I recently watched the four-part docu-series Cooked on Netflix, in which renowned journalist and author Michael Pollan urges his viewers to return to the kitchen, reconnect with the past and build deeper relationships with food and cooking. The first episode, “Fire,” focuses on our primal need to cook and how this reminds us of our place in the cosmos — halfway between gods and animals. Pollan cites barbecue as the closest thing to primordial fire-cooking that we have in America, particularly Southern barbecue.
Although I didn’t have quite that large of an existential experience during my lunch trip to the new Blackwood BBQ location (962 W. Belmont Ave.) off the Belmont Red Line stop, I did have some barbeque that rivals some of the best I’ve had in the South.
Blackwood is one of many fast-service, casual barbecue eateries in Chicago, but what sets it apart is written right on the backs of the employees’ T-shirts: “Our knives cut meat and vegetables, never corners.” All the meat and vegetables used are fresh, all-natural and hand-selected straight from the farmer. All the pork, beef and chicken comes from the same farms to ensure the animals are treated and fed right and that the meat is high quality.
This philosophy of sourcing the best ingredients and taking the time to properly cook them definitely comes through in the end product. If you were to make this meal yourself, the same way Blackwood does, it would probably take you a full day (maybe longer). Although Pollan may suggest that this approach would be worth it, I’ll stick with Blackwood until my landlord and roommates agree to me moving a smoker into the apartment.
The counter-service joint is laid out similar to Chipotle, so as you walk down the line you can see all the options for meats and sides before they go on your plate. (Un)fortunately for me, this meant I wanted to try almost everything on the menu.
I ended up with a pulled pork sandwich topped with Chicago-style sauce ($7.49), with sides of pickled vegetables (free with sandwich), mac and cheese ($1.79) and cheddar cornbread ($1.29).
I’ve complained in the past about the lack of creativity in Chicago’s barbecue scene, with many restaurants pulling styles from around the country instead of inventing their own, so when I saw “Chicago style” on the list of six sauces, I knew I had to order it. It’s described as a “blend of sweet and heat simmered with Old Style lager” and delivers just that. At other barbecue joints, I normally have to mix at least two types of sauces (such as a sweet Memphis style and tangy North Carolina style) to achieve this taste, and I was glad to see that my favorite blend is now officially proclaimed as Chicago’s as well.
The meat itself barely needed a sauce, however. It was incredibly juicy and had a distinct smokey flavor. Eating the house-made pickles with the sandwich added another element of tang that perfectly complemented the sweet flavors in the sauce.
The sides, however, were not to be outshined by the main entrée. The mac and cheese takes four hours to make and is individually prepared and fired, according to Blackwood’s website. The rich and creamy bechamel sauce and combination of three cheeses (extra sharp white and yellow cheddar and aged Gruyere) produced a flavorful bite that was brought to the next level with the golden crust of seasoned panko breadcrumbs on top. The cheddar cornbread muffin was sweet and not dry by any means (no butter needed).
Verdict: Whether you’re looking to reconnect with your primal instincts or just grab a quick, filling lunch while traveling between the Lake Shore and Water Tower campuses, Blackwood has you covered.