It was with enthusiasm that I accepted the invitation to join five of my hungry friends for a dinner last month provided by Uncle John’s Barbecue. One friend had flown in from Texas and joined us for an afternoon of enjoyment at Uncle John’s Barbecue. My friends and I are experienced at eating food, exploring meats far and wide. All have a keen curiosity of barbecue, which several of us cover in well-followed food blogs. I had been to Uncle John’s 47 times before, starting two years or so ago.
The evening turned into a disappointment for all of us, both due to structural problems in communication at the restaurant, and in terms of the food. Here are the details:
The room is quaint, a bit utilitarian in feel. There is a vinegar-like smell to the room, and I find the bullet-proof glass comforting, given the neighborhood. The room was only about two guests full when we arrived, and at its busiest, there were three more guests in line behind us.
My friends and I debated what to do for the menu, and, when told Pitmaster Mack Sevier was in the back, we asked if he would put together a menu he thought best for that evening for six people. Our cashregisterwoman said fine, and off she went. We assumed we would have some type of tasting menu that we could discuss amongst ourselves.
What followed was an insight into both structural problems in communication between the front (FOS) and back (BOS) of the shack, as well as striking inconsistencies in the dishes the kitchen produced. As we returned to the car and then to our home, we discovered that we were given several items we hadn’t anticipated, that quality and temperature had declined in the 72 minutes it took to get home, and that the meats had rearranged themselves into an almost haphazard cacophony within the metal trays. On calling back to the restaurant with our dismay, I was instructed that “I told someone in back that y’all had crazy requests, but they advised that Mack was in no mood to be approached or spoken to.” When we more strenuously objected, the Fry Master (FM) Nelson took the phone and told us “Mack doesn’t do any special menu for nobody, including aldermen and bearded barbecue book authors who dine here.” Someone should have communicated this to us when we initially asked, and we would have then have devised a tasting menu ourselves from the existing board.
The quality of execution of the dishes was like a roller coaster of quality and creativity. The pan of French fries was, by time of consumption, too cool to allow the crispness to be fully appreciated. On this visit, the tips were served separately from the links in their own pan. Perfectly cooked ribs, served inside a delightful tent of aluminum foil, wre brilliant. Unfortunately, they were followed by chicken wings, which, while unexpected, were only the second-best fresh fried chicken wings I’ve had on the South Side. The wings had some kind of accompaniment that appeared to be some sort of jug filled with some sort of sauce, and which was surprisingly salty and spicy. Disappointingly, I noticed on our receipt that we were charged $6 for this sauce even though we did not use it.
After this jarring experience, I doubt I’ll return to Uncle John’s Barbecue more than four times per month. We saw flashes of brilliance, but far too much unevenness in the execution, packaging, and organization to make dining in Gurnee after taking out from 69th street and MLK reasonable. Far worse, though was what I think of as structural problems in communication between FOS and BOS. Mack seems to be in a cocoon of smoky smoke, and not to his advantage.
This was to be a special diner that involved a national evaluation of barbecue places on the South Side, and we had corresponded with the cashregisterwoman in advance, asking about their prices and policies, and introducing her verbally to the friends I’d be bringing. We expected grand slams in every pan, and were disappointed at the doubles off the wall, especially given who we were.