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Baobab serves barbecue with a South African twist

When eating at Chef Andrew Dunlop’s restaurant Baobab, the best strategy is to keep an open mind.

“It’s a religion,” Dunlop said in reference to barbecue enthusiasts’ zeal. “I have no allegiances. I’m not trying to impersonate or duplicate regions. We do our own thing and are probably breaking rules along the way. It doesn’t matter, it tastes good to us.”

What tastes good is Dunlop’s incorporation of his native South African flavors like coriander and peri peri — aka African bird’s eye chili. And given that his native country’s culinary landscape is a mix of global influences from African countries and indigenous South Africans, Dutch, Indonesian and the Portuguese, he has a lot of wiggle room to experiment.

One direct inspiration, the boerewors, comes from the traditional South African braai — a casual, al fresco social gathering where meat is grilled over wood. Boerewors is a type of farmer’s sausage made from lamb and beef with coriander, nutmeg and allspice.

Among the house-made sauces is the “monkey gland sauce” — a South African peach-based, tangy and sweet sauce that has nothing to do with monkeys. (It’s a long story, Google it.)

Combination meat platters and ribs at Baobab BBQ restaurant. | Brian Rich/Sun-Times

Combination meat platters and ribs at Baobab BBQ restaurant.  | Brian Rich/Sun-Times

Dunlop first came to Chicago in the winter of 1999, and fell in love with the city in spite of the low temperatures. “I got off the plane, I never experienced cold like that. I was struggling to breathe,” he said.

Dunlop, who had been working at a Hilton property in London, had been transferred here to work as a banquet chef at the Drake Hotel. He’d later go on to open a Hilton property in Curacao for a few years but came back to work at Chicago’s Four Seasons Hotel and serve as executive chef of the tony, private Chicago Club for nearly a decade. Last year, he left LM Restaurant Group to open up Baobab — named after the iconic “tree of life” in the African savanna.

Having long been obsessed with American barbecue and determined to pay homage to his roots, Dunlop did a great deal of research before picking a smoker —— a Cook Shack “Fast Eddy,” which uses pellets of compressed hickory, oak and fruit wood resulting in a delicate smoke flavor.

Baobab BBQ restaurant in Ravenswood. | Brian Rich/Sun-Times

Baobab BBQ restaurant at the border of Lincoln Square, Bowmanville and Ravenswood.  | Brian Rich/Sun-Times

“Patience is a virtue with one smoker,” Dunlop said, laughing. “I wanted to avoid taking a first bite of meat where all you can taste is the smoke.”

Thankfully, for residents who live at the border of Ravenswood, Bowmanville and Lincoln Square, there are no billows of smoke lingering in the air.

Ribs are among the popular items at Baobab, 2301 W. Foster. The dry rub is liberally slathered all over, ensuring the entire slab has a nice crust of caramelized sweet and spicy notes. Dunlop smokes the meat for four hours, keeping the bottom membrane attached to the underside of the ribs to ensure they stay tender. The meat doesn’t fall off the bone but it’s close.

Chef/Owner Andrew Dunlop serves up BBQ with a South African twist at Baobab BBQ restaurant.  | Brian Rich/Sun-Times

“We want a little bit of a tug. You should end up with a clean bone, but you might have to work a little bit,” Dunlop said in his South African accent.

On Thursday nights, a full rack of ribs is only $12 — the usual price of a half rack. But if you want some at the discounted price, get there quick. They usually sell out by 7 p.m.

Along with ribs, there’s sliced beef brisket with a beautiful pink smoke ring developed over 12 to 14 hours in the smoker. There’s also pulled pork, pulled chicken, Texas hot links and pork burnt ends. Sandwiches are an easy option featuring a brioche bun and vinegar-based Carolina slaw. There’s also smoked salmon for pescatarians and smoked portobello sandwiches for vegetarians.

Equally delicious are the made-from-scratch sides that range from a sweet potato smoked for three hours, fresh green beans in shallot butter, beans, mac and cheese and a smoked cauliflower with curried couscous. Pickles are also made in-house.

The baby spinach salad features biltong — a type of beef jerky. Desserts include koeksusters (braided fried dough served cold), melk tert (a milk, sugar and egg custard tart) and malva pudding (a rich sponge cake soaked with apricot preserve, butter and cream) with ice cream.