1727 Benson Ave., Evanston, (847) 475-7766.
Barbecue/Ribs. Lunch: Sun, Sat. Dinner: seven days.
Open late: Friday & Saturday till 11.
At Merle’s, the kind of barbecue place that offers composed salads for vegetarians, it falls to the savvy consumer to minimize the damage the kitchen can do to a slab of ribs. A couple of general precepts: (1) choose dry over wet (a rib presauced is a rib with something to hide); (2) avoid preportioned and reheated cuts of meat (brisket should be cut to order); (3) don’t believe the hype–the claim of Merle’s slogan to the contrary, no restaurant’s barbecue is good enough to make you want to slap your pappy, I promise. With these caveats in mind, Merle’s does an OK job. Baby back ribs, prepared dry, come in a meaty half slab, with a decent crust of highly seasoned dry rub, an almost smoky flavor, and a texture pleasantly positioned in the middle of the continuum between fall off the bone and leathern. When prepared wet (i.e., preslathered with “Tennessee” barbecue sauce), on the other hand, the meat slides into a slimy parboiled state, without a trace of smoke flavor. Brisket, which is available sliced or “pulled” (a treatment no brisket deserves), was preportioned and poor: one slice had managed to escape overzealous fat trimming and was fine, but the leaner pieces were smokeless and tough. Smoked chicken, at least on one recent visit, was overcooked and dry. “Smoking wings” were gummy winglets and drumettes first smoked then fried and coated in your choice of sauce, from mild to medium to “smoking hot.” Smoking isn’t what I’d call it, though–the waiter got it right when he termed them “macho but manageable.”