Since 1985, Dave Raymond has been making his distinctive barbecue sauce that was gleaned from a long time family recipe. In the mid-90's, along with Raymond's brother and a close friend, they began to market the sauce, called Sweet Baby Ray's, a name that Raymond's older brother gave him during pickup basketball games when they were younger.
Over the years, Sweet Baby Ray's barbecue sauce showed up on grocery shelves across the Midwest. It has now grown to be the second best selling barbecue sauce in the nation. To be quite frank with you, Sweet Baby Ray's sauce is pretty middle of the road, if you ask me.
However, a few years ago, Raymond sold the sauce business. He continued to do catering, and participated in the annual "Taste of Chicago" food festival in Grant Park. In 2005, Raymond opened his first barbecue place - Sweet Baby Ray's Barbecue - in suburban Wood Dale, IL (see map). A couple years later, Raymond opened a second location in suburban Elk Grove (see map).
Raymond employed chef Paul Papadopoulas to oversee the menu at his restaurants. Papadopoulas worked as an intern at NoLa,
Emeril Lagasee's famous New Orleans restaurant. Papadopoulas eventually made his way to Chicago and worked as a chef at the Heaven on Seven restaurants. When he hired an intern who turned out to be Raymond's nephew, he found out that Raymond was looking to open a barbecue restaurant. Papadopoulas contacted Raymond and became the executive chef for Sweet Baby Ray's. Papadopoulas brought along a number of Cajun recipes with him to go with the barbecue menu.
It was a weekday evening when I was in the western suburbs of Chicago recently. I was looking for someplace new to give a try and I remembered seeing a Sweet Baby Ray's when I was driving near the hotel. Even though I'm not a big fan of their sauce, I wanted to give their barbecue a try. I ended up at the Wood Dale location and went inside for some food.
Sweet Baby Ray's Wood Dale location is pretty small, it only seats 36 people. (As an aside, I understand they've purchased property next to the Wood Dale location and are looking to expand the restaurant.) You order from the menu at the front counter and they'll bring it to your seat.
In addition to their barbecue platters, Sweet Baby Ray's sells a number of specialty sandwiches, including a burger, pulled pork sandwich, a shrimp po' boy, and a Cuban sandwich. And some of their side dishes were pretty interesting. In addition to the normal sides you find at most barbecue places, they also had red beans and rice, green chile macaroni and cheese, and a Cajun-style creamed corn dish.
I ordered the combo plate of brisket and pulled pork with a side of their baked beans and cole slaw (although the green chile mac and cheese sounded interesting). A piece of corn bread also came with the meal. I'm not big on corn bread, but it came with it so I took it. I got a cold beer while I waited at my table for the food.
About ten minutes passed before they brought out my dinner on a plate served on top of a tin tray. I wouldn't say the portions Sweet Baby Ray's served were huge, but ample enough for that evening. The beef brisket was tender and flavorful. And I liked the pulled pork, as well. The beans were OK, at best. I added a little bit of the Sweet Baby Ray's BBQ sauce to the beans to try to give 'em a little bit of zip, but it didn't help. And the cole slaw was also OK, but nothing special.
Sweet Baby Ray's barbecue was good. Not the best I've ever had, but it was acceptable for the Chicago area. I don't know if they have any other flavors of Sweet Baby Ray's sauce. Something a little more spicy would have given the food a little more flavor. But on it's own, the beef and pork were good. My recommendation is to give it a try, but not to go out of your way to do so.