Feb 5, 2018

A commoner dines at Uncle Joe’s Deli, Ina, Ill.

If you need proof that billboard advertising works for roadside restaurants, I present to you my first trip to Uncle Joe’s Deli.

For a couple of months, I would be drawn to Uncle Joe’s promise of great barbecue as I passed advertisements along Interstate 57 on the way back and forth from working in Nashville, Tenn.  I was always curious to try it but also a little skeptical.  After all, most delis aren’t known for their barbecue, and if they do it at all it’s almost an afterthought. 

Then, one early Friday afternoon, with time on my side and running out of original lunch options between me and home, I took a chance.  I followed the directions on the last billboard I saw, pulled off on Exit 83 at Ina, Ill., a small community near Rend Lake in southern Illinois, turned right at the truck stop and followed a familiar smoky smell of slow-cooked meat practically to Uncle Joe’s doorstep.    

I had arrived.  And my timing was perfect.  What had been left of what I assumed was a good lunch crowd was practically gone.  I just hoped they left enough good barbecue for me.  

As it turns out, the “deli” that once was Uncle Joe’s is effectively gone, completely replaced by the barbecue, unless you count the thick cut fried bologna on the menu (and you should … as I soon learned, it’s one of their better-known items and one of the tastiest things they serve).

After studying all of the options listed on their chalkboard menu, I settled on a “Pick 3” sampler plate of shredded pork, two St. Louis-style ribs and two slices of the signature bologna.  I then asked the cashier for a recommendation for my side.  She highly recommended the crockpot beans.  After all, she made them that morning.  You have to appreciate cooks who admire their work. 

I barely had time to warm my chair before my order was called.  The presentation is nothing fancy, of course, but what do you really need when it comes to good barbecue?  A paper bowl overloaded with meat, plasticware and Styrofoam cup warm from the crockpot beans suited me just fine.

What was obvious from first glance is this is some seriously good bologna!  It had a nice, subtle garlic flavor, a good sear from the grill and thick enough that the plastic fork alone won’t quite cut it. 

The ribs hiding underneath the bologna were highly satisfying as well, especially with a nice coating of Joe’s original sauce caramelized onto the meat.  While not the star of the meal, the shredded pork was certainly better than most.  It was as juicy and flavorful as you might hope for and really serves to complement the real standouts at Uncle Joe’s Deli – their line of sauces. 

I knew they took their barbecue sauce seriously here once I saw the sauce bar next to the retail display.  At Uncle Joe’s you can choose two-ounce sampler cups of one – or all – to take back to your table.  Each sauce helps you create your own taste sensation as you match up flavors with the meats.  

I personally thought their original sauce was a good all-around choice for any met they served. The taste showcased a little bit of everything you’d want in a sauce – slightly sweet, slightly peppery and slightly smoky.  The sweet sauce was pretty much a sweeter and milder version of the original, closer to what I consider a Memphis style and my favorite for adding to their ribs.  The mustard sauce – an homage to the Carolina style – was the perfect addition to the fried bologna. 

I tend to not like my barbecue sauces too hot, so I avoided the XXX sauce, but if the awards it earns are any indication, I’m definitely missing out.  

So, what’s the final word about the barbecue at Uncle Joe’s Deli?  If the remains on this food tray don’t tell you, nothing will.  From the bologna to the beans and every last sweet smoky drop of sauce and morsel of meat, if you like barbecue you owe it to yourself to take a trip to Ina, Ill., to try for yourself.     

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