On a windy day, the aroma can seep through your car window starting around 111th Street: a unique blend of truck exhaust and barbecue. I-57 Rib House in the far south neighborhood of Morgan Park is part of a chain of rib joints that mostly follow the path of Interstate I-57 as it runs through Chicago and south into the suburbs.
The red barn sticks out like a sore thumb on a corner overlooking the highway. Painted on the exterior is a larger-than-life chicken. This genetic monstrosity dons a trucker’s garb, red lipstick, and a haircut worthy of Howard Stern. Inside, the smell of roasting meat and savory sauces is overwhelming. It’s the only hint of the larger kitchen in the back, completely hidden from view. Orders and payment are taken through bullet-proof glass, and a lively soundtrack of soul and gospel brightens up the otherwise gloomy interior.
The menu hints at their catering market, offering various sized pans of rib tips, hot links, catfish, and chicken, as well as several combos. Our modest party had ordered too much food: a half slab of ribs ($10.50), some hot links (a small order, $6.25, is one and a half foot-long links), and wings (7 for $6.50, 10 for $9.75). I-57 Rib House’s add-a-wing/add-a-link option allows you to add either to your order for $0.65 per wing or $3.25 per link. The menu includes a selection of traditional barbecue sides: okra, baked beans, coleslaw, and fries, which come with all meat items on the menu. The slaw is nothing special, although it’s complimentary if you request it at the time of purchase.
I-57 Rib Houses are take-out only establishments: there’s almost no seating offered inside, so your options are limited to eating in the parking lot or driving back home. Be warned either way: devouring these meals is a messy business. The hot links on their bed of fries were swimming in sauce. I-57 Rib House offers three varieties of sauce: mild, hot, and mixed. An uncommon strength among these is that they don’t underestimate the power of sweetness, although this leads to them being rather similar. The mild sauce is clearly sweetest of the three: a tangy, reddish syrup that resembles something one might find in Chinatown drizzled over sweet and sour chicken. It makes perfect sense when paired with the hot links, which are blackened and generously flecked with spicy red peppers.
The hot sauce on the wings was more sparingly applied, yielding to the glutinous grease of the large wing itself. The fried crunch had certainly diminished in the course of the car ride home, but the wing itself was moist and flavorful. It’s difficult to imagine eating a full slab of ribs, as the half slab was already gargantuan. Walking the fine line between tender and chewy, the ribs had been blessed with a slow cooking. Perhaps there had been an error in our order, but the mixed sauce, theoretically a fifty-fifty combination of the mild and hot sauces, seemed to pack the most heat. None of the sauces are particularly fiery, but the mixed sauce that coated the ribs picked up their smokiness, redefining the standards of Chicago barbecue.
The late weekend hours are an appeal to midnight snackers, as it’s open until 1:30am on Friday and Saturday nights. Be sure to call ahead during the day, though; the original Morgan Park location has an established presence in the community as a caterer of afternoon barbecues, and the staff is frequently preparing several large orders. The wait time for your individual order can be upwards of an hour on weekends. Despite the slow service and long distance from the CTA (although it’s reachable by bus or on foot from several nearby Metra stops), I-57 Rib House is an excellent reason to venture southward.
I-57 Rib House, 1524 W. 115th St. Monday, Wednesday, and Thursday, 11am-9:30pm; Friday-Saturday, 11am-1:30am; Sunday, 1:30-9:30pm. (773)429-1111. Other locations within city limits: 9707 S. Halsted St., 6514 S. Western Ave., 1227 E. 87th St.