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History of the Aquarium Smoker?

History of the Aquarium Smoker?
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  • History of the Aquarium Smoker?

    Post #1 - October 21st, 2008, 8:16 am
    Post #1 - October 21st, 2008, 8:16 am Post #1 - October 21st, 2008, 8:16 am
    At the risk of shattering the calm, I'm going to start a new BBQ thread.

    At a dinner last week, I was chatting with a friend and local (Baltimore) food writer about this and that, and though I can't remember how it came up, he made some sarcastic (if in a friendly manner) crack about Chicago not exactly being a BBQ town. I, of course, immediately told him all about tips and links in an aquarium smoker and, being rather enthusiastic about all regional forms of BBQ, he was genuinely thrilled to be corrected, and also quite curious about a variant with which he wasn't familiar. Most specifically, he was extremely curious about the aquarium smoker. I suppose it had never occurred to me how odd a creation it was until its uniqueness was brought to my attention, and I was at a total loss to explain why a smoker would be built that way.

    Is there some special utility to such a setup? Was its development simply a matter of economy and available materials? Did the ability to show off product (kind of) figure into the equation? If this has been discussed already, I couldn't find it, but do direct me to the thread if it has. Otherwise, 'cue nerds, what IS up with the aquarium smoker, anyway?
    Dominic Armato
    Dining Critic
    The Arizona Republic and azcentral.com
  • Post #2 - October 21st, 2008, 10:38 am
    Post #2 - October 21st, 2008, 10:38 am Post #2 - October 21st, 2008, 10:38 am
    Dom,

    Interesting question which is going to be difficult, if not impossible, to pinpoint exactly.

    Aquarium smokers are custom made, in the main, by Avenue Metal and Belvin-J & F with the original design, according to Lolis Eric Elie in Smokestack Lightning, attributed to sheet metal company owner Leo Davis in 1951. The metal base and top with tempered glass sliding doors gives them a 'fish tank' appearance, thus the moniker 'Aquarium' style smoker. The Aquarium cookers are designed for direct cooking with straight wood, though many places use a combination of wood and charcoal, some only charcoal.

    In reference to genesis of design the Aquarium is meant to emulate direct over the fire cooking style of the South though on a commercial basis, the tempered glass doors, which give the cooker it's aquarium look, a stroke of genius marketing tool.

    The Aquarium cooker seems to be Chicago specific, and they can be found all over Chicago, unfortunately few places still use them for anything but show or holding meat. Turning out good BBQ on an Aquarium style smoker is a dying art.

    James Lemons, Lem's BBQ

    Image

    Enjoy,
    Gary
    Sauce on the side, always, implied, axiomatic..........never a doubt, BBQ sauce without.

    Low & Slow
  • Post #3 - October 24th, 2008, 4:03 pm
    Post #3 - October 24th, 2008, 4:03 pm Post #3 - October 24th, 2008, 4:03 pm
    But who first commissioned an aquarium smoker? What are the cooking differences between it and other smokers? It is cool and genius but I wonder if the reason it didn't catch on is because it must be a bitch to clean. And when it's not very clean - as one can see in some establishments - it can look rather unsavoury.
  • Post #4 - October 24th, 2008, 6:44 pm
    Post #4 - October 24th, 2008, 6:44 pm Post #4 - October 24th, 2008, 6:44 pm
    Louisa Chu wrote:It is cool and genius but I wonder if the reason it didn't catch on is because it must be a bitch to clean.

    Louisa,

    I beg to differ, the Aquarium smoker did catch on in Chicago and there are dozens and dozens, possibly hundreds, all over the South and West side of Chicago. There are many reasons Aquarium smokers are not much in use today, in the main it's to turn out good BBQ on an Aquarium takes an experienced Pitmaster on the order of Robert Adams, James Lemons or Mack Sevier. Not unlike any number of artisanal enterprises there is an ever shallower pool interested in lengthy apprenticeships to learn the art.

    Couple that with increasing layers of difficulty of operation, everything from problems with the EPA due to smoke output to logistical difficulties of wood acquisition and disposal and it is no wonder that many, if not most, BBQ joints are moving toward gas powered Franken-Qs that require a couple of hours orientation to operate and are environmentally friendly.

    Far as looking unsavory, matter of perspective, to me a decades old patina of smoke is a joy to behold, I'd walk into the long shuttered Lem's on State run my finger on the wall and smile at the smoke stained smudge. Real BBQ is a messy business.


    Robb Walsh
    "There's not much point in complaining about high-tech barbecue. It serves a purpose, and it's here to stay. And no doubt the quality of it will keep on improving. But as the old barbecue joints slowly disappear, each one that remains becomes a bigger treasure."

    Enjoy,
    Gary
    Sauce on the side, always, implied, axiomatic..........never a doubt, BBQ sauce without.

    Low & Slow
  • Post #5 - October 26th, 2008, 1:40 pm
    Post #5 - October 26th, 2008, 1:40 pm Post #5 - October 26th, 2008, 1:40 pm
    Dearest Gary,

    I meant I wonder why the aquarium smoker didn't catch on outside of Chicago and why it hasn't endured locally. And how is the aquarium smoker much more different/difficult than other wood smokers? And why don't you buy one of the defunct aquarium smokers and teach me how to use it??

