Lexington Betty Smokehouse in Pullman

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Why would a barbecue restaurant not serve ribs in Chicago?

“I think rib tips represent Chicago-style barbecue,” said Dominique Leach, chef and owner of Lexington Betty Smokehouse in the Pullman neighborhood. “And I just want to continue to push the narrative that Chicago is worth talking about when it comes to barbecue.”

I agree. I’ve talked to famous barbecue experts about Chicago-style barbecue, who only go on to say, “There’s Chicago-style barbecue?” And I want to pull my hair out.

At Lexington Betty, the tips are exceptionally big and tender.

“I essentially tried to come up with my own style,” said Leach, a rare Black woman pitmaster. “Rib tips are really hard when it comes to my culture, because so many people smoke their own. They can be very judgmental, like, ‘Your rib tips don’t taste like my father’s.’ (But) that’s the point.”

So the chef treats rib tips with the spotlight typically reserved for ribs.

“And we cut them with a little more girth,” she said. “They’re clearly a rib tip, but they resemble a rib as well.”

The brisket is a surprising find at a barbecue restaurant on the South Side.

“The brisket is so special to me, because I didn’t grow up eating brisket,” Leach said. “I actually didn’t have brisket for the first time until I was an adult.”

The brisket with sauce on the side, greens and a corn muffin at Lexington Betty Smokehouse.

Before she first opened, Leach went down to Texas.

“Someone recommended a food truck called la Barbecue,” the chef said. “I ordered the brisket, and it just made such an impression on me. I said if I’m gonna do this, we have to have brisket on the menu, mainly because I wanted to give people the same feeling that I had when trying out that food truck’s brisket for the first time.”

So she taught herself how to make it from trial and error.

“To have brisket at a South Side Black-owned restaurant is so rare,” Leach said. “We are still introducing new people that come into the restaurant to brisket. A lot of them have certainly never had it. Some of them have never even heard of it.”

The brisket won her the title of best barbecue in Chicago on “Good Morning America” when she faced off against none other than Soul & Smoke’s chef D’Andre Carter in May. And cheering her on in the audience was her grandmother and restaurant namesake Betty King, originally from Lexington, Mississippi.

Some barbecue circles place a high value on a pink smoke ring, but I once judged a brisket competition where the color seemed pushed to the point of the meat drying out. Lexington Betty’s brisket remains remarkably lush throughout. There’s no pink smoke ring, but there is wood smoke.

“We use the Southern Pride SC-300, which means that it fits 300 pounds of meat,” said the chef about her smoker. “It doesn’t take pellets. I specifically wanted to continue using a wood-burning smoker, and our smoke element is apple wood.”

The chef's special combo with rib tips and wagyu sausage at Lexington Betty Smokehouse.

Originally she smoked in an old-school barrel smoker, striking out on her own out as a caterer in 2016 after working as a line cook at the Four Seasons hotel, and at Spiaggia under chef Tony Mantuano.

Leach bought her first food truck with her wife and business partner, Tanisha Griffin Leach, in June 2017.

It seemed like the beginning of a dream come true, until four months later when someone threw a Molotov cocktail into the truck, setting it on fire while it was parked in front of their home.

“If that wasn’t scary enough, about two days later, someone broke into my car,” said the chef.

They packed up everything and slept in the office of their then-new catering location on North Avenue in the Galewood neighborhood.

“It was a really depressing time,” Leach said. No one was ever arrested. “What’s crazy is the bottle was still intact from the cocktail itself.”

Her former managers at the Four Seasons called and offered work if she needed it. The chef went back for about four months until the couple was able to replace the truck.

It wasn’t until September 2019 that Lexington Betty opened its first restaurant location, the Galewood storefront, with just 24 seats.

A few months later, Lexington Betty added a stall inside One Eleven Food Hall, with a grand opening in February 2020. Despite the first pandemic dining shutdown soon after, they seemed to be on a roll, and opened another stall, at Dr. Murphy’s Food Hall in the former Cook County Hospital development.

“When we opened there that was immediately our busiest location,” Leach said. “But COVID wasn’t done yet, and when dining in was taken from us yet again, Dr. Murphy’s quickly became our slowest location.”

In March of this year, a pipe burst during a freezing night at the Galewood location.

