Appearances can be a particularly difficult way to gauge the quality of a barbeque establishment. The best joints are often hole-in-the-walls, unseemly on the outside, adorned with tacky checkered patterns within, and often unheard of outside a small devoted community; their second-rate cousins, meanwhile, don’t look all that different. In a no-nonsense industry, everything depends on the food.
Such a standard, however, can still be notoriously difficult to pin down. Take 79th Street BBQ. Out of 4 Yelp reviews, two give it 1 star, the others 4 and 5. A WGN video review calls it the best in the city, but the Facebook screenshot credited with the recommendation curiously cites “Lem’s 79th” (Lem’s Bar-B-Q, located on 75th, is highly regarded among critics). And it’s not as though one can rely on a name like “79th Street BBQ” for any hints, either.
So, four friends and I ventured hungrily into West Chatham, not knowing quite what to expect. We had planned on dining in, which 79th Street advertises as an option on their website, only to find that the few seats inside are suited more for customers awaiting pick-up orders. 79th Street, just three blocks from the Red Line and Dan Ryan, clearly caters primarily to an on-the-go clientele.
It’s also a place to try only if you are prepared to eat a lot of meat, at the expense of just about anything else. The menu offers a wide variety of standard barbeque fare–rib tips, wings, links, ribs, turkey drums, and chicken–but only lists “cakes, butter cookies, pies & appetizers” in passing. There’s no mention of sides.
We ended up going with the rib tips, wings, beef links, and pork ribs. Each comes in foil and a Styrofoam box, topped with fries and several generous ladles of mild sauce (a bundle of white bread is wrapped separately). 79th Street also makes no mention of sauce options, but after seeing the customer in front of us request the hot variety, I made sure to get some before we left. The lady behind the counter was kind enough to give it to me for free, even though a sign next to the register clearly stated a 55-cent charge for extra sauce.
With no place to eat in the restaurant, we headed home to eat. Though there hadn’t been much of a wait for our order, the commute was long. Luckily, the food has no problem staying hot. Our fingers learned that the hard way when we tried to sneak some fries at a bus stop. However, plain and thick-cut, they really only served to counterbalance the meat.
The rib tips were the clear winners of the bunch. They retained the deepest overall flavor, and certainly didn’t lack in tenderness. However, after picking through the top half of the box, we were left with a much less appealing mixture of soggy fries, chunks of fat, and excess sauce.
The wings benefited the most from the smothering mild sauce. Apart from that they were pretty standard, without a whole lot of flavor or spice involved. It’s never a good sign when barbeque relies too much on its sauce, and that’s no exception here. The sauce itself was sweet enough, and not too runny, but in every case the meats would have struggled to hold on their own. None possessed that distinctly smoky flavor that makes barbeque so worthwhile–the most critical component of all.
We demolished the pork ribs pretty quickly. They certainly weren’t bad, but they took tenderness to a fault. It almost seemed as though they’d been boiled. The beef links went a little more slowly. Heavy, dark, and difficult to trace back to a distinctly beef-like taste, they went mostly untouched. The side order of hot sauce complemented them well enough, though that itself was probably the biggest mystery of all. The sauce had a strong enough cayenne presence to drown out any other flavors, but lacked almost any sort of bite.
Although our hunger was more than satisfied by the meal, our appetite still longed for something slightly beyond. Perhaps 79th Street has its own band of devotees. But amidst all the small-time establishments dotting the South Side, this is one place that doesn’t exceed expectations walking in.
7901 S. Wentworth Ave. Monday-Sunday, 24 hours. (773)483-7909. 79thstreetbarbecue.com