Oct 26, 2015

A commoner dines at 17th Street Barbecue, Murphysboro, Ill.

If you look at the bottom of this blog, you’ll see a list of my five favorite barbecue joints of all-time.  Third on that list in 17th Street Barbecue in Murphysboro, Ill.  But I have a confession to make.  

Sure, I used to frequent 17th Street’s O’Fallon, Ill., location (sadly, it’s officially closing Nov. 30) and I had an opportunity to make a detour whenever I was in the Saint Louis area.  I also make it a point to visit the 17th Street stand every year at the Illinois State Fair.  But as much as I love their barbecue, I had never been to “Mecca,” the original restaurant where the legend of Mike Mills and his amazing barbecue -- which won the World Championship four times -- all started.

Thankfully, that changed earlier this summer when The April and I committed to making a dinner stop in Murphysboro during her SIU road trip down memory lane.

As the name implies, you’ll find 17th Street Barbecue on 17th Street, one block north of Illinois Highway 149 which slices east-west through downtown Murphysboro.  Surprisingly, there isn’t a lot of signage to direct you to it, but as long as you can find 17th Street, you’re obviously going to be ok.  

Despite its fame among barbecue aficionados, the storefront is still rather unassuming.  The signature green awning gives it away pretty clearly, though.  I noticed plenty of room for overflow seating behind the old brick building in the beer garden, and although it was a very pleasant summer day when we visited, I felt like I had to eat inside the main bar/restaurant for the full experience.  

Again, maybe I had larger than life expectations, but I was surprised by how small the place was, as well as how slow business was this day.  Granted, we arrived almost perfectly in between the lunch and dinner crowd, so clientele that afternoon was mainly regulars grabbing a bite to eat or a beer to drink while they relaxed the afternoon away.  All of this was perfectly fine with The April, who appreciates a low-key atmosphere as much as anyone I know.  

It was the kind of day where it wouldn’t have been far-fetched to see Mike Mills himself hanging out …

This barbecue is so good, even the pig is smiling.
… but we happily settled for hanging out with this fella while we figured out what to eat.

To be honest, though, as tempting as the sandwiches, steaks, appetizers and even the salads look, I can never seriously consider anything other than a classic barbecue combo platter.  (I do give them credit for adding a version of the Springfield, Ill., classic horseshoe to their menu, though.)

Notice The April sneaking a bit of baked beans while the camera operator was distracted.
How can you go wrong with both ribs and pork?  The proprietary seasoning on the ribs alone may send your mouth into pure bliss.  And the meat on the ribs is that perfect combination of chewy and fall-of-the-bone-with-that-first-bite tender. You also can’t help but notice that smoke ring on the ribs and, trust me, you’ll taste a hint of the smoke in every delicious bite.

I judge a great barbecue joint by its ribs first and foremost, but the quality of the pulled pork is just as important.  Again, 17th Street excels in every way.  The April was very satisfied with the quality of her pulled pork platter and the shreds of meat practically melt in your mouth, especially when you add some of 17th Street’s signature sauce.  If you like Carolina-style sauces, you’ll love this one.  

Of course, 17th Street Barbecue is so excellent you won't need sauce, but when your original sauce is as good as theirs, you’ll want to put it on meat, fries, and anything else on or near your plate (I’m really good at getting it on my shirt).  It was probably smart of The April to step back and simply let me enjoy devouring my meal.   

Finally, I have to mention another area where 17th Street Barbecue excels -- and I consider this another barometer by which to judge all barbecue joints -- the side dishes.  If you like a vinegary cole slaw, you’ll probably consider this one outstanding.  And if you ever order a pulled pork sandwich, it won’t be complete without the slaw on it.  The baked beans hold up well compared to any I’ve had at any other barbecue restaurant.  The collard greens will make your taste buds think they’re in the Deep South.  The potato salad won’t let you down, either.  My only complaint:  Bring back the creamed corn!  I’ve never had any better than 17th Street’s version.

My trip to 17th Street Barbecue’s original location only confirmed what I already believed -- you won’t find better barbecue in Illinois, and it matches up well with the best barbecue you’ll find in Memphis, Kansas City, Texas or the Carolinas.  It’s a foodie destination worth seeking out.  

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