For our summer series Deep Frydays, we take some of Chicago’s favorite foods and, like the name says, we deep-fry them and deal with the big questions: How do you deep-fry deep-dish? Will it collapse in the heat like a poorly filled pothole? Can you deep-fry a feeling? Will we keep our jobs? Where’s the defibrillator in this building? Let’s find out together!
Today’s sacrifice to the gods of hot oil: rib tips.
Name a food, any food. If it’s been in Chicago long enough, chances are good we will alter it in such a way that we can re-christen it “Chicago-style” – including barbecue. We might not be known as a barbecue town, but we are definitely a meat town, so it makes sense that the Hog Butcher for the World’s barbecue styles come from two pretty disparate ethnic influences.
The “fall-off-the-bone” style of barbecue ribs – think Carson’s or Gale Street – owes its pedigree to the Eastern European immigrants that flocked to Chicago throughout the first half of the 20th century. They traditionally boiled their meats, which gave the ribs a soft texture, but boiled away its porky taste, requiring a thick layer of sweet sauce broiled on them to create their signature flavor. This style is mostly found in North Side establishments … and to be perfectly honest, it’s not our favorite … but it is definitely easy on the jaws, if that’s an important consideration for you.
On the South Side, the Great Migration (both the first and the second) brought thousands of African American migrants from the Mississippi Delta, and they brought their barbecue style with them: smoked meats topped with a sweet/tangy sauce. Originally, the meats were smoked in in-ground pits, but when city regulators nixed that, the pitmasters invented a contraption fairly unique to Chicago known as an aquarium smoker – basically a brick box inside a stainless steel box topped with a glass box where the meats are engulfed in smoke from a chimney above it. This box-in-box-on-box apparatus requires a lot of tending and know-how to keep the temperature and smoke at the right levels.
In those Chicago South Side barbecue joints, the rib tip is king. They’re literally the ends of spare ribs that are cut off when St. Louis-style spare ribs are butchered. Long considered a throwaway cut, rib tips can be tough and dense with cartilage unless a skilled pitmaster coaxes them into buttery tenderness with a long, slow smoke and glazes them with a tangy-spicy-sweet sauce. It’s best to approach eating them like chicken wings – just chew ‘em up and spit out whatever you can’t swallow.
Since the rib tip is not only a Chicago institution but also a finger food, we decided that it was the best local candidate for a beer-batter-and-hot-oil dunk. If you’re really gung ho you can smoke your own, but since our parking lot aquarium smoker was booked for the weekend, ours came from an excellent place to “meat” with friends, Uncle John’s BBQ in Chatham. (Thanks to our colleague and barbecue fan Ava Martin!)
DEEP-FRIED RIB TIPS
• 1-2 pounds of rib tips (go ahead, re-fry the fries too – you deserve it!)
• 1 cup-ish of beer
• 1 cup flour
• 1 egg
Whisk egg into flour; stir in beer. (For a gluten-free version, a one-to-one replacement with gluten-free flour and tonic/soda water for the beer work just fine.) Dip rib tips one at a time in batter and turn to coat, then immediately drop in hot oil. Pop ‘em out when they’re golden and puffy, and watch out for bones! And don’t forget to ask for extra sauce to dip them in.