As the cooler weather rolls out, so do the bellies. Not your belly (though that may happen as well) but pork belly, that ubiquitous cut of sumptuous meat with a rich top layer of fat as soft as butter. Fat is as crucial to pork belly as sport peppers are to a Chicago hot dog, and just as contentious—not everyone has a high tolerance for the stuff. So we took a sample of the pork bellies at restaurants around town and did a little (admittedly unscientific) measuring. Which pork bellies are the leanest, which are the meanest? Well, now you know. But make no mistake: A fatty pork belly isn’t necessarily better or worse; it’s all a matter of preference. And considering that temperatures are about to plummet, you could probably use some more fat on your bones anyway.
Avenues rightly calls its pork belly “barbecue,” as all the elements of good ’cue are in place: The belly is pan-fried, roasted and then simmered in a sassafras, root beer–spiked barbecue sauce and crusted with corn nuts. It’s plated with freeze-dried-corn–coated watermelon, corn puree and some creamed collard greens. But this is one barbecue even dieters can enjoy: The cut came in the leanest of all. 108 E Superior St (312-573-6754).
All hail the pork belly at Le Lan, the pork that, in this competition at least, proved the heavyweight. Chef Bill Kim marinates the belly in Chinese rice wine, honey, hoisin, and brandy for one day before roasting it, steaming it, and finally serving it with brown sticky rice, a radish salad and bok choy kimchi. Perhaps knowing that the heavily marbled slab of pork might be too much for an entrée, he wisely only offers it in appetizer portions. 749 N Clark St (312-280-9100).
Blackbird braises its organic pork belly and serves it with Chinese broccoli, scarlet turnips, local plums and barbecue consommé. Never mind that it has one of the highest fat-to-meat ratios we encountered; we don’t argue with chef Paul Kahan, long considered the prince of pork, and neither should you. 619 W Randolph St (312-715-0708).
Timo’s pork belly is roasted by chef John Bubala for 12 hours and served with risotto, peas, corn, scallions and housemade guanciale (because two porks are better than one). This was one of the most generous portions doled out, and one of the leanest fat-to-meat ratios. If that’s the kind of belly you’re looking for, call ahead: Cuts of pig get frequently rotated on and off this menu, so it’s only available during select times. 464 N Halsted St (312-226-4300).
Bluebird’s pork belly is cured and smoked, which technically makes it slab bacon. But whatever you call it, this slow-roasted piece of pork (served with riesling-poached pears) is a great mediator, striking a good balance between meat and fat and coming in right at the middle of our survey. 1749 N Damen Ave (773-486-2473).
Boka#8217;s pork belly may be from Iowa, but here it gets an East Asian treatment. It’s served with bok choy, a galette of buckwheat soba noodles and a tamarind sauce. Of course, you can’t take the Iowa out of the pig: This porker comes in as one of the fattiest cuts we measured. Looks like the reputation Midwesterners have for being hefty applies to our livestock as well. 1729 N Halsted St (312-337-6070).
If you’re reading this, you’re likely looking to pig out on pork belly that won’t break the piggy bank. Or maybe you’re simply looking for lots of pork-puns. No? Fine, we’ll just get to the list.
• At Nhu Lan Bakery (2612 W Lawrence Ave between Rockwell St and Talman Ave, 773-878-9898) grab a banh mi sandwich filled with pork belly and pate for $2.25.
• HotChocolate (1747 N Damen Ave at Willow St, 773-489-1747) uses pork belly in a sandwich as well, but here it’s a pork belly Rueben.
• Fat Cat(4840 N Broadway at Gunnison St, 773-506-3100) offers a pork belly Cuban—a huge mass of meat topped with piquant slices of pickle—for $8.95.
• Finally, check out KS Seafood (2163 S China Pl, Chinatown Mall, 312-842-1238) for pork belly buns—6 of them!—for $4.95.