    And oh no you didn't just question my appreciation for BBQ smoke patina and understanding that it's a beautiful messy process. It just seems that the original appeal of the aquarium smoker was so you could see the smoking as it happens - until the smoky residue made it unseeable.

    XO,
    L
  • Post #6 - October 27th, 2008, 6:40 pm
    Post #6 - October 27th, 2008, 6:40 pm Post #6 - October 27th, 2008, 6:40 pm
    Has there really been sharp downturn in south and west side aquarium use, or an increase in other BBQ conveyances in those sides of the city? I don't see it so clearly.

    In my experience, aquariums are in heavy use at lots of places. It's just that only a relative handful of the aquarium-users are excursion-worthy or show up here. Neighborhood BBQ, using aquariums, seems to be alive and well.

    Also, I can't think of too many (or maybe any) south or west side BBQ places using other methods.

    All of the Coleman's outlets, Leon's, Lem's, I-57, Kenny's outlets, Slab, Uncle John's, Ribs n' Bibs, Captain Curt's, BK's (place by That's A Burger), Barbara Ann's, Best's (by I-57), and any number of corner places that I haven't been.

    So, if the point is there are fewer BBQ places on the south and west sides than previously, OK I see it. But there are still plenty. It's a fairly defining thing. Also, I can't think of one that doesn't involve an aquarium.

    To me this is sort of like the lament that there are no more neighborhood taverns in Chicago simply because Daley Jr. has taken them down from 4 every block to 1 or 2 every block. Many fewer, sure, but still far more than just about any other city (NOLA and Milwaukee excluded).
  • Post #7 - October 27th, 2008, 8:01 pm
    Post #7 - October 27th, 2008, 8:01 pm Post #7 - October 27th, 2008, 8:01 pm
    Ja's Jerk Chicken and Smokin' M's could be added to the list as well, and these are both places new within the past year.
  • Post #8 - October 27th, 2008, 8:57 pm
    Post #8 - October 27th, 2008, 8:57 pm Post #8 - October 27th, 2008, 8:57 pm
    Hi,

    In Lake County, there are aquarium smokers at Captain Porky's and Hillery's locations (one is in Kenosha). There might be another one at Big Ed's in North Chicago, but I have not seen their smoker, yet.

    In Champaign-Urbana, Little Porky's has an aquarium smoker, too.

    Rene G and I saw an aquarium smoker at a car repair shop and weekend BBQ joint in Hammond. We saw it two years ago on their side lot, then sometime later rolled out for action. Have not seen it in operation since our first encounter.

    Regards,
    Cathy2

    "You'll be remembered long after you're dead if you make good gravy, mashed potatoes and biscuits." -- Nathalie Dupree
    Facebook, Twitter, Greater Midwest Foodways, Road Food 2012: Podcast
  • Post #9 - October 27th, 2008, 10:07 pm
    Post #9 - October 27th, 2008, 10:07 pm Post #9 - October 27th, 2008, 10:07 pm
    JeffB wrote:In my experience, aquariums are in heavy use at lots of places.

    Jeff,

    In many cases, Leon's for example, the Aquariums are not used for actually cooking the meat, but simply as a warming/holding oven, if that. Yes, of course, there are still many places on the South and West side actually using Aquarium smokers, most not too effectively, but the majority of Aquarium smokers around town, in my experience, are no longer used for primary cooking duty.

    Enjoy,
    Gary
    Sauce on the side, always, implied, axiomatic..........never a doubt, BBQ sauce without.

    Low & Slow
  • Post #10 - October 28th, 2008, 11:29 am
    Post #10 - October 28th, 2008, 11:29 am Post #10 - October 28th, 2008, 11:29 am
    Ah ha. I did not know that. I assumed that in most cases the cooking happened before I got there, and that it happened in the smoker. Now, I have observed actual aquarium cooking happening at least at the usual favorites on LTH, plus I-57, Best's, Ribs n Bib's, more than one West Side Coleman's, and Slab (none of which I would call board favorites, but all of which, IME, can turn out a decent-to-good-tip). Maybe sometimes some combination of those also-rans do not employ the smoker (though, the smoke along I-57 from Best's and I-57 is very consistent; same for Ribs n Bibs).

    How are the places that have relegated the pits to warming ovens cooking the meat?

    At the lesser BBQ places with aquaria, the meat does tend not to taste much like it has been smoked. I'm guessing they were cooked in a commercial oven? Kenny's, which I mentioned, springs to mind as a bad BBQ place with an aquarium on premises in some outlets. Certain Leon's branches too.
  • Post #11 - October 28th, 2008, 8:33 pm
    Post #11 - October 28th, 2008, 8:33 pm Post #11 - October 28th, 2008, 8:33 pm
    JeffB wrote:A
    At the lesser BBQ places with aquaria, the meat does tend not to taste much like it has been smoked. I'm guessing they were cooked in a commercial oven? Kenny's, which I mentioned, springs to mind as a bad BBQ place with an aquarium on premises in some outlets. Certain Leon's branches too.



