.

Fries are fresh-cut; the cole slaw was described by Kennyz as being like a housewife’s potluck dish, with sweet dressing and fruit in it, which he seems to think is a bad thing, but which I like just fine, as long as you’re not really trying to think of it as cole slaw. There are three sauces, all better and more complex than supermarket sauces; even the medium, let alone the “tangy,” has a fair amount of heat. Service is friendly and welcoming; the location is easily reached once you’ve driven by the line at either Hot Doug’s or Kuma’s and decided there’s no way you’re standing in that. There haven’t been many alternatives in the vicinity before (Burger King doesn’t count), but there is one now.

Pork Shoppe
2755 West Belmont Avenue
Chicago, IL 60618
(773) 961-7654

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