I like to get barbecue for one of my big dealers in the Chicago area from time to time they will have barbecue delivered from a joint that's not too far from their place, Rub's Backcountry Smokehouse. I've always thought their barbecue was very good and I wanted to go directly to the source at some point to give it a try fresh out of the kitchen. I finally had a chance to go to Rub's on a warm afternoon on a recent visit to Chicago.
The man behind Rub's is Jared Leonard, a former ski-bum who was living in Vail, CO. He befriended some guys from Alabama who were selling barbecue out of a food truck near the ski slopes. Leonard was hooked and he began to smoke meats for his friends. He got pretty good at it - or so he thought.
He eventually moved to Chicago and became an on-line stock trader. But on weekends in the summer, he was manning a smoker at any number street festivals around the greater Chicagoland area. After awhile, he decided to change vocations and turned in his stock trading job to run a barbecue place full time. He and his wife Amanda found a small place on Lunt Ave. off of Western Ave. in the West Rogers Park neighborhood, installed a gas smoker behind the place that was surrounded with a chain link fence and barbed-wire at the top of the fence, and opened the doors to his barbecue joint six years ago.
One of his first customers was Chicago barbecue guru, Gary Wiviott. Wiviott was doing reviews of barbecue places for the Chicago Reader, a local free weekly newspaper, and he thought that Leonard's barbecue was, well, not that great. But Wiviott saw potential in the young guy's barbecue. Leonard admittedly didn't know the first thing about the "low and slow" cooking method using wood that Wiviott championed in his book "Low & Slow" that he co-wrote with Colleen Rush. But he dove deep into learning the cooking technique, so much so that he ended up hosting a number of classes teaching the low and slow smoking method to backyard barbecue enthusiasts. Rub's Backcountry Smokehouse Cooking Classes teaches "Barbecue 101" which dissects regional barbecue styles, the types of wood to use in smoking, the time and temperature needed for different meats, and what types of rubs and sauces to use. The three-hour class costs $120 per person and comes with tastings and a diploma given to each attendee at the end of the session. Sessions are usually held on Friday and Saturday, and Leonard has taught over 500 classes over the years. Leonard also has a barbecue supply shop at Rub's where people can pick up wood, rubs, sauces and even meats to make their own barbecue at home.
Gary Wiviott knew what he was talking about when he said he saw a lot of potential in Leonard after his initial visit six years ago. Wiviott teamed with Jared Leonard to found the Windy City BBQ Classic, the only Kansas City Barbecue Society-sanctioned barbecue event in the Chicago area. The event doesn't allow gas or electric smokers - it's a wood only event. Wiviott and Leonard started the event in 2013, but the event was suspended for this year as they are going through a reorganization of the event. The organizers hope to have another event next year.
As Leonard's classes grew in popularity, so did his little restaurant. A year after opening, Leonard was able to move both of his wood smokers into a small store front that had opened up around the corner on Western Ave. And in 2013 when the space next to the smokehouse opened up, he was able to move his restaurant to the spot effectively giving the restaurant double the seating space. Amanda Leonard runs the catering operation of Rub's Backcountry Smokehouse while raising the Leonard's two children.
In May of this year, the Leonard's opened a second restaurant - The Budlong - a Nashville-hot style chicken eatery on N. Broadway in the Lakeview neighborhood. The restaurant is named after the family who used to own 500 acres of farmland where modern day Lincoln Square is located. Eventually, Jared Leonard would like to have a larger Rub's Backcountry Smokehouse location complete with a brewpub and a stage for live music.
When the Leonard's opened Rub's six years ago, a number of people were puzzled by their location of a barbecue restaurant. They were on the southern edge of a Hasidic Jewish neighborhood with a number of kosher restaurants and grocery stores north of them at the corner of Western and Touhy. To the south around the corner of Western and Devon, a large South Asian population lived with a number of Indian restaurants and grocery stores. It turned out that being the only place of its kind in the area was a plus for Rub's. It stood out against the other restaurants in the area.