    I like the correct use of the plural.
    trpt2345
  • Post #12 - December 11th, 2009, 4:18 pm
    Post #12 - December 11th, 2009, 4:18 pm Post #12 - December 11th, 2009, 4:18 pm
    Has anyone ever seen one of these beasts for sale locally?
  • Post #13 - December 21st, 2009, 5:45 pm
    Post #13 - December 21st, 2009, 5:45 pm Post #13 - December 21st, 2009, 5:45 pm
    Found one for sale some what local. Jump on it ASAP if ya want it!

    http://chambana.craigslist.org/bfs/1488812673.html
    BBQ Wood Fired Smoker - $4000 (Champaign, Illiinois)

    --------------------------------------------------------------------------------
    Date: 2009-11-30, 4:37PM CST
    Reply to: sale-5qwzr-1488812673@craigslist.org [Errors when replying to ads?]

    --------------------------------------------------------------------------------


    4' x 8' (Four Foot by Eight Foot)
    SS and Metal Wood Burning BBQ Smoker with Exhaust Stack
    Built for indoor use and meets all Champaign/Illinois Public Health Requirements
    This unit came out of the former Jackson’s Ribs Restaurant in Champaign.
    Disassembled and ready for pick up–includes all parts and accessaries
    4000.00 ready to go....will provide help with local assembly

    Will provide many more pics upon request


    •Location: Champaign, Illiinois
    •it's NOT ok to contact this poster with services or other commercial interests

    PostingID: 1488812673
  • Post #14 - December 21st, 2009, 5:50 pm
    Post #14 - December 21st, 2009, 5:50 pm Post #14 - December 21st, 2009, 5:50 pm
    Hi,

    What does a new aquarium smoker cost?

    Regards,
    Cathy2

    "You'll be remembered long after you're dead if you make good gravy, mashed potatoes and biscuits." -- Nathalie Dupree
    Facebook, Twitter, Greater Midwest Foodways, Road Food 2012: Podcast
  • Post #15 - December 21st, 2009, 7:54 pm
    Post #15 - December 21st, 2009, 7:54 pm Post #15 - December 21st, 2009, 7:54 pm
    Not sure on the cost new and installed...guess $12,000.00 ish?
  • Post #16 - December 29th, 2009, 1:41 pm
    Post #16 - December 29th, 2009, 1:41 pm Post #16 - December 29th, 2009, 1:41 pm
    My commute each morning takes me past the 2200 block of N. Western Ave. where Honey 1 has their aquarium smoker in plain view in the front window. If I time it just right, I can catch the red light and have to sit and wait right in front. :) Being able to see meats smoking from your car at 7:30am is a wonderful thing, and a testament to the aquarium style smoker, no matter how it came into being.

    MKL
  • Post #17 - December 29th, 2009, 2:29 pm
    Post #17 - December 29th, 2009, 2:29 pm Post #17 - December 29th, 2009, 2:29 pm
    Cbot wrote:Not sure on the cost new and installed...guess $12,000.00 ish?

    Rough estimate Aquarium Smoker:

    4 x 6 stainless steel, including instalation and ductwork, not electricity $7500
    4 x 8 stainless steel, including instalation and ductwork, not electricity $9000
    Sauce on the side, always, implied, axiomatic..........never a doubt, BBQ sauce without.

    Low & Slow
  • Post #18 - May 21st, 2014, 9:35 am
    Post #18 - May 21st, 2014, 9:35 am Post #18 - May 21st, 2014, 9:35 am
    Image

    Pre-aquaria (recent acquisition by Chicago's Terra Foundation, Jacob Lawrence, Bar-b-que, 1942, Harlem in NY).

    http://www.chicagomag.com/arts-culture/ ... =slideshow
  • Post #19 - May 30th, 2014, 1:42 pm
    Post #19 - May 30th, 2014, 1:42 pm Post #19 - May 30th, 2014, 1:42 pm
    G Wiv wrote:The Aquarium cooker seems to be Chicago specific, and they can be found all over Chicago, unfortunately few places still use them for anything but show or holding meat. Turning out good BBQ on an Aquarium style smoker is a dying art.


    I've seen one outside Chicago, in Memphis, at Cozy Corner. I remember being quite surprised to see it there. Also, they used it purely charcoal-fired, no smoking wood. I was a little surprised, as they were my favorite ribs from our barbecue pilgrimage to Memphis. (Which I found out was not totally unusual. Payne's is also a charcoal-only pit, IIRC.)
  • Post #20 - June 5th, 2014, 12:45 pm
    Post #20 - June 5th, 2014, 12:45 pm Post #20 - June 5th, 2014, 12:45 pm
    Growing up, I remember these contraptions referred to as "glass houses".
  • Post #21 - June 17th, 2015, 9:28 pm
    Post #21 - June 17th, 2015, 9:28 pm Post #21 - June 17th, 2015, 9:28 pm
    Anyone ever come across used aquarium smokers? Or, pass by an old BBQ joint that may have one for sale?

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