For Al Brinkman, barbecue is all about the smoke. The owner of Al's BBQ Shack in DeKalb, Ill., insists meat should be cooked the old fashioned way: with wood smoke, slowly, for several hours. "We don't use rubs or marinades," Brinkman says, "and everybody seems to enjoy it that way."
Brinkman uses mesquite wood first, then finishes the meat with hickory. While he puts "a little sweet sauce" on his baby-back ribs, the other menu items -- beef brisket, chopped pork and rib tips -- feature sauce as a condiment. Brinkman learned how to barbecue in Texas, where he lived for 17 years. "We used to make our own smokers with a bunch of Hispanic folks who already knew a lot that I didn't know," he says, "and I just developed from there."
A longtime worker in pre-cast concrete, Brinkman smoked meat as an amateur. That changed in 2010 when he opened his barbecue shack. "I had hoped to stay in pre-cast, but the economy went down," he says. He was about to move East for work when his daughter, who loves his cooking, offered to help set up a business in DeKalb.
Brinkman knew he was good, but questioned whether others would like his food, remembering what BBQ-ers in Texas told him: "People don't like too much smoke up North." Shaking his head in disbelief, he says, "Lo and behold I have many, many customers, and I'm enjoying it better than when I did pre-cast."
Brinkman counts city employees among his most loyal customers. His shack -- a kitchen surrounded by wood panels, covered with a tin roof -- sits on a car trailer a short walk from the municipal building. Every night at 8 o'clock he puts meat in his smoker and leaves it there until 10:30 next morning. "The police say it makes them hungry because the smoke drifts down the intake in their locker room and they smell it all night," he says laughing. "They want me to set up by the new police station when they move."
Brinkman keeps his menu simple, insisting it's the only way to control the quality. And everything is made fresh daily. "Except for the beans," he grins. "And everyone knows beans, they're better the second day."