Heather Shouse, Time Out Chicago
"I'm gonna tell it to you like this," Ali Lahiani says, speaking from his eight-week-old Park Manor barbecue joint, Smoke Signals. "And this is the honest-to-God truth: These barbecue houses on the South Side are running on reputation. If they have good meat, they have lousy sauce. If they have good sauce, the meat is always tough. Leon's is dead and gone. Barbara Ann's is over with. Lem's used to be okay but the product went south. Uncle John's is doing real good and I'm happy for him and God bless him if he's making his money. But he can't touch me. The people deserve better."
Lahiani wants a shot at giving it to them. In fact, he spent more than a decade building up a rep by driving around town towing a smoker welded to a boat trailer. He'd pull up to South Shore family reunions, Baptist church parking lots, a couple of post offices on Cottage Grove and even the police headquarters on 35th and South Michigan Avenue. When he arrived, the self-taught pit master would throw the truck in park, hop out and get his fruit woods and lump coals smoldering, nestling cast-iron pots holding beans and rice in between pork ribs, beef hot links and quartered chickens.
The Morocco native stumbled upon this calling after a trip to Taste of Chicago, which resulted in a turkey leg he considered "not as great as everyone said it would be." So the guy who gravitated to the grill at picnics and family gatherings decided to put his money where his mouth is, leaving behind the pizza puffs and Italian beefs of the Hyde Park fast-food joint he was running to graduate from the fryer to the smoker.
"Man, I burned up everything on those grates my first time out," he says, laughing. "But I learned it, and I perfected it." From 1994 to 2006, his custom-welded smoker contraption was a regular sight in various parts of the South Side, earning enough fans to pay the bills and raise a family, and drawing interest from a business partner in 2002 to open a 'cue joint where Uncle John's stands today. The partnership fizzled, and eventually Lahiani retired the smoker to the garage while he sold restaurant equipment.
Now, after a four-year hiatus, the competitive streak has struck again. Lahiani has secured a simple storefront right off the Dan Ryan and invested in a Chicago-style aquarium smoker to turn out his signature rib tips, half chickens, weekend-only beef short ribs and smoky turkey tails (used to flavor slow-stewed greens). "I've been itching to open another spot because after trying a couple times before, I've figured out why it didn't work," he says. "I know it's for the people to decide and they'll be the one to say, 'Hey, Ali, you got killer barbecue.' " And if they don't, Lahiani will say it for them.
Image: Sally Ryan/Time Out Chicago