Before you pull up to Soul & Smoke in Evanston to grab your pickup order (because you will likely want to almost instantly after reading this), know that I am not playing an elaborate joke on you.
Sure, instead of a recognizable restaurant, you’ll find a charmless squat brick building stuck in an out-of-the-way industrial zone. But inside is one of the best barbecue operations in the Chicago area.
In fact, after multiple visits, I believe Soul & Smoke, run by the husband-and-wife team of D’Andre Carter and Heather Bublick, deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as Chicago barbecue institutions like Lem’s Bar-B-Q, Honey 1 BBQ, Smoque and Trice’s Original Slab BBQ.
In particular, the brisket is the best I’ve tried outside of Texas. Instead of gray and dry like too many versions in Chicago, each bite is outrageously juicy and laced with a smokiness that doesn’t leap for attention so much as wrap its fingers lovingly around the back of your neck. Though jet black, the rub doesn’t try to smother the flavor of the beef so much as tease it in exciting new directions. It’s served with barbecue sauce that trades overt sweetness for a lively, fruity acidity paired with a deeply savory base.
The baby back ribs are nearly as great, with dark-brown bark, a sure mark of hours spent lingering in a smoker. Instead of overly soft and mushy, the ribs maintain the satisfyingly meaty texture of thick-cut pork chops.
One bite, and it’s clear: Someone completely obsessed with barbecue is in the kitchen.
Carter is that someone. He grew up on Chicago’s South Side, learning to cook by helping his grandmother. “For my family, barbecue was celebration food,” Carter said. “I’m the oldest grandchild, so I’d spend a lot of time with my grandmother when she cooked the Sunday meal. She had a big charcoal grill in the backyard, and I fell in love.”
But before jumping into barbecue, he spent years working in some of Chicago’s most acclaimed (and expensive) restaurants. He actually met Bublick at Moto, Homaro Cantu’s groundbreaking restaurant that combined restless food science curiosity with madcap presentations. (At one point, the menu at Moto was even made of edible paper.) Bublick also spent time as a sommelier at Tru, which, at the time, had one of the best wine lists in the city. (Sadly, both Moto and Tru have since closed.)
By 2013, Carter and Bublick were a couple and decided to strike out on their own, assuming they’d eventually open a restaurant. But after hosting pop-up dinners at their house, requests for catering gigs poured in.
“We really wanted a restaurant, but the customers pulled us toward catering,” Carter said. “We had a fine-dining mentality, but we thought we’d be able to figure it out.”
They launched Feast & Imbibe, where they offered various tasting menus with artfully arranged dishes for private events.
But barbecue was constantly on Carter’s mind. “It was what he always wanted to eat,” Bublick said. “He’d always want to go to I-57 Smoke House (on the South Side) and fill up.”
Finally, in 2015, they decided to add a more casual catering option, one that wouldn’t require as much fussy plating. Soul & Smoke was born.
While pitched as a more casual alternative to Feast & Imbibe, Carter still managed to obsess over every detail. He spent months developing a house barbecue sauce and a dry rub, though that was nothing compared to the time spent picking the right smoker.
“I tried just about every kind of smoker and then did a big tasting,” Carter said. “I wanted my barbecue to taste different.” He eventually went with a Cookshack smoker, because it avoids using gas as the heating source. “Meat cooked in the Cookshack has such a clean smoke flavor,” he said. “There’s no gas flavor, like you can get with other smokers. Plus, we are really precise with our temperature. We really take care of those briskets.”
That’s no joke. Instead of plopping the briskets in the smoker and walking away, he intervenes at specific points of the cooking process, spraying the meat with what they refer to as a “meat moisturizer” at least twice — but not more than three times, for fear of decreasing the temperature inside the smoker too much — to help improve the brisket’s incredible bark. At a crucial point, he wraps each brisket, not in aluminum foil, but in butcher paper, so that it doesn’t cook too quickly while still allowing the meat to interact with the smoke.
While the barbecue is obviously the main draw, Carter also lavishes attention on the side dishes. “I want to share these comfort foods I grew up with, like mac and cheese and cornbread muffins,” he said. The muffins especially stay miraculously moist and are redolent with a sweet corn flavor. But it’s also hard to find fault with the tender collard greens, which gain a rich complexity after braising with smoked turkey leg; or the apple slaw, which provides a much-needed fresh crunch to the meal.
Of course, if Soul & Smoke is so good, you might wonder why you might not have heard of it yet. While Carter and Bublick were proud of the project, Soul & Smoke remained available only for large catering orders for five years, and the concept mostly took a back seat to Feast & Imbibe.
That was, until March 2020. “Once the pandemic happened, all the events were canceled,” Bublick said. “Caterers were getting hit very hard.”
Scrambling to stay in business and keep paying their employees, the two decided to refocus on Soul & Smoke. For the first time, they began offering individual delivery and pickup options, and the response was overwhelming.
People started lining up for pickup orders at the couple’s commissary kitchen in Evanston. They launched a Soul & Smoke food truck that makes stops in the city and other suburbs. Virtual kitchens in Avondale and the South Loop approached them about offering their barbecue, which the couple agreed to do. Eventually, they had to buy a bigger Cookshack smoker.
Things are going so well, the couple may actually open a brick-and-mortar location of Soul & Smoke later this year, so you’ll be able to experience their exceptional barbecue without having to worry about dealing with takeout containers or a delivery driver.
But why wait? Just because a restaurant lacks a dining room doesn’t mean the food is any less worthy.
In fact, when fellow food and dining reporter Louisa Chu and I were discussing how we wanted to reimagine our new roles as restaurant critics, she mentioned that hopefully we would have written about a place like Lem’s Bar-B-Q when it opened in the 1950s.
Sure, it’s located far from downtown, and lacks both a dining room and waitstaff, but peek inside the windows, and you’ll notice the chefs laboring in front of the restaurant’s enormous aquarium-style smoker, carefully cooking the meat with no thought of taking shortcuts. Producing great barbecue day after day requires the same kind of dedication and dogged persistence as more expensive downtown restaurants.
Carter knows this. Even though the couple has a newborn baby, Carter still often leaves in the middle of the night to check on the smoker. “It’s truly a labor of love,” Bublick said.
And if I’ve learned anything about this bewildering American art form, from pilgrimages to North Carolina, Memphis and Texas to discussions with legendary pitmasters like the late Mike Mills of 17th Street Barbecue in southern Illinois, there’s no way to make great barbecue other than to care way too much.
Soul & Smoke is available for delivery or pickup in Evanston (1601 Payne St., Suite C), and the Chicago neighborhoods of Avondale (3517 N. Spaulding Ave.) and the South Loop (2537 S. Wabash Ave.).
Soul & Smoke
1601 Payne St., Suite C, Evanston
Tribune rating: Three stars
Open: Sunday to Thursday, 11 a.m. to 7:30 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.
Prices: Entrees $12 to $22
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.