By Jamie Swinnerton
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The interior of Shead's Fish and BBQ Heaven is not hip or slick or fabulous. Nor does it have that bogus clutter aesthetic or the faux-rustique feel so popular at some of the carefully sculpted eateries I've been skulking around these days. I can guarantee you that not a single professional was consulted in the outfitting of this dining room; as a matter of fact, nothing here seems to have been done on purpose -- except, maybe, for the purposeful and complete lack of attention to trivialities.
If the vulgarities of excessive design are a sin (and they are, in my opinion, if the food is not a fit player for the stage), then Leon and Ivy Shead and their sons, Demond and Neelein, are saints of the austere. Shead's has four walls and a roof, some carpet on the floor, a counter where you order your food, utilitarian Formica tables to put that food on, and several slatted bench seats on which you can plant yourself.
And that's it. This is the unadorned temple in which you will dine (unless you've come in for takeout). It's been rumored that Charlie Trotter's in Chicago budgets tens of thousands of dollars yearly toward breakage of its china and Riedel crystal. At Shead's, where the barbecue is dished up on disposable plates and plastic forks are available for the fussy, that kind of thing is never going to be a concern.
Ribs half: $6.45, full: $9.75
Chicken half: $5.25, full: $8.50
Small ends: $10.75
BBQ and fish combo: $11.75
Catfish/perch/whiting half: $6.45, full: $9.50
Sweet-potato pie: $1.95
Potato salad: $1.25/$2.60
Baked beans, French fries, greens each: $1.50
I fell in love with food eating in places like this. Long before coming to appreciate the clutching formality of French service, long before meeting my first ice carver or seeing a plate designed with such spare beauty that I was afraid to touch it when it came to my table -- years before I knew any of this -- I'd learned to love food on its own terms, unaccessorized and naked. Just as a beautiful woman isn't beautiful only because she wears Prada, smells of Chanel No. 5 or drips diamonds, food isn't good only because it appears on bone china or is eaten with a gold-plated fork.
My love of barbecue in particular stretches back to Rochester, New York, in the late '80s, when a younger me could be found rumbling off on a Friday night in my first car -- a chocolate-brown '73 Caprice Classic -- with the nose of that monster aimed for the worst neighborhood in town, sniffing out Hercules Chicken and Ribs.
Hercules (I'm not sure that was the actual name of the place, but everyone I knew called it that) had a huge yellow sign and a big bank of front-facing windows -- at least one of which was always boarded over with plywood as proof of the previous night's rough action. There were two bullet holes in the ceiling that had never been patched, scars on the tables that told of a thousand random impacts, and a crowd that -- to my feverish adolescent imagination, anyway -- represented a cross-section of a particular population I'd become obsessed with after reading too many books by Charles Bukowski, Jim Thompson and Hubert Selby Jr. Hercules was also where I learned my first lesson in the economics of diminishing returns, which states that the more crap a place has hung on its walls, the worse the food will be, and, conversely, the more stark the walls, the better the grub.
Barbecue joints are not places you go to be seen; they're places you go to eat. They exist, and continue to exist, solely on the pit man's reputation for making good 'cue. In some circles, good barbecue is as sought-after as the perfect martini, fantastic sex with a total stranger or high-grade dope, and while -- in times of either shortage or social stigma -- the consumption of any of the above can get you press-ganged into some kind of twelve-step program by overly helpful relations, no one is ever going to mess with you for overindulging in a rack of pork ribs.
Okay, maybe your cardiologist will mess with you, but he's just a doctor. What does he know?
At Shead's, the ribs, chicken and brisket are slow-cooked over a hickory-and-mesquite fire until the meat is tender but not soft, and infused with smoke all the way down to the bone. When other alleged BBQ pros brag that their meat is so tender it falls right off the bone, what they're really saying is that they overcooked their ribs and think you're too dim to know the difference. Don't let them get away with this. Done properly, barbecued meat should still be firm and should still hold together -- and you should still need teeth to eat it.
Leon Shead understands this. He was taught the magic by his father, a pit man in Indianapolis, and went on to school Demond and Neelein, who man the kitchen at the eighteen-month-old Hampden outpost. (Leon and Ivy spend most of their time at the original Shead's at 1685 Peoria Street, which they opened five years ago.) This is a family with a serious generational commitment to the barbecue business: Leon's brother, Mack Shead, is one half of the Mack-and-Daisy team that runs M&D's BBQ and Fish Palace, at 2004 East 28th Avenue.