Tell someone you’ve found good fried chicken and they’ll likely taste it, concur that yes, it’s pretty good, and move on. Recommend barbecue and you’re taking your life in your own hands. Not only do most people’s barbecue ideals vary as widely as their religious beliefs, both are held with similar conviction.
Now couple this dilemma with the fact that barbecue is by far the hardest cooking technique to master, taking years of practice to truly nail consistency. So why would the guys from Tizi Melloul go into the barbecue business after closing their Moroccan romance den? Maybe they figured it was a solution to the recession; move from high-rent River North to a corner of Avondale. Or perhaps they’re gluttons for punishment. Turning out tender, juicy, flavorful smoked meats on a daily basis for a public ready to pounce (nearly 50 posts discussed Pork Shoppe on LTHForum before the joint even opened) is infinitely harder than sending out steamed mussels in harissa butter to tipsy, schmoopy couples.
Pork Shoppe swings as far bare as Tizi swung opulent, with little more than a handful of wooden crates, farm tools and a wagon wheel for decor. Regardless, the real investment should have been made in a real smoker and the time it takes to master one. As it is, chef Jason Heiman is going to have an uphill battle with his Toastmaster electric smoker, which in barbecue circles is better known as a Cook ‘n’ Hold, a Set-It-And-Forget-It and, according to Kansas City Barbecue Society rules, illegal for competition barbecue on the basis that it’s cheating. Like any electric smoker, you can tuck a few smoke boxes in there filled with wood chips, and Heiman does this, but you’re never going to get the same flavor as you would with live fire. Still, Pork Shoppe’s chicken takes in at least a noticeable touch of smoke, but it’s lost to the sticky chew of dry meat. Pork shoulder suffers the same fate, sucked clean of its moisture and missing crucial seasoning. But the biggest tease is the brisket, which shows signs of high-quality beef and a well-marbled cut despite the fact that it tastes overcooked, drying out even more as it’s being sliced and held for too long.
With a mouthful of warming spices and a hefty dose of grease, you could fool yourself into polishing off a few agressively dry-rubbed ribs, but a closer look shows they’re good only by comparison to everything else coming out of the smoker. They still lack the juice, the smoky flavor and the telltale pink smoke ring needed to compete.
On the other hand, macaroni shells in creamy white cheddar with an au gratin topper and molasses-thick beans studded with burnt ends show promise. And the weekend special of pork-belly pastrami, streaked with glistening fat and rightly tart from a proper cure, shows that Heiman isn’t fumbling around in the dark. Unfortunately, the rest of Pork Shoppe’s lineup shows that the transition from chef to pit master is a lot tougher in practice than conception.