Aqua team hunger force

Aquarium smokers are a true Chicago barbecue original.
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MEAT MARKETING Lem’s Bar-B-Q’s aqua smoker makes for a barbecue spectacle.
By Michael Gebert. Photograph by Marina Makropoulos. |
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In Texas, they use long metal sarcophagi encrusted with a century of holy barbecue grime. In Tennessee, they spread-eagle pigs over a pit made of bricks. But in Chicago, much of the best barbecue comes from a gleaming, Miesian glass-and-steel box that barbecue fans call an “aquarium smoker” for its fish-tank appearance. How did such a modern-looking device come to be the mark of ’cue tradition here—and nowhere else?

The South Side style of barbecue, like the blues, came up from Mississippi in the 1920s and ’30s. The earliest pit masters in Bronzeville cooked out of metal drums cut in half, but as black restaurateurs began to open more modern restaurants after the war, they often built sturdy brick barbecue pits, which can be a pain to keep clean.

“If you build the pit into the wall, you got to go in, pull out bricks, scrape and scrub,” says James Lemons of Lem’s Bar-B-Q (311 E 75th St, 773-994-2428), which opened in 1954 and uses an aquarium smoker. “Nowadays, the Health Department don’t want to let you stay open with that kind of pit.” In the early 1950s, local sheet-metal fabricator Leo Davis devised the first aqua smoker, a tempered glass-and-steel pit (complete with vent and attached temperature-controlling water hose) that replicated the direct flame of a brick pit, while disassembling easily for cleaning. It didn’t hurt that it showcased the pit masters’ hot meat just as the windows at Marshall Field’s showed off haute couture.

You still see this style of pit all over the South and West Sides and even as far afield as the North Shore and Champaign. But you don’t always see the aqua smokers in operation anymore; many joints that have them switched over to simpler gas ovens with separate smoke boxes for cooking and use the glass pit just for show. Jim Brunetti of Avenue Metal (1640 W Ogden Ave, 312-243-3483), which still makes a few new aquarium smokers each year, says that complaints about the smoke smell and the fire-hazard potential (the aqua smoker at Uncle John’s BBQ went up in flames last week) make them a hard sell.

For partisans of the direct-flame method of cooking rib tips and hot links, though, there’s no substitute for the control and subtleties of flavor that a real wood fire in an aquarium smoker offers. Robert Adams Sr. of Honey 1 BBQ (2241 N Western Ave, 773-227-5130) uses white and red oak in his aquarium smoker because its moisture content helps it burn more slowly; he adds a little apple wood for flavor. The most labor-intensive part is constantly tinkering to keep the pit between 190 and 225 degrees Fahrenheit—the barbecue sweet spot.

“I keep cooling it by spraying it, because the slower it cooks, the better,” Adams says, comparing the aqua smoker to gas-fired smokers that run hotter. “If you’re not willing to spend the time, you can’t cook in a smoker like this. It’s as simple as that.”

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