“I immediately called the landlord to let her know,” Leach said. “She said, ‘I don’t have any more money to put into that building.’”

That building was where Leach cooked for all three Lexington Betty locations. She temporarily closed for two weeks, then moved out of Galewood and Dr. Murphy’s.

“Then (Chicago Neighborhood Initiatives) called us while all of this was going on to say, ‘Hey, the other two tenants in the One Eleven Food Hall are moving out. Would you like to take over the entire space?’ And here I am, I don’t have a dime to my name,” Leach said.

After CNI gave Lexington Betty a $30,000 grant to buy a walk-in cooler for the catering side of the business, they celebrated their takeover grand opening in April.

They’ve painted the airy open space in their signature colors of fiery orange and charcoal black. It’s still counter service, and a side patio remains available when weather permits in the strip mall steps from the Pullman National Monument.

When you go, get the chef special with your choice of two meats, which should be brisket and rib tips if it’s your first visit, and ask for sauce on the side. The dry rub spice comes from the Memphis school of barbecue, while the tangy sauce with a bit of vinegar represents North Carolina style, but with a spicier kick. The blackened brisket bark contrasts with the golden rib tip hue, but both pull apart with barest of tugs.

You also get your choice of what Leach calls soulful sides with the special. Get the greens. In fact, get an extra side of greens, cooked down to a transcendent state with smoked turkey tails.

“We used to make the greens with smoked ham hocks, how I grew up eating them,” Leach said. But customers shied away. “Then I realized that smoked turkey tails have a very similar fat content to the ham hocks. It really elevates the flavor profile.”

While the greens are the bestselling side for good reason, the Gouda macaroni and cheese comes in at a close second, baked to amplify its flavor.

A big and beautiful sweeter Northern style cornbread muffin is also included with the special.

The smoked chicken and pulled pork rival any around town, the former with crisped skin, the latter silky, and both impressively succulent.

The vegan pulled pork sandwich, however, deserves special recognition and its own identity. It’s an intensely flavorful creation all its own: meaty strips piled high, with crunchy slaw and pickles, baptized in the spicy house sauce, all on a vegan brioche bun.

It is not a Beyond Meat product nor jackfruit, as listed on some menus, but seitan made with wheat gluten, the chef said. It’s a lot like tofu, so when someone knows how to season and cook, it takes on that flavor.

The vegan 'pulled pork' sandwich at Lexington Betty Smokehouse.
Lexington Betty's banana pudding.

The banana pudding is made from scratch in house, lovely and creamy, but not too sweet. TeTe’s fresh-squeezed lemonade, made by the chef’s wife, is decidedly sweet, with delicate pulp and an infusion of sun.

The wagyu steak dog, available cooked and dressed three ways, or by the refrigerated package, is a new item made by Vander Farmers, the Michigan-based company making wagyu hot dogs at some Home Depot stores. But at Lexington Betty’s, the brisket and rib tips outdo the dog.

A huge order of seasoned fries comes with those steak dogs, and often as the default side with no substitutions allowed. When freshly fried, they’re filling and fine, largely thanks to the house seasoning spice. But when they sit under a heat lamp, which mine did on one visit before serving, they’re starchy and a chore. I beg of you, chef, please let us sub a cornbread muffin instead.

The wagyu andouille sausage, however, could make the Lexington Betty tips and link combo among the best around Chicago. It’s still in the testing phase, but available on one of my visits.

“It needs to be a little spicier,” Leach said. “But it is delicious.”

Holy smokes, it is indeed, with a crackly casing snap.

“I’m really happy that the community has been receptive to what I’ve put out into the world as an artist,” said the chef. “And it fills my heart that despite all the tumultuous times, like the food truck being set on fire, or the broken pipe on North Avenue, I just never stopped and I still don’t stop dreaming big.”

756 E. 111th St.

773-309-8240

lexingtonbettysmokehouse.com

Open: 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday; noon to 6 p.m. Sunday; closed Monday

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Prices: Sides, $2-$3.75; platters and specials, $10-$18; dessert, $4

Noise: Conversation-friendly

Accessibility: Wheelchair accessible with restrooms on single level

Tribune rating: Very good to excellent, 2½ stars

Ratings key: Four stars, outstanding; three stars, excellent; two stars, very good; one star, good; no stars, unsatisfactory. Meals are paid for by the Tribune.

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