Jimmie Hughes wants to carry on the legacy of his father in law. The late-Mack Sevier made a name for himself with rib tips and other barbecued items at Uncle John's. It's been about a year since Sevier's death, and Hughes, along with his wife Ella (Sevier's stepdaughter), continue the family business at Uncle J's, specializing in fall-off-the bone barbecue. They've recruited Sevier's long-time pit master, Brian Turner. Turner brings more than 40 years of experience, and he's one of the last torch bearers when it comes to South Side barbecue. Uncle J's has even imported the old aquarium smoker from Uncle John's which was located at 69th and Calumet.
The two wipe their brows on this hot summer day, while the smell of hickory billows out of the smoker inside this tiny South Side storefront. Two fans buzz inside trying to keep the space cool on the other side through the standard bulletproof glass where they can watch customers order.
Hughes is a teacher to the other two pit masters at the store. He grew up in the business, as his family's behind Mumbo Barbecue sauce. The pair took turns chatting about their experiences with barbecue why they continue to cook-up spare ribs and...even turkey tips?
You guys opened in 2014, how did this come about?
Jimmie Hughes: My father-in-law had gotten sick. It was going to die. I started to talk to my wife: "You can't let this die, it's too good." She and I, my daughter, got together and we kind of got my father in law to give a mentorship to me, to my wife, to my daughter. Then we found Brian here, and he was more than willing to help us with his experience. We're really grateful.
Brian, when Uncle John's closed, did you think that was the end for you and barbecue?
Brian Turner: I wasn't really sure. I hadn't made up my mind. I'd been doing it for quite a long time. But when they called me and asked, I was more than ready to go. This is what I know: I've been doing this all my life. I like barbecue, too. It kind of helps to like the food.
How long have guys been doing turkey tips? That's something you don't see often.
JH: We've got a lot of people who like barbecue, but they just don't like pork. So we do turkey tips, turkey links, we have beef ribs...
BT: Most of the menu that we have is strictly from Uncle John's.
JH: Uncle John's franchised his name. We're definitely separate from the other Uncle John's in the area. But we definitely follow his footsteps.
But you think you're the true spiritual successor?
JH: Oh man. Let me channel him into our store!
Do a lot of people understand the connection between Uncle John's and Uncle J's?
Brian Turner: Oh yes.
JH: My wife is here. Brian —they see his face. We got a lot of those people that were in Uncle John's here at Uncle J's. They start say "we've been looking for you, where have you been?" And then they taste it.
Brian, you've been a pit master for 40-plus years. It's good to be stubborn in barbecue, but have you ever changed up how you do things?
BT: We pretty much go with what works and what your customers like. You don't want to do a lot of experimenting and changing things up. You might try a new item every now and then, see how it works, see how people like it. Do a survey! Pretty much people want...
JH: Good, old-fashioned barbecue.
BT: They want it like it was back in the day. People come in and say "I've been looking for this taste, I couldn't find it anymore." We pretty much keep it to old traditions.
Forty years is a long time, Brian. Why have you stuck with barbecue?
BT: Well, I like food. I like to eat...it's tradition.
JH: You know you're cooking some good ribs if when people bite into them. I've watched some of the barbecue contests they have on TV, and the tenderness of the meat. Man, they really need to try us. Brian could definitely enter some of these contests.
BT: Oh yeah. I haven't, not recently. My parents were in a rib fest in Cleveland, back in the 90s, we came in like fourth place.
JH: I used to ask my father-in-law, "why don't you enter the fests, the things of that nature?" He would always say "I've got the best; they'll come to me." And they did.
What made him think he had the best?
JH: A lot of people have different tastes. I'm not sure about all the tastes all around the country, but in the Chicago area, and I've eaten at a lot of different barbecue houses before I got to this place, and I met my wife at Uncle John's, that became a standard for me.
You met your wife at Uncle John's?
JH: My wife was a cashier at Uncle John's. We met in the store.
A barbecue love story?
JH: That's all I'll say about that. (laughs)
Would you ever open a second place?
BT: Possibly. We just want to make sure this place gets up and around. People ask us all the time that you need to open up in suburbs. Someone asked us when that place in Hyde Park closed —Ribs 'N' Bibs— why don't you move there? We weren't here that long. We're still trying to get this place off the ground. The possibility of expansion is there.
JH: I think if we had a bigger place, it would bring even more of a crowd.
Brian, do you feel like you're a teacher, passing along barbecue tricks?
BT: I like doing that. For people who grew up in the business, like I did, it's kind of showing them how to do things.
JH: My nephew works at other restaurants. He has a cooking history, we're just tweaking him to Brian's way, Uncle John's way.
BT: Basically we want to keep it as close to Uncle John's as possible. That's what everybody knows. That's what they like, they like the flavor. They come and after they taste it they say "Oh yeah! This is it!" They really miss it.
Tell us about the sauce.
JH: It's not our sauce per se. Our sauce comes from Mel's, so we tweak his sauce to our taste. We make it tangier. We put different ingredients in it. We make it spicier. We make it hotter. It's Uncle Mel's sauce. We tweak it to our taste.
BT: It's also the same sauce that we used at Uncle John's.
You have a spicy sauce, too?
JH: Though it is hot, people want it even hotter.
BT: We can make it mild for you, we can mix it. But if you want hot? We can take care of you.
What did Sevier teach you, Brian?
BT: He taught me a lot of stuff, you know. I've known him for a long time, since the 80s when my father would buy meat from him. He taught me a lot about the business and stuff. He would say keep the meat fresh, keep it rotating. You don't want it to get too done on any side. Once the meat gets too done...if it's not done enough you can always cook it a little more. Let it get too dark, then it's about a wrap.
I see you wrap those ribs in two layers of foil and put them back on the smoker. Why do that?
BT: I keep 'em wrapped to keep them moist. Leave them in the smoker for 45 minutes.
(Brian starts hosing down the coals) How hot does the smoker get?
BT: You know, I've never really measured. I do most everything by instinct.
When people think "barbecue house," they don't think social media, yet you have your Instagram handle right on the storefront's window.
BT: Sometimes you have to go with the times. Mr. Mack didn't take credit cards. But so many people don't carry cash. You have to move with the times.
But not the food?
BT: No. You don't mess with that.
JH: If you look at places downtown, like Lawry's, they don't change their menu. They have good steak, prime rib, lobster. It's consistent. People like consistency.