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Friday, April 4, 2014

After 14 years in the "boy's club," Dianne Creech and Pit to Plate BBQ remain among Cincinnati's best

Dianne Creech and her cousin, Annie
Until recently, it was hard to find pitmasters who are women. While there are many different styles of barbecue, testosterone seemed to be a common ingredient in another old boys’ network.

But times are changing. Melissa Cookston, owner of Memphis Barbecue Company restaurants, is author of the aptly titled new cook book, “Smokin’ in the Boys Room.” Lisa Mills, daughter of legend Mike Mills runs a barbecue consulting firm and co-authored the James Beard-nominated book, “Peace, Love and Barbecue.” Danielle Dimovski, joined Cookston as a champion and is best known to her TV fans as “Diva Q.”

As the old late 1960s advertisement put it, “You’ve come a long way, baby.”

On a recent visit to Cincinnati, I decided to check out the Queen City’s No. 2 barbecue restaurant according to Yelp, Pit to Plate BBQ, which has been owned and operated by the warm-hearted Dianne Creech since 2000 and eight years in its current location at 8021 Hamilton Ave., Mt. Healthy, Ohio.

After 14 years of operating a barbecue joint, Creech acknowledges that she’s in a boy’s club, adding with a laugh, “They don’t like it, because, you know what, I’m a good challenge to them.”

Earlier this year, Cincinnati Magazine selected Pit to Plate as the best barbecue on the city’s northside and numerous positive reviews on Urbanspoon, Chowhound, and the “Food Hussy” (Really) attest to its solid local reputation.

Given that we are in Cincinnati, it’s not surprising that Creech comes from German stock and a large family. But her father wasn’t into barbecue – he once gave her an Easy Bake Oven, which she still owns.
A sampler's platter
A self-described “front of the house kind of person,” Creech said her love for barbecue was kindled by Jack’s Bar-B-Que in Nashville, Tenn., where she lived for a while. But now she’s more partial to what comes out of her Bewley smoker out back.

“I watched them build my smoker in the fabrication shop. I was there with them from the very first piece of metal to the very end of it,” she said, reflecting back to when it was made 14 years ago at Bewley’s factory in Dallas, Texas. 

“Our briskets and our pork cook about 12 to 14 hours. I smoke them overnight,” Creech added, as I took a bite of the tender brisket. “All hickory wood, no propane, no charcoal … 

Once in a while, I’ll get a piece of cherry and toss it in there.” 

Creech said she competes in local competitions for fun -- Pit to Plate was one of eight teams which competed at the annual Pork Rib-Off barbecue show-down at the 2013 Ohio State Fair. But she prefers to be “hands-on” at her western-themed restaurant, where the table covers have cowhide patterns, the backs of benches are wagon wheels and America’s most-beloved cowboy, John Wayne, looks down at diners from the center of the room.
Several of Pit to Plate's 20 sides

During my visit to Pit to Plate, Creech was generous to allow me to sample nearly everything on her tasty menu, including several of her own creations, such as the Chili Mac, which consists of hickory-smoked brisket and pork and macaroni and cheese. She has her variation on corned beef and the Reuben sandwich. Soon, she will be introducing a smoked meat loaf to the menu. 

Pit to Plate offers the full array – brisket, pulled pork and chicken, beef and pork ribs, smoked turkey, fish and local Cincinnati favorites, kielbasa and mettwursts. They also cater and offer hog roasts.

While meat options are abundant, none of her vegetable sides, such as green beans, cabbage, okra, greens and beans and rice are highly seasoned with meat. 

All of the sauces also are made in-house – all seven of them. They range from tomato-vinegar sauces of various heat levels, to spicy garlic to a mustard-based sauce to a horseradish-based sauce, which Creech recommends for her corned beef.

In fact, she suggests paring all the sauces with certain meats, almost as if she were paring wines instead.
Creech with her beloved Bewley
Creech says she likes to “play with my food and have fun.”

In addition to adult, alcoholic beverages, Pit to Plate has a “saloon” serving nostalgic sodas from Boylan Beverage Co., in a variety of flavors (as well as Coke products). They have live music on the weekends. 

Pit-to-Plate’s d├ęcor reflects the whimsy of its owner. One sign reads, “Children left unattended will be given an espresso and a free puppy.”

But another sign seems more appropriate from this female pitmaster, “We don’t serve women. You must bring your own.”

Rock on, Dianne and thank you.

Location we visited:
Pit to Plate BBQ 
8021 Hamilton Ave.
Mt. Healthy, Ohio. 
Pit To Plate BBQ on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

From the backyard to one of Indy's best barbecue joints -- Judge's

Judge Smith at one of his 10 Weber grills
Walking into many barbecue joints, you might ask yourself, “Could I ever do this?” Well, Judge Smith, namesake of Judge’s Tip ofthe Rib Bar-B-Que, is one of us.

