When I was in school on the south-side of the Chicago, a bunch of students and I made the pilgrimage to Russell’s to get what we were told was the best BBQ around. And it was pretty good. In 1976.
Since then, the Chicagoland area has seen an explosion of exceptional BBQ places: Honey 1, Smoque, Chicagoq, Lillie’s Q, Barn & Company, and many other places serving BBQ in the styles of St. Louis, Memphis, South Carolina, and Texas.
And yet, every now and again, I have a hankering for the ribs of Russell’s.
I don’t know how Russell’s ribs are cooked, and I’m not going to assume that, like another major local name in BBQ, they get their ribs cooked off-site, which they then truck in, re-heat, sauce, and serve. Russell’s might do that …but it doesn’t matter.
What Russell’s, like Gene and Jude’s on River Road, has going for it is community, memory, nostalgia. This is a neighborhood place that people have been coming to for generations, and it’s beloved.
When we visited Russell’s on a Friday night, we saw a family of probably 20 trooping out from a birthday party they’d held in the back room, big smiles, one guy was wearing a beer helmet, people were carrying balloons, they were happy, and it wasn’t because of the food, necessarily, but because they were coming back to a place they’d known all their lives, a place that was practically part of the family.
“Been coming here for twenty years,” a young man of probably 25 years proudly said as he passed by.
I used to visit Russell’s with my youngest daughter, who’s now all grown up. It was our special place. We always ordered the ribs without sauce, which was maybe a mistake but that’s how we did it. The experience meant a lot to her and to me. She made a picture of the two of us, bodies made of soda straws, hand-in-hand going to Russell’s.
The food was fine; the experience was wonderful.
Proust had his madeleine; we have our Russell’s ribs.