Ribs back home [restaurant review]
Chicago for Ribs brings its Windy City style back where they began, in Redondo Beach
I used to travel a lot for work, and would often schedule flights with a long layover in Chicago. If I allowed five hours, there was time to get to the Eastern European neighborhood, buy a heap of the kielbasa and black bread that my mother loved but couldn’t find in LA, and get back to the airport in time to catch my plane. Sometimes I paid the stopover fee so I could stay for dinner, usually in Greektown or at a Chicago barbecue joint.
As everybody in the Midwest knows, Chicago is a world class eating city. Besides Eastern European, Italian, contemporary, and steakhouse traditions they have another claim to fame: their eccentric style of barbecue. Unlike all others the meat is briefly boiled before smoking and then cooked with direct heat, and it is brushed with sauce while grilling so the sugars in that sauce caramelize. To most pitmasters boiling the meat is heresy, and serious BBQ fans almost everywhere else but St. Louis don’t let the fire touch the meat. Chicagoans care about this not at all, and keep making their ‘que the way they have since at least the 1940s.
I mention this to explain why the meat at Chicago For Ribs is different from barbecue just about anywhere else. Back in 1982 the chain started a few blocks from their current location in Redondo, opened branches as far afield as Santa Monica and San Pedro, and closed the original. They recently reopened in the former Casa Pulido space, back in the town where they started after a decade’s absence.
The room that was dark and dingy as Casa Pulido has been upgraded and is now full of light, and the architectural details suggest the style of a 19th Century Midwestern saloon. The menu is heavy on barbecue but there are a few burgers, salads, and standard items. On a recent visit we started with a Caesar salad, onion rings, and a cup of potato-cheese soup. The onion rings here are served in a solid brick that always turns out oily. I like the traditional style better, though this is a matter of taste. The Caesar was decent but not exceptional, but the creamy potato soup with bacon and chopped scallions was a winner. Potato soup is pure comfort food on a cold night, and on a brisk evening I’d drink a thermos-full.
It seemed appropriate at a place called Chicago For Ribs to order a rib sampler, with sides of barbecue beans and their “Chicago fries,” which are waffle fries by another name. The sampler has two large beef ribs and half a rack each of St. Louis cut and baby back ribs, which is a lot of food. All had the same sauce and were cooked the same way, so you order based on the cut of meat you like. The pork ribs were more tender than the beef, no surprise because beef ribs have less fat and are better cooked low and slow than quickly grilled. Neither had much smoke flavor though both had some caramelization of the sugars in the sauce. That sauce is similar to those I’ve had in Chicago — thin with flavors of ketchup, sugar, citrus, and vinegar, with more black than red pepper. It’s milder and sweeter than my favorites in the Windy City, but recognizably has the same flavor profile.
The fries that accompanied the meats were a bit soft and could have used another minute in the fryer, but the beans were good and had a nice balance of brown sugar and spice.
My wife ordered the fried shrimp with a baked potato and coleslaw, intending to trade crustaceans for nibbles of my pork ribs. These were competently executed, the batter on the shrimp light and crisp, but unexceptional in spicing. Along with salmon, they’re the option a meat-centric restaurant offers for those who want something else. Both meals came with a choice of dinner rolls or sweet cornbread, which is usually served with sweetened butter. It’s better with regular butter, which our server Katie offered. Our interactions with her were a high point of the evening. She checked on several items to avoid my wife’s food allergy and was warm and professional. She gave accurate recommendations from their by-the-glass list and was a model of good service.
I decided to return for lunch to get the “Chicago beef sandwich.” When I asked my server for details I found that it was not the Italian beef sandwich served in Chicago, but a standard barbecue beef sandwich. That Italian beef sandwich is a delicacy almost unknown in LA, and if they served it they’d have a market for homesick Midwesterners. I decided to get a kielbasa sandwich with cheese and pickle instead. Kielbasa in Poland or Chicago Polish neighborhoods is usually made with coarsely ground pork, very garlicky, and has herbal flavors from marjoram and sometimes juniper. In California they are usually made with a finely ground mix of pork and beef, with little or no herbal flavors. This one split the difference, all pork with a touch of garlic but no detectable herbs. It was a good smoked sausage, but not the kind I used to pack into suitcases to remind my mother of the old country.
Chicago For Ribs isn’t a restaurant for purists, and I’ll admit that I’m in that category. It’s something to have until the next time I can get the real thing, and eating there makes me wish I had an airline reservation on my calendar.
Chicago For Ribs is at 228 Avenue I in Redondo. Open daily at 11:30 a.m, close 9:30 p.m. Su-Thu, 10 p.m. Fr-Sa. Small parking lot or street parking, wine and beer served. ChicagoForRibs.com. (424) 390-4501. ER
by Richard Foss