Smith grew up in the heart of the Mississippi Delta, in Ofahoma, today an unincorporated area located along the Natchez Trace Parkway in Leake County. While raised on the food of his mother and the barbecue of many friends, it was not until he was in the U.S. Army, stationed at Purdue University, that he began to hone his craft.

“I didn’t barbecue at all while I was down South,” Smith acknowledged. “When I left Mississippi, I was only 21 and just out of school and cooking wasn’t the big thing.” 

That's not to say that he didn't like cooking, but he did not take it up seriously until years later after he reached Purdue, based in West Lafayette, Ind. (Smith also is a graduate of JacksonState University in Mississippi.)

“There was this radio station, WBBM in Chicago, and it had a program, ‘Meet the Cook,’ and one day, they described the barbecue sauce – a basic sauce – and I wrote it down,” he said, adding that he later wrote the station for the recipe.

Ribs from the buffet.
“That was the beginning of the barbecue sauce that I have now,” Smith continued, “It didn’t start out that way, but it evolved over a period of years until I got it to the point where I liked it and almost everyone else who had it liked it. That was the forerunner of my cooking barbecue.”

Like a lot of other Hoosiers at that time, Smith first had to learn the difference between grilling and making barbecue.

“I discovered that a lot of barbecue is cooked too fast, on an open flame and it had a tendency to get tough. So I said I needed to figure out a way to cook it where it would be nice and tender, without putting it in a crock pot,” he recalled.

He continued to be a regular listener of the radio show on WBBM, picked up tips from other sources and worked hard to find out “what works.”

Smith began to experiment with the same Weber grills that many backyard cooks use today. Initially, he found the round-chambered grills to be somewhat unattractive, but later realized that their unique design could be used to a cook’s advantage – and in his case to make good barbecue through indirect heating.

“The way I discovered them, they were in the Army PX, on sale for half price,” he said. “I said I couldn’t beat the deal. That’s how I got hooked up with Weber.”

Today, Weber grills are at the heart of his operation, which opened at its current location at 2104 W. Michigan St. in 2004. He also had a stand at the Indianapolis City Market from 2002 to 2007. His first grill was an enormous Weber Ranger Kettle – described by some as “part grill, part wheelbarrow.”

Judge's offers a nice selection of freshly prepared sides.
Today, he uses 10 Weber Ranch Kettles -- the largest grill the company makes, with a total cooking area of 1,104 square inches. During the warm months, he may smoke more than 2,000 pounds of barbecue pork, using only 35 extra-large bags of charcoal in converted shipping create behind the building. Special racks inside of the commercial-grade Weber grills keep the charcoal burning efficiently.

In addition to charcoal, Smith uses hickory wood to provide flavor.

While he said that his barbecue knowledge not the result of a passed-down family tradition, he believes today “it’s a close to it as I could get.”

After completing his training at Purdue, Smith was stationed in Virginia, South Korea, Germany and then back in Indianapolis, before retiring from the Army in 1991. Everywhere along the way, he picked up new ideas. “For a good 10 to 12 years, I was cooking and testing and getting feedback from people,” he explained.

Located in a historic 100-year-old building in Haughville, a working-class neighborhood west of downtown Indianapolis, Judge’s is a welcoming establishment. It has to be the first barbecue restaurant I’ve found to also feature a smoothie bar. You need to come here between Monday and Friday, because it is closed on the weekends.

Owned with his wife, Sandy, the restaurant has received a number of local accolades, including being on WRTV’s “A-List,” and has been profiled in Indianapolis Monthly, the Indianapolis Business Journal and Dine magazine. Colts coaches Tony Dungy and Jim Caldwell have been here, as well as Indiana politicians Bart Peterson and Mitch Daniels.

A smoke ring and good bite marks attest to the quality
Every day during the work week, Judge puts out a barbecue buffet spread that has to be unrivaled in Indianapolis. It features succulent pork spare ribs, moist pulled pork and chicken and rib tips. A simple but effective salt-and-pepper rub was used on the ribs. They complement the meats with three difference versions of their vinegar-based sauce, varying in heat level.

The baked beans also were smoky, seasoned by the pork. Their macaroni and cheese was notable because it really is macaroni and actual cheese (no Velveeta could be detected). Also on the buffet were candied yams, a creamy cornbread pudding, collard greens and a coleslaw liked very much by my picky spouse.

Their menu also features chicken wings, a BBQ meatloaf, a rib eye steak sandwich, burgers, salmon and smoked turkey.

While Judge’s Tip of the Rib is located away from downtown, it is worth the brief trip west, where Smith believes things are coming around. At one time, a former Link-Belt factory buzzed with activity. But up the street from his place are a new gas station, convenience store, computer shop and an apartment complex to help homeless veterans. There is a library across the street.

