Chicago Rib Shack, Clapham – review

When somewhere opens that specialises in the kind of food you find yourself craving most of the time, has a decent looking menu, and does generous discounts at certain times of day, it seems silly not to give it a go. Especially when that new opening is roughly ten minutes from your front door. The food craving in question is American BBQ – slow smoked meats, hot sauce, crispy wings, sharp pickles – and the new opening is the latest outpost of Chicago Rib Shack in Clapham. And is indeed, about ten minutes from my flat. Potentially a dangerous threat to my waistline… I have to admit, the research on the background of the company didn’t fill me with confidence (especially a rather scathing review of the re-launched branch back in 2008) but I’m willing to give something a chance if it looks like it might be worth it. And the fact that between 5 and 7pm on a Monday the food has a 50% discount meant that if I didn’t like it, at least it wasn’t going to too expensive a mistake. Chicago Rib Shack do not specialise in one type of BBQ – most places will say they do perhaps Kansas or Texas styles (or in the case of the excellent Miss P’s BBQ – Atlanta) – but that didn’t initially worry me as the selection of smoked meats was quite small and that is usually a good sign, after all, far better to do a few things well than a load of things very badly indeed as is often the case. Baby back, thick cut belly, and chunky beef ribs were on offer and I was very hopeful for something special – despite the odd serving error at the Big Easy last month, their St Louis ribs were utterly spectacular so if I could get something that good much closer to home I would have a new favourite local pig (ha!) out spot. We arrived at about 5.30pm and were very warmly greeted, swiftly seated, and feeling good. The Clapham branch is in one of the railway arches near Clapham North and Clapham High Street stations and is certainly smart, relaxed, and inviting – big, red letters over the door and soft green leather seating inside. All fine. ‘What do you think of it?’ one of the many servers who was looking after us asked. ‘Er, yeah, it’s really nice. Very, er, jolly’ was my reply. ‘Great! We’re really proud of it.’ Awkward silence ensues. ‘Well, hope you enjoy your meal!’ Well that’s nice isn’t it? We hoped so too. A smooth Italian red went down alarmingly quickly and helped us to get in the mood for our meaty treats ahead – I wasn’t too excited by the beer options if I’m honest. A starter of hot wings was a big hit – crispy skin and meat that was succulent and tender. Hot-sauce was pleasingly sharp and vinegary and worked very nicely alongside the mild but well-made blue cheese dressing. They were pretty big too but if you have a largish appetite I’d advise you to order one for yourself rather than share with a friend –  there are only 3 big wings per serving. When I ordered my thick-cut pork belly ribs (mmmm, ribs) I was advised that they would be fattier than the baby backs (surely if you advertise them as ‘for the rib connoisseur’ you would expect them to know that already? I did) as they are the thicker end of the belly, all of which was fine by me as long as it was rendered down into the meat, keeping it moist and succulent. Which slow-smoking processes should create. So why the warning? As we were both going some kind of rib (my companion opted for her favourite beef ribs) we also both decided to go for pickles as our side, some deep-fried and others as they were. If I were being a true pedant I’d make a point of saying that pickles should come as complimentary to any BBQ plate but as I’m only being a sort of pedant I’ll make do with just pointing out we had to order them. Ahem. Our plates (well, big wooden boards) arrived and at first glance I was quite pleased – the thick-cut ribs certainly were thick and they looked like they had a good bark of smoky goodness on the outside. The beef ribs had a similar, gloriously gluttonous looks about them too. On closer inspection however, I was bemused to find that I had what appeared to be two big ribs (or even top ends of ribs) cut in half to produce a bigger plate of food. And the menu said they would be ‘glazed’ in BBQ sauce – all I could see was a small pot on the side next a rather random collection of shredded cabbage and carrot (was this some kind of low-fi coleslaw or maybe my expected complimentary pickles? Who knows – they didn’t add much to the dish flavour-wise) – but the meat smelt amazing so I grabbed the nearest piece of pig and took a bite. image Then had to grab my knife and fork (!?!) because it was not only very hot but rather unwieldy – the bones were very small despite the hunks of hog that clung to them and I noticed that, as well as the promised/forewarned fat, the meat wasn’t especially tender (almost dry in places) and that the smoky bark did not penetrate very far into the ribs themselves and slid away from the fat underneath. No sign of the pink tinge that is clear evidence of the smoke working its way into the meat which was a real shame but, despite globdules of unappetising fat splattering the board, the overall flavour was quite good. I ate the fat all the same I hasten to add – yes, I am that kind of guy. And the BBQ sauce? Well, it tasted a bit of BBQ and was a sauce. That is all I can say about it. Not a glaze at all. Looking over at my companion I could see issues with her beef ribs too. They also were chopped up to add more volume to the plate but I was alarmed to notice that she had had to resort to sawing through the meat with a knife and fork to get it off the bone – a sign that they were not slow-cooked for anywhere near long enough. Flavour was good – as with the pork – but texture-wise these were a real let-down. Although she still managed to cover herself in BBQ sauce despite the resort to cutlery so something must have been right! image Oh? The pickles? Instead of slices the Chicago Rib Shack has opted for big chunks of cauliflower, huge discs of carrot, and vast quarters of cucumber, all of which certainly packed a big crunch. They didn’t seem particularly pickled though which surely defies the point – where was the sharp hit of vinegar and the soothing spices that go so well with BBQ meat? And deep-frying such large pieces of vegetable requires skill and precision and I’m sorry to say that the ones I tried were rather short of the mark even though a pleasingly savoury batter was doing its best to keep the whole thing together. Overall they were too al dente for my liking and slightly greasy on the inside. Oh dear. The wine was nice. The staff were nice. It’s a nice place to be. But sadly, not a GREAT place to eat. I’m going to be honest and say that if we hadn’t had the ‘Shack Attack’ 50% discount I would have been seriously disappointed and slightly annoyed. The beef ribs normally cost £18 and given how it took some dedicated knife-action to separate the meat from the bone that really isn’t good enough. They also do brunch and a selection of burgers but I’m not sure if I’ll be joining them –I saw one burger going past and it didn’t look particularly special –  maybe I’ll give the baby back ribs a go one day but for now, I’ll give it a miss. Sorry about that.


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