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April 10, 2009

Gadabout—Hyde Park Barbecue and Bakery

No matter where you look today, old institutions are getting a makeover. Tropicana replaced its straw-in-the-orange logo with something straight out of Wal-Mart generics. General Motors CEO Rick Wagoner got the boot in order to give the fledgling auto company another chance. The Hyde Park restaurant formerly known as Orly’s has now become Hyde Park Barbeque and Bakery.

Beyond the name, little else seems to have changed. The atmosphere remains a peculiar cross between a 1980’s Holiday Inn and a Southwestern dive bar. Think green-covered booths, legions of potted plants, and Tudor walls accented by dimly fluorescent lighting and stone-tile floors.

This lack of focus applies equally to the menu, which clearly considers barbeque and baked goods too meager to offer alone. Just the appetizers take you through Texas, Louisiana, Mexico, Cuba, and China. The restaurant also offers Matzo Ball Soup and latkes, Russian Cabbage Borscht, Tuscan salad, New York strip steak, and several decent vegetarian options. Specialty house drinks take their cue from the tropics, with creations like Blue Hawaiians and Oreo Kahlua Kissers.

The Bahama Mama Smoothie ($7.95), bizarrely enough, was one of Hyde Park Barbeque and Bakery’s bright spots. We ordered the drink on a whim, but the smoothie came out cold, fruity, rummy, and freshly blended with carefully added ingredients. We were also greeted with warm corn muffins and whipped butter when we sat down. The crunchy chicken egg roll ($8.95), basically a cheesy chicken casserole deep fried in a thick egg roll shell, is probably one of the better executions of fusion cuisine in Chicagoland.

These dishes notwithstanding, the restaurant’s greatest weakness is its overextended menu. An order of Cuban black bean soup resulted in something more Progresso than progressive. For $3.50, you receive a saucer-sized serving of vaguely flavored black broth punctuated with black beans, wilted celery, soft onions, and carrot chunks. The fresh spinach and roasted vegetable panini sounds healthy, but arrives post-grilling in what can only be described as a state of tempura. At least the bread—presumably produced by the bakery—was decent, as were the accompanying herb-sprinkled fries and barbeque sauce.

Before going into the ribs and sauce that theoretically define Hyde Park Barbeque, we should explain something. People from areas of the United States (or the world) with strong grilled meat traditions will always maintain loyalty to their region’s particular method of roasting dead animal flesh. Good luck convincing someone from North Carolina that Texas brisket is superior to pulled pork or telling a Jamaican that Korean bulgogi is an improvement over jerk chicken. For chowhounds searching for the best barbecue around, let’s be clear: You’re still not going to find it in Hyde Park. You have to leave the neighborhood, state, and very possibly nation. Let’s continue.

While cheaper than a nonstop flight to Kansas City or Seoul, hickory ribs at $20 for a full rack and $15 for a half are an expensive proposal. Perhaps the best part about Hyde Park Barbecue’s grilled meat offerings is that the restaurant can serve you a tender plate of rib tips in less than half the time of a slow night at Ribs ’n’ Bibs. The rib tips we ordered ($7.95) were tender, and the smoky, somewhat sweet barbecue sauce had a well-balanced chili-spice kick. However, these tips lacked that beautiful pink “smoke ring” and the deep flavor created by the myoglobin in the meat contacting nitrogen dioxide at low temperatures. It isn’t an easy loss to bear when facing the steep competition of other South Side barbeque joints.

It’s great that Hyde Park has a restaurant specializing in American barbecue that also happens to have indoor seating, great service, and an extensive list of alternatives and baked goods for the herbivores and sweet tooths in the area. Your money, however, would be better spent seeking greener grilled meat pastures outside of Hyde Park.