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Restaurant Thu Aug 21 2008
How far is too far for a restaurant? Five miles? Ten? Twenty? How about 90?
I'm a lazy ass who generally wants her kibble within easy reach of her lair. (This is why I usually end up eating at the just-passable Thai restaurant on the corner after a busy day.) But when it comes to barbecue, I travel far. Way too far. Ninety miles.
This is sort of funny, for up till a few years ago, I totally did not understand the draw of the barbecue. For one thing, the idea of a meal consisting solely of big slabs of meat without any vegetables (shredded cabbage drenched in sickly sweet dressing barely qualifies as a vegetable in my dictionary) didn't appeal to me all that much. To make matters worse, on those rare occasions when I do get big slabs of meat, they tended to be chewy, dried-out, half-charred ribs (this I had at an upscale brewery/restaurant up in Glenview) or flavorless fatty chicken smothered in sickly sweet, stinging yet depthless barbecue sauce that can drown a whole ostrich (this I had at a barbecue place in Evanston). In other words, I just hadn't had good barbecue.
My experience with barbecue vastly improved in recent years, starting with the Exsenator's down in the south suburbs, followed by the discovery (and then, dearly mourned loss) of Chelsea's in the same area, then the dramatic climax at the Alabama John's in Tampa (my husband's olden favorite). Even my recent trip to New York City, of all places, came with a surprising treat of great barbecue at the (decidedly touristy) Blue Smoke. (Ah, the pulled pork!) So, after five years in the United States of Barbecue, I now understand the stomach-pinching desire for a good barbecue -- and I don't know if it's a blessing, especially in a city that seems to be a bit lacking in the smokiness department.
This is where the 90-mile jaunt comes in. Well, it's actually 180 miles if you count both ways, come to think of it. Smokin' Woody's -- the shrine of Midwestern barbecue I'm talking about -- is a prefabricated shack along a gently curving highway on the Eastern coast of Lake Michigan. Along the highway 12, in Sawyer, a handful of antique shops, restaurants and farmers' stands are scattered under the perpetual lake-effect clouds that every once in a while erase everything behind gray sheets of brief, heavy rain. The area is green with 100-foot trees, and empty. It has a quiet, underappreciated sort of beauty, especially when you haven't seen anything green beyond Lincoln Park lately. That's where Smokin' Woody's stands. Beside the prefabricated shack, there's something that looks like a covered parking spot -- only that this parking spot houses a wheeled smoker, gleaming black from serious use like a miniature locomotive. Smoke streams out into the woods that surround the shack, and as you pull into the parking lot (not the one with the smoker in it, but the one for cars, of course), your nose knows, a few milliseconds before you do, that something wonderful is in store there.
Inside of a rickety screen door, tables are scattered in a dim dining area with a window open to the kitchen, where Smokin' Woody himself hacks up the ribs and fries the potatoes. Way in the back is a spacious screened-in porch with funky hand-made chairs with faces painted on them in red, yellow, green and purple. Sit in the porch to enjoy the cool air and listen to the fine rain rustle the woods just outside, or sit in the dining area to eavesdrop on the local regulars exchanging raucous greetings and cracking jokes with Woody. Either way, get the sampler for a starter. It comes with all the different kinds of meat Woody's has smoking in the back, baked beans, potato of the day, a forgettable salad and a mysterious roll smothered in melted butter. The aluminum tray is the size of a small washing basin, piled in heaps of meats. There's more than enough for two to share, though I don't want to be held responsible for any bloody feud that may result from sharing the sampler platter.
Now, the meats. Center cut pork can be a bit on the moisture-sucking side, though tender and flavorful. Smoked sirloin is divine, packed with blood-dripping beefiness of rare stake sublimated into something even better. It's amazing how beefy it remains after what must be a fairly long hours of smoking. Then, the chicken -- it falls off the bones with a slightest nudge of a fork (or a poke of a finger, depending on your inclination). The skin is beautiful -- brown, crispy on the edge, and freckled with little charred blisters. The dark meat is succulent and packed with chickeny goodness, but the real surprise is the white meat. It's the juiciest white meat you've ever placed in your mouth -- no hint of flavorless, fibrous dry breast you've been forced to accept as chicken. It's almost a revelation that chicken breast could be this good. And there's the ribs. Charred on the outside, pink and greasy on the inside, Smokin' Woody's ribs are a thing to admire. Pulling apart the pieces that haven't been completely cut apart by the determined cleaver of Woody (you hear his heavy yet rhythmical chop, chop, chop on the board as the orders come in) is a pleasure in itself, tinged at the same time with the urge to taste the meat and the primordial joy of handling your food with your bare hands. Once the ribs are in the mouth, it almost seems to melt. The pink flesh collapses on itself and the grease coats your palate, as you munch on the crunchy shell. Slightly sweet, slightly tangy sauce is a perfect accompaniment -- well balanced, not too weak, not too strong.
Thirty minutes later, you will be sitting back in your mismatched chair, rubbing your belly that seems to protrude just a few inches more. In front of you is the aluminum platter, with a little hill of bones on it. If you are like me, you'll wonder if you should keep grinning -- because it was a darn good lunch -- or start worrying about all the cholesterol and calories. And if you are like me, you won't have a choice; while your brain might think that you should do the latter, you just can't stop grinning. It was a darn good barbecue, whatever the consequences may be. Outside, the rain has tapered off, leaving beads of dew on the wild flowers growing by the gravel parking lot. Everything has a moist sheen on it, and you know that it'll be beautiful when the sun peeks out of the shifting clouds and cast its golden ray into the cool air. You're ready for another few hours of driving in the rolling hills of Southwestern Michigan.
Or -- if you've had enough driving for the day -- you can trace your way back to Chicago, all 90 miles of it. Route 12 wraps around Lake Michigan, passing through agreeable small towns on the coast. It's a fairly fast road at 55 mph, and the traffic is light. After brushing past the huge electric plant in Michigan City (where cascading roar of the cooling water reaches the road), the road winds through the lush woods and marshlands of the Indiana Dunes National Lake Shore. You can rejoin I-94 before hitting infamous Gary, but driving through Gary on this local road does offer a different view of the region. Aside from the usual signs of general urban dilapidation like boarded-up storefront, rusty cars, weeds taking over front yards, there's the inescapable stink of the steel mills that operates on the southern shore of the Lake. The sharp, metallic smell seems to clutch onto the entire city, even on a sunny, windy day. (I had to wonder if the smell does something to the brain--making people angry, violent.) Just about when you are sufficiently horrified by the idea of living in Gary's perpetual and poisonous stink, there's an on-ramp to I-90. From the elevated bridge of the expressway, the lake looks almost black under the late afternoon sun. Chicago's skyline, looking oddly unfamiliar, looms on the horizon. Just below the bridge, between the expressway and the lake, are the sight of old factories and weighted bridges -- a delight for a lover of anything industrial.
So, in the end, 180-mile round trip to a barbecue joint is not that bad. No, really. The road there is beautiful in parts, horrifying in others. The area around the barbecue shack is a pleasant, less-traveled farm country with gentle hills, original forests, sand dunes and a handful of wineries. And -- let's not forget -- the barbecue is darn phenomenal.