I found a parking spot just south of Rub's along Western Ave. (see map) I went into the small store front to see what it was all about. And it's none too big. There's a handful of wooden tables with banquette bench seating along the wall with a picnic table along one wall. State flags from the likes of Texas, South Carolina and North Carolina - all barbecue hot spots - were hung on the brick wall.
I took a table along the wall with the banquette bench seats and the young lady who seated me gave me the album cover of Simple Dreams by Linda Ronstadt. I was a little confused at first, but opening the cover was the menu for Rub's. It turned out that all the menus were inside double record album covers (or single albums that were inside double covers). I thought it was a pretty cool way to show the menu's off.
The first thing I discovered is that Rub's doesn't serve alcohol, but is a BYOB place. That wasn't that big of a deal for me, but I do like a cold beer with my barbecue. On the table, however, were fresh house-made dill pickle slices. They were very good.
Rub's features meaty St. Louis-style ribs, pulled pork, sliced brisket, pulled chicken and smoked sausage. Their sides - made fresh every day - feature truffled mac & cheese, giardiniera cole slaw, meaty baked beans and Rub's signature custard-filled cornbread. They also have a ground brisket burger on the menu, a pork or chicken panini sandwich, a reuben made with pulled pork, and the brisket melt with beef brisket topped with provolone cheese.
As I'm wont to do when I try a barbecue joint for the first time, I like to try at least a couple different meats - sometimes three if I can also get a couple ribs. Rub's had a Big Guy's Meal with 1/4 pound each of the pulled pork, pulled chicken and brisket slices along with three rib bones. That seemed like a lot of food for me on that visit, so I ended up getting the 1/2 + 1/2 platter with pulled pork and sliced brisket - a quarter pound of each. Cole slaw came on the side along with smoked kettle chips - there's no fryer at Rub's. But I also wanted to try their baked beans, so I got a side of those, as well.
It wasn't long before the food was brought out to me. The brisket slices and the pulled pork nearly filled the plate - it seemed like it was more than a 1/4 pound each. A fresh-baked bun came with the platter in case you wanted to make a sandwich.
They had four different types of barbecue sauce on the table at Rub's - a smoked jalapeño that had a bit of a back bite in taste, a smoky sweet sauce that I thought was just all right, and a Carolina mustard sauce that I didn't try. However, I was happy to see that they had their citrus chipotle sauce on the table. I'd had that before when I'd had barbecue brought in to my dealer and it is just outstanding. The smoky spiciness of the chipotle side of the sauce is noticeable, but is cut back at the end of the taste by a touch of the sweet citrus. It was, by far, the best of the sauces they had at Rub's.
The brisket was tender with a hint of a smoky flavor. The pulled pork was moist and also a bit smoky in taste, but it wasn't overpowering to the overall flavor of the pork. I wasn't certain what I liked better - both were outstanding.
But the baked beans were off the hook excellent. They featured three different types of beans and were mixed with smoked pork, sausage and beef chunks along with chopped green peppers. I added a bit of the citrus chipotle sauce, even though they didn't really need it. The beans were so good that I finished all of them without even touching the smoked kettle fries or even opening the container of cole slaw.
I was going to take a picture of the front of Rub's, but a fierce thunderstorm had begun - complete with hail - when I was in the restaurant. I needed to get to my next appointment and I made a mad dash to the car instead of stopping to get a picture of the outside of the restaurant. I figured that I could get the picture on my next visit and put it in the entry.
And there will be a next visit to Rub's. Having the barbecue catered in and having it taste wonderful is one thing, getting it fresh out of the kitchen is another. Everything I had at Rub's was very good to excellent. I enjoyed but the sliced brisket and the pulled pork, but the meaty baked beans were outstanding as was their excellent citrus chipotle barbecue sauce. Jared Leonard has a great little place going here and he's figured out the true ways of low and slow barbecuing with wood. Either if you get it catered for 35 or have it in-house - Rub's is outstanding barbecue.