Can a rib place be great without great ribs?
Well, how about this, can I believe Carson's ribs are great even though I know they are not great ribs? I have had great ribs. Great ribs in Bowling Green, Kentucky; Birmingham, Alabama, even the far south-side of Chicago (Lem's). These ribs all achieve the ideal mix of smoke, spice, porcine flavor, and a texture neither smooth, soft, tough or stringy. Carson's ribs lack some key elements, especially any twinge of hickory. Still, the ribs, in their own way, are very good. Way too good to be dismissed because they do not follow an ideal-type. These are PORK ribs. I am sure some maven like GWiv can explain to me and you how and why Carson's ribs just have so much more meat between the bones. And the pork meat tastes good, special. We appreciate a good steak without seasoning, with any interference, why cannot we appreciate a fine bit of pork without it being long smoked? Do not sneer at the overly sweet sauce either. Just as French chefs have known historically (say duck a l'orange) and recently (1001 foie gras treatments), a sweet sauce expertly compliments something rich and fatty. So, right away, I am not conceding that Carson's is good, but.
But everything else about eating at Carson's makes it so damn enjoyable. It remains one of the premier total packages in town. First, you nosh a bit more than you need on chopped liver of the proper, read not too smooth, consistency and a cheese spread that is so well processed that I do not feel the least bit guilty for liking it. For whatever reason, I always find Carson's spritzy old-fashion goes so well with these openers. Second, well once upon time, second would have been digging your knife into this wonderful, sexy glob of butter and doing up a few rolls. Now, that the butter comes in safe, sanitized packages, the allure of this course is gone. I do not even know if the quality of the rolls is the same. Third, there is salad, excessively dressed but with ultra-bold flavors or the slightly oniony coleslaw. Fourth, the ribs. Fifth, a choice of deluxe potato options. Sixth, if there is possibly gullet space, the trademark gold brick sundae.
Carson's deserves room in the pantheon just for those deluxe potatoes. I could easily eat here just for the potatoes. I long for the Carson's potato buffet. Nearly always, I cannot budge from the molten blend of cheese and potato chunks that is the au gratin, but the crisp and thick skins, the archaic twice-baked and the jumbo baked all make excellent sides. When you combine these sides with the ribs and salads, you have a meal that far exceeds any other rib place in Chicago, even Lem's.
Besides, the service remains top-drawer. If you need, they will make you a little dish of chopped liver, parselyed onions and rye bread to accompany your drinks. When a coke was proffered instead of a diet coke, the server did not argue as so often the case these days. Instead, she said, regardless of what happened, my mistake. And she handled 4 tired adults (two going on 3 hours of sleep from an all-night poker game) and 4 tired kids (all us coming off some rigorous hours of ice-skating) with aplomb. I know better ribs exist, even in Chicago, but I nothing will keep me from loving
There are few less Carson's than there once were, and the restaurants are not nearly as crowded as before. We went to the Wells Street location (612 N.). Decor wise, it was getting a bit long in the tooth. They'd be better off keeping the lights dimmer to hide the wear. More info on Carson's and their locations can be found here.