“The community is trying to improve beyond what it was, what it had been the past 20 to 30 years,” observed Smith, himself a believer in pursuing a dream. 

Location we visited:
Judge’s Tip of the Rib Bar-B-Que
2104 W. Michigan St.
Indianapolis, IN

Judge's Tip of the Rib BBQ on Urbanspoon

Sunday, March 16, 2014

City Barbeque makes it with a “Q,” which also stands for quality

Bill Pemberton and Greg Welch

Bill Pemberton is from West Texas, where -- as he puts it -- “they eat barbecue more than they eat hamburgers.”

When he and his family moved to Central Indiana from Dallas about 15 years ago, they would put a lot of miles on their car in search of good barbecue.

“We basically spent two years driving all over the state trying to find barbecue and finally just quit. We’d ask, ‘Where’s your smoker?’ and they’d say, ‘Smoker? We don’t have a smoker,” said Pemberton, who today manages the City Barbeque location in Avon, Ind. We first met when at City's Greenwood location.

City Barbeque (Greg says this is the correct spelling – “Ours is with a ‘Q’”) first opened in 1999, when Rick Malir and other members of an award-winning barbeque competition team founded the first location in Columbus, Ohio. The team has been a winner at the Kansas City Royal Barbeque competition.

Today, the Dublin, Ohio-based company operates about 25 locations across the Buckeye State and in Indiana, Kentucky and North Carolina. 

An Orange Nehi goes well with this.
We visited City Barbeque for the first time in Greenwood just as it was marking its one-year anniversary. After enjoying a satisfying meal of a half rack of pork ribs with two sides and a half pound of beef brisket and a couple of bottled sodas (including an orange Nehi), Pemberton graciously sat down with us for a few minutes.

He told me about the two decades he’s spent in the restaurant business, which included running some Tex-Mex restaurants as well. Many years ago, he helped to run a Bigham’s Smokehouse in his hometown of Lubbock, Texas, while taking classes at Texas Tech University.

I asked him about the challenges of educating both employees and customers about what real barbecue is supposed to be. As I’ve discussed in this blog before, barbecue hasn’t always been understood in the Hoosier state of the pork tenderloin and the fried bologna sandwiches. He acknowledged this challenge.

“It’s difficult just because of the perception of people here -- maybe it’s a Midwestern thing, maybe it’s a Hoosier thing -- I’m not sure. But they assume that when they eat barbecue that it’s some kind of meat, cooked somehow, just smothered with sauce,” he said.

“When we (employees during training) would get out samples of meat, they’d say there’s not any sauce on it, and I’d say, ‘That’s right. There’s sauce on the table, but here’s the barbecue.’”

Speaking of his customers, Pemberton added, “I think that people have become a lot more astute. They know more … We’ve done pretty well and our business has grown.”

The meat comes nicely off the bone.

The company’s slogan is, “All Smoke. No Mirrors.” We found that statement to be true. The brisket in particular was excellent and perhaps the best we’ve had since crossing the Texas state line. It was succulent and extremely tender. The St. Louis-style pork ribs tore away from the bone in bites and presented with a nice pinkness – both hallmarks of good barbecue.

Unlike some restaurants, City Barbeque is generous with its six different kinds of sauces that cover the map stylistically from Carolina to Texas to Missouri. Not only did we find them on the table, but a condiment and pickle bar also featured heated sauce. The Brush Fire sauce was hot in more ways than one.

We also sampled the North Carolina Pulled Pork, which also was tender and good, but not as remarkable as the brisket. Also on the menu are smoked turkey breast, pulled and smoked chicken and Texas smoked sausage. Sides included the usual staples, including mac & cheese, a vinegar slaw, potato salad, corn pudding (probably another nod to Texas) and baked beans.

What we found nice was that you can purchase the smoked meats by the pound. We had to save the banana pudding for our next visit, but my friend and reader Joe Kiefer -- who lives in Columbus -- suggested that we needed to note it and the cornbread.

City Barbeque smokers burn Shagbark Hickory, which isn’t as common in Indiana as it is in Ohio. Pemberton doesn’t want any cherry, ash or any other kinds of wood mixed into their smokers.

“That’s been the biggest challenge for us,” he said, “because in Ohio they actually have a Shagbark Hickory web site and there’s authorized dealers of Shagbark Hickory in Ohio … It’s a little bit different here … It can be difficult to find a lot of Shagbark Hickory, because at a lot of places there’s other things that grow in with it.”

In November, Pemberton is looking forward to joining several other City Barbeque managers who are taking the certifying class to become Kansas City Barbeque Society judges.

“It’s not that we know it all, because you can always learn something,” he said. “That (KCBS certification) is like the pinnacle – in our opinion -- of barbecue knowledge and for all of us to be able to go through that is a small investment to make for us to better understand the barbecue culture as well as the food.”

