When the rest of the world thought beef brisket was too leathery to eat, Ashkenazic Jews proved them wrong. For centuries, they braised the cow’s breast low and slow, unlocking a succulence so insatiable American pitmasters wanted in.
“You pickle it, you smoke it, you salt it. You do all these things to give it something,” says Bryan Gryka, executive chef at Milt’s BBQ for the Perplexed. “Nobody wanted the brisket, so it was left for the Jews because we were the peasants, the workers, the other.”
At his Lakeview restaurant, Gryka celebrates this Judaic legacy by smoking over 10,000 pounds of brisket a year, or the equivalent weight of seven Smart cars. As Chicago’s only kosher-certified barbecue joint, the demand is understandably high: the dish is sold everywhere, but smoked, kosher renditions like his hardly exist.
Inspired by his childhood in Arkansas, where he was “right smack dab in the middle of barbecue country,” Gryka models his version after the Memphis style of dry-rubbing brisket in a special seasoning, smoking it with hickory wood and finishing it with a vinegar sauce. It’s been a staple since the restaurant opened in 2013, and the star of its most popular menu items, including the brisket burger and brisket sandwich.
“Barbecue works really well as a kosher translation,” Gryka says. “It’s smoke and meat. That’s what it comes down to.”
But just because pork is prohibited doesn’t mean Jews can only barbecue beef, Gryka says. His favorite meat on the menu is the chicken, which was once named best smoked bird in the city by WTTW’s “Check, Please!”
“I don’t know why other people don’t copy it,” he says. “I’m not complaining.”
Gryka is the brains behind Milt’s menu, which is also nut-free, trans fat-free and celiac-friendly — part of an effort to be “as inclusive as possible.” Yet, it’s not always enough to bring in steady customers, about 80% of whom he says are Jewish.
Kosher restaurants can’t serve meat during The Nine Days, a period of mourning during the Jewish month of Av (July 28-Aug. 6 in 2022). Instead of closing one year, Milt’s stayed open and served fish.
“Nobody came,” he says.
Kosher restaurants also must close from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday in observance of the Sabbath, the Jewish period of rest. In a bustling bar neighborhood like Lakeview, that flushes two big breaks down the drain: booze and brunch. And that still doesn’t account for the other high holiday closures, like Passover and Rosh Hashana.
“This isn’t a reservation neighborhood,” he says. “We’re closed for a third of the year, which makes it very difficult financially.”
Purchasing and preparing kosher food also costs more, Gryka says. The ingredients are harder to source because they must first be approved by a mashgiach, or kosher inspector, who certifies them.
The COVID-19 pandemic amplified this even more, forcing Gryka to pay up amid chicken wing and beef rib shortages to keep them on the menu.
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“I’m literally going from store to store picking up whatever I can,” Gryka says. “It’s tough. I’m paying retail.”
Running the business would be easier if it weren’t kosher, but as a mashgiach himself, he enjoys how the guidelines simplify the process. He knows to use only olive oil instead of butter or cream, and he stays connected to a tight-knit group of kosher pitmasters each carving out their own style while following the same rules.
The group — including Rabbi Mendel Segal of Segal’s Backyard BBQ & Brew in Miami and Sruli Eidelman of Izzy’s in Brooklyn — prefer sharing over secrecy, Gryka says. After all, that’s how brisket became beloved.
“I know how Sruli makes his brisket, and his isn’t better than mine. I’m not gonna hide that,” he says. “We’re not competitors in the same way. We all have our own thing.”
3411 N. Broadway, 773-661-6384, miltsbbq.com
Max Abrams is a freelance writer.
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