Admittedly, we walked into City Barbeque with some reservations. Like Famous Dave’s, it is a restaurant chain, but that is the only thing they have in common. It’s clear that this location benefits from the genuine background and experience of the people who work hard to make it right.

City Barbeque on Urbanspoon

Monday, March 3, 2014

An interview with eight-time American Royal BBQ Cookoff grand champion Chris Marks

Chris Marks at one of his Good Ones
It’s not every day when I am able to sit down with an eight-time grand champion of the American Royal BBQ Cookoff in Kansas City. A while back, I had the pleasure of speaking with Chris Marks, chief cook of the Three Little Pigs barbecue team, while he was visiting Bloomington.

Marks was in town to offer support to our favorite hometown barbecue joint, Short Stop Food Mart, and to give cooking demonstrations and share recipes. He also brought along some things Hoosiers wouldn’t see unless they’re traveling, such as alligator.

Marks also is the winner of more than 40 national barbecue competitions, including at the Jack Daniels World Sauce Championship.

The Kansas City native was introduced to barbecue at a young age by his father Larry -- known as “Boss Hawg” – who created the Three Little Pigs team. “He was a great backyard barbecuer,” he recalled. 

It all began when his father received a smoker as a present after retiring from Hallmark in 1991. Soon, Larry entered a local contest and won his first ribbon. The family incorporated the team the following year.

“My Dad more or less was the ‘promotion guy.’ He was the guy walking around doing all the talking,” Marks said. “Me and my Mom were in the background doing all the cooking and it worked very well that way.” 

The Marks’ are friends with the “Baron of Barbecue,” Paul Kirk, and after Larry took one of his classes about smoking, the family never went back to grilling.

The younger Marks got his first taste of victory in 1993 in McLouth, Kan., beating out about 35 teams. “The excitement nearly caused my Dad to have a heart attack,” he remembered.

From that point on, the Three Little Pigs team tasted victory many times over a 10-year period starting in 1994. Chris took over the team after his father’s death in 1997.

A close up of what made Marks successful
But competition barbecue is different today, Marks noted. Back then, there were no consistent standards and specifications for the judges to follow. Judging was more subjective and based more on personal preferences about tastes.

“There was no judging training back then,” he said. “You better know how to cook well, because the judges just came off the streets. If they didn’t like it, you were toast.

“It would be interesting to see how the some of the teams that are doing well now would have done back 10 years ago.”

You may also have seen Marks on television programs such as “Taste of America” on the Food Network and “BBQ Battle” on the Travel Channel. He is fond of those largely unscripted shows which really showed how barbecue is done. “It was just smoke, no mirrors,” he added. “And it was an absolute ball.”

More recently, he’s observed that producers of some barbecue-themed shows are more into perpetuating stereotypes than really showing how it’s done. Shortly before we spoke, Marks had been in discussions with a network but was dropped from the project because he and others “weren’t Bubba enough.”

“We weren’t what they were looking for and they ended up putting on a guy on who cooked on a half-drum with overalls and beard and he flipped ribs,” he told me. “It about the perception out there.”

Today, Marks doesn’t compete very often. He is the face and chief consultant of Good One Manufacturing brand of smokers and grills – which has more than 200 dealers around the country -- and also sells natural lump charcoal, rubs and sauces. He travels with his wife around the country teaches at more than 75 BBQ Boot Camps last year.

This week, he is attending the Hearth, Patio and Barbecue Association Expo in Salt Lake City.

His parents developed the recipes for the rubs still sold today.
“It started out as my hobby and I turned it into a job,” Marks said. “I love what I am doing and I love teaching.”

The recipes for Three Little Pigs’ rubs were developed by his parents and the sauces were created as tribute to his father. Rather than one rub for all kinds of meats, his gluten-free rubs are separately designed for beef, pork and poultry. They sell three different sauces.

Much of what is written about barbecue focuses on particular states and regions, such as the Carolinas, the Deep South, Texas, Memphis and Marks’ home town of Kansas City. But with the growing popularity of barbecue nationwide, Marks has seen it migrating to new places where new regional flavors have been added.

For example, out West, in Arizona and California, he’s seen the pit flavors, but instead of tomato and vinegar-based sauces, people are using marmalades and other fruit glazes.

“You build a great flavor profile and then you put on it what you like,” he said. “It’s about the person. That’s what I teach and that’s what I want people to understand … You’ve got to develop your own style, you’ve got to make it personal.”

Marks is a purest. He prefers natural woods and charcoals over gas and wood pellets. He also understands why people in other regions may knock anything non-traditional.

“It all about adapting,” he said. “The great thing about Kansas City is we do all styles. We do them all and we really don’t care. Some other places, I tell you, they won’t budge but it’